You may have travelled the Ring Road thinking that Iceland is light on towns, that sheep seem to outnumber people, and that you haven’t encountered an N1 service station for many a mile. Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the interior highlands, there are practically no services, accommodation, bridges over rivers – or guarantees if something goes wrong.
The sparsely populated south coast of the Westfjords is a tiny version of what's to come on the wild and wonderful peninsulas further north. Remote fjords (in a smaller version here) twist into the coastline, and though there's been a new road built to cut across their desolate isolation, it's still a bare and dramatic place.
Set under striking Akrafjall (572m), the town of Akranes lies at the tip of the peninsula separating Hvalfjörður from Borgarfjörður. Largely an administrative and factory town, it's mainly worth a stop for its lighthouse and its sprawling Folk Museum, with a restored boathouse, drying shed, church and fishing boats.
The scenic corridor of rolling fields and craggy river-carved buttes between West Iceland and the Westfjords served as the setting for the Laxdæla Saga, the most popular of the Icelandic sagas. The story revolves around a love triangle between Guðrun Ósvífursdóttir, said to be the most beautiful woman in Iceland, and the foster brothers Kjartan Ólafsson and Bolli Þorleiksson.
Spectacularly set on a dramatic bay, little Grundarfjörður is backed by waterfalls and surrounded by ice-capped peaks often shrouded in cottony fog. More prefab than wooden, the town feels like a typical Icelandic fishing community, but the tourist facilities are good and the surrounding landscape can’t be beat, with its iconic Kirkjufell.
This small agricultural community sits on the banks of the pretty Ytri-Rangá river in an important horse-breeding area in the plains around the Þjórsá river. The nearest town to shadow-wreathed volcano Hekla, 35km north, it remains relatively sleepy despite the arrival of new hotels in the area.
To the east of Snæfellsjökull National Park, coastal Rte 574 passes the hamlets of Hellnar and Arnarstapi, with their glacier tour companies and interesting sea-sculpted rock formations. It continues east along the broad southern coastal plain, hugging huge sandy bays such as Breiðavík on one side, and towering peaks with waterfalls on the other.
The largest village in this part of the Westfjords, zippy little Patreksfjörður on the fjord of the same name is a convenient jumping-off point for visits to the Látrabjarg Peninsula. The no-frills town has dramatic views to the bluffs and good services for those preparing to head out to more remote fjords.
Sleepy Dalvík is in a snug, scenic spot between breezy Eyjafjörður and the rolling hills of Svarfaðardalur. Most tourists come here to catch the Grímsey ferry, but if you’ve got some time there are plenty of reasons to linger, including great activities in the area, plus interesting museums and quality accommodation.
Kópavogur (www.kopavogur.is), the first suburb south of Reykjavík, is just a short bus ride away but feels far from the tourist trail. There are a few sights in the cultural complex Menningarmiðstoð Kópavogs (next door to the distinctive arched church) and a huge shopping mall.
Azure Önundarfjörður has sheer mountain walls on either side, with cod drying racks arranged along the shores. The tiny village of Flateyri looks across the fjord onto beautiful sand bars, and you'll notice an unusual avalanche-blocking wall above the town to keep it from being inundated with snow, built after a tragic avalanche in 1995.