‘Oh, it looks like there has been a small avalanche here.' Óli, our guide, peers out of the bus window. ‘Yes, just a few hours ago.’ We’re in remote northwestern Iceland, driving to Dynjandi waterfall via Rte 60, a rutted road that winds around the Westfjords’ highest mountain, Kaldbakur (998m). Nature is calling the shots.
Burly and bright-blue-eyed with a matching bandana wrapped around his head, Óli is also a local physio, firefighter and paramedic. Despite the adrenaline rush, I’ve never felt safer. The Westfjords is the least-visited part of Iceland, wonderfully wild, largely uninhabited and relatively inaccessible, and the exhilarating rush of stepping outside your comfort zone cannot be underestimated.
Óli alights from the bus into a wind that blows the elastic band right out of my hair. We’re on our way from the fishing village of Suðureyri, and the stretch we’re on has recently re-opened; it’s closed for six to eight months of the year. After assessing the road, our snow whisperer gives us the all-clear to continue: ‘I will call my colleague. He will clear the road for us on our way back.’ I remember my heart pounding on this precarious yet stunning route on my first visit to Iceland in 2009. ‘Driving around the Westfjords is not for the faint-hearted’ began my travel diary from that trip, one that I’ve recommended to everyone since.
An hour or so of riveting road trip later – the bus twists and turns up and down the soaring mountains, round and round paintbox-blue fjords – we arrive at Dynjandisvogur. The wind abruptly vanishes and as we take the 15-minute walk from the car park up to the mighty Dynjandi waterfall, I’m torn between which is the better view: the falls themselves or the perspective back down the 100m rocky escarpment to the bright blue waters of the bay below. Encouraged by Óli (‘this is solid rock, it’s safe, it does not move’), my dilemma is solved: I let him hold me at the waterfall’s edge while I take a photo of the falls cascading down to the sea.
Iceland’s most dangerous road
‘Everyone ready to go again? Okay, next we will turn onto Iceland’s most dangerous road.’ We’re now with Max, our West Tours cycling guide, munching on some dried haddock outside a fishing smokehouse on the outskirts of Ísafjörður – which, with a population of 2559, is the biggest town in the Westfjords.
As we veer our bikes onto Óshlíð, a rock-strewn, icicle-crusted, sea-eroded track that runs around the edge of the peninsula towards the tiny village of Bolungarvik, it becomes clear how this road got its name. ‘There are landslides and avalanches here often,’ says Max, casually. ‘Since the Bolungarvik tunnel was built in 2010 vehicles don’t use this road any more. It’s just for careful walkers and cyclists.’ I am nothing if not careful, at one point getting off my bike and gingerly walking it into the snow and away from the icy precipice.
But more than once, buffeted by gusty wind, I’m compelled to stop to savour the edge-of-the-world feeling and the views out to the mysterious Hornstrandir peninsula. Uninhabited, with no cars, its craggy, unspoiled sea cliffs loom across the horizon, full of hiking promise for another trip.
Scaling fishy foodie heights
After surviving Iceland’s most dangerous road, a seafood feast awaits at Einarshúsið. This friendly guesthouse is in Bolungarvik, which perches at the edge of 75km-long Ísafjarðardjúp, the largest of the region’s fjords. I’ve spent eight years raving about Iceland’s seafood (and dairy products and, well, everything) to anyone who would listen. Put aside your immediate associations with fermented shark and hotdogs, and let your taste buds loose.
After helping myself at the buffet several times, I lose count as to whether I’m close to the 20 varieties of fish dishes on offer here but, with the catch taken directly from the boat across the street each day, the freshness is undeniable. The cod in garlic sauce definitely deserves a second consideration and while so much fish could get repetitive, each dish has layers of local flavours – chervil, lovage, dill, wild mushrooms, celeriac puree, potatoes – so that it becomes an intriguing challenge to decipher the sauces.
Over the course of this trip I eat a different kind of fish soup for lunch every day, yet remain mystified at the complexity that makes them so delicious. In the ever-so-tiny village of Þingeyri, Sirrý, who runs the guesthouse Við Fjörðinn, let me into one of her kitchen secrets. ‘I use peach. Just a little, to sweeten the soup. The flavour starts by cooking the onions and carrots in butter the night before, so they are caramelised when you add the tomatoes and curry. Then some peach and you add tiny pieces of raw fish just two minutes before you eat. I roll the fish in lime pepper or lemon pepper first.’ I know I will crave these soups for weeks, months, years.
Horse riding among Arctic foxes
The next morning I’m woken by a snuffling sound right at my window. It takes me a while to realise it’s a grazing horse. I’ll soon be riding it at guesthouse Heydalur, located at the opposite end of Ísafjarðardjúp to Bolungarvik, on a farm nestled into Mjóifjörður (‘narrow fjord’), an idyllic rural hideaway. But first there’s delicious Cognac-cured trout for breakfast, once I get over the surprising choice of table salt (Arctic thyme, birch or lava). The trout comes straight from the stream where we’ll be riding. Icelandic horses not only have unusually long and glamorous manes, they also have five gaits, two more than your average horse.
Before we can saddle up, there’s a fantastic commotion: an Arctic fox is stealing the farmhouse dog’s food! It’s rare to spot Iceland’s only native mammal, much less come eyeball to eyeball with it mid-theft. If you’re not similarly lucky, stop at the Arctic Fox Center at Súðavík. There are usually orphaned foxes there, or you can pat the stuffed versions with real fur in the exhibition inside.
I exploit just three of my horse’s five gears (‘Do you want to go faster?’ ‘No!’), as rushing through the tranquil Heydalur Valley feels like a crime. My horse, Franz, once won a race where the rider didn’t spill a drop of beer, so I mostly let him maintain this champion pace so as not to miss the sound of the bubbling stream, the flash of a trout or the steam rising from nearby hot springs.
Sorcery on the Strandir Coast
We get back in the bus for several hours of fjordside driving through rain, sleet and snow around to the eastern side of the Westfjords. By the time we approach the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Hólmavík the snow blizzard curse abruptly lifts, as if by magic: the sun blazes out of hiding, making the snow-capped mountains gleam and the deep blue of the fjords even more majestic. The spookiness continues as we head inside to learn of Iceland’s grim 17th-century witch hunts and tour the fascinating displays of spells and macabre objects, such as the ‘necropants’ – underwear with magical powers made from human skin. A coin inside the scrotum guarantees endless amounts of money, according to local folklore.
Geothermal bathing in Drangsnes
It’s 6pm and 1°C when we arrive in the village Drangsnes, I’m beyond excited about geothermal bathing for the first time. The shivery, wet bikini-dash (you must shower before bathing) from the public facilities across the road is forgotten the moment I ease my frozen bones into one of the three steaming 38–40°C naturally heated hot pots embedded into the sea wall, overlooking Grímsey Island. It somehow seems an apt metaphor for the Westfjords: challenge yourself just a little to be rewarded a thousand times over.
Make it happen
Regular flights connect cities across Europe and North America with Keflavík International Airport in Reykjavík. Air Iceland offers 45-minute flights between Reykjavík’s domestic airport and Ísafjörður twice daily. Several companies offer tours, with Ísafjörður home to a number of operators. Pack thermals, warm layers, and waterproof clothing for changeable weather. Check www.road.is for travel conditions.