Isolated, obscure, rugged and wind-shorn: These are qualities that easily define the Westfjords in Iceland. But this lonely peninsula also harbors an unfathomable yet pristine beauty borne of severe weather, intense natural forces, and an unforgiving geography. This is the oldest and wildest part of Iceland, forged over 16 million years ago of molten lava.
Though the Westfjords jut out into the gelid waters of the North Atlantic, they hang on to Iceland by a precarious sliver of land scarcely over six miles wide. Attached to Iceland yet detached by the whims of geography, they are largely uninhabited save for about 7,000 plus hearty souls.
Though Iceland has a population of only 320,000, nevertheless this Nordic country receives almost 1.3 million visitors a year. Of this number only about 15 percent venture to the forlorn outskirts of the Westfjords. And it’s a shame as this is where you will best experience unadulterated culture and stark, bone-gnawing scenery that will forever be emblazoned in your memory.
What not to miss in the Westfjords
Dynjandi is the largest waterfall in Westfjords, and often considered the icon of the Westfjords. One of the most photogenic falls in Iceland, the water tumbles in a triangular cascade consisting of seven waterfalls. The view of the Arnarfjordur fjord is considered to be one of the most scenic. Be forewarned that the drive to Dynjandi is bumpy and can be hazardous in inclement weather.
Latrabjarg bird cliff
This is the largest bird cliff in Europe and the westernmost point of Iceland. Be prepared to see lots of birds, including puffins, northern gannets, guillemots, and razorbills. Binoculars and a camera are required!
The puffins build their nests in rocky cliffs, but spend most of their lives at sea, returning only to form breeding colonies during the spring and summer – from early April until mid-August. The type you find in Iceland is the Atlantic puffin and about 60 percent of the world’s Atlantic puffins come to this island to breed.
Icelandic words can be rather intimidating, but this is a case where the word is exactly what it sound like – a red sand beach. The pink and red sand beach stretches for a little over six miles, and is a peaceful place to walk and appreciate the wild beauty.
Egill Olafsson Museum
This museum at Hnjotur in Orlygshofn preserves local history through a collection of old fishing equipment, boats, and even U.S. Navy planes. The items were collected by, who else but Egill Olafsson.
Located across the fjord from Patreksfjordur, this museum is a personal favorite and invites the curious eye to explore the outdoor static displays.
Bildudalur is known as the “good-weather-capital of the Westfjords” and this is probably why Eagle Air Iceland has six flights per week that land here. Sea mineral processing and fish farming are the main industries in this town of about 200, with tourism on the rise. It was founded in the 16th century, despite numerous tales of prolific sea monsters living in the fjord.
Today, the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum in Bildudalur (Skrimslasetrid Bildudal) brings these tales alive as it recreates mythical creatures of yore through words, narration, images, and videos. Artifacts and relics offer potential evidence to cryptozoology, the study of mythical animals whose existence hasn’t been proven. However, the real treat of this museum is the artful curation of Ingimar Oddsson – one of the most colorful Icelandic characters you will have the privilege of meeting. Plan on having a light lunch at the museum cafeteria.
The largest town on the peninsula, Isafjordur has a population about 3,500. Though it was an ancient church site and trading post since the 16th century, it wasn’t until after the mid-19th century that it prospered, and the harbor became a magnet for tall ships and Norwegian whaling crews. Salt fish production continues to be the mainstay. Arrange for a tour of one of the warehouses to see how cod is processed – most for the European market.
Churches pop up in the most remote of places and all have a look of solidarity, strength, and resilient character despite the harsh environment. Take time to admire the beauty and surroundings. From the black churches with red roofs to the white-timbered topped with crosses, many are built adhering to the magical golden ratio. If you are lucky, you might get a tour of the interior, as I did, from the traveling minister who covers many of the rural churches on his circuit.
Gardar BA 64 – This is the oldest steel ship in Iceland. It was built originally in 1912 in Norway. Now you can see the rusting relic in its permanent place on shore in Skápadalur, in Patreksfjörður.
How to Get To the Westfjords:
By plane, car or ferryboat
The quickest way to get to the Westfjords is by air, with the flight from Reykjavik taking roughly 40-50 minutes. Air Iceland has two daily flights to Isafjordur all year round. Eagle Air Iceland has two flights per week from Reykjavik to Gjogur and six flights per week to Bildudalur.
You can drive from Reykjavik in about six hours or take a ferryboat for about 2.5 hours. The car ferry Baldur, (www.seatours.is) operates between Stykkisholmur and Brjanslaekur.
Where to Stay & Eat in the Westfjords
Patreksfjordur is a small, centrally located town only 45 minutes from a ferry terminus (Smidjustigur 3, Stykkisholmur; +354 433 2254). The village offers lodging and eating options that include the new Fosshotel Westfjords (Adalstraeti 100; +354 456 2004). Fosshotel Westfjords is a new 3 star hotel that opened in June 2013, in the small fishing village of Patreksfjordur in the Westfjords of Iceland. At Fosshotel Westfjords there are all together 40 modern hotel rooms equipped with Wi-Fi connection, flatscreen TV, and phone.
Fjall og Fjara is a contemporary hotel restaurant with a cozy atmosphere and excellent service. The main menu focus is fish and they use as much local products as possible with high quality. The restaurant faces out towards the fjord with great view and in good weather you can enjoy food or drinks on our veranda.
Written by and photos (with the exception of the hotel photo) by guest contributor Karin Leperi.
As an award-winning writer and photographer, Karin embraces the natural world but also savors the spirit of people and place. Her specialties range from aviation, culture, cuisine, and cruising to luxury, lifestyle, photography, nature, and wildlife. For more of Leperi’s photography, visit www.travelprism.com