Looking at a map, it’s easy to notice the formation jutting out in the northwest corner of otherwise-round Iceland. Not unlike a claw or an antler, this maze of mountains and ocean is known as the Westfjords–Iceland’s most remote, inhabitable territory. Here, the terrain is too mountainous to build many roads, so most routes travel along the water’s edge; creating a scenic circuit through which one can view nearly the entire region, mostly devoid of other tourists.
Unfortunately for the locals, this same infrastructure is part of the reason the area’s population has been declining since 1920. Once representing fourteen percent of Iceland’s total population, the Westfjords now constitute only two percent of the island’s overall populous. This decrease stems partly from the harsh winters which can lock communities indoors and render the seaside roads impassable.
There have been tunnelling projects in the past (as well as some ongoing), which have helped to keep communities connected through winter, but there is little doubt that the area’s infrastructure will need continued improvement before it would be recommended for winter tourism in the region.
Of course, summer is a different matter entirely. Hikes and viewpoints abound through the region and are typically well-maintained, thanks to the low number of hikers they receive. Whether it be along the water or up a mountain, great hiking in the Westfjords is only ever a few minutes away. Of course, if you’re looking to get even further off the beaten track, you can always take the ferry north from Isafjordur to one of the many ports inside Hornstrandir Nature Preserve.
My original plan was to come to the Westfjords in order to get into the park. With no vehicle access (the peninsula is cut off by the Drangajokull glacier at its base), the reserve is about as remote as you can get without trading the rolling green countryside for the black, volcanic deserts of Iceland’s interior, and is one of the only places in Iceland where you can spot arctic fox.
Unfortunately, I never managed to get to the reserve. At the time, I had budgeted only two days in the park and was not prepared to spend nearly $200 on the ferries to and from the peninsula. Instead I spent these extra days resting, eating and going on day excursions, using my perch outside Isafjordur as a base.
At both the geographic and cultural heart of the region, Isafjordur is the Westfjord’s capital and economic centre. Here you can find restaurants, bars, bakeries, grocery stores, gas stations, hotels and hospitals which really give the town (pop. 4000) a metropolitan feel in comparison to the neighbouring communities. In fact, the best meal I had in all of Iceland came out of Isafjordur, in a little restaurant called Tjöruhúsið. Each day, the restaurant opens for dinner, seating a finite amount of guests (you must reserve earlier in the day) at long wooden tables. Strangers sit beside each other and the whole atmosphere is one of camaraderie and anticipation.
Fish soup is served first, accompanied by bread. Salads are placed on buffet tables and in single file, the patrons march to the front to get their fill. Once everyone has returned to their seats and begun eating, the main attraction arrives: endless fish. Caught daily, huge volumes of fish are brought out onto the buffet tables at the front. There is fish in curry, fish in cream, fish with butter and capers, fish with tomatoes and basil…
There was so much fish in fact, that, for the first time since arriving in Iceland, I could safely claim to be devoid of hunger.
As for my excursions into the area around Isafjordur, the most memorable would have been my walk to neighbouring Bolungarvik, some 15 kilometres away. As I mentioned earlier, the region has been made more interconnected with the help of some major tunnelling projects. One such tunnel was opened in 2010 and now serves to connect Isafjordur and Bolungarvik, one fjord apart. Known as Oshlidargong, the 5.4km long tunnel has become a lifeline of the neighbouring towns, replacing the old coastal road which has now fallen into disrepair and neglect. This is the path which I walked to arrive in Bolungarvik–a hike I would recommend as a must-see to anyone travelling in the region.
In many places the road had caved into the sea below, and nearly everywhere vegetation crept across the weathered pavement.
Towards the end of the walk there is a very colourful lighthouse, as well as the Osvor museum which accurately depicts life in a historical fishing settlement. I was told that at this settlement, both fishing and farming would have been used as sources of food and income. Despite what the simple construction and sod roofs originally led me to assume, this settlement would not have been constructed and inhabited during the nineteenth century.
Of particular note were the old fishing vessels. These boats, which were no more than six metres in length, would be rowed into the North Atlantic in search of greenland shark; a fish that can grow up to four and a half metres long. Sometimes these journeys would take the better part of a week to complete, as the catch was often too large to be carried in the boat and instead had to be towed alongside the hull, making for a very slow return.
A big thank-you to Catharine, who took the cover photo to this post.