The simple road sign stood beside a small bay where the teal water of the fjord rippled against beige pebbles. Warning us to proceed with caution, it didn’t alert us to rockslides, straying cattle or even sneaky speed cameras. Beneath the illustrated picture of a thrashing serpent were the ominous words: ‘Beware of Sea Monsters!’
Driving through the wilds of rural Iceland — a land stalked by troublesome trolls, murderous spirits and underwater monsters with red manes (according to the legends, at least) — is not your average road-trip. I’d set out on a five-day, self-drive journey, staying at working farms and family-run guesthouses and travelling through the rarely visited Western Fjords that jut out from the rest of Iceland like a fish’s tail.
While keen to see as much as possible, I didn’t want to be behind the wheel too much so I settled on a circular route with between two to four hours of driving each day. And travelling in summer, when the sun never dips beneath the horizon, means long days are perfect for leisurely drives, spontaneous detours and, most importantly, long walks to stretch my legs.
From Reykjavik, the country’s cultured capital located on a small southwestern peninsula, I drive northeast crossing endless grasslands and gushing streams under single-lane bridges. It’s not long before the traffic thins and ahead is nothing but fields of horses and looming chocolate cliffs rising steeply and suddenly.
It was early evening by the time I arrived at Steindorsstadir, a working farm turned guesthouse in the middle of a hushed valley. Only the faint hum of a tractor is to be heard. Gudafina, wife of farmer Sorarinn, is there to greet me.
The Skulason family have been at the farm for more than 25 years, tending to their cattle, and recently opened up their home to travellers in search of space and solitude. “I spent a winter in Reykjavik once but I didn’t like it. Far too busy,” says Gudfina, shaking her head. “It’s always nice and quiet here. Like Iceland used to be.”
It may be life in the slow lane but Steindorsstadir has seen its fair share of drama. A fire devastated the farm in 1937 and the then occupants, a family of 11, were forced to move into a barn until the farmhouse was rebuilt.
There’s no sign of darkness despite the late hour so I enjoy a dip in the outdoor hot tub under the midnight sun, thinking of the fabled tales that originated here. This is saga country, the birthplace of medieval stories written between the 12th and 14th centuries about heroes, villains and the island’s earliest settlers — tales that are still told today.
Sorarinn is up early and hard at work the following morning. A man of few words, he rushes in and out of the barn where his 30 vocal cows are being milked before jumping into his pick-up truck and taking off for the local market, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.
Also enjoying the warm morning sun is sheepdog Smarli, busy running around in the long grass. Gudfina is less than impressed: “He should be learning to herd sheep but he’s only interested in catching flies.”
Hills tumble in every direction. Out there, somewhere, are the flocks of sheep left to roam freely for much of the year. In September, they’re herded up ahead of another biting winter. “It’s hard work,” explains Gudfina. “We go on horses but the sheep aren’t always willing to come home. Sometimes we take our guests with us. They seem to enjoy it.”
Hot pots & horses
It’s time to bid Gudfina and Smarli farewell. Travelling north, I pass gushing waterfalls and geothermal springs spouting thick plumes of steam. The drive is a long but spectacular one. Passing only the occasional car, the road twists and turns, rises and dips, revealing terraced hillsides, deep fjords with black beaches, and lonely cabins in the foothills of the mountains. I wonder who lived within them and what stories they had to tell.
Millions of years in the making, the Western Fjords were formed after a series of volcanic eruptions deposited layers of basalt, which were gradually carved by glaciers after the ice age. According to folklore, this was once the stomping ground of devious trolls, who played pranks on travellers and churchgoers; one even tried to separate the region from the rest of the island by frantically digging a channel between Hunafloi and Breidafjordur with a shovel. Realising the mission was fruitless, she slammed her spade down in fury, sending a piece of rock flying out to sea and forming the island of Grimsey.
Driving along Isafjardardjup — another picture perfect fjord — a cluster of red and white buildings appears in the distance. Once a thriving farm, Heydalur is now a secret getaway spot where guests pass the time walking, kayaking, horse riding and wallowing in natural springs, one of which is well hidden behind a grassy knoll on the other side of the Heydalsa River — reached only by hopping across large boulders.
Known affectionately as ‘hot pots’, where locals meet to unwind over a soak, these spots are not uncommon in Iceland. Big enough to accommodate five, this hot pot was blessed by Bishop Gudmunder the Good in the 12th century for its apparent ability to heal the sick.
Columns of small bubbles rise from the gravelled bottom of the pool. I slip into the water, devilishly warm and silky smooth, and perch myself on an algae-covered rock. The wind picks up and the pretty wildflowers dance. A light mist settles over the furthest reaches of the valley.
Relaxed and revived that evening, I dine in the converted barn. Once home to countless sheep, it’s now the permanent residence of Kobbi, a rather talkative parrot. I tuck into traditional Icelandic stew of local lamb and homegrown vegetables followed by rhubarb crumble — picked, naturally, from the garden — before bedding down for the night.
Standing beside the muddy paddock, Cecile is waiting to introduce me to Mozart ahead of our horse ride the next morning. Icelandic horses are famously small but, caramel brown with a thick golden mane, he’s a sight to behold. We cross the river and trot along the valley’s rocky pathways, alone except for the Arctic fox darting between the shrubs.
The hillside is carpeted in a tapestry of greens but hidden within are ancient ruins dating back to 1100. Mozart walks slowly as though he too is savouring the surroundings. “Don’t get too used to it,” says Cecile, worryingly. “He has a habit of running home.”
Eventually we reach a beach at the end of the fjord. Mozart enjoys a mouthful of the grass growing around the small dunes as Cecile and I chat. “Not many people come here. It’s not as well known as other parts of Iceland, which is nice on one hand but a shame on the other,” says Cecile, gazing around wistfully.
Back at the farm it is time to swap one horsepower for 180 as my journey continues. Driving alongside the fjord, the water deep blue and barely moving, the views of snow-dusted plateaus and stone houses with moss-covered roofs proves distracting. One in particular catches my eye. Standing isolated, just a stone’s throw from Skotufjordur and encircled by a sturdy stonewall is Litlibaer. Built in 1895, it was originally home to families of farmers and fishermen who, like me, had to crouch under its low ceilings — a nifty trick designed to trap heat during winter, though today it’s an idyllic cafe serving coffee, waffles and fine views.
I make another abrupt stop just a few seconds down the road. Lazing on one of the countless specks of land offshore, a dozen seals are watching me. On the side of the road lies an innocuous box placed upon a deserted picnic table. Peering inside, I discover jars of homemade jam — yours for a small donation — and several pairs of binoculars kindly left to give passers-by a better glimpse of the seals.
Beasts of the deep
I expected great things from my next destination, Isafjordur, a skiing town often described as the cosmopolitan capital of the north. But in truth, it’s little more than a collection of sleepy streets with one supermarket and a handful of mediocre and overpriced restaurants. Disappointed, I choose not to linger and instead make a detour to a place bursting with character.
Located at the very tip of Sugandafjordur, the small fishing village of Sudureyri is one of Iceland’s most remote communities. The construction of a tunnel in 1996 brought a welcome end to long and treacherous journeys along mountain roads for the locals. A hundred years ago, the town was even more isolated, having been entirely dependent on ships for communication.
The sea air is salty and only a handful of the 300 residents are to be seen. Walking down the main street, lined with quaint homes painted in soft hues of yellow and blue, the cheerful fishermen stroll casually with their rods slung over their shoulders.
Nearly everyone in town is connected to fishing in some way. For centuries, it’s been the lifeblood of the community and a large number of the cod, haddock and halibut caught in its waters will end up on British dinner plates.
Over a coffee I strike up conversation with Elias Gudmundsson, a portly hotelier who bucked the trend and prefers to spend his days on terra firma. “My father was a fisherman so it’s in my blood. Growing up, I would help my dad during the summer holidays. We’d go sailing on a boat built by my grandfather, who was also a fisherman, but it became too much hard work and I was lazy,” he confesses.
“Wasn’t your dad upset you didn’t keep with the tradition?”
“Oh yes. He still talks about it even now,” Elias laughs.
But Gudmundsson Senior has little to be disappointed about. Remaining true to his nautical roots, Elias has launched tours allowing visitors to become fully-fledged Icelandic fishermen — and women — for the day. “They do everything: visit the baiting sheds, prepare the lines, catch the fish and then come back and eat them.”
Moody clouds hang low the next morning, obscuring the mountaintops and casting heavy shadows across the flatlands. The eerie conditions seem a fitting backdrop for my next drive, through barren landscapes strewn with brown boulders.
Gaining altitude, the road zig-zags up a mountain and around foggy hairpin bends atop plummeting cliffs. But this is the least of my worries. I’m venturing deep into the land of fearsome sea monsters.
Such beasts are legendary in this part of Iceland. Sightings and tales of Fjorulalli — the terrifying red-maned creature that drags people to sea — have circulated since the 11th century. In 1915, Captain Benedict Kristjansson returned home with wild stories of his ship running aground after hitting a sea monster. Elsewhere, trawlers have claimed they caught one in their nets around the shrimp-rich waters near Bildudalur, a town housing a museum dedicated to Nessie’s Icelandic cousins. Curiously, no definitive proof of their existence has ever been recorded…
Following the coastline on unpaved roads I reach Hotel Latrabjarg, a former boarding school 45 minutes away from the nearest town. Outside, the grazing sheep have helpfully forged narrow trails across the spongy tundra leading to a headland overlooking crescent bays of turquoise water and sandy shores the colour of apricots. The scene could easily pass for the Caribbean were it not for the stiff Arctic breeze and squawking birds circling above.
I hastily follow a bumpy dirt-track road bound for one of Iceland’s most impressive sights. Against a soft golden light, small black shapes take flight, soaring around the lighthouse and then diving towards the choppy water hundreds of metres below. Puffins — famed for their expressive faces and colourful beaks — are all around me: in the air, waddling along the grass, and perched in every nook and cranny on the craggy vertical cliffs of Latrabjarg.
Seabirds gather in their thousands here. Protected from the risk of predators such as Arctic foxes, which presumably suffer from vertigo, the eight-mile stretch of coast attracts razorbills, guillemots and cormorants. The puffins, however, are the headline act. Mindful not to stray too close to the edges — the rocks are prone to crumbling away at a moment’s notice — the unfazed birds are still only an arm’s length away.
While still a delicacy and widely available in the restaurants of Reykjavik, puffin meat is not the staple it once was. In 1886 alone, almost 40,000 puffins were hunted here by men who descended the cliffs on long ropes. Unsurprisingly, accidents were common. But for centuries locals believed an evil spirit that haunted the rocks was responsible.
I stare out to sea. From here, Iceland’s most westerly point, Greenland is a mere 180 miles away. The only movement beyond the swell of the North Atlantic comes from the long strands of seaweed swaying in the fast-moving current.
The final stage of my road-trip is through the Snaefellsnes peninsula, across the vast Breidafjordur. To save a day’s unnecessary driving, I catch the daily ferry from Brjanslaekur to Stykkisholmur; a short but blustery crossing that makes a quick stop en route at the curious island of Flatey, where only two families — fierce rivals — live all year round.
The scenery changes dramatically here. The long plateaus of the Western Fjords are replaced with pointy peaks decorated with mesmerising patterns of fossilised lava and capped with the snowy Snaefellsjokull Glacier under a cover of swirling cloud. Harsh but ethereal, this terrain was the inspiration for Jules Verne’s classic novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
But that’s not Snaefellsnes’ only claim to fame. One of the most esteemed travellers to fall for its rugged beauty was none other than the adventurous Christopher Columbus. Legend has it the great navigator spent the winter of 1477 here in a bid to learn about past Viking settlements. Now, more than five centuries after Columbus stopped by, this quiet corner of the remote island is still winning over intrepid explorers.
Icelandair operates from Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow, while EasyJet flies from Luton. New Icelandic airline WOW Air has taken over Iceland Express with flights to Reykjavik from Stansted and Gatwick. www.icelandair.co.uk www.easyjet.com www.wowair.com
Average flight time: 2h30m.
Air Iceland flies to Isafjordur from Reykjavik twice a day. Sterna operates long distance buses across the entire country. With no public transport outside the main towns, renting a car offers the most convenience. Car hire with Holdur costs from £45 per day. www.airiceland.is www.sterna.is www.holdur.is
When to go
Summer is the optimum time for an Icelandic road trip with mild conditions (temperatures around 22C in July) and more than 20 hours of sunlight. Driving in remote corners of Iceland during the winter is not advised due to icy conditions and limited hours of daylight.
Need to know
Currency: Krona (ISK). £1 = ISK197.
International dial code: 00 354.
Places to stay
How to do it
Icelandic Farm Holidays offers self-drive packages across the entire country, with prices including car hire and accommodation. A seven-night trip through the Western Fjords costs from £658 per person, excluding flights.
Air Iceland flies to Isafjordur from Reykjavik twice a day. Sterna operates long distance buses across the entire country. With no public transport outside the main towns, renting a car offers the most convenience. Car hire with Holdur costs from £45 per day.
www.airiceland.is www.sterna.is www.holdur.is
West Tours offers tailored day trips across the region from Reykjavik from £219 per person. www.vesturferdir.is
Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)