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Weekender: West Fjords, Iceland

From abandoned fish factories to volcanic beaches, the hinterlands of the West Fjords are Iceland at its most desolate

Weekender: West Fjords, Iceland
Looking out to sea, with the Reykjaneshyrna headland in the background

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Day 1

East to Heydalur
As my 4WD tears around another bend on the road from Ísafjörður Airport, the next fjord unfurls before me. Moss-cloaked, flat-topped peaks slide down into the vast expanse of water, their slopes framing the view.

After an 85-mile drive south east, hugging the coast of Ísafjörður’s fjord to Heydalur guesthouse, suddenly we’re off the tarmac and onto the gravel track to Heydalur, which announces itself with a scattering of barns, outhouses and hot pots (geothermic pools).

We stop the car, and within seconds I’m submerged in a boulder-ringed pool — my exposed skin prickling in the cold air, while the rest of me warms in the geothermic heat.

My pool is said to have been blessed in the 12th century by the bishop Guðmundur the Good, and as I look down the valley all the way to the sea, I feel the benediction was justified. Afterwards, Heydalur guesthouse owner Stella joins us for a meal of fresh, fragrant trout and local beers. “I was retired before we moved here 14 years ago,” she explains. “This is a second life for me.” The fresh air here is enough to give anyone a new lease of life.

Later on, after snacking on homemade rye bread and Cognac-cured Atlantic char, I get acquainted with some Icelandic horses. I’ve never ridden, but I’ve been told riding one of these beasts is like sitting on a moving sofa. Soon enough, I’ve cantered down the riverbank and am galloping along a volcanic sand beach. Pebbles spray up on both sides and the sun dapples the still water. There’s kayaking, hiking and fishing on offer here too, but the road beckons me on.

Day 2

Krossneslaug and Djúpavík
Locals tell me I can cut an hour off the journey from Heydalur to the Krossneslaug hot pool, at Krossnes, by off-roading over a mountain. Soon, I’m gripping the wheel with white knuckles as we hurtle past the ‘dead-end’ sign and onto a narrow, steep path. It’s 124 miles to Krossneslaug, past rocky outcrops, glacial lakes, the occasional settlement and driftwood-strewn beaches.

We reach Krossneslaug to find the hot spring piped into a turquoise pool, metres from the icy Atlantic, and a warmer hot tub next door. I’m soon alternating between each.

I don’t pass a single car on route to Djúpavík, which I reach before nightfall. One of the remote village’s red clapboard houses is Hótel Djúpavík, where I’m to stay — once workers’ quarters for a herring factory next door. Its derelict shell remains but is now a photography gallery and a small museum, where the WW2 German submarine engines that once powered the factory are displayed. It even hosted a homecoming gig by Sigur Rós back in 2006. Beyond the window, the waterfall roars. “In the winter, that freezes and the road closes,” he says, pointing out of the window. You can imagine the silence.

Day 3

Suðureyri and Dynjandi
“Thirty-six hours?” I repeat, incredulously. “Yup,” Saedis, my Fisherman Food Trail guide, nods. That, apparently, is how long it takes the cod, haddock and catfish caught in Suðureyri to reach the markets of London, Boston and New York.

I’ve driven 105 miles west to this tiny village — home to just 270 people — to join its Fisherman Food Trail. Fishing was the island’s main industry; now it’s tourism, yet despite its size, Suðureyri still deals with up to 210 tonnes a day. The fishermen make the short journey out to sea and fill their small boats sustainably — with rods and lines.

From here, I continue south, in pursuit of one of the most eye-catching waterfalls in a country full of them — a behemoth of a cascade towering over 100 metres high. A rock staircase leads up to the summit and I join the climbers armed with tripods to get a better look. It’s 100ft wide at the top but twice that at the bottom. Its name means ‘the thunderous one’ and I imagine it provides an appropriately dramatic soundtrack at night for those in the campsite below.

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)