Iceland’s Wild Westfjords: Happy Icelanders and Filthy Cars at the End of the World

Iceland’s Westfjords dangle like a giant bunch of grapes from the northwest fringe of this rugged island. The region’s unpopulated northern reaches nearly kiss the Arctic Circle. Relatively few tourists make it up here — some say about one in ten, others say more like one in twenty. It’s remote, rustic, and as off the grid as you can get without a monster truck. And that’s why I’m going. The Westfjords are home to the world’s most impressive bird cliffs (Látrabjarg), rusted old boats and airplanes discarded along the side of the road, endless chains of jagged fjords and mountain passes, and one of Iceland’s most stunning waterfalls (Dynjandi).

As I’ll discover, it takes a special breed of traveler to visit the Westfjords…and a special breed of Icelander to live at the edge of the world. For being so sparsely populated — just over seven thousand people in an area about the size of Connecticut — the Westfjords have an unusually high concentration of happy people ready to chat your ear off. (Or maybe they’re just lonely.) For all its natural wonders, Iceland’s most underrated feature may just be the Icelanders themselves. A bit introverted, but warm, smart, and funny, the Icelandic people have a can-do spirit and an easygoing charm.

Ferry to the End of the World

I’m catching my ferry to the Westfjords from the main town of Snæfellsnes, Stykkishólmur. (I know, I know. But the more you travel through Iceland, the more you grow immune to its silly names.) Stykkishólmur is a tiny town, with about 1,200 people, but compared to where I’m headed, it feels like my last dose of “civilization” for a few days. I gas up my car and stock up on discount groceries at Bónus, then head to the harbor. It’s the first week of September — still prime time in most of Europe — but I’m getting the impression that here in Iceland, the busy summer season will be finished in a matter of hours, not weeks. I feel like I’m boarding the last chopper out of Saigon.

Stykkishólmur’s little harbor huddles behind a basalt islet, which protects the town from the surf of the wide Breiðafjörður. Colorful boats, tethered neatly to no-nonsense piers, bob upon the gentle swells. Of the row of food trucks lining the harbor, only one is open. There I’m warmly greeted by Martin, tall and lanky, with black curly hair. He seems lonesome and chatty — as if he’s been waiting all day for a customer. Perusing the menu, I settle on the lamb burger. “Sorry,” he shrugs, “We’re out of lamb. Actually, we’re out of almost everything. We’ll close for the season as soon as we use up our supplies. We do have some beef burgers left!”

A rousing endorsement. But I decide to help Martin use up his meat. “One, please.”

While he griddles up my burger, Martin tells me he’s from the Czech Republic — a small town in Moravia. He and his girlfriend came to Iceland, bought this truck, and have been slinging burgers here at Stykkishólmur’s harbor all summer. But the customers dried up a week or two ago. “When we signed the lease, it was for five and a half months. So we were optimistic. They didn’t tell us that the actual season is only about two months.”

Still, business has been brisk, and they’re satisfied. In a few days, he says, they’ll close up the truck and drive it 400 miles to the opposite end of Iceland — the tiny village of Seyðisfjörður — where they’ll catch the two-day ferry to Denmark, then drive the rest of the way back home. All in all, it’s about a week’s commute to end the season.

The burger’s ready. And it’s delicious — quality, locally sourced beef, pickles with a sweet Slavic punch, and perfectly seasoned. “Do you have Diet Coke?” He looks in the fridge. “Yep, last one!” I’m all too happy to help Martin zero out his inventory.

Wishing Martin luck, I head for the ferry. It’s a hulking beast of a ship, fittingly named Baldur — the Tom Brady of the Old Norse pantheon. The Baldur, which looks like it could be an Arctic icebreaker, feels too big for what is essentially a tourist vessel. But in the torrid Atlantic waters of northern Iceland, it’s not overkill.

The end-of-season closure extends to the on-board café, which is shuttered tight. The Baldur appears to be at about one-tenth capacity. Once the small number of cars have loaded up, beefy Baldur charges out into the Breiðafjörður. At first it’s calm. But after a half-hour, we hit some serious surf and the ship begins teetering up and down. Thank goodness for my cast-iron stomach.

An hour and half into the crossing, we pull up to a tiny, flat island — aptly named Flatey — in the middle of the fjord. It’s a famously remote place, with just a few colorful shiplap houses, a historic church, and year-round residents numbering in the single digits. As our gigantic ferry sidles up to the dock, an antique deckhand — who looks like Santa Claus, if he were a very skinny whaler — hobbles out and loops our anaconda-sized line around a cleat as big as a garbage can. They winch up a rusted gangplank on spindly wheels and attach it to the side of our ship, allowing two intrepid backpackers to walk off for their night on a desolate rock in the turgid bay. Fisherman Santa helps us untie our line and waves us a grizzled goodbye as we head back out to sea.

Two and a half hours into our journey, we approach a giant boat dock on an uninhabited fjord. A garbled announcement instructs us to return to our cars, so the few passengers on board head down into the bowels of the ship. We run into a closed door with a big sign telling us not to enter the car deck while the ferry is in motion. So we wait for someone to come give us the go-ahead. And we wait. And we wait. Until well beyond the point when it feels like we’ve stopped moving. Finally I grab the giant wheel on the door, give it a spin (as if retracting the periscope), and step through into the car deck…where the crew has been impatiently waiting for all of us to get our cars out of the way.

“I Think He’s Going to Pull Through!”

Driving off the ferry, I split off from the main flow of traffic. After two and a half hours of intense rocking, I’m in need of a little R&R, and I’ve scouted a thermal swimming pool hiding in a tiny settlement a few minutes’ drive away. Spotting the little “head poking above water” sign that promises a hot-water dip anywhere in Iceland, I pull up a gravel road to a little gathering of cute wooden bungalows. Sure enough, a fine swimming pool complex perches on the ridge overlooking the fjord, with not a soul around.

I park and walk up the path to reconnoiter the pool. Someone in the nearby house spots me and emerges tentatively, with a mix of surprise and suspicion. He’s the caretaker of this little holiday camp — a gentlemanly Icelander with a twinkle in his eye. “Swimming pool?” I say. “Yes! Naturally heated, no chemicals. We’re closing next week.”

Now, the thing you have to understand about Icelandic swimming pools is that they aren’t just swimming pools. They’re basically gigantic hot tubs. What looks like a standard backyard pool is bathwater-warm. Nearby simmer “hot pots” that steam at around 100 degrees. When people visiting Iceland — chilled to their bones even in the blustery midsummer months — rhetorically ask, “How do people live here in the winter?”, they don’t realize there’s a very good answer: Icelanders survive their frigid climate by soaking in hot water with their friends and neighbors every evening. This volcanic island has hot water in abundance. And the Icelanders know exactly what to do with it.

It’s sunny but brisk, and I have the pool (and, really, the entire fjord) to myself. The pool is so small I can almost do a full lap without taking a breath. Windows wrap entirely around, offering views over the fjord as I paddle. It’s Icelandic bliss. Welcome to the Westfjords.

As I splash around, I notice the caretaker lurking outside one window. He motions me over, so I swim to him. He shows me a little brown sparrow in his hands. “Poor little bird!” he says. “He flew into the window. He’s very, you know, confused. I hope he will be OK!”

I wish him luck and go back to my laps. A few minutes later, the caretaker brings me a cup of water to stay hydrated. “That little bird — it’s so sad. I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

I voice my sympathy and get back to swimming. A few laps later, the caretaker appears again with another update: “I think he’s going to pull through!”

Finishing my swim, I get changed and thank my host for his hospitality. He points toward the bird, who’s convalescing on the nearby lawn. “I think he’ll be OK. Unless the arctic foxes great him.” I wave a cheerful goodbye and wish both of them the best of luck.

Back in my car, I drive 45 minutes to the town of Patreksfjörður. Maybe it’s the hot-water coma talking, but it’s one of the most stunning drives of my life — with breathtaking fjordside scenery, then a mountain pass that twists up over a jagged volcanic terrain that looks positively Martian. Way up at the summit, on a little plateau next to a gurgling waterfall, stands a statue made of stacked stones — an Icelandic tradition upon completing a challenging construction project.

Cresting the pass and twisting back down to the fjord, I follow the shoreline to my hotel. Patreksfjörður is a functional settlement perched on a flat spit poking into a gigantic fjord of the same name. (Incidentally, this describes essentially every town and village in Iceland.) There’s no “sightseeing” in Patreksfjörður. But — with gas pumps, a few hotels and guesthouses, a smattering of eateries, and two grocery stores — it’s a handy hub for visitors to the southern Westfjords. With just 675 souls, it still qualifies as a metropolis by Westfjords standards.

Here at the fringe of the season, very few restaurants remain open. I can either have a burger at the gas station, or head to what is essentially the only real restaurant in town, Stúkuhúsið. Fortunately, it’s a wonderful spot, with a cramped and convivial interior and three different “fish of the day” meals — all of them fresh and flavorful. I try to resist my server’s suggestion to check out the glass tower showing off a variety of homemade cakes. I fail miserably.

It’s a bit early for the Northern Lights, but it’s possible I’ll spy some. Settling into my fjordside hotel, I keep peeking between the shades, like an excited kid on Christmas Eve hoping for a reindeer sighting. Finally, around midnight, I end my search and get some sleep.

Disassembled DC-3s and Free Sweaters in the Middle of Nowhere

From Patreksfjörður, it’s a long but satisfying day trip south to one of the world’s most famous bird cliffs, Látrabjarg. Along the way, more Icelandic encounters await.

Bright and early, I hit the road and begin winding around the Patreksfjörður. After touch-and-go-weather for the last few days, it’s gloriously sunny. Curling around the shoreline, I spot the rusted hull of a ship beached along the shore — the Norwegian-built Garðar, still wedged where it ran ashore in 1981. While a roadside shipwreck would turn heads in most places, it seems fitting here in the Westfjords.

Continuing around the fjord, the pavement runs out. I’ll be on unpaved roads for the next several hours. My first stop is Rauðasandur — meaning “Red Sands.” To get there, I turn off from the main road and make my way over the pass. Cresting the summit, a breathtaking panorama of rugged rock and epic waterfalls opens up before me. Making my way down to the shoreline, I arrive at the broadest sandy beach I have ever laid eyes on. It’s so big, it barely seems to qualify as a “beach.” I turn left and head for a campground called Melanes. A few battered trailers perch on a grassy lawn, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find toilets and showers with running water.

Leaving my car behind, I walk through shimmying sea grasses — hopscotching over steppingstones to ford churning little streams — to an attractive ensemble of basalt cliffs and sea stacks. I scamper down to the beach, where the saturated sand jiggles under my feet. Gigantic black stones are weathered to a high shine, like the polished marbles of a giant. Above them tower jagged Jenga towers of black basalt. I have rarely felt so far from civilization.

Back in my car, I retrace my path over the rocky pass, then carry on along the fjordside road, passing above an abandoned airstrip. (This area is so remote, even its tenuous aerial tether to the rest of Iceland has been severed.) The road curls around several dramatic headlands — at the base of great, towering cliffs — alternating with little pockets of farmland.

Arriving at one of these, Hnjótur, I pull over at a humble red house (one of about five or six in the settlement). I’m hoping to scope out this guesthouse for our guidebook, but I’m skeptical that anyone’s home. Much to my surprise, my doorbell is answered by Kristinn, the innkeeper. He’s shutting down for the year, he explains, but he’s happy to show me around. Would I like a cup of coffee?

Like many people who choose to live at the end of the world, Kristinn is friendly…almost suspiciously friendly. The kind of friendly that suggests he’s either a chatty small-town type, or a serial killer.

As we talk, I’m pleased (and relieved) to determine that Kristinn is the former. When I ask about the folk museum I’ve heard about — just a few hundred yards up the road, and next on my list — he proudly tells me it’s named for his father, who started the collection decades ago. Pointing out the window, Kristinn explains that the big hangar used to be part of the folk museum, but now it’s his own private exhibition of historic airplanes. A DC-3 sits disassembled in big pieces on the lawn — like a Lego set abandoned by a bored toddler.

“That was built in 1944,” he said, “and later became part of US forces in Iceland, based at Keflavík, now the main international airport. In 1973, it took part in the evacuation of the Westman Islands, when the volcano erupted there. It was retired in 1977 — after some 20,000 flight hours, from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. My dad had it brought here for the museum. There’s another plane inside the hangar. Would you like to see it?”

Kristinn fishes a loose key out of a junk drawer and hands it to me. “Go check it out. It’s a Russian plane. But I have just one condition: I want you to tell people that the DC-3 isn’t just an old plane. It’s a memorial to all US Navy and Marine Corps troops who served in Iceland. This is very important!”

I head over for a closer look at the DC-3, and let myself inside the hangar. There — tucked unceremoniously between paint cans, old fishing equipment, and all the assorted bric-a-brac you’d expect to find in some remote Icelander’s garage — is a Russian Antonov AN-2 from 1967, covered in Cyrillic lettering. The plane made an emergency landing in Iceland in 1993…and was deemed not worth fixing. So here it sits.

I head back to return the key to Kristinn, who now feels like an old friend. I can tell he’s flattered by my interest in his collection, and I’m enjoying an unexpectedly lively conversation at the edge of the world. Before leaving, I admire the hand-knitted Icelandic sweaters for sale in one corner of the breakfast room. It’s my third time in Iceland, and I still don’t own one — I’m not much for souvenirs, but one of these sweaters is on my list.

Noticing my interest, Kristinn says, “Do you want one?” I’m startled by the question, and politely decline. But I can tell he’s serious. “My wife spends the entire winter knitting those by the fire. We haven’t sold as many as we expected, and our season is over. She likes to stay busy — you’d be doing us a favor to take one!”

Incredibly flattered, I agree. He pulls the $250 price tag off the sweater and hands it to me — and insists that I take a matching beanie, too. Loading the precious cargo into my backseat, I wave goodbye and continue on my way.

The World’s Finest Bird Cliffs

The main reason people come to this godforsaken, pavement-forsaken corner of Iceland is to see one of the most stunning bird cliffs on the planet: Látrabjarg. From Kistinn’s place, it’s another hour, hour-and-a-half on borderline-passable roads. I go over a couple more mountain passes, where the hard-packed surface makes things workable. But the final stretch is harrowing. Coming down over the last pass, I enter a tiny settlement of just a few houses, whose residents really, really, really want you to drive just 30 kilometers per hour — they’ve erected a half-dozen handmade sings to that effect all along the road.

Here the road flattens out, yet it becomes far harder to drive than the many rocky passes I’ve already conquered today. My teeth and my tires rattle as my car plays xylophone along the washboard surface. I straddle red rivulets of iron-rich soil that stream down the middle of what some might choose to call a “road.” At one point I mount the grassy berm to prevent a gigantic puddle from swallowing my little car whole. And then, in the absolute middle of nowhere, I come across a freestanding little toilet. A pungent smell fills my car, suggesting that one of Iceland’s countless sulfur springs is nearby.

Finally I arrive at a big parking lot next to a little lighthouse. I’ve made it: Látrabjarg! But my heart sinks just a bit. After such a long journey, it’s…underwhelming. At least, from the parking lot.

The weather has closed in, and I’ve spent the last hour dodging raindrops. Here at the westernmost point in Europe, there’s nothing to stop storms from rolling in across the Atlantic. Or, more to the point, this cliff is what stops storms that roll in across the Atlantic.

Getting out of my car, I notice a little squall swirling about a mile offshore. I have a feeling that I’m about to get rained on. But I’ve come this far. I bundle up and head up the well-marked path, climbing up some uneven stairs, then following a narrow, rutted path through the middle of a wide meadow. On my right, that meadow abruptly ends at a dramatic drop-off to the swirling seas below.

Hiking about 10 minutes up the path, I turn to look back, and my breath catches in my throat. Finally I understand why this place is so special. From this point, I can see the pockmarked cliff face plunging from the grassy lawn straight down to the churning Atlantic. And embedded in that cliff face are thousands upon thousands of sea bird nests. From here, Látrabjarg stretches for more than seven miles, reaching a height of about 1,400 feet — taller than the Empire State building (or, for Icelanders, six Hallgrímskirkjas stacked on end).

In the summer, this cliff is home to one million sea birds, who drift in with warm currents, nest and breed here, and then head back out to sea when things cool off. (When I asked one local why the tourist season is so short, he gave me a perfectly succinct answer: “Once the birds leave…so do the tourists.”)

Now in early September, most of the birds have left — but several remain. The cliffs are streaked with white, and the stench of bird shit is overpowering. Delicate little feathers are scattered across the grass, like flower petals after a wedding. The turf is spongy and embedded with hidden rocks and other tripping hazards. And getting closer than several feet from the cliff edge produces intense vertigo. Gingerly, oh so gingerly, I tiptoe up to the edge and peer down.

The cliff stretches infinitely in both directions. I squint to see colorful little dots bobbing along the top of the cliff in the distance — intrepid visitors, bundled like me in their parkas, going for an incredibly scenic hike. Looking down into the tumultuous sea, I think back on a story I heard earlier today — one of those tales you hear when traveling that seem almost too perfect to be true:

In December of 1947, a British fishing trawler crashed against these rocks. A volunteer rescue squad leapt into action and came to the cliffs with ropes and pulleys, ultimately saving 12 of the crew members. A year later, a filmmaker making a documentary enlisted the villagers to re-enact the event. And just as they were all rigged up in their pulleys…a different British trawler ran aground nearby. And so, naturally, the “actors” rescued those sailors, as well.

It’s hard to top an experience like Látrabjarg. So I don’t try. On an intense traveler’s high, I float back down to the parking lot, and only once back in the car do I notice that that squall is still swirling offshore — it never made its way to me.

I drive the two and a half hours back to Patreksfjörður, numb to the bumps and rumbles. Back in town, I pull into my hotel’s parking lot, taking my place in a long row of the filthiest tailgates I have ever seen. Each car’s rear end is coated with a thick layer of multicolored grime. I have a theory that Icelandic car rental companies heavily favor white vehicles, so they can assess in an instant just how much abuse you’ve put your car through.

Not quite ready for this day to be over, I decide to check out Patreksfjörður’s swimming pool — reputed to be something special. The raves are earned. The glassed-in complex clings between the upper road and the hillside, with simmering pools perfectly positioned to look out over the fjord, the town’s rooftops, and the setting sun. Toggling between the different pools — warm, hot, very hot — I realize I’ve enjoyed one of my best travel days ever.

Sea Monsters, Grand Waterfalls, and 50 Unpaved Miles

The next day, I hop into my car and head north. My drive today connects Patreksfjörður (hub of the southern Westfjords) to Ísafjörður (capital of the northern Westfjords). In between are 110 miles of rugged roads — about half of them unpaved. The sun has come out again, and I’m in for a stunning road trip.

Leaving Patreksfjörður in my rearview mirror, I make my way north, connecting a charm bracelet of humble fjordside settlements, linked to each other by scenic mountain passes. At one point, I pull over at a random little complex of open-to-the-public thermal pools, perched high on a cliff…another reminder of how the Icelanders love their hot water.

The tiny town of Bíldudalur — 200 people living on a precarious shelf at the base of a cliff — is the “last chance gas” point on the drive. At the entrance to town, Vegamót Bíldudal has a tiny grocery store up front, and in back is a cozy restaurant that does a brisk business selling travelers fish-and-chips to fortify them for the long drive ahead. When I stop by, it’s too early for lunch, and the dining room is occupied by a little scrum of what look to be retired fishermen, pouring coffee into their white beards.

Leaving town, I head along the shoreline of the Arnarfjörður, grooving in and out of its many arms. The Arnarfjörður, shaped like a giant squid, is famous for its “sea monster” lore. Maybe it’s the latitude, maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the boredom — but locals seem to constantly see mysterious creatures out in the fjord. Back in Bíldudalur, one entrepreneur has even opened a “Sea Monster Museum.” It feels like a wannabe-Loch Ness tourist-baiting strategy, but, given the dearth of other tourist attractions in this area, I have to admire the effort.

Rattling through epic scenery on rutted gravel roads, I lose count of the fjords. On one, I pass an evocative, remote farmhouse with a distinctly triangular roofline. On another, I pull over at a picnic table perched just so, overlooking a rushing waterfall. On another, I drive past a tidy, well-kept, open-air swimming pool — just sitting there alongside the road, with changing cabins nearby — fed by natural thermal springs.

And then I start heading up. And up. And up. As scenic as this drive has been, nothing could have prepared me for the mountain pass I traverse next. The road crests in a rocky landscape that feels like the very rooftop of Iceland, if not all of Europe. Off on the left, I can take in the entire Arnarfjörður, and all its convoluted inlets, with one sweep of the head. From here, it’s easy to understand how this remarkable landscape came to be: It’s a high, flat plateau, out of which have been carved great divots…the Westfjords.

Twisting back down to sea level on the far side of the pass, I steal a distant view of one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls: Dynjandi. I can see it miles before I reach it. It tumbles like a bridal veil over the edge of the high, flat plateau that I’ve just crossed. Following signs to the parking lot, I cross a bridge over a churning river. Visually tracing its course uphill, I see how Dynjandi isn’t just one waterfall: It’s about one dozen, stairstepping into each other on their way down from the top of the cliff to the fjord’s shoreline.

I hike up the rocky trail that leads alongside the waterfall’s many stages. Each sub-fall has its own little viewpoint, where a sign identifies its name. There are no real “crowds” in the Westfjords, but the Dynjandi trail concentrates more human beings than I’ve seen in one place in several days. Still, those ranks thin out considerably as I make my way up the steep trail.

Finally I arrive at the main fall at the top, tumbling over the sharp cliff into a giant, chilly pool. This upper section alone is as big as an American football field laid on end — about 100 yards long, 50 yards wide. The thundering flow pulverizes a heavy mist into the air, spraying my glasses and camera lens with frigid souvenirs of Iceland’s fast-melting glaciers. Iceland fills any traveler with awe in the face of nature. And Dynjandi is one of the best places for exactly that.

Back on the road, I curl around yet another fjord on chunky roads. At one point I pass a busy construction zone. They’re boring a tunnel through the middle of the mountain to connect to the next fjord over. In a couple of years, my journey to Ísafjörður will be at least a half-hour shorter; a few years later, you’ll be able to subtract an hour. But if I’m being honest, I’m happy for the hardship. Driving on paved roads just doesn’t come with the same sense of adventure.

Before heading over yet another mountain pass, I pull over at Hrafnseyri, a tiny, middle-of-nowhere settlement that was the birthplace of Icelandic founding father Jón Sigurðsson, who lobbied the Danish government on behalf of Icelandic independence during the 19th century. Today his statue faces the Icelandic parliament building in Reykjavík. But here on a remote fjord, his birthplace is marked by a picturesque church and a trio of turf-roofed houses…and idyllic Icelandic tableau.

I twist my way up and over yet another epic, unpaved mountain pass. The last few days have made me numb to spectacular scenery — but even in that state, this road takes my breath away.

Returning to sea level on the other side, I also return to civilization for the first time in hours: At the village of Þingeyri, my tires grip pavement and my car seems to breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s midafternoon and I’m famished. So I drive into the lonely waterfront hamlet of Þingeyri and step into Simbahöllin — a hipster café filling an old general store. Despite being in what should feel very much off the grid, they have fast Wi-Fi, crispy waffles, and oat-milk lattes. I pay 20 bucks for a big, delicious bowl of soup and some bread, plus a coffee. Chatting with the clerk, I’m told that this café, too, is a few days away from closing for the winter. Will the last tourist leaving the Westfjords please turn out the lights?

Continuing on, I wind around the fjord and conquer my umpteenth mountain pass, made much easier thanks to the smooth road. Soon I reach the modern tunnel that takes me under yet another mountain pass to the capital of the Westfjords — and the end of my long journey.

Ísafjörður, Capital of the Westfjords

The town of Ísafjörður (literally “Ice Fjord”) occupies a big, flat spit in the center of 360 degrees of fjordland cliffs. From here, the Arctic Circle is just over the horizon. Despite being a regional “capital,” Ísafjörður is a humble burg. Driving into town, I pass Ísafjörður’s main landmark: an eyesore modern church, built in 1995 in an idiosyncratic architecture style that doesn’t quite come together. (I think of it as “beige pebble-clad Cubist-meets-Sydney Opera House.”)

Out at the tip of the peninsula is Ísafjörður’s historic wharf area — a tiny cluster of historic shiplap buildings. One of them is the local historical museum, and two others are, unbelievably, still residences — housing the only people who might be excited about living in a 200-year-old log cabin on a frozen fjord: museum curators.

It’s dinnertime, and I’m ready for a good meal. I step into the log-cabin-like tar factory from 1781, now a restaurant called Tjöruhúsið. While reservations are usually required, the waning season makes it easier to improvise — they’re able to squeeze me in, last-minute. I’m ushered to a big shared table with twentysomething American couple and a thirtysomething French couple. While waiting for our meal, we trade testimonials about how Iceland has stolen our hearts.

Tjöruhúsið is a bit of a tourist trap. But it’s the kind that you’re very happy to be trapped in. The meal begins with delicious fish soup that would, in itself, make a plenty satisfying dinner. But then comes the main course: A buffet line of oversized, sizzling skillets of different fish dishes, each with a different flavor profile, both traditional Icelandic and international. It’s one of the best meals I’ve had, capping another lifetime-best day of travel.

The next day, my guidebook-scouting tasks in Ísafjörður keep me very busy. But before leaving the Westfjords, I drive 15 minutes to Súðavík, on the next fjord over. There, filling an old house, is the Arctic Fox Centre, offering an education in Iceland’s only native land mammal — which ekes out a challenging existence in some of the harshest conditions on earth (their mortality rate is about 80 percent).

I’m warmly greeted by the manager, Sæmundur. He clearly adores the foxes and has dedicated himself to advocating for them. “Icelandic farmers complain about the foxes killing their sheep,” Sæmundur tells me, with a tone suggesting that he takes these allegations personally. “But the foxes only do what comes naturally, and they only attack the weakest sheep — the ones very unlikely to survive anyway.”

I head out back to the pen where two rescued foxes live. I just barely spot them, huddled sleepily under a little enclosure. Just as I resign myself to not getting a closer look, Sæmundur comes out, and the foxes spring to life, running over to greet him. He pulls some treats out of his pocket and begins feeding the two foxes, who eagerly climb up the walls of the cage to get a snack and a scratch from Sæmundur. They are beautiful animals — intelligent, bright-eyed, and clearly wild, without the affable domesticity of a dog or housecat. I can see exactly why Sæmundur has fallen in love with these creatures.

I wish I could hang out with Sæmundur and his friends longer. But I have a flight to catch. I zip back around the fjord to Ísafjörður’s tiny airport for my trip back to Reykjavik. (When I find the rental-car office unattended, I call the phone number on the contract. “No problem. Just slide the keys under the door.”) Arrive 30 minutes before takeoff, free coffee, no security checkpoint, friendly gate agents: Domestic flights in Iceland are my kind of travel.

As we leave the ground, the wheels retract back up into the belly of our little plane, and we fly higher and higher up a grand fjord, I realize I’ll be in downtown Reykjavik in just a half-hour. But I can’t express how happy I am that I took the very long way to get up here.


I was in the Westfjords writing a brand-new chapter for our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook; the second edition (with the Westfjords) is available in April 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *