The Westfjords and Flateyri, the Christiania of the Westfjords

I´ve been to the westfjords before, and the remote, uninhabited Hornstrandir has been pulling on my heart all summer. The problem is, summer hasn´t really arrived yet, with snowfall in June and average temperatures of around 6°C around the westfjords. Hiking for days with enough supplies for a winter expedition didn´t seem appealing, so I put together a last minute road trip instead.

the old school in Ólafsdalur

I drove from Reyjavik to Isafjörður in one day with a french couchsurfer/hitchhiker I call Tony. We drove in pretty much a straight line, except for one detour to Ólafsdalur, since its location, in Gilsfjörður, is the fjord that separates the Western Iceland and Westfjords districts. We crossed into the Westfjords and then the real adventure began – hunting down hottubs, and hotdogs, while avoiding the hundreds of runners taking part in the marathon festival we didn´t know was going on.

the only windmill in Iceland, looking down at the westjords from Vígur island

I killed a baby Eider duck and still feel remorse over it, which wasn´t helped by the fact that two passing roadtrippers stopped be just to wail and scream about this baby duck they saw me murder in cold blood, as if I had done it on purpose. The road was supper narrow and swerving would have either put me into the ocean or head on into their car.

desserted farms turned summerhouses at the end of the world, Skálavík

After trying and failing to get into the country´s smallest hottub (its now locked by the landowners), not feeling enticed by Reykjaneslaug (filled with 30 middle aged Germans), we passed by the little pool on the side road down Mjóifjörður and realized someone had just started refilling it. We jumped in, but left before it was filled, in fear of having to make someone else share that magical space.

turf houses in Bolungarvik

I camped a night in the rain in Tungudalur, and picked up a new roadtrip companion the next morning at the Isafjörður airport. We spent the day in Bolungarvík, driving to the end of the road to Skálavík. I lost 5000ISK at the Bolungarvik swimming pool, but it was still worth it – their dry sauna is spa worthy.

colourful Flateyri

We spent the rest of our Westfjords trip unable to leave Flateyri. Once an isolated, lonely little fishing village, an avalanche in 1994 nearly emptied the settlement. It wasn´t until a tunnel was built in 1996 (connecting it to Isafjörður all year round in under 20 minutes) that people really fought to stay, but a few years later, real life was breathed back into this dwindling town.

Hálfdan catching the first cod at 23:00

Hálfdan Pedersen bought a house back in early 2000´s after scouting it out on movie production. There was a roof, but no floor, and snow fell in through the glassless windows into the bedrooms downstairs. He bought it for 5000kr. Now the home is featured in architecture books and home design magazines, and a trail of artsy and alternative lifestyle seeking Icelander´s have trickled in behind him.

(c) Hálfdan Pedersen

Huldar Breiðfjörð, an Icelander who walked the whole wall of China and author of ´Múrinn í Kína,´ has a summer house in Flateyri. A man named Eyþór, photographer and filmmaker, also runs the oldest continually open shop in Iceland in Flateyri. Dagur Sigurðsson, coach of the men´s German Handball European champions in 2016, is currently renovating a house there. Designer Kórmakur of Kormákur & Sköldur men´s clothing has a bunch of homes there, and other film industry and random health-food/dietician stylists are also in the mix. All this in a town of only a couple hundred people.

Fishing under a midnight sun in Önunda

We were going to visit Hálfdan and his family, and went fishing in the fjord to catch dinner with him on the only sunny evening I can remember in July. Hálfdan and his partners run and own the only bar in town, Vagninn, and his chef was throwing her 50th birthday party that weekend. We weren´t actually invited to it, but Linda P was, and making the comment that even Linda P is attending is always brushed aside as a joke. The weekend we were there, we shared Hálfdans design home with Linda Petursdottir, Miss World 1988, and that sealed the deal: Flateyri is really the place for anyone who´s anyone to be  in the westfjords.

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The Icelandic Staycation – why traveling around our own country has become cool

Iceland’s tourism industry has been booming recently, since Icelandic vacations have been on sale ever since 2008 when the kronur exchange rate took a nose dive.

Iceland’s typical tourism appeal include all the clichés of “The Land of Fire and Ice” and our world famous northern lights, but some visitors take Icelandair’s offer for a free stopover in Reykjavik just to see the airport, the Blue Lagoon, the nightlife, and, perhaps the Golden Circle on a guided tour. The more adventurous or spendy come for a week or two, bike or horseback ride crazy places, climb mountains, hike spewing volcanoes, or snowmobile across the largest glacier in Europe, and end up seeing more of Iceland than many natives have ever seen.

Many locals in Reykjavik are born and bred city folk, who actually don’t travel around the country that much, but so many have taken a cheap flight to London or Copenhagen, or a holiday in Spain or New York more frequently than getting up north to Akureyri. However, with the “kreppa” and our crappy kronur, the “Stay-cation” is becoming an attractive alternative. The ecological footprint of Iceland is already pretty big already (renewable energy can’t cover us all), so instead of taking another carbon heavy flight a few hours to Europe, perhaps this article can inspire you to just take the bus/car/ferry a few hours to a magical corner of Iceland.

I’ve been traveling around the world for the last few years, and 63 countries later, I’m still most excited to come back to Iceland and travel at home. Here’s a list of my top five Icelandic destinations, and what to do when there, in hopes of giving passer-by’s and Reykjavik locals an idea of where to go next.

1.Flatey

The old homes in Flatey, depicting typical turn of the 20th century architecture in Iceland

one of the many shipwrecks surrounding Flatey's shallow coast

Between the wonderous Snæfellsness Peninsula and the West Fjords is Flatey, a tiny Island in Breiðafjörður – a 2011contendor for UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. In the long winter months, its almost totally deserted, with only a few resident farmers and their sheep, but in the summer its a bustling little tourist town when all the locals inhabit their summerhouses and run a few restaurants, shops and accomodation services out of their 100+ year old homes. Get there with a Baldur ferry from quaint little Stykkishólmur, or Brjánslækur in the north. Sailing through the archipelago in Breiðarfjörður is definitely its own highlight. Best thing to do there? Take a walk around the Flatey Nature Reserve bird watching, or, if you´re feeling polar worthy, go sea swimming in Stykkishólmur when you´re waiting for the ferry.

2.Vestfirðir

If you take the old way to Isafjordur, you'll drive this dirt road and arrive into the West Fjords with the most beautiful view

fishing boats docked in Bolungarvik

Most of us know about Ísafjörður, and one way to get there is to fly into the death-defying runway that convinces all the passengers on board you´re about to crash into the side of the mountain. The other way is to drive, since the road has just recently been paved all the way and shortened by a few kilometers. This way you get to see a few more of the tiny fishing villages and farmer towns along the way, my favourite being Bolungarvík at the end of the road. Best things to do when roadtripping in the West Fjords? Stop at all the natural hot pots hidden along the side of the highway and romp around the empty country side naked. Or just go fishing.

3. Grímsey

Puffins perching along the volcanic rock columns forming the steep cliffs around Grimsey's coast

This is the only part of Iceland truly in the arctic, with the northern tip of it crossing the 66th parallel. Like Flatey, you can walk around the whole thing in an hour or so, and the jagged cliffs forming the coastline are home to many nesting birds. There is a huge puffin population, infinitely outnumbering the 100 human inhabitants living in Sandvik. Take the ferry from Dalvík (with connecting bus service to Akureryi), and if you want to do as the locals do, harness yourself in some rope and scale the cliffs to pick seabirds eggs. What to do then? Eat one, raw.

4. Jökulársalón

Glacier Heaven - Jokulsarslon

By far the most picturesque place in Iceland, be dazzled by Vatnajökull glacier breaking off and melting into a ´glacier river lagoon.´ You´ll feel like you’ve reached Antarctica, and the water is so blue it rivals the Blue Lagoon. What to do there? Hike a glacier. Or just take a glacier cruise. And stay in nearby Skaftafell, a beautiful national park comprising part of the glacier and actually boasting real, wooded forest.

5.Vestmannæyjar

Haimey, last May, with the dark and destructive ash cloud of Eyjafjallajokull looming uncofmortably close

Vestmannæyjar are a group of spectacular islands sticking out of the sea, huge and steep, topped with lots of green grass (no trees, of course) and white fluffy speckles (sheep). The new harbor in Landeyahöfn means Herjólfur ferry only takes 20 minutes to cross the often sea-sickening journey, instead of the old 2 hr crossing, so its more accessible than ever. What to do when there? Smoke a puffin. Just don’t get stuck there next time Eyjafjallajökull erupts and covers them in a cloud of ash again.

While most of Iceland’s population is in south west Iceland, there’s so much more to see beyond that, and the amazing thing is it´s still a small enough country that you could actually see it all. Here’s to more  travel around this beautiful country!