Life in The Magical Westfjords
Most people that move to Iceland choose to live in the lively, culture laden capital area of Reykjavík. And maybe in the summer months when the weather is warmer they will venture to the Westfjords for a visit. But unfortunately, most tourists and locals alike miss out on what I find to be the most spectacular region of Iceland.
The Town of Ísafjörður
I lived in the small town of Ísafjörður (the so called capital of the Westfjords with a population of 2600) for one full year. I arrived in August as I was attending the University Centre of the Westfjords to begin my master´s studies in Coastal and Marine Resource Management. The university was created as part of an initiative to draw new residents to the Westfjords due to the decline in population over the years preceding its development. The university has brought a new liveliness to the town with new jobs and fresh faces.
Cloud Reflection in Ísafjörður
After arriving in Keflavík I spent a few days in Reykjavík before taking the 45-minute flight up to Ísafjörður. The flight is a bit terrifying and I would certainly not recommend it for nervous fliers (you can take the 6-hour winding road drive instead). It is known for being one of the most difficult airport approaches in the world due to its position in the fjord and the frequency of strong winds. I fell instantly in love with the town´s towering mountains and vibrant green hills. I remember basking in the light as my classmates and I walked to the Tungudalur waterfall in the fjord for blueberry picking. I felt completely at home in a place where everything I needed (including the ocean!) was only footsteps from my front door.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
I enjoyed the last days of summer thoroughly by hiking every chance I got (the Naustahvilft is an excellent quick hike that provides a great view of the town). We were lucky enough to get an introduction to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and Vigur island with a boat tour one day. We visited Hesteyri, also known as the old doctor’s house which was the last inhabited area on Hornstrandir. There are currently no residents there and transportation to and from the area is only available in the summer months. I’ve since returned to Hornstrandir twice because if the Westfjords are the crown of Iceland, Hornstrandir is the crowning jewel. It’s untouched, remote beauty with bird life, curious arctic foxes and folk tales make it difficult not to fall in love.
Arctic Fox Whelps
One of my favorite Icelandic experiences in the Westfjords was participating in the annual sheep herding event at Ingjalssandur. Ingjalssandur is one of the most beautiful areas in the Westfjords with stunning mountains, a beautiful beach, and a classic Icelandic red roofed church. Sheep herding is hard work but if you do your work well the farmer you are helping will reward you with a hearty lamb dinner.
Fall came quickly and suddenly; all the leaves turned brown and within 2 weeks winter had arrived. Ísafjörður becomes a gorgeous winter wonderland but the light quickly began to leave. For 2 full months there is no sun in Ísafjörður as the sun does not go above the high mountains surrounding the town. When the sun finally does return in February the town celebrates with a pancake breakfast. Full disclosure: I cried when I saw the sun again for the first time. That being said, the ethereal light that spreads over the town for 3-4 hours a day in the winter is absolutely worth it.
Winter in Ísafjörður is not for everyone. There are frequent storms, minimal daylight, road closures limiting activities and about 50% of the flights are cancelled due to weather. There are often days where no one can enter or exit the town due to weather. Although some people find this to be anxiety inducing it just made me feel even cozier. I highly recommend the beautiful historic library in town (it used to be the hospital) for snuggling up with a good book and a nice view of the fjord.
The Historic Library in Ísafjörður
Small Towns by the Seaside
There are many interesting towns surrounding Ísafjörður, but none is more beautiful than Flateyri. Flateyri (WEB cam) was host to some very tragic avalanches in the 90´s which eventually led to the construction of the tunnel through the mountain between Ísafjörður and Önundafjörður. Önundafjörður is equally beautiful in summer and winter but Holt Beach with its white sands makes for a particularly interesting spectacle in winter. Picture a tropical looking beach but with snowy mountains in the background! This fjord is best appreciated from horse back so you can take in all the scenery with no blind spots.
The people in Ísafjörður are what really made the town shine for me. I’ve heard many stories of people in Reykjavik having difficulty finding a community but there was no such case in the Westfjords. It didn’t take long for me to meet the local people and they were absolutely darling. I met some locals who became very good friends of mine through horseback riding.
I was always astounded by how quick they were to welcome me and invite me on their fantastic trips. A highlight for me was riding from Önundafjordur to Þingeyri over 2 days for a horse riding competition which my friend was competing in. We camped in Þingeyri below the beautiful “alps of the westfjords”. In the wintertime we rode in Bolungarvik but nothing compared to riding trips in the beautiful open fjord.
Town of Bolungarvík
Spring time in Ísafjörður brought new life to the town as the music festival Aldrei Fór Ég Suður was hosted over Easter weekend. It is completely free with many of Iceland’s most popular musicians performing there each year. The festival which was started by a local musician called Mugison is named after a Bubbi Morthen´s song which means “I never went south”. Although the evening concerts are free, there are tickets for purchase to see some of the more well-known artists performing in one of the local bars at an after party.
"Aldrei Fór Ég Suður" festival
In the summertime there is plenty to do in the Westfjords. You can road trip all around and visit the little towns scattered throughout the fjords: Suðavik, Patreksfjörður, Bolungarvik, Suðureyri, Þingeyri. Each of these has some very interesting history, nice pools and great local food. There are some great natural sites in the Westfjords. I recommend visiting Dynjandi waterfall because the waterfall is comprised of multiple little falls and one big bridal veil style waterfall.
The Latrabjarg bird cliffs are for anyone who is keen to see puffins. There are thousands of them nesting in these cliffs in the summertime. Just make sure you don’t go too close to the fragile crumbling cliff edges or too close to disturb the nesting birds!
Rauðissandur beach is a stunning red sand beach that can’t be missed on the way to the bird cliffs. The best part of all these attractions is that you won’t see the crowds and lines that are everywhere on the south coast of Iceland! You truly feel as if you’re alone in the wilderness.
Local Culture, Fauna and Flora
Being from the Pacific Northwest of Canada I grew to miss forests. While working as a guide I learned about a little botanical garden about 45 minutes from Ísafjörður called Skrúður. There you can see bright, colorful plants and a towering gate made out of a whale´s jaw bone (you can also see a whale bone in the small garden area in Ísafjörður just across from the library). The museum which initially belonged to the school nearby was used to teach young people in the region about horticulture.
Botanical Garden Skrúður
When you finish with the flora of the Westfjords you can visit the town of Súðavík to appreciate the fauna at the Arctic Fox Museum. There you can see two cute arctic foxes and learn about the species as well as the research that is conducted by the Arctic Fox Centre. And since you´re already out of town you might as well head to some of the beautiful hotpots in the Westfjords! My favorite is Hörgshlíðarlaug which has a beautiful view of Mjóifjörður, but be sure to ask the farmer before using the pool!
If you happen to be in the Westfjords on National Independence day (June 17th) I would highly recommend making your way to Hrafnseyri. This area is the birthplace of the father of Icelandic independence: Jón Sigurðsson. It is situated in Arnafjörður which many regard as Iceland´s most beautiful fjord. At Hrafnseyri you will find a modern church, and a turf hut museum as well as an old classic style church. On June 17th you can watch the student´s from the University Centre of the Westfjords graduation ceremony. Many people dress in the Icelandic national costume to celebrate. You can see a variety of older and newer style costumes some with very intricate metal work on the front. Behind the turf hut you can see the forest that is being created by the students as each one is gifted a legacy tree upon graduation.
There are not so many dining options in Ísafjörður but during the summer you can visit Tjöruhúsið restaurant which serves a buffet of freshly caught fish and seafood. This was by far one of the best meals I´ve ever eaten in my life. The chefs are constantly adding new dishes to the buffet line and they are all so varied and fresh. If you don´t manage to get a spot in the busy restaurant you can always get fresh fish from the local fish shop (Fiskibúð Sjávarfangs) in the harbor to cook at home. The owner is very friendly and also has some very interesting things for sale including fish scale ties!
The last month I spent living in the Westfjords all of my classmates had left town and I thought that I might be lonely. But that was not the case at all. There were plenty of friendly faces around town and lots to do. During this time, I decided I wanted to learn how to knit an Icelandic lopapeysa and asked a woman who worked at the university to teach me. I received endless help from the very patient woman who runs the well-stocked knitting store in town called Klæðakot. The store hosts a weekly knitting night which is free and welcome to all. Bring your knitting project, learn some new skills and meet the locals.
The famous mud football tournament called Mýrarboltinn was happening on my last day in town. I was very thankful for the chance to enjoy it! With the festival comes live music and some famous musicians playing concerts in town in the evening. But keep in mind, accommodation in the Westfjords is extremely limited so you must plan well in advance!
Mýrarboltinn Mud Football Tournament
Overall my experience in the Westfjords was absolutely incredible. I visit as often as I can to see friends and take in the beautiful calm landscape once again. Often when I mention to Icelanders that I lived in Ísafjörður they look surprised and say “Wow that’s the REAL Iceland!” And I can’t think of a better way to describe the Westfjords than a completely authentic experience of all that Iceland has to offer. I hope this region finds a special place in your heart like it did mine.