In search of a less touristy Iceland, Arthur Lubow drives through the Westfjords region and discovers majestic waterfalls, surprising art installations, and winsome puffins. By Arthur Lubow
The name ‘Iceland’ seemed misleading when I visited in summer. ‘Waterland’ was more like it. On the Westfjords peninsula, which juts from northwest Iceland like a claw, water was everywhere. It cascaded in silvery filaments down green mountainsides. It rushed in streams alongside, and occasionally over gravel roads. It floated in clouds like thought bubbles above slate-blue fjords.
So it seemed appropriate that my companion Jason and I should begin our Westfjords road trip at the Library of Water, which American artist Roni Horn created in 2007 in the coastal village of Stykkishólmur. Horn, who has a long-standing affinity for Iceland, placed 24 floor-to-ceiling glass cylinders, each filled with water from an Icelandic glacier, in a former library that overlooks the picturesque harbour. She also designed a rubber floor inlaid with words that riff on the nation’s number-one preoccupation, its volatile weather: cool, wild, calm, foggy, dreary, oppressive, and so on. The cylinders are positioned seemingly at random, like trees in a forest—which reminded me that Iceland is mostly treeless. In the Westfjords, I didn’t see any butterflies, squirrels, or deer. Instead, there were birds and sheep. Lots of them.
Although I would have liked a few more animals, mainly I wanted to escape from the phone-clutching crowds in my New York neighbourhood. Fewer than 8,000 people live in the Westfjords. And it’s just out of the way enough to be beyond the tourist trail.
From Stykkishólmur, Jason and I crossed the Breiðafjörður, or ‘broad fjord’, which separates the Westfjords from the rest of the country. The ferry chugs past dozens of uninhabited tiny islands for two hours before stopping at Flatey Island. Five people live there year-round, but in the summer, it’s thronged with Icelandic families in vacation cottages. There is only one place for tourists to stay, the Hótel Flatey (doubles from INR 19,495), and it houses the sole restaurant (entrées INR 2,549–3,674).
With its single church and homes in brick red, mustard yellow, and olive drab, Flatey Island feels lifted out of a child’s crayon drawing. The whole place is a nature preserve, and we walked over rocky beaches along the path that rings the perimeter. Later that afternoon, two cooks gutted and cleaned brown cod on a table below our window. In the charmingly rustic dining room, which, like the main part of the hotel, is in a renovated 19th-century warehouse, I ordered cod for dinner. Unsurprisingly, it was the freshest I’ve eaten.
After taking the second leg of the ferry trip the next day, we launched our tour of the Westfjords. On a map, the topography resembles two serrated leaves indented by waterways. We drove first to the hamlet of Selárdalur, at the top end of the lower leaf. A two-hour drive of desolate beauty, past many sheep, the rare farmhouse, and almost no other cars, led us to the Samúel Jónsson Museum, the re-created—and unattended— homestead of a folk artist who worked here alone until his death in 1969. Jónsson must have had some books because my favourite of his painted concrete sculptures represents something he could not have seen, the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra. I imagined him looking out at the fjord and dreaming of southern Spain.
We drove on to Rauðasandur, a broad sandy beach that is reddish-gold in colour instead of Iceland’s usual volcanic black. Fortified at Franska Kaffihúsið by a teatime snack of a thin waffle with lingonberry jam and a cloud of whipped cream, we took an early evening beach walk and then drove to Hótel Breiðavík (doubles from INR 13,322), a former boys’ reform school with the charm of a hostel and the prices of a boutique hotel. It’s all about location. These are the closest accommodations to the Látrabjarg bird cliffs, the westernmost point in Iceland and a place where you are guaranteed to see puffins.
In most of Iceland, puffins shun humans. Smoked puffin is a delicacy here. Puffins at Látrabjarg, however, are protected from hunters, so they don’t regard people as a threat. At night, the birds congregate at the upper levels of the cliffs. With their squinty eyes, rounded cheeks, and bright orange beaks, they resembled dowagers who’d had a little cosmetic surgery. Just below them on the cliffs sat seagulls, grey and white as if in morning jackets. And one level beneath them were razor-bills, resembling miniature penguins with their tuxedo-like markings. The puffins were mum, but the other birds were cackling and moaning. It was like a costume ball at an asylum.
The next day, long-predicted rain materialised as we drove to Ísafjörður, the biggest town in the Westfjords and home to more than half its population. On the way, we made a short detour to the heralded Dynjandi waterfall, wondering what could be so special. Waterfalls in Iceland are about as unusual as pigeons in New York. But this one is indeed special. With far more tourists than any other natural attraction we visited (about a dozen people), Dynjandi is a mighty torrent that descends in stages down a stony mountainside.
Our lunch of an excellent minestrone at Simbahöllin, a charming coffeehouse in the village of Þingeyri, did not dampen our appetite for dinner at Tjöruhúsið (entrées INR 1,048–2,395), the focus of our Ísafjörður stay. This celebrated fish restaurant in an old timber house has two nightly seatings, at 7 pm and 9 pm (make reservations; Tjöruhúsið is always filled with both locals and tourists.) Guests were placed at long communal wooden refectory tables, from which they clambered up to serve themselves a creamy tomato-based seafood soup. Although tempted to take a second bowl, we wisely didn’t, because, minutes later, out of the kitchen came giant skillets carrying an unending variety of fresh-caught plaice, cod, halibut, and salmon in delicious preparations. A chef behind the counter dished out the ones we pointed to.
After three days of viewing water in all its forms, it seemed fitting that we had gone fully aquatic for our farewell-to-the-Westfjords feast. In the heavy drizzle, we returned to our guesthouse. By the time we opened its door, we were absolutely drenched.
Getting there: Indians need a Schengen visa to enter Iceland. There are no direct flights from India. But many airlines like Icelandair, Air India, Lufthansa, etc. offer connecting services with stopovers in European cities to Keflavík International Airport near Reykjavík, where you can rent a car. From there it’s a three-hour drive to Stykkis hólmur, the gateway to the Westfjords.