A full day of sunlight or darkness. Northern Lights. Reykjavik and the Golden Circle Tour. The Blue Lagoon.
Like most Brits, when I thought of holidaying in Iceland, I imagined the above.
And when I went to Reykjavik in 2017, to do the Golden Circle Tour, while the sun stayed in the sky for almost 24 hours, I thought I’d ‘done’ Iceland (something I am very embarrassed about now).
Don’t get me wrong, Iceland’s capital, the geysers and Blue Lagoon are fantastic. The culture, the food (I still often talk about the bottomless tomato soup at Friðheimar five years later), and just sheer beauty of the southwest is breathtaking – but it is not all Iceland has to offer.
After three days spent exploring the Westfjords, I know now I couldn’t have been more wrong in thinking I’d seen it all. I had barely scratched the surface with my previous trip.
The Westfjords are situated in the northwest of Iceland, with a population of slightly over 7,150 – meaning it is the least populated district, considering its 22km2 size. To get there, you need to fly into Keflavik airport in Reykjavik and drive for a couple of hours (it took us around four to reach our first spot).
And you will need to drive. For some, that might be their ideal holiday, but for babies like me who are yet to pass their test, it means relying on long-suffering partners (or in this case, brilliant tour guides) to be the designated driver.
While having to jump in a car to get from place to place may sound like a waste of precious holiday hours, in the Westfjords it is not. During a 45 minute drive from hotel to hot springs you might encounter mountains, waterfalls, the sea, all the colours of autumn, valleys… I could go on.
On one drive, we stopped the car to look at a family of seals in the sea, and on the other side of the road picked and snacked on blueberries and black bilberries next to an ancient bridge and stream.
While in the Westfjords, there are endless things to see, eat and do.
It can feel like you get all the beautiful views you need from the car journeys alone – but there is even more to see.
One of my favourite spots was Dynjandi, one of the country’s most famous waterfalls. The site also has six smaller waterfalls that you have to hike past to get up close to the main event – Dynjandi.
The deep reds of autumn contrasted beautifully with the greens of shrubbery and the bright blue of the waters all around. Well placed viewing platforms offered ideal spots to take in the magnitude and beauty of these waterfalls.
And what shocked me most was how empty it was. We went on a Thursday afternoon at the end of the summer season, which might explain fewer tourists, but there were only two other cars in the carpark.
After having to compete with other visitors for space and views all along the Golden Circle Tour, I couldn’t believe how peaceful this was. I felt that I truly got to soak up the atmosphere (and the waterfalls’ spray) and appreciate the nature surrounding me.
Earlier that day, we visited Rauðasandur Beach, which translates to ‘red sands’. While yellow/orange sand may not seem too abnormal to those of us in the UK, most of Iceland’s beaches are black, making this one a highly recommended spot.
I expected to see a pretty beach – I did not expect the colours to pop so much, even on a drizzling and grey day. Big waves lapped the shore, which stretched on for miles – just under 10, to be precise. The sands were interspersed with shallow pools and it felt otherworldly – or like I was in a 90s music video, with the wind lapping my hair and puffa jacket.
On the Friday, we visited the viewing deck on the top of Bolafjall, which was opened up to the public earlier this year. The top of the mountain is accessible by car, and it is rumoured that on a good day you can see Greenland from the platform that stretches out over the edge of the cliff and gives you spine-shivering views of the sheer drop below.
I say on a good day because we went on a bloody miserable day. In every direction, all we could see was fog and we were battered with strong winds and ice.
To be honest, as someone mildly terrified of heights, I was grateful that I couldn’t see what was below me, and even made it to the end of the platform. The terrible weather made the whole experience a real giggle, but for any people keen to visit, I would recommend checking the weather of the morning you plan to go!
Another aspect of nature Iceland is famous for is its hot springs.
Nothing made me want to move to Iceland more than when our guides told us they regularly pop to the hot springs after work, beer in hand, and have a dip. During the three full days we spent in the Westfjords, we went to three different hot springs.
The first, Reykjarfjordur in Arnarfjörður, was free to use and offered panoramic views of the valley and as well as a man made pool (filled with spring water), had a beautiful and boiling natural spring.
The second, Heydalur, is part of a hotel and nature resort, which visitors can pay to use (I would also recommend eating at their restaurant – the trout was incredible). Heydalur has four pools – one a walk across a stream, another hot one directly outside the hotel, a larger, slightly cooler, swimming pool sized one, and a hotter smaller hot tub filled with the natural water. The latter two were in a greenhouse and surrounded by apple trees, which was really special.
And finally, we went to Laugarhóll, part of a hotel but available to be used by non-guests for a fee. The baths are well-known in the Westfjords and have been popular since the 1950s. Laugarhóll has a large pool, with fantastic views, and two smaller pools to the side.
One thing to mention about hot pools in Iceland is that they require you to shower naked (often communally) with soap before entering the water to keep it clean.
All the fresh air and hot dips really took it out of me, but the food was a real pick-me-up. The lamb shank from Englendingavík on our first night, with its flavoursome and shiny red wine gravy, set my standards high for the rest of the trip.
Thankfully, not one single restaurant disappointed – and the mushroom truffle risotto (Við Pollinn at Hótel Ísafjörður) and the trio of sandwiches at Heimabyggð (my favourite was the kimchi, chilli mayo and cheese) assured me that vegetarian visitors wouldn’t be let down.
Surrounded by water, fish and seafood is obviously prevalent on Westfjords menus – and they were the star of the culinary show. The freshness and quality was exquisite.
During my time spent in the district, I had a flavoursome Thai inspired fish soup (Flak), tried shark (caught and made edible by Finnbogi Bernódusso), the previously mentioned trout at Heydalur, which was caught that morning from the river that crosses their land, lobster pizza (Café Riis Hólmavík) and went to Tjöruhúsið for a meal that I will never forget.
Situated in a red barn in Ísafjörður, Tjöruhúsið offers two booking options each evening – 6pm or 8pm – all to the soundtrack of their record player blasting out The Cure and Sade. Once all guests have arrived, you can walk up and collect your starter: their fish soup. Buckets of flavour, rich and creamy, you are treated to unlimited servings and offered a platter of bread with whipped parsley butter.
As tempting as it was to fill myself up on the starters, I limited myself to two servings before moving onto the mains. Along with countless sides including a blueberry salad and pickled cucumber, there were eight(!) different fish options for mains – and I tried them all, from cod cheek to wolffish.
Each one was cooked to perfection, combining different seasonings, sauces and garnishes that didn’t feel too overwhelming placed alongside each other on a plate. I left truly gutted that I didn’t wear stretchier trousers.
Following the dinner, we went to Dokkan Brugghús, the Westfjords first and only brewery. It happened to be Friday 1 October, which meant two things: live music and the launch of their new Octoberfest beer, Dokktoberfest. I’ve never been a pale ale fan, but after trying their tasting selection of 12 beers, I was a convert.
And for anyone who needs more than nature, food, drink and relaxation to have a good holiday, there’s also plenty of other activities to get involved with like whale watching and boat trips, museums and driving ATVs.
Weather prevented us from doing the former, but instead we headed to ATV Ísafjörður for some quad bike action (well, I took to the backseat of one, being a bit of a chicken).
Splashing through muddy puddles and racing down off-road paths, it was a brilliant way to see more of Ísafjörður. Taking us uphill resulted in views that demanded to be looked at. I honestly don’t know how many different ways I can tell you the Westfjords are beautiful.
For those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, there are informative and quirky museums. Hnjótur Museum is made up of a local man’s collection of bits and bobs from the area – some of which were donated by his neighbours. It mixes history (an explanation of the 1948 Epine shipwreck), with insights into traditional jobs and what they involved (the fish skin shoes that were worn years ago), and mementos he collected (teacups with moustache protectors). The diversity of the collection meant every case offered something new and interesting.
The Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum was incredibly unique. Downstairs, it explains the different spells that were used in witchcraft’s heyday in Westfjords, like necropants (Google it if you’re curious) and thigh nipples. Upstairs, however, it delves more into who was tried and killed for their ‘crimes’ – interesting, Iceland mainly convicted men, not women – and explores the class dynamics of the accusers and accused.
My favourite museum was Eiríksstaðir – the site where Leif Eiríksson, who is thought to have discovered the Americas, was born. The museum rebuilt a Viking longhouse close to where he is thought to have lived using all original techniques and materials (including driftwood instead of cutting down trees). Inside, you sit around the fire as sagas are relayed and you’re educated about how people lived back then.
While I had a brilliant time in Reykjavik all those years ago, this time I felt like I really got to explore more of Iceland and its history – away from all the other tourists. I would 100% recommend still exploring Reykjavik and going on the Golden Circle Tour – both are completely different to what you’ll see in the Westfjords – but don’t end your trip to Iceland there.
Hire a car and travel north.
- Check out
- Garðar BA – Iceland’s oldest steel ship now placed on the beach near Patreksfjörður.
- Rauðasandur Beach
- Hnjótur Museum
- Lunch at Flak
- Pool at Reykjarfjordur at Arnarfjörður
- Dynjandi waterfall
- Check in to Hótel Ísafjörður
- Dinner at Við Pollinn
- Check out
- Swim and lunch at Heydalur
- The Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum
- Check in and swim at Hótel Laugarhóll
- Dinner at Café Riis Hólmavík
- Drive back to airport via Hvammsvík Nature resort & Hot Springs (not technically in the Westfjords but well worth a visit!)
Jess was a guest of Visit Westfjords and Business Iceland and flew into Keflavik Airport with Icelandair, which offers return flights from London Heathrow to Keflavik from as little as £190.00pp*. All fare are bookable on the Icelandair website icelandair.com/en-gb
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