Rather than taking the Golden Circle Route and heading east from Keflavik Airport, the track chosen by the majority of the 2.2 million (plus) visitors to Iceland, dare to be different and drive northwest to explore the lesser-known and more remote Westfjords.
The backstory to sharing this story:
To skip the back story and go straight to the travel story, scroll down to Five reasons to head west in Iceland
Back in October 2018, I contacted Guðrún Vaka Helgadóttir, the Head of Content Development for WOW Airlines, the Icelandic budget carrier founded in 2011 that flew between Iceland, Europe, Asia and North America. It was five months after my 10-day trip around Iceland and I’d pitched a couple of story ideas. She said she plans the magazine six months ahead and would keep my ideas on file.
In February 2019 Guðrún sent an email: “I just found out yesterday I had a three-page article about the Westfjords fall through in the April issue. How far along is your ‘exploring the Dragon‘s head‘ story? Would you be able to finish it before March 5th and do you have photos to go along with it?“ she asks.
“Yes, yes and yes!” I replied.
I filed the story in early March and on 27th March Guðrún advised the story would be published the following month (the April issue) and to send an invoice. I filed the invoice the next day, the 28th March. Literally, within hours I received an email from a friend letting me know WOW Airlines had gone into receivership.
I was bummed about my Westfjords story not being published. However, mine was a very small issue in comparison to the people employed and involved with WOW Airlines who were instantly job-less.
“Yesterday was a total shock to us all,” said Guðrún in a follow-up email. We really thought we were going to make it and secure the funding we needed. I’m sorry I won’t get to publish your story and you are of course free to pitch it elsewhere.”
Guðrún had worked full-time with WOW air from 2013. As disappointing as it was for me to not see my story in WOW’s magazine, hearing Guðrún’s story put things into perspective.
“It is the single greatest workplace I have ever known. This is like losing a family member. Something is missing from my life,” she explained.
“I doubt I’ll ever find anything like it again. It wasn’t just a job it was a lifestyle. And this particular job combined all my interests, marketing, writing/editing and the travel industry.”
Sadly during these Covid times, this story of loss is repeating itself with travel magazines having to close or cut back due to lack of advertising/sponsors. It’s a challenging and unknown time in the travel industry – especially for those keen to travel beyond their own borders. And while we are making the most of exploring our own backyards, there are destinations overseas we will want to return to (or visit for the first time) when all is OK with travelling internationally again.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find a home for my story elsewhere, so, before my story goes ‘out of date,’ I’m sharing it here. There are some exciting new developments happening in the Westfjords region and I have been in contact with Visit Westfjords for the updates around the ‘Dragon’s head.’
I will write about that in the new year, hopefully, finding an outlet that’s interested. International travel is so up in the air, with this pandemic and the second wave seeing countries go into lockdown again.
Despite it not being possible to travel to Iceland right now, I hope my story inspires you to organise venturing to this special part of Iceland when we can!
So here is my Westfjords story – Explore Iceland’s Dragon’s head and discover roads less travelled – updated with a few additional paragraphs.
Five reasons to head west in Iceland
Why a Dragon’s head?
During research for my first trip (and to date the only) trip to Iceland, I read an article that included a comment about Icelandic school children likening the shape of their island to that of a dragon. With the large road map of Iceland spread out on my lap in the passenger seat of our Kia rental car, tapping into my childlike imagination, I could see the dragon likeness. And the Westfjords region – protruding from the round body – is the dragon’s head! Which meant the saw-toothed shaped southern shore road our little car travelled along, was the dragon’s jawline.
Thankfully, the dragon wasn’t in the mood for swallowing that day!
According to Lonely Planet, only about 10% of the two million visitors* to Iceland visit the Westfjords. (*2019 figures) The other 90%, travel east from Keflavik Airport along the ring road, either by coach or hire car, to explore a small portion of Iceland’s approximate 103,000 square kilometres (Iceland is 1.33% the size of Australia.)
Even if you haven’t been to Iceland, you’ve more than likely read about Iceland’s over-tourism (in the pre-Covid era.) As someone who prefers open spaces over crowds, the Westfjords’ remoteness and low visitor numbers were very appealing as we planned our Iceland itinerary.
So, in mid-May 2018, with summer approaching but not yet peak tourist season in Iceland, my travel companion and I took a different route, from Keflavik airport for a taste of Iceland many choose to ignore.
The Westfjords are accessible
Tourists may shy away from visiting the Westfjords because they’ve heard some parts of the Dragon’s head are largely uninhabited and inaccessible. This is true for the far northern Hornitsrandir Peninsula The remote wilderness is one of the most inhospitable parts of Iceland and is only accessible by foot (no roads.) Remaining largely untouched by humans, the reward for the adventurous (I’d add experienced) hiker who tackles the challenging Hornistrandir terrain, is the discovery of wildlife: birds, Arctic foxes, seals and whales. (On this trip we did not venture this far north.)
As for the remainder of the Westfjords, there is a misconception that driving Iceland’s far northwest is only for the brave. And it’s not only visitors who believe this notion. Even local folk, like Alma the host at our first guesthouse in Stykkishólmur expressed concern about our plans to head northwest.
Stykkishólmur the fishing town
This picturesque fishing town on the northern side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, is a three-hour drive (214 kilometres) from Keflavik Airport and was our first overnight stop in Iceland. Our homestay was in a serene pocket of town overlooking the water of Breiðafjörður Bay towards the Skardsstrond Peninsula.
When Alma heard our plans were to head west the next morning, she asked, “Why do you want to go West?”
“Becasue most visitors don’t,” we tried to explain.
We don’t speak any Icelandic, but with Alma and her husband’s limited English and plenty of expressive head shaking, we understood their message. They were concerned the roads might be a challenge for our little Kia car and some may not be open, despite it being early May. The Baldur car ferry which departed from Stykkishólmur over to Brjánslækur, near our second night’s destination, would have shortened our journey to the mid-west considerably (this is the route GPS maps indicted we should go) and alleviate any concerns our hosts have for bad roads. Unfortunately, the ferry was not in operation on the day of our departure and we had no other option than to drive the 284-kilometres via the coastal route, to our next overnighter at Bjarkarholt, over-looking the North Atlantic Ocean.
Quick diversion in town
Here’s a little side-story for my blog post (which wasn’t in the story for WOW.) After leaving Alma’s guesthouse, we made a small diversion before we hit the open road. Amy, my travel buddy had been unwell for over 10 days in Scotland, coughing like she was on her death bed with something she had inadvertently picked up from London work colleagues before she met me in Scotland for our Isle of Skye tour
The doctor in Portree (Isle of Skye’s capital) diagnosed Amy’s illness as a virus and said she would have to rest and get over it, not easy when you are on a seven-day hiking tour.
After 10 days of not feeling better and having to stay in bed (in our swanky hotel the Waldorf Caledonian) for our final two days in Edinburgh (I explored the city on my own) a helpful pharmacy assistant in Edinburgh, helped Amy to self-diagnose herself with whooping cough – which was pretty serious, as it can last up to ten weeks. In a worst-case scenario, it can lead to pneumonia. So before heading to the remote reaches of the Westfjords, we asked our Stykkishólmur hosts if there was a doctor we could take Amy to. Our Icelandic hosts directed us to a very small medical centre on the outskirts of town in Bjar.
At the medical reception area, we were asked if we had an appointment.
“Ah, no,” we replied sheepishly.
We explained our predicament and the woman behind the front counter asked if we could come back the following Tuesday (five days away) when a doctor would be in residence.
“Ah that won’t be possible as we are travelling and won’t be back this way,” we said.
We had no other choice but hope Amy would slowly recover, and not get sicker.
The downside of falling sick when travelling is being on the move and not knowing what medical support is available.
Thankfully, Amy is one fit and resilient gal and she soldiered on for the rest of Iceland.
The seaside village of Reykholar
On our drive from Stikkhishulmur along Route 54 and into the Westfjords via Route 60, we rarely passed another vehicle – in either direction. The Westfjords was living up to its reputation as remote and uninhabited.
That is until we reach Reykholar, the small seaside village on the dragon’s lower jaw. With 120 residents and 40 houses, this outpost also has a swimming pool – heated via geothermal energy. With no time for swimming, we take a quick peek around the Boat and Gift of Nature Museum. Vikings settled in Reykholar in the 9th Century and the museum shows how past generations used the surrounding land and sea filled with wildlife – birds, seals and fish – to feed the community and carve out a livelihood.
Icelanders know how to maintain a balanced ecosystem. Today the marshes, heathland and lakes below the Reykholar village harbours a range of bird life, including Red-throated Divers, Black-tailed Godwits, Red-necked Phalaropes and Rock Ptarmigans, making Reykholar a popular with bird watchers.
Geothermal energy dries the seaweed which is milled into a powder and sold to the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetics industries. You can experience the health benefits of seaweed at the Reykholar Seaweed Baths Using water drawn from geothermal hot springs, it is highly recommended to apply a seaweed paste to your face while soaking in a seaweed infused hot bath. Rich in antioxidants and organically certified seaweed apparently has many health benefits! (No time for us to try, but hopefully next time?!)
Bjarkarholt blink and you will miss it
The 152-kilometre drive from Reykholar to Bjarkarholt revealed a raw and rugged coastline. Our little Kia car hugged the seemingly endless fjords, weaving up and down high mountains, past jagged limestone outcrops, some still covered with snow despite it being spring-time.
It was close to 7 pm when we finally arrived at our guesthouse in the small oceanside hamlet of Bjarkarholt, over-looking the North Atlantic Ocean. There are four houses and one of them is ours for the night. Our host, Rögnvaldur Johnsen, a tall Viking type (he fits the stereotype) greets us at the doorway. After quickly showing us around the house, Rögnvaldur points across the road.
“The natural hot pot just across the street is wonderful,” says Rögnvaldur enthusiastically. “It is the best way to start or end a perfect day. You will refill all your life batteries in there!”
Despite the brisk temperature and the chilled wind blowing – most likely straight off the ice caps of neighbouring Greenland – I’m keen for our first Icelandic hot pool experience. By the time we gather our bathing gear and find the small pool, it is 8 pm. But this is pre-summer, the sun remains high in the sky, we have a few more hours of daylight to play with. Stripping off the warm outer layers (there are a few) we carefully step onto the moss-covered rocks and into the soothingly warm water (around 38 degrees Celsius.) In the distance, an imposing snow-covered mountain watches over us, sentinel-like. The silence is deafening.
A surreal, unforgettable Westfjords moment.
From Eurovision to Viking Sagas
After dinner, we open a bottle of French champagne given to us by the lovely people at the Caledonian
Why didn’t we drink it in Edinburgh?
Amy was too unwell to drink it with me and as much I like bubbles, I wasn’t going to drink alone. I was hoping there’d be an occasion to celebrate her feeling better in Iceland with this special bottle of French bubbly. And Bjarkarholt was the place!
Our host who insisted we call him Rög, joined us for some bubbles.
Rög, with a good command of English, was the first Icelandic person we’d met who was happy to sit and chat. Initially, he suggested we all watch the semi-finals of the Eurovision song contest, but technical issues in this outpost community meant we had no signal. (I’d never watched Eurovision before and to find out what it was about, we ended up watching the final in Reykjavik. It was ‘interesting‘ entertainment.)
We settled in for the evening, sitting around the communal dining table, a large glass window providing a commanding view of the wild ocean.
Rög, a hiking guide during the summer had many suggestions of what we should see in the Westfjords.
“The big three are Rauðasandur, Latrabjarg and Dynjandi, but the drive between them is what I find interesting,” he said. “The different views from each fjord to the next is just breathtaking.”
We asked about the beach at Rauðasandur.
“Rauðasandur is the most beautiful yellow-reddish beach in Iceland,” he said. “The sand changes colour with the lighting, showing shades of pink and red at sunset. Some pictures you see may be processed to magnify the colours, but I have seen it red so it must be true,” he added, laughing.
After the bubbles, Rog moved on to beer and shared a few stories, including one of the Sagas – Gísli Súrsson.
Vikings were notorious storytellers, and the Sagas are the true stories of the first families who settled in Iceland. The identity of their authors remain largely unknown, as they were ‘oral’ stories recited and repeated in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, They were not written down until the 13th Century. Gísli was a settler in the Westfjords and Haukadalur valley in Dýrafjörður is where the Gisli Saga takes place.
(We enjoyed Rog’s telling of Gisli’s Saga, it is another of my treasured Iceland memories. When I returned home to Australia, I read the printed version in the fabulous book, Saga Land pp 262- 278.)
“Whatever you decide to see, do not miss Dynjandi,” Rog added just as we headed off to bed. “They are the most dramatic waterfalls in the Westfjords.”
Eeek, I wondered if we’d have enough time to fit all of this in!
Nestled on the southern side of a mountain range, the red sand beach is 45 kilometres west of Bjarkarholt, but it takes an hour to drive there (maybe a 4WD would have been a better option.) The narrow gravel road (Route 614) down to the beach is steep, with a few hairpin turns. From the car park we found solace (and escape from the wind) in the Kirkjuhvammur Café, overlooking the beach and surrounding cliffs.
A restorative coffee and ice-cream bolstered our spirits. Inside the café is a book filled with images of the beach in various phases of colour.
Under overcast skies the sand was an orangy-yellow hue. If we had time to wait for sunset, we may have experienced the red hues Rognvaldur described, but Dynjandi beckoned!
Dynjandi – the highway to hell
The unpaved road into Dynjandi Waterfalls is only around 45 kilometres, but is riddled with potholes, some of them looked large enough to swallow our little Kia wheels. We didn’t relish the notion of breaking down out in this remote place! Reassuringly, we passed other vehicles similar in size returning from the falls and presume they made it through unscathed.
And it wasn’t really the ‘Highway to Hell’, but ironically AC/DC’s iconic tune Highway to Hell appeared on our playlist as we bounced along to our waterfall destination.
Amy drove and concentrated on the road, unable to ‘gawk’ at the mountains on either side. The flat mountain peaks remained snow-covered, indicating the high altitude and consistently cooler temperatures. The streaks of black rock peeking through the snow reminded me of one of my favourite 80s ice-cream desserts, the Vienetta.
As we step from the car at the Dyjnandi carpark, we’re greeted by the sound of millions of litres of crashing water. Shaped like a ginormous lacy bridal veil, the white water cascades from the thirty-metre-wide top section, for 100 metres over a blackened cliff face. The ‘veil’ fans out spectacularly midway over six smaller falls, to the 60 metre-wide base.
Access to the falls is via a walking path, with regular wind gusts dousing you in heavy sprays of water.
And, don’t forget to turn your back to the falls for more spectacular views of where the water eventually spills into – the Arnarfjörður fjord – one of the largest in the Westfjords.
Drone footage gives a better idea of Dynajndi’s majesty. This one-minute YouTube video by Wake Up Mat’s beautifully encapsulates Dynjandi and the weather is similar to the day I was there.
Iceland is jam-packed with many spectacular waterfalls. Feel free to debate which is your favourite. Dynjandi (or Fjallfoss as it is also called) is worth the drive – despite the dirty car we ended up with.
Rich rewards exploring Iceland’s Westfjords
Our decision to drive northwest and explore Iceland’s Dragon’s head, along roads less travelled was rewarding in so many ways. This vast frontier is crammed with massive stretches of landscape, so stunning in their rugged beauty, they defied the imagination at times. But we also discovered tiny hamlets filled with friendly locals.
Iceland’s west is definitely worth the effort! Please add it to your list of destinations, post-Covid.
If you have visited Iceland, please let me know your favourite places in the comments, below.