Our Road Trip to the Westfjords, Iceland: Part I

Date of trip: June 7, 2018 - June 17, 2018

Iceland, round three. What can we say? This place has a hold on us. And yes, while it’s truly a unique, earthly wonder, and there are a million other magical places on this planet, Iceland was our first trip–our first love.

This time we explored new arctic territory, the kind made of extraterrestrial, volcanic landscape and deep, cold fjords full of legendary sea monsters (you know, the shell monster, the merhorse, the shore laddie, the merman, etc.). Our 10 day journey north and around the Westfjords, by way of land and sea, took us through fog covered mountaintops still blanketed with patches of snow, and seaside dirt roads lined with massive volcanic boulders from the cliffs above.

In the name of sharing, we brought company along this time for the first time ever–a brother and sister-in-law. We stayed two nights in each town (Ólafsvík, Patreksfjörður, Ísafjörður), moving on to the next as soon as our suitcases were unpacked. We dined roadside on homemade sandwiches, skyr Icelandic yogurt, and Pringles from the local Bonus or town grocer. The rental car endured just one minor crack in the windshield but carried us about 1,300 miles out of the capital, through the winding roads of the Westfjords, and back again. And as many road trips go, much dramamine was consumed (by me, mostly). Jenna and I made ourselves comfortable in the backseat, our faces glued to the windows watching it all pass by like scenes in a movie.

We capped our trip with a three night stay in Reykjavík. Chris and I trotted through familiar grounds like we were back home, proud to be able to say “this way.” Our trip overlapped with the World Cup, in which Iceland played for its first time ever, the smallest country (by population) to ever compete. Iceland, you’re the first football team I’ve ever cheered for in my life. And while Iceland didn’t win it all, they sure gave a legendary performance.

If you’re not interested in reading our play by play of the entire trip like grandma does, check out the sights and scenes on our Explore Iceland page!

Trip Itinerary

Day 1

As most trips go–the packing, juggling of luggage, standing in lines, and finding the right train that carries you away from home–it’s usually with a hitch or two, but none too noteworthy this time around. After a slightly delayed flight and little shut eye, we had a slick landing as we glided through the fog in Keflavík.

Lagoon car rental picked us up from the airport and set us up with an SUV, ready to handle the miles and bumps of the Westfjords.

We drove straight to one of our special Icelandic nooks, a fisherman’s cafe in Grindavík, made special by a friendly local named Kristen. On our first visit, Kristen had given us company, Icelandic treats, and an Icelandic horse racing book. On our second trip, he had given us a driving tour of the string of local volcanos. We’ve made it a thing. We return each time we’re back.

This time, sadly, our friendly local wasn’t around. The woman behind the counter smiled and said, “He’s probably packing. He’s going to Italy tomorrow.” I paused, wanting badly to insist she retrieve him from the apartment above. But we smiled passively and ordered a breakfast of bread, ham, cheese, tomato and cucumber, with Skyr yogurt and hard boiled eggs. We sat on the warm benches near the window, watching the rain, sipping coffee from white teacups, and taking mental notes of the space.

Cafe Bryggjan is one of those places you scan every corner of, hoping to always remember the details, the glory and wonder of it all. I think I’ve attempted before to describe what this place looks like, and if I had had more gumption, I would have just taken more photographs, not worrying about what the two local elders in the corner thought. Alternatively, sometimes the photo isn’t meant to be had, for memories can be far sweeter. I’ll just keep telling myself that.

Anyhow, I remember seeing a plaque on the ceiling, a crab about a foot-long, and the black and white photos still framed and stacked side by side on the wall along the large map of Iceland. We talked about our plans for the next day or two, with Chris pointing at places on the map and buying time in hopes our friend would appear and shake our hands, remembering our faces and our story. When it was clear he wasn’t, we snapped a polaroid and wrote a smudged love note on the side. We gave the picture to the woman, and drove off through the rain.

The fog was dense that morning, hovering above the black and red rocky earth. Or rather, we were on another planet, it seemed.

We had traveled the eastern loop of road to Reykjavík, to see new landscapes, even a lake. The fog had other plans, but gave us some interesting photographs.

We eventually reached Reykjavík, figured out how to use a parking meter (leave card inserted!), and grabbed some quick food. Our plan was to first eat, then find groceries and gear for the road trip ahead, and drive out of town to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, where we would spend our first couple of days on our way to the Westfjords.

On the top level of a cafe, sitting next to a window looking out over Hverfisgata road, we ate warm paninis and inhaled rich scents of coffee beans. It was that moment we learned Anthony Bourdain had taken his life. Craig gasped and slammed his phone down on the table, grimacing like he was smacked in the stomach. We sat in a heavy yet disbelieving silence, processing with ourselves the odd feeling of mourning the loss of someone never met–not in the flesh, anyways. Bourdain would cross our minds in the following week, as we ate foreign, homemade meals, transversed hollowed wilderness, and tried finding rest in the arctic, midnight sun.

A bit delirious from lack of sleep and the painful news of Bourdain, we slowly stumbled to the camping store, where we picked up our pre-ordered supplies (cooler, kettle, and GPS). We then bought some stupid expensive groceries before heading out of town.

The drive took us through grassy fields along a bumpy coastal road and through a 3 mile-long tunnel under water. “Jenna, look for leaks!” dared Craig.

Our first Airbnb, in the town of Ólafsvík, was a small cottage with a kitchen, two bedrooms and bathroom, with sheep for neighbors.

We made a quick dinner and then drove a few miles to the Instagram famous Mt. Kirkjufell & Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall.

We ended the night with a whiskey or two and tried not thinking about Bourdain as we counted sheep.

Day 2

Craig and Jenna, our companions and travel chefs, made a breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast. From the coffee grounds we packed from home, we filled our thermos with hot coffee for the road. The morning was foggy again, teasing Craig and Jenna like they would never see the landscape they’d heard so much about. We drove up and over a mountain, fearing death by white walkers. We were headed on a loop around the Snaefellsnes peninsula, stopping at different coastal points along the way. In hindsight, this was to be one of the most photographed places of the trip.

Our first stop was Arnarstapi, an old fishing village and trading post with grass covered, volcanic mounds along a rocky beach. The fog blinded us from venturing further along the water but if you google what this place looks like, it’s pretty unique.

The road lead west to Hellnar, another ancient fishing village with seaside cliffs and a rocky beach.

We wandered this time, through the rain, admiring the black basalt formations, the smooth, round rocks of the beach. A colorful triangle house cut through the fog in the distance.

Further west, we strolled the muddy paths through lava fields near Lóndrangar. From a distance, the volcanic formations looked like a shipwreck.

According to the back of a postcard I found at the grocery store, the oddly shaped basalt cliffs are remnants of ancient volcanoes.

The loop through the Snaefellsnes peninsula then turns north, towards the Djúpalónssandur (Black Lava Pearl) beach, where again we wandered to the edge of the waves, around famous rock formations and lagoons, and to the remnants of an old British shipwreck.

Craig made a flower bouquet for Jenna, whom he lost and eventually found on the other side of the cliff.

As we drove off, the top of Snæfellsjökull mountain glowed from a break in the clouds. We climbed the metal steps to the top of Saxholl crater, angling our posture and weight just so to avoid being blown away.

Then we followed a terribly bumpy road that never ended to the edge of a cliff, with both Jenna and I holding our bladders in pain. A bright orange lighthouse, Svörtuloft, named after cliffs of the same name, stands guard at the end of the road, the outermost point of the peninsula.

Our last stop of the day was at the golden sand beach, Skarðsvík, the place where our frisbee went to die. For the record, the boys were warned to not get too close to the water.

We returned to the car one last time, after walking the stretch of the small beach, tired and cold to the bone from a day’s worth of wind and rain. We grabbed goodies from the local grocery store, made hot teas with whiskey, and a pasta dinner. Thank you, Craig and Jenna, for keeping us well fed. That night we played a variety of card games with healthy competition and had our first FaceTime with Henrik–Craig and Jenna’s 3 year old miniature–who just wanted to talk to uncle.

Day 3

It was only day three but already we were packed up and driving north again. We would be taking a ferry across the Atlantic to the Westfjords, and staying in Patreksfjörður, a village of about 700.

Craig made breakfast sandwiches and coffee for us to go, and our morning drive to the ferry was clear–clear enough for Craig to exclaim he saw a puffin sitting in the middle of a lava field.

Out my window, the sea was dotted with black islands that looked like battleships guarding the sandy shore. Out the other window were fields of jagged lava rocks, and red and black streaked mountains.

Once in the town of Stykkishólmur, we drove onto the ferry and snagged a window seat before the crowd.

The ride took just a little over two hours, with one pit stop at a tiny island called Flatey.

Jenna slept to keep the nausea at bay. Lucky enough, we were the second vehicle off the boat. Despite expectations of being greeted by another town or village, the ferry dropped us off at a barren shoreline.

To Patreksfjörður, it was an hour long drive, up and over more mountains, reaching heights still patched in snow.

On the other side, was a deep fjord and Patreksfjörður in the distance. Once situated in the village, we set out on foot. In a single file line along the slim sidewalk, we silently observed the old town, wondering what life would be like overlooking a wide, mountainous fjord. Do they see whales?

We passed a beautiful cafe, seaside homes–the ones colored red or yellow, or just white with crumbling cement stoops–an old church and steeple, an overgrown graveyard with just a handful of stones jutting through the weeds, and a spotted cat laying and watching us from a dried, rocky ravine. With the mountains in the distance, keeping a watchful eye, children bounced on an inflated contraption (which we would see again and again as the trip went on). They spoke in sweet, foreign tongues, dropping to their bums and back to their feet. A few of them, all under the age of 7 trailed behind us with coins in hand, ready to buy a treat from the grocery store.

Along a block of industrial workshops and garages with cluttered, dusty windows, we found a discreet grocery store run by a woman from Lisbon. She encouraged us to try the candies and giggled as we made sour faces. We packed our baskets with potatoes, fish, soup cups, cheese puffs, skyr, and more sandwich fixings for the coming days. We walked back through the sleepy town, carrying our bagged groceries and sipping Appelsín, Iceland’s own version of orange Fanta. We didn’t hear much beyond the odd cry of a black raven and the one way discussion between a woman and baby.

“What happens when the only mechanic in town leaves? Or any important laborer?” I asked. Jenna gave an honest Jenna answer, “The town dies.” I still regret not asking what motivates carried the Portuguese woman so far from home.

Before making a dinner of fried fish, we warmed our bones in the town’s swimming pool and hot tubs. It was almost too hot to enjoy (107 degrees), so we bounced from the tub to the swimming pool until satisfied. In the moments between watching the locals–chubby baby arms squeezed into floaties and adult faces, distinctly Icelandic, watching us–that I remembered to look out past the commotion. The fjord sat quiet and mighty. I watched for a moment, waiting for a sea-monster to break the surface.

Jenna was worried about the fish. I stayed clear of the kitchen, offering only to make us drinks. We stuffed ourselves on fresh broccoli, grilled potato and fried cod, happy to have saved money on another meal. The night ended with a quick ice cream trip and journaling to the sound of little feet running around in the home above us.

Day 4

The apartment smelled like fish when we woke. And the air felt like a spray bottle to the face. I wasn’t in the best of moods, but the show went on as we fell into a groove of packing and setting out for a new day. Day four was to be full of red sand beaches and puffin watching, or something like that.

Along the way, we stopped to wonder at the stillness of the fjord, painted with reflections of mountain caps and purple lupine flowers, and a grounded ship on a pebble beach.

We were under the watchful eye of two nosey seals. They bobbed their noses above the water surface, looking at us and then each other before slipping back under the surface.

The road turned upwards along a dirt road. We bent with the switchbacks, passing countless, snaking waterfalls, and at the peak of the mountain, we saw the valley and the expansive Rauðisandur Beach below.

We parked next to an old church with a stone fence and trekked across a grassy field towards the beach, dodging piles of sheep shit, where low tide had left what seemed like miles of wet sand. Squawking above us, arctic terns dove within inches of our heads.

Far ahead, we couldn’t see where the sand met the waves, but we could hear the roaring of the ocean. After walking about a mile out, we stopped in front of a shallow pool of water that stretched like a band across the beach. The men voted to take their shoes off and cross. I abstained from voting and wondered out loud, “What if you went first…and waved back to us to come….if it’s worth it?”

And so the men crossed barefoot, shoes in hand. Jenna and I stood in silence watching them grow smaller and smaller until they were tiny dots on the horizon. “That was further than I thought,” I paused. “Can you see them waving?” We strained our eyes watching for any indication of waving. From a distance it looked like one tiny speck was getting down on one knee to propose to the other. I narrated the event as we stood there, with nothing else to do. I wondered how long it would take for the dark clouds to fall on us. The tiny dots crested a ridge and disappeared, returning a few minutes later and eventually coming back into view. Thank, God.

We backtracked to the car and upon a female request, used the loo at a nearby cafe, Franska Kaffihús. Hot coffee, cold IPA’s and a treat of trout were well worth the request. We enjoyed a sliver of sun as we sat on the patio, looking out over Rauðisandur Beach, noticing now massive swans picking at the red sand. Another visitor pointed out the seals, just specks from our distance, sunbathing far out from shore.

Hungry for lunch, we found a dead end and set up our stove to heat water for soup cups. A rust colored mange dog from a nearby farm barked at us from afar.

He waddled towards us, like he was three-legged. As he neared, it was clear he was just bow legged and dirty as hell. He wagged his tail at our dog talk, and fully enjoyed the hugs (I, again, abstained). He barked at us as we packed and drove off, though I sleep fine at night knowing that the tough, mange, Icelandic pup has recovered from this breakup.

Our second and final stop of the day would be the Látrabjarg cliffs, the tallest ones in Europe. To get there, we had to backtrack the way we had come from the steep mountain side. Craig encouraged us not to “look down” at the rocky mountain side as we held our breaths. He looked, though.

Once on more solid ground, we passed a small museum with a US navy plane sitting outside a nearby hanger. According to the young man working the counter, it had broken down during the second world war, and never left the island again.

A small parking lot of cars sat at the base of a foothill at the Látrabjarg cliffs. The air smelled like shit. We climbed the steps of the foothill and Craig spotted a puffin right away. He stood still and gave us the look to “stop fucking moving”. We snuck behind him to see the little puffin cozied up on a ledge. It looked at us but couldn’t be bothered, as it continued resting and keeping an eye on us as we crouched closer for a better look.

We followed the muddy trail along the edge of the cliff, jumping from one tuft of grass to the next like like stepping stones. We saw so many puffins, ending Chris’ history of fruitless puffin hunting.

I tried encouraging myself to stay as near to Chris as possible, to keep him literally off a ledge of some sort, but it was no use. He traveled far up the path, though, luckily, his orange jacket kept him in sight and off my stress radar.

A fox, brown with a fading white tail, trotted across the field below. We had caught a glimpse of one or two during our road trip thus far but they were hard to track as they darted through the lava fields. Eventually, Chris made his way back towards the rest of us, sweaty from the hike and wide eyed from the shots he got.

After the long drive back to Patreksfjörður, we ate dinner at the grocery store’s pizza shop. We stuffed our bellies with classic pepperoni and another BBQ pizza topped with Doritos–yes, Doritos. We also indulged on french fries and ice cream. The American’s were in town.

We had an early night, which was capped with another FaceTime with Henrik, who needed to put mom and dad on hold to go poop.

Day 5

On our fifth morning, we said goodbye to Patreksfjörður. Craig drove us out of town as Jenna and I ate leftover pizza in the back seat. Our first stop would be at Selárdalur, a tiny remote art museum created by Samúel Jónsson, and the location of one of Sigur Ros’ music videos, a place Chris & Craig had been dreaming of going to for years.

We bent around a sleepy fjord with cliff sides that sailed straight up into the clouds. The car jolted forward and back, rocking us as Craig sped through smooth patches and slowed to maneuver around potholes.

Out the window, mama sheep and their lambs chewed on grass. The lambs pounced on each other, and looked at us as we passed. One little black lamb got caught in the road in front of our car and locked eyes with Craig in a game of chicken. Craig moved forward slightly and the lamb leaped out of the road and chased his mother.

As we continued on, Jenna asked, “What’s this sculpture garden like? Natural?” No, I thought. Craig must not have shared pictures. “I think that is it…..” Chris said as we entered an isolated valley, pointing to a tiny congregation of buildings in the distance. As we neared, we could see the colorful statues. This was the place.

After a local farmer named Samúel Jónsson (1884) retired, he became an artist and created these playful statues of seals, lions, seahorses, a duck with ducklings on its back, and Leifur Eiriksson–all without any formal art training. He also created paintings with wooden frames, and a building to showcase his pieces, including an altarpiece that a local church turned away. When he died, his artwork (including statues) and his farm were left exposed and unprotected from harsh winter conditions. Fast forward to today, volunteers and artists have restored much of his work, including his home, and have plans to create an apartment for artists and a gift shop to maintain funding for continued restoration.

(The above information came from their brochure found on site.)

As Chris notes in his love story, the Icelandic band Sigur Ros sang here at Jónsson’s farm, among the odd statues and crumbling home. In doing so, the band created a bucket list destination for the Chapman brothers.

We poked around the statues listening to a volunteer hard at work, banging around in one of the buildings. Thank you to those dedicating their time to the physical and historical restoration of this place!

After the romance was over and the brothers were ready to leave, we took the bumpy road back to Bíldudalur and decided on the way to stop at the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum.

A young handsome couple greeted us and completely sold us on paying the $12 to enter the museum. The woman, tall and dark with a velvety accent, explained the museum was newly renovated from an old warehouse and tells the story of Icelandic sea monsters like no other place in the country, and at none other than the Arnarfjörður fjord, said to be the epicenter of Iceland’s sea monster activity.

The museum she explained is a multimedia display of first hand accounts from eyewitnesses and includes historical relics. There’s also a shop and cafe with beer, cakes, and probably many more delicious bites.

The museum, though I won’t give it all away, was just spooky enough, and far less corny than expected. We bought a book and a t-shirt before picnicking on the patio. The young couple asked where we were from and where we were headed, pleased to hear we were headed to the famous Dynjandi waterfall next. But not before an impromptu pit stop at a road side hot spring.

At this point, the sights out the window felt all the same–up and over mountains, around switchbacks and down towards rocky seaside roads lined with massive, black boulders.

But then it came into view. “There’s your waterfall!” someone said, pointing to the cliffside. As we neared, we could see a massive cascade of white rapids, blanketing the side of the cliff and falling into smaller waterfalls as it flowed further down the valley.

The waterfall was busier than other places we had been, with a parking lot full of visitors. We got out and scattered quickly, happy to be without rain.

After about 30 minutes and with motivations of buying liquor before closing time, we raced off along the fjords, finally reaching a paved road, and cruising to the largest town in the Westfjords, Ísafjörður. The road cut through a tunnel in the mountain and when we saw the light of day, a city sat at the base of the fjord. With literally no time to spare, Craig and Chris were able to buy us beer and wine.

If anyone at all is reading this far, pack booze from home or buy it duty free at the airport when you arrive. It’s heavily taxed everywhere else in the country. Ali calls it “appalling.”

We found our Airbnb in the neighborhood built at the base of the mountain. A red cottage from the outside, a vintage, retro space from the inside–we were extremely pleased. Excited to be in a larger town, we set out on foot to explore and find dinner.

Based on a quick internet search, Craig found a place with great reviews called Tjöruhúsið. When we arrived, we could see why it was rated so highly. The building was clearly historic, simple and made entirely of timber. Three rows of communal wooden tables, set with chinaware and glowing candles, sat underneath the low hanging beams of the ceiling.

No one was around except a young host. She explained dinner started at six and the restaurant only served a buffet of the catch of the day. Of course, there would be bread, and fish soup, and salads. However, they were full that night so she offered to put our name down for the following evening. That was when we started counting down the 24 hours until we got to eat at Tjöruhúsið.

Anyways, we were still hungry and in need of feeding ourselves, if only just to stay alive until we could return to Tjöruhúsið. So we found another gem for dinner, Húsið, and dined on the patio near the water. (We highly recommend this place as well!)

That night went late, full of red wine and Settlers of Catan (with directions in Icelandic), though I spent my entire energy trying to figure out what VHS to watch and how to watch it. We couldn’t agree on which to watch, Space Jam was a flop with Icelandic voice overs, and the one labeled “Saturday Night Live” wasn’t SNL. I found luck eventually with an English version of The Jungle Book.

The best quote of the day came from Craig. He perched precariously on the couch with his finger on the rewind button and his ass in the air, “This is fucking Judging Amy, not SNL.”

Read “Part II” of our road trip to the Westfjords, here!

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