After leaving Þingeryi around 9 am, we were expecting another long day of driving to get to Isafjörður. But the roads were paved and instead of trying to get Elfis up and over the mountain, we went through it instead via a 6 km tunnel and found ourselves in the metropolis of the Westfjords in about 40 minutes.
If you are planning on driving in the Westfjords, I highly recommend that you travel clockwise. This way you are mostly on the inside of those crazy roads. Not only that, but we discovered, with more than a little panic, that the 6 km tunnel going to Isafjörður starts on the south end as two lanes and after the turnoff to Suðureyri goes down to one lane. Yes, a one-lane tunnel. How does this work? The northbound traffic (us, thank God!) has the right of way and the southbound traffic must pull over into designated lay-bys that happen every 50 m or so. So if you are driving southbound, you need to decide whether you can make it to the next lay-by before the next oncoming vehicle reaches you. In any other country, this would be a disaster. But in Iceland, thanks to the low population in the country in general but especially in the Westfjords, not to mention their laidback attitude about everything, it’s not that difficult.
Our idea was to spend the day in Isafjörður because it is the biggest hub in the Westfjords and we imagined that we would find enough to do to spend the whole day in town. But within an hour we had seen almost everything the town of 3500 had to offer. We had checked out the tourist information office, the shops that were open, the park that has a whalebone arch, the wine store (we were looking for Brennivin, the Icelandic melt-your-insides liquor) and a local museum.
There wasn’t much else to do other than eat. We decided to get lunch.
We had passed several cafés in the downtown area but they were very gluten-heavy and didn’t serve meals, just sandwiches, cakes and coffee. But we found a pamphlet for Tjöruhusið, a fish restaurant down in the harbour, a few minutes’ walk from the downtown. You won’t stumble across this restaurant because it’s not really near anything else except the museum but everyone knows about it because it is absolutely amazing. The food is served similar to buffet-style except that the food is set on thick, wooden counters in black skillets. There is soup and bread at the beginning of the line as well as salads.
At the time that we entered the restaurant, it was quite busy and lively. The tables were almost completely full and we could see from the line-up at the front counter that this wasn’t an ordinary restaurant. We observed what was happening as the line slowly moved forward. At first, we thought there wouldn’t be anything for me to eat because the fish looked to be lightly breaded.
When we were seated, I asked the server if the fish was breaded and she said yes, and then immediately looked at me and said, “Are you gluten-free? We can make a special pan for you. It’s no problem.” Wow.
We discovered, in speaking with our server, that her father was the chef, the fish was fresh from the boats this morning and they had a special on today because it was the 150th anniversary of the town. Which is why it seemed like all 3500 people in the town were at the restaurant. It was 2500 ISK for just fish and 3500 ISK for soup and fish. This is not only slightly cheaper than usual prices in Icelandic restaurants, the amount of food we were served for this price was unreal. Just look at the size of the pan of fish – halibut, cod and plaice – along with salad, bread and butter potatoes and rice. And this pan was just MY portion! If you had enough room, you could go up and get more!
After eating such a massive lunch, we rolled ourselves out the door and back to the car. We headed to the campsite, which we had passed on our way into town. This campground is called Tungudalur and it had a gorgeous waterfall right in front of it (behind it? beside it?) with a little creek that meandered through the campground, dividing the tents from the trailers. We set up camp and relaxed the rest of the day with our books. The following morning, after striking camp, we walked halfway to the top.
On our other travels, we usually pack as much into a day as we can but this time, we were really enjoying the slow pace of the Westfjords. We enjoyed having lots of time to make dinner, time to lie on our blankets and enjoy the warm sun, time to just do nothing in such a spectacular locale.
The next day, we started driving along the northern coast of the Westfjords. Our first stop was only a 20-minute drive away – Suðavik, population 170. (Just to put this into perspective, I have over 100 people in my extended family.)
Suðavik was home to the Arctic Fox Centre. I’ll be honest, this was another thing that I had no idea existed. A friend had mentioned visiting the Arctic foxes and then, by pure chance, I happened to see a bright yellow pamphlet in the tourist office in Isafjörður for the centre.
The Arctic Fox Centre is an educational facility that houses information on all aspects of the Arctic fox’s life, including its habitat, life cycle, history and studies of their recent decline in number. It is a small building but has guides that can answer your questions. Through this centre, you can also book tours to see the Arctic Fox in the wild in Hornstranðir National Park, look for professional photography and filming opportunities and apply for field research volunteer positions. There is also a little café so you can enjoy a coffee and a piece of cake, a waffle or some vegetarian soup after. It’s 1200 ISK to get in and it’s worth it.
Another reason to visit is to see two young Arctic foxes that are ambassadors. Their parents were killed in a legalised hunt and due to new regulations, the centre is no longer allowed to release them back into the wild. I was amazed at how small they are! I am used to seeing our dog-sized red foxes. These are about the size of a large cat.
Here’s a short video of one of the researchers playing with them. These foxes were raised here at the centre and even though the fox is “screaming”, he’s not being hurt. They are just playing. Notice how they follow their caregiver around.
Then we were back in the car and moving on! A quick note: Suðavík is the last place to fuel up until Hólmavík, over 200 km away. This is why when you rent a car, you have the option of renting a jerry can with it.
Our next driving break was to be in Hólmavík (population 370) and the Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery. This was a really interesting stop. Of course, it is a small museum that also houses a restaurant, a gift shop and tourist information and maps. It tells the history of the use of witchcraft and magic in the Westfjords. When the European witch hunt came to Iceland, it landed mostly in the Westfjords were people had a long history of using magic, runes and spells in daily life to get a cow to produce more milk or to get the grass to grow faster, for a successful fishing catch or to get rich quickly. Twenty-two people were burned at the stake. I’m afraid I didn’t get a photo of the famous necropants but you can see them on their webpage.
The museum has two locations. The building in Hólmavík holds the artefacts in a typical museum layout. There is also a dwelling a short drive away that was known as a sorcerer’s cottage and is set up as it was back in the day.
We stopped at the local gas station to pick up some munchies (trail mix, cheese and a piece of fruit) and we were off again! This time to our final destination for the evening – the campground in Varmaland, only 144 km away!
I don’t know what time we arrived in Varmaland. The sun never sets so it could have been 5 pm or 11 pm. We settled in for an evening of boil-in-the-bag food and chatting about our adventures. We googled the distance of driving the entire Ring Road, which is 1332 km and we calculated from our odometer that driving the perimeter of Western Iceland and the Westfjords from Reykjavik is 1543 km.
We had only one day left in Iceland. The next day, we would pack up and head back to Reykjavik to pick up some souvenirs and then on to Grindavík, for our last camping stop and a visit to the Blue Lagoon.