Saturday, August 26, 2017
The secluded northwestern most edge of Iceland is home to some of the island’s most magical finds. In the Westfjords, lonely roads weave back and forth around the dramatic landscape, making it feel as if the arctic water, lush mountain sides and you are the only things left in the world. According to Lonely Planet, only about 10% of the country’s visitors travel to behold the majestic sights here which isn’t entirely shocking since this large peninsula lies off the well traveled main Route 1, or Ring Road. In spite of that, the isolation is what inspired me to visit.
The night before, Mom and I stayed in a very quiet town on the outskirts of the Westfjords called Saurbær. Since the day’s forecast appeared wet and dreary, we opted for a leisurely afternoon on the road towards Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords. As we continued north, we passed very few cars on the road but still recognized that we needed to pull completely off the road when we wanted to take in the breathtaking scenery. We couldn’t believe the sheer number of waterfalls alongside the road and eagerly stopped at the first place we found that wasn’t next to a sharp overhang. This accidental find left the two of us wandering around with wide eyes and open mouths. Even in the completely wretched overcast weather, the natural colors around us were absolutely exquisite. This is the color palate that would inspire a yoga studio or a happy place that’s equally peaceful; water in a real shade of teal against charcoal cliffs dotted with mossy green patches. Burnt crimson vegetation crawled beside the bank and even the erratically growing grass seemed to illuminate under the clouds. On the other side of the road, we rambled uphill and chased a coy waterfall as far as we could. It is here where I realized the amount of the drama behind a moody Icelandic scene.
One of Iceland’s most well known attractions are their infamous geothermal pools, or hot pots as the locals call them. I had repeatedly heard of these gems, which are tucked away in every corner of the country. Unfortunately, finding a natural hot spring did not prove to be a simple task despite their vast number. Even trying to use specific GPS coordinates within Google maps flung us in an aimless hunt. This might be the best time to reiterate how ambiguous the signage in Iceland is, or just the complete lack thereof. Mom and I must have failed searching for a half dozen hot springs before we declared our efforts worthless and finally succumbed to inquiring at a nearby hotel.
To call the directions I found on the website hotpoticeland.com for a hot pot called Galtahryggjarlaug “vague” would be a mild understatement. The notes said “it is a few minute walk from the Hotel Heydalur.” Needless to say, once we arrived at Hotel Heydalur, there were no signs in sight. We couldn’t even see where a natural hot spring might be hiding within the backdrop of the rolling hillsides. However, once we asked the hotel’s staff for directions, we were surprised that they welcomed us onto their property to enjoy such a special place. Mom and I crossed over a shallow river and traipsed through the mud to find a quaint hole in the ground filled with warm water. It was the perfect hidden spot for two people to soak and take in the countryside. Given the severe change in weather, we couldn’t think of any better way to spend a drizzly afternoon.
After a relaxing couple of hours, we continued our journey to Ísafjörður where we visited small historic houses with grass on the roof and a lookout where we watched resident seals play in the arctic water. There is so much isolation in the area that we were certain when we had arrived at the strange little town of Ísafjörður. The locals built the town on a large spit of sand making it appear as the entire city floated on top of the fjord waters with nothing around it whatsoever. The wind and the rain whipped and thrashed much fiercer here than the rest of the Westfjords, so it makes sense to me why Ísafjörður translates to “ice fjord or fjord of ice.”
By the time we arrived, this small fish village seemed exceptionally sleepy. Since our available dinner choices were minimal, we were very fortunate to have snagged the last reservation at Tjöruhúsið which is said to have some of the best and freshest fish in town. We dined at a long communal table in a warm wooden cabin. This restaurant’s hospitality truly made us feel like we were apart of an Icelandic family feasting on the day’s fresh catch. They do not offer a menu; they only serve whatever they caught in the sea that day in a cozy buffet. We started our meal with a traditional Icelandic fish soup followed by an endless selection of rotating fish. I have never in my life tasted fish so fresh and I am convinced that seafood does not taste this good anywhere else in the world. If you are interested in sampling the best of the Atlantic Ocean, I highly recommend visiting Tjöruhúsið. The jolly staff, the welcoming environment and the most delicious meal I ate in Iceland made for an excellent finish to our first day in the Westfjords.