Before the winter arrived we took the chance to go explore the part of Arnarfjordur that snows in when winter comes. We stuffed our VW camper with inflatable paddle boards, fishing rod and good food and drove off for two nights.
The Westfjords are not a region that you just drive through in a couple of hours. Some roads are gravel and wind up and down mountains passes.
No adventure day is complete without a hike to the top of a mountain on a moody day - and a run down.
It was dark when we reached the camp site at Dynjandi waterfall but we were rewarded. The moody day had turned into a clear night with bright stars and auroras dancing in the sky. We had seen Dynjandi waterfall many times before, but never like this.
We woke up early morning and went straight out for a paddle on the calm fjord. After a couple of hours out we were near freezing and starving. A hardy breakfast in the VW was ideal before we’d hit the road again.
Our next camp spot is an anonymous one. Chris wanted to see if he could catch a cod from his paddle board so while some of us climbed yet another mountain, Chris spent time on the fjord. Soon he returned with a cod big enough to feed all of us.
We cooked the cod over open fire and ate it during story times and laughters. Clouds had nearly covered the sky, but the auroras managed to glow through.
Our 35 year old VW adventuremobile proved its awesomeness once again; it got us slowly but surely between places and it kept us dry when it started pouring rain during our last night.
In most towns and cities around the world there are parks and squares where people meet and chat. In Iceland the social meeting point of every town is the local pool.
In Thingeyri there is a club that meets most mornings at 8 o’clock at the local pool. Swimming is a great exercise so they start by doing a few laps. The swim is then followed by a dip in the hot tub. In the hot tub they discuss politics or the latest town gossip, they plan the next sheep gather and they tell stories. Some even skip the swim and go straight to the hot tub.
After the hot tub there comes the coffee at the poolside table. Some may even have an ice cream. Occasionally one of the ladies brings home made cookies or cakes. On Fridays the local book publisher reads out a chapter from one of his books. All while sipping coffee in their bathing suits.
If you’re ever in an Icelandic town and wondering where all the locals are, go to the pool.
“Fish on Dry Land” is a fantastic ongoing project by designer Marta Sif that we’d like to highlight. Her idea is to use design to tackle migration and unemployment in villages, particularly the Westfjords.
Marta wants to produce furnitures, inspired by local culture, to prove that a production is not just a city thing and that there are actually benefits from producing in a village. She researched Isafjordur companies and people that she could work with and ended up with a metal workshop, a net-knitting factory and an artist.
Marta became intrigued by the boats and fishing gear witch she felt were the essence of the town. Taking them out of their marine context and abstracting them, she gradually transformed them into furniture.
Each has their own inspiration and "boat names". The table Rán is named after a goddess in the sea who would catch you in her net if you would fall from board. The table is inspired by net-fishing but this time you can catch magazines and remote-controls. The coat stand is inspirited by line-fishing and has the name Gestur witch derives from the Icelandic word a guest. The lamp is inspired by floats - the top part is actually from a float hanging by a rope from a hook which can be placed in the ceiling or on the wall. It's called Eldar which is a name derived from the Icelandic word fire.
The furniture pieces will travel through Ísafjörður via each company ending up at the harbour where a transport company ships them to Reykjavík, and then on to anywhere else in the world.
Marta’s “revolution of the villages” she sees as an ongoing project and she hopes to go to other villages and do a project with their stories, knowledge and people.
Find her website at martasif.com.
5 hours after leaving Sudureyri my phone rang.
“Is this Haukur? This is the lady from the shop in Sudureyri. I believe you were staying at the campsite, right? Are you missing your camera bag?”
“No, I don’t think so—I would never leave my 9,000 Euro camera laying around—Or, wait, it’s not here!”
“No worries, someone found it on the street and brought it in here.”
Sudureyri is that kind of town. It’s not only the world’s safest town with the most honest people, but it may just be the most sustainable village in Iceland.
Elías, at Fisherman, an award winning tourism project, says that Sudureyri is primarily a fishing village. The fish is caught in small boats using traditional methods like long-lines and hand-lines just a short distance from the shore. Pride is taken in using nearly every part of the fish and minimizing waste: intestines are used to make ointments and cod liver oil, and the skin is used by Kerecis for tissue regeneration for humans. Fish heads are dried and exported to Nigeria, bones and other leftovers are minced and used for animal food. The processed fish filets are packed and exported the same day; to be served in restaurants in New York or Berlin only forty hours after being caught.
In addition to optimizing their fish production, the village’s electricity comes from a hydroelectric plant in the end of the fjord, clean drinking water filters through the mountain straight to everyone’s home, and hot water comes naturally from the ground.
We stayed in the Bestfjords van at the seafront campsite. We enjoyed observing the boats coming in and out through our porthole, which felt a bit like being on a boat ourselves. We spent time at the harbor watching the fishermen bring in huge cod then go out again for some more.
In fact, everything is about fish in Sudureyri, and the best thing is that they are open and welcoming, offering travellers a chance to experience it first hand. Through Fisherman visitors can enlist as crewmembers on a small boat, visit the baiting sheds and help prepare the lines, and even experience a real fishing trip. Those that prefer on shore can do a tour of the high-tech fish plant and learn all about the process. However, my personal favorite is joining actor and guide Víkingur Kristjánsson for a guided food tour around town. Not only is he an all around fun and knowledgeable guy who will tell you the town’s past and recent history, but he will also organize a few delicious stops where you can experience the locally produced fresh goodies.
Sudureyri may well just offer the most original experience for a traveler in Iceland, and it’s even safe to leave valuables on the streets.
In order to see the northern lights as clear as possible we aimed for the highest point available: the 998m Kaldbakur, the highest mountain in the Westfjords, located between the fjords Arnarfjordur and Dyrafjordur.
I never get tired of short spontaneous adventures, to explore the surroundings of my home. There are surprisingly many fantastic spots within an hour from my home in Isafjordur that I have not been to. One of them was Kaldbakur mountain.
The approach from the Dyrafjordur side is a long walk but Sigrún, the farmer at Kirkjuból, was kind enought to let us drive the old dirt road through her land. During 10 months out of the year this road is impassable because of snow and mud.
We parked the truck at the pass at 500m and walked from there. We were lucky, it was the last sunny warm day before autumn kicked in with cold and rain.
We reached the top right before sunset. We were higher than any peak around us and the views were magnificent to every direction.
Maybe it was because we were so high up, strange things began to happen.
On top of Kaldbakur there is a 2m high cairn that makes it possible for visitors to reach whole 1000m. After a while of observing and photographing the northern lights it was time to go to bed. We sought shelter from the cold breeze by laying next to the cairn.
We woke up to an amazing pink light. The ground had frozen overnight. Chris's camping mat is only half size and having his feet on the icy ground would be cold and miserable. Stuffing his feet into his backpack turned out to be the best solution.
We borrowed mountain bikes from our friend Wouter at Simbahollin and kept them in the truck. That turned out to be yet another good decision. The ride from the pass and down the valley was a long and exciting one - but a bumpy one too.
24 hours after we had left our comfortable dwellings in Isafjordur we were back in town with lungs full of fresh air after a night out in nature.
By Chris Winchester.
My girlfriend is not one for cold. How I convinced her to go to Iceland for the summer I’m not sure, but the natural hot springs were a good selling point. We met up with some friends and their son in Isafjordur, packed up a camper and headed out of the Hot Spring Tour of 2015.
We started basic. In Sudureyri the local pool offers three different temperatures and hot coffee. Even on a cold, rainy summer afternoon the water kept us warm and cozy.
We drove over the mountains to Reykjafjordur where we alternated between the more temperate concrete pool (pictured on top) and the dizzyingly hot natural spring that feeds into it. We arrived in the evening and watched the sun slowly descend behind the bay as we floated in the pools.
In Drangsnes the pools are between the road and the ocean. Unfortunately, the showers are on the other side of the road – and Icelanders take their showers and hot pools seriously, so don’t make the mistake of getting into a pool without bathing beforehand. The icy wind beat in off the water and we froze as we ran tiptoed across to the pools. But once we took a hot dip and cracked our beer, the chilly weather was easily ignored.
Finally in Bjarnarfjordur we found a full-length pool with adjacent hot springs tucked in behind a local hotel. For a small fee we were able to get out of the camper and take a dip in the summer sun. Switching between the natural spring and lap pool left us refreshed and able to get back on the road.
I know the Westfjords are full of opportunities for hiking, camping, and other adventure sports, but just be sure you take a day off here and there and recharge in one of the many natural hot springs dotted along the region.
Dagrún Jónsdóttir had an unusual summer project. She was the director of the new Nature Child School, Náttúrubarnaskólinn, in the Strandir region. When asked where the idea of the school came from she replied, “It’s an old idea that has been in the air for many years. We believe that it’s good for everyone to be out in nature, and there is so much to see here. There are so many things in nature, man made or natural, that we rush past every day without actually noticing. These are the things we want to analyse better.”
During the summer the Nature Child School has classes and courses every week; one evening course every week and full weekend classes. There are different themes as Dagrún explains, “One time we had plant theme class where we picked edible and medicinal plants, boiled and drank them. Also we have been experimenting with natural dyes. We used a dooryard dock to dye yarn. We’ve had beach and sea theme where we learned about the tides, sent out a message in a bottle, and made jewelry from drift wood.” Birds play big role as well. “We have close look at the bird nests of the eider ducks, for example. There is one eider duck in particular who is so tame we can pet her. And, there are many black guillemots that nest in special boxes that we have made for them.”
The most exciting theme, though, is the magic one. Here they brew magic drinks that guarantee good health, luck, and bright future. “We don’t take any chances with black magic, only good magic. Once we danced a sun dance - and the day after the sun came out!” Dagrún says and smiles. The school has been a big success. Dagrún claims that this summer they had around 100 kids doing courses with them. Over the winter she will be developing the concepts and classes for the upcoming summer. She is aiming to have courses also for non-Icelandic speaking kids - so be in touch and enquire!
Aren was seen walking around Isafjordur sporting a woolen sweater and long blond hair. He could have passed for a local Icelander – which it turns out he almost is. His family emigrated from Iceland to Canada – where Aren was born – in the early 1900s and they share a very Icelandic last name: Egilson. This was his first time in Iceland and he decided that he wanted to do things his way, so he walked. “I started in Reykjavik and walked northwards. I didn’t stick to any trail or path, just let my compass lead the way. Twenty days later I ended up in Hornvik and caught a boat to Isafjordur,” Aren explained. “ I find that I’m more in tune with nature when hiking where few other people are. There is something about just hiking on your own.”
Aren claims there were very few challenges he faced. It was summer; he used his compass to guide him and he had no need to worry about getting lost in the dark. If anything, hunger was the only issue he had to consider. All he packed to eat was dry fish and butter. “It’s a difficult combination. Initially, I wanted to do it as raw as possible, to challenge myself. Find my limits.”
Although he enjoyed the whole hike, Aren said that the Strandir region was the highlight. “The landscapes are so beautiful, the mountains and the fjords. It’s so isolated that it feels like you are at the end of the world. In fact,” he continued, “the only time I rode in a car – or interacted with other people for that matter – was near Borðeyri. I met the postman and helped him deliver the mail. We got along quite well despite the language barrier; we just laughed and pointed at things.”
Aren set out with out a watch or a calendar; all he had was the sun and endless daylight. “It’s interesting, it really felt like one long day. I didn’t have a clue how long I had been out, and I ended up finishing a lot quicker than I had initially imagined. It was bit of a shock to realize that only twenty days had gone by.” However, that alone time was well spent. “I had lots of time to reflect on my life. Sometimes I would sing very loud for hours. Mostly Van Morrison, my favorite! I didn’t bring a book, but I had a journal and a compass. The compass saved me a few times in the fog. There was one luxury item that I brought: a bar of soap that a friend sent with my. It was a lavender soap, which is so nice when you’re in the middle of nowhere eating nothing but stinky, dry fish. I still have it.”
Sigrún and Davíð are the caretakers of Krossnes pool. Both from the capital area, they took the job and moved to Iceland's most remote community of Árneshreppur in spring of 2014. "When I was younger I helped out at one of the farms here during summer holidays and had the chance to get to know some of the people in the community,” Sigrún says. “So, when I got a phone call and was asked if Davíð and I were interested in moving here to work at the farm and take care of the swimming pool we figured it would be a great adventure!"
The pool opened in 1954, after eight years of construction. The main purpose was to teach the local kids—and adults alike—to swim. "There was always warm water in the ground here, but the pool wasn't always as hot as it is now. A few years ago they dug a deeper hole and found warmer water, so now the pool is sort of like a big hot tub," says Davíð.
In recent years the number of guests to Krossnes pool has multiplied. Sigrún guesses that social media has something to do with that: "We have never promoted the pool to tourists, but there have many articles been written about it and it pops up frequently on social media. Now we're receiving 6000 visitors during the two busiest summer months—which is a huge number considering our location."
But for those that want to visit Krossnes pool and have it all for themselves: there is still chance. During the winter hardly anyone visits the pool, and because there are no lights in or around it, it’s the perfect northern lights observatory. Those few brave souls that do visit Krossnes during the winter months will be rewarded with a unique experience.
In Bildudalur, less than a hundred meters from the Sea Monster museum, lies another fascinating cultural attraction: Melódíur Minninganna or the "Melodies of Memories" museum.
The museum was established and is run by the legendary Jón Kr. Ólafsson whose persona alone has for decades been one of Bildudalur's main attractions. For decades Jón has collected items from Icelandic music history: LP's, posters, clothes, shoes, jewelry, and other memorabilia.
"I opened the museum on the 17th of June, 2000, but I've been gathering objects for much longer. I was working at the shrimp factory here in Bildudalur, but had helpers in Reykjavik running all over town to rescue things that were simply going to the dumpsters" Jon says. "We Icelanders are always taking pride in our culture and heritage, but these things were being thrown away. If I hadn't gathered these objects, they would all be gone."
At the museum, which is also his private house, you can have a close look at the dresses of classical singers such as Ellý Vilhjálms, Helena Eyjólfs, Diddú and Svanhildur Jakobs. "There is also the famous red jacket of Haukur Morthens and the suit from my good friend, the one and only Raggi Bjarna. And then of course I have shoes from all of them" Jón adds. All the objects are neatly displayed throughout the house, even in the bathroom.
Jón is a musician himself. He gained nationwide fame as a singer with his band Facon, known best for the song "Ég er frjáls" released in 1969 - a song that every Icelander knows by heart. Jón is a wonderful host and invites guests with enthusiasm to his museum-home. In fact, he may well be the most important part of the museum. He has endless stories to tell of his friends and musicians and a disappearing music scene. And, if you ask nicely, he may even be willing to perform one of his songs.