If some parts of Iceland feel overcrowded with tourists, the western regions of the country offer off-the-beaten-track adventures. DW's Elizabeth Grenier tested it out.
While tourism saved Iceland after the financial crisis in 2008, many locals now feel overwhelmed by the influx of tourists that has been growing ever since. However, in such as sparsely populated country, there are definitely areas that feel unexplored, especially if you go off-season.
That's why we were invited to explore the West Iceland and Westfjords regions.
A saga to inspire our trip
It's a journey that started a bit like the beginning of Iceland's colonization — with a long trip, the catch of the day and a saga.
A two-hour bus drive from Keflavik airport, outside of Reykjavik, first brought us to the Settlement Center in the village of Borganes, in West Iceland, which combines a fine restaurant and a museum on two floors.
Under the restaurant, an audio-guided tour led us through the colorful saga of Egil, the son of one of the very first settler families. According to the saga documented by Snorri Sturluson, Egil Skallagrimsson was one of Iceland's first poets, but that didn't stop the Viking from frequently bursting into furies – making him, as described in Old Norse literature, a "Berserker."
Truly poetic artistic wooden carvings combined with frightening sculptures provided the visuals to the audio tour; the tales would inspire our exploration of the western part of the country over the next following days.
Hot pools every day
After a good night's sleep in Stykkisholmur, we started out the day like many Icelanders typically would — with a dip in the town's swimming pool. In Iceland, geothermal pools are practically the equivalent of pubs in England, as you'll find one in every village and they serve as a comforting meeting point before and after work.
Our dip in the hot tubs was followed by a drive through the continuously stunning landscape of the region, made surreal by the dark volcanic earth of the mountains contrasting with the ultra-bright green and orange mossy vegetation and the absence of trees.
Fresh scallops on the harbor
The highlight of the day was the "Stykkisholmur Slowly" tour, a project developed by Maria Jonasdottir and Theodora Matthiasdottir.
Both women moved from Reykjavik to the town of 1,200 inhabitants not too long ago and came up with an original concept: "We started out with a history tour, but that quickly became boring. We decided to emphasize the things that we liked about this place instead," explained one of them, as we followed our two quirky guides around town without really knowing what to expect.
They took us around the fishing village to collect fresh seafood. Then they brought us to a chosen spot on the harbor, where a table and chairs and other various elements of shabby chic decoration were already set up. Bottles of champagne also awaited us for a deluxe pick-nick.
"There's something about eating food from the bay, by the bay," explained Maria as she served the scallops and mussels they had just cooked over a cowboy's cauldron, like modern witches. "We really like the juxtaposition of nature with this masculine, industrial space," added Theodora, after one of the local shipyard workers drove by and waved at us.
From West Iceland to the Westfjords
From Stykkisholmur, we took a ferry to the Westfjords, which is the least inhabited region of Iceland. Our first night was spent in Patreksfjordur, the biggest town in the southern part of the Westfjords, which has a population of around 660.
We however drove to an even smaller village for our evening meal. The Vegamot in Bildudalur is a family business: On one side of the house, there's a convenience store where you can buy your milk, expensive beer and candy, while the other half is an unassuming restaurant that serves the best fish and chips we had ever eaten. The evening was made unforgettable through a series of surreal encounters with local musicians and partying Norwegian fishermen.
The next day, we set off on a road tour of the region with Westfjord Adventures. We reached the western-most point of Europe: Latrabjarg. It's an impressive cliff over the sea, where thousands of puffins come to nest during the summer. The birds are gone during the cold season, but so are the tourists, allowing long solitary hikes in another incredibly breathtaking setting.
Artic foxes and whales
Another stop was Raudasandur or Red Sands beach, a huge rust-colored beach that can only be reached by driving steep and winding gravel mountain roads.
The farmer living in this isolated location actually had a severe car accident on that trail, but being paralyzed in a wheelchair didn't stop him from working. And even though Arctic foxes are a threat to his sheep and he needs to control the population by killing many of them, he's also befriended a family of foxes, which he called to come down the mountain for us to see while we were there.
A drive back to Bildudalur allowed us to go whale-watching. Although the activity isn't officially on offer for tourists there yet, the location is a very promising one, as we saw at least eight humpback whales from up close while we were out on the fjord - an absolutely magical moment.
Soak in the hot puddle
After a long day on those bumpy roads, we enjoyed the sunset in Talknafjordur's hot pools, offering a spectacular view on the sun setting behind the mountains, its warm light coloring the waters of the fjord. Called "Pollurin" (the puddle) by the locals, the spot is made up of three simple basins of hot spring water and a small changing room. Access is free.
With the cold weather, it was a bit of a challenge to build up the courage to change into our swimsuits at first, but we quickly convinced ourselves that we just couldn't miss out on the "real" version of Iceland: "This is definitely not the Blue Lagoon," quipped Rebecca Marchant, the Inspired by Iceland" representative accompanying us, referring to the extremely popular geothermal spa.
Comforted by the warmth of the water, we definitely didn't regret our decision.
The already perfect day was completed by a chase for Northern Lights. Locals were regularly checking the forecasts for us, hoping we'd be treated with the elusive natural phenomenon. Not only does the sky need to be clear, the lights need to be active to be visible; this level of activity is measured on a scale from 0 to 9.
We were lucky enough to see them that night. As the clouds unexpectedly disappeared, we drove out to a dark area to observe the mind-blowing natural phenomenon. We were as excited as kids discovering blinking Christmas lights for the first time.
No one can really predict when Northern Lights will appear, and that makes them even more exciting
Topped by even more adventure
Even though we had already ticked all the most spectacular boxes on our bucket-list, our last day on the road managed to add a series of bonus points.
Driving from the south of the Westfjords to the north on gravel roads that would lead us over a mountain pass that's not even open during the winter, we had a dip in another hot pool in a isolated surreal location before being greeted by the jewel of the Westfjord, the majestic Dynjandi waterfall. It overlooks several other waterfalls, and the different levels make it an interesting hike offering endless photo opportunities.
From there, we drove up to the largest town of the Westfjords, Isafjordur (population: 2,600) set us up with mountain bikes and we rode with him a long Oshlid, a narrow road track following the coastline, atop a cliff overlooking the roaring ocean, and under the steep and unstable mountain hills. The road was abandoned in 2010 when a tunnel was opened offering an alternative stretch for vehicles, which makes it an interesting bike path for the adventurous.
The bike ride was completed with old fishermen stories, along with tastes of Icelandic specialties: Brennivin, Iceland's signature schnapps — also known as "Black Death" — and a piece of hakarl, which is shark that has been fermented for two years and has a really strong smell of ammonia. It's part of the country's traditions, so that's another thing you need to try — but might not end up adopting.
Ending the evening on a definitely more savory note, we went to a restaurant called Tjöruhisid. The historical wooden space's atmosphere is incredibly cozy, and the food is simply the best, offering every night an all-you-can eat selection of different pan-fried fish dishes. This restaurant alone would be reason enough to spend several days in Isafjordur.
However, we had to leave the next day, flying back to Reykjavik from the small town's local airport.
Expenses of this press trip were covered by Inspired by Iceland.