Ísafjördur and Flateyri (A Magical Mystery Tour around the magical mysterious Westfjords of Iceland)

Even though it was the middle of June when our ship docked in the tiny town of Ísafjördur in NorthWest Iceland, it was full on freezing I tell you. Was I wearing enough layers of clothing? It’s a hard ‘no’ to that one my friends. But nevertheless, I was excited to discover what this lonely part of the world had to offer, and me, my pal Rachel and her lovely Dad set off as soon as we possibly could to figure out some kind of plan for the day ahead. After a confusing moment at the tourist office where we toyed with the idea of finding some Icelandic ponies to ride, we instead went down the taxi-road-trip route, where a lovely local lady offered to take us to all the hotspots in return for our euros. It was a deal, Taxi Lady, a very good deal.

The town of Ísafjördur itself is home to only around 2,600 people and with the decline of the fishing industry this total looks set to dwindle even more as people start to move away and look for work in busier locations. It still has the vibe of a fishing town about it, with a whole load of wooden or corrugated metal buildings with the odd shipping container or tractor-type vehicle hanging around in between it all. The completely flat piece of ground it sits on is nestled next to a fjord and surrounded by mountains; having already spent a month or so in the fjords of Norway where the landscape is beautiful but also fairly enclosed-feeling, with spiky mountains cutting into the clouds, I was honestly expecting a similar situation in the Icelandic fjords. This was definitely not the case. The mountains round these parts were more of the rolling variety, either flat-topped or rounded, and at this time of year were mostly a fresh green colour speckled with massive patchworks of lilac flowers and the odd laughter line of snow running along downwards from the very top. These were some lovable looking landscapes in comparison to some of Norway’s jagged but similarly awe-inspiring scenes, and honestly this was the day that I full on fell in love with Iceland and it’s amazing beauty.

The Nameless Waterfall

First on our lovely lady’s whistle stop tour of local life, was a waterfall not far away from the town (technically it would probs have been walkable but we had a whole load of things to see that day, pals.) The icy clear water cascaded down from the top of the mountain and was bordered with more of the beaut purple flowers that we’d seen at a distance from the port. It was all a bit stunning to tell the truth, but for all it’s beauty the waterfall itself didn’t seem to have a name. Poor old thing. Lady Taxi told us it’d be a brilliant idea to have a drink from the waterfall which obviously we took her up on (Rachel’s dad included, despite both of our looks of fear as he edged closer to the roaring waters, treading on a selection of highly-unstable looking rocks in the process. Obviously he wasn’t going to fall, he informed us, but still. It was a moment of true suspense followed by relief. Ok!?)

The Longest Tunnel and the Sandcastle Beach

Once upon a time the only way from Ísafjördur to the village of Flateyri was on a road which took forever and a day over the actual mountains…these days a road runs more directly straight through the inside of the actual mountains, which time-wise works out much better for everyone. However, what we didn’t realise before entering the 6km long underground stretch of road, is that there’s only one lane, which admits traffic running in either direction. Now that’s a pretty terrifying concept if you ask me, and add to that the fact that there’s also a junction mid-tunnel where you can turn off and head in the direction of a different village, and my pal Rachel and I were honestly mildly alarmed. I suppose in a place as isolated as this there was really nothing to worry about but as a concept it’s a little confusing to someone who comes from the home of the M25.

Eventually we surfaced from our magical worm-hole of never-ending darkness and landed the other side of the mountain range next to a beach, which with the addition of a few palm trees and maybe a bit less snow could’ve fully been mistaken for a tropical island. Sounds a bit like a fantastical dream, doesn’t it pals? That’s what it felt like, too.

It. Was. Amazing.

The water was completely calm and a vivid shade of turquoise, with a curve of yellow sand around the bay which merged at the edges into the green moss and purple flowers of the mountains slopes. And to top that all off, there was not a soul to be seen. It was fully silent, aside from every now and again the swooshing of the long grass behind us. Well. I have never been anywhere like it.

Lady Taxi told us that every summer the locals hold a sandcastle building competition on this very same beach, which I found both brilliant and insane, given that it can’t have got much warmer than the temperature I was experiencing at that point. Do people wear beach-wear at the sandcastle building competition? Do they eat ice cream?? These are the things I wonder. What a conundrum.

The avalanche and the flowers

It turns out Lady Taxi was the ideal person we to show us around this fairytale land, as she was one of the most friendliest people I’d met in a long old time, who was also 100% keen to tell us everything she could possibly think of to tell us about the place she lives in. After our beachfront stroll she took us round the other side of the little bay and through a comparatively very short tunnel (it was literally a perfect cylinder through a long ridge in the ground), where she parked at the foot of the mountain and explained where on earth we were.

Back in 1995 there was a big old avalanche which crushed some of the houses in the little village of Flateyri, killing 20 of its people even though only one of the houses was thought to have been in a danger zone for ‘snow floods’ as the Icelandic call them. (What a horrible time.) So the villagers decided to build a kind of barrier- ridges of earth at the foot of the mountain to hold the snow back from hitting them again, and it turns out that that was a marvellous idea those barriers have saved the people several times. In Summer when we were there, there was obviously no snow danger to be found so we had a whale of a time running through the overgrown lupine flower fields which have sprung up there. Personally I love a good high speed run, especially when you’ve been cooped up on a ship for several days at sea. Know what I’m saying?

And here’s the deal with those pretty lupine flowers which are all over Iceland. They’re not actually from round these parts you know; back in the early 20th century the country was experiencing a serious problem with soil erosion, which would potentially mean complete desertification of certain areas of countryside. So some bright spark thought it would be a great idea to import a load of these pretty (and hardy) flowers over from North America, to help the situation and help put nitrogen back into the soil. Everything was going to plan until people realised that the lupine were also spreading like wildfire and suffocating the more delicate plants native to Iceland. So what I thought was a beautiful symbol of this magical land is actually the thing that is choking it. What an awkward situation.

The family of fishermen

After our sprint through the flowers we headed down to the village of Flateyri to meet Lady Taxi’s extended family, who are a lovely bunch of fishermen. Since the avalanche, and with the government’s decision to put a cap on the amount of fish you can actually fish for in Iceland, the population of this little village has declined by the hundreds; there are now less than 200 residents, so it’s probs highly likely that if you live here you’ll be related to a fair few of your fellow villagers, let’s face it.

After it’s humble beginnings as a trading post, the village became a hub for shark-catching and whaling, although these days they thankfully just go down the classic fishing route, no large fish or mammals to be seen. Praise the lord. The fisherman boss-man and his sons go out daily in the Westfjords area catching mostly cod, and bringing it back to the village’s fish factory to be prepared, and it was actually pretty cool to go down and see this family business in action, pals! I’m definitely all for preventing over-fishing and general wastage in the world but it’s good that a family’s livelihood can still keep going.

The top of the mountain

Back through the tunnel we went, and I’m happy to say it was slightly less scary the second time round as we’d acclimatised to the fact that it was highly unlikely we’d meet any oncoming traffic in this part of the world anyway. Instead of carrying on back to Ísafjördur and our floating home, however, we headed upwards to a plateau halfway up the mountains looking over the valley and town in the distance. What a stunner.

Springy moss and tiny flowers covered the ground and it was downright amazing to see the landscape below with the shadows and dappled sunlight rolling over it. The world is so amazing, you guys! On a side note, if you’ve never seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I suggest you watch it immediately to get a better idea of the beauty of the Icelandic countryside, and also to get an even better appreciation of life. Great film, great message, great scenery.

Lady Taxi told us that in winter people ski all over the place round here, and the snow is so thick that you barely know what to do with it. Winter also equals: eternal nighttime. Now there’s a concept that I find really unsettling. Even Lady Taxi herself said it’s something that she finds strange to deal with and she’s lived in these tundra conditions all her life. The opposite of the eternal nighttime is the forever-day which we had almost reached in mid-June, and she explained that was sometimes harder to cope with; there’s a strong trade in blackout blinds round these parts, I’ll tell you that for free.

The most delicious fish of all time

After our Magical Mystery Tour (which was honestly one of the best ones of the magical mystery variety that I’ve ever partaken in), Lady Taxi recommended that we should probably try some fresh fish at one of the restaurants back in town. And after the success of following her fresh waterfall water recommendation, of course we took her up on this idea wholeheartedly…and SHE WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT IN HER ASSUMPTION THAT WE WOULD LOVE IT. Obv.

Fresh fish, some delicious sauce with bulgur and potatoes, and I was all around all about that Icelandic life.

What a joyous conclusion to a joyous day. Iceland, you are a dream.

LOGISITICAL STATISTICALS

  • Cruise ships dock directly in the centre of Ísafjördur, so it’s easy to reach anything you need to reach once you get there.
  • Distance from Reykjavik to Ísafjördur is just under 6 hours by road or around 40 minutes by aeroplane to the tiny local airport located just outside the town.
  • There are hotels, guest houses and hostels located in both Ísafjördur and Flateyri, and as a base for exploring the rest of the amazing nature of this region, both of these locations are perfect.
  • Our magical mystery tour cost around €30 per person (my memory is hazy on the exact price), and the three of us shared it with another group of four who we didn’t know.
  • Currency is Króna, although some places will accept Euros.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Iceland is expensive. Be prepared.
  • 90% of the population are fluent English speakers (although obviously Icelandic is the number one language of choice), so as long as you have English you’ll get by easily.

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