Summer in Iceland is a curious but beautiful thing. Even though it was the middle of June when our ship docked in the tiny town of Ísafjördur in the Westfjords, it was full on freezing. Was I wearing enough layers of clothing? It’s a hard ‘no’ to that one my friends, despite the fact that we’d already spent a day in Reykjavik, which was just as cold.
But nevertheless, I was excited to discover what this lonely but stunning part of the world had to offer. Me, my pal Rachel and her lovely Dad set off from Ísafjördur port 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. A lovely local lady offered to take us to all the Ísafjördur hotspots in return for our euros.
It was a deal, Taxi Lady, a very good deal.
A Beginners Guide to Ísafjördur
The town of Ísafjördur itself is home to around 2,600 people. Although with the decline of the fishing industry this total looks set to dwindle even more, as people gradually move away and look for work in busier locations. It still has the vibe of a fishing town about it, containing a whole load of wooden or corrugated metal buildings plus the odd shipping container or tractor-type vehicle hanging around in amongst it all.
Ísafjördur sits on a completely flat piece of ground, nestled next to a fjord and surrounded by mountains. Having already spent a month or so in the Norwegian fjords, where the landscape is beautiful but also fairly enclosed-feeling- all spiky mountains cutting into the clouds- I was expecting a similar situation in the Icelandic fjords. This was definitely not the case.
The mountains around Ísafjördur are more of the rolling variety, either flat-topped or rounded. And with it being summer in Iceland, these mountains were mostly a fresh green colour speckled with massive patchworks of lilac flowers, with the odd laughter line of snow running downwards from the very top.
These were some lovable looking landscapes in comparison to some of Norway’s jagged but similarly awe-inspiring scenes. This one day in the Westfjords was the day that I full on fell in love with Iceland and its incredible beauty.
Summer in Iceland means A LOT of waterfalls
First on our lovely lady’s whistle stop tour of Westfjords life, was a waterfall not far away from the town. The snow had melted long before, letting icy clear water cascade down from the top of the mountain, and the waterfall 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 its beauty the little Icelandic waterfall didn’t seem to have a name. Poor old thing. In fairness there are probably so many waterfalls in Iceland that they must seem to melt in to each other after a while.
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 even clambered down to have a sip of Icelandic water, despite 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.
The Longest Tunnel
Once upon a time the only way to drive from Ísafjördur to the neighbouring 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 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, with traffic running in two directions.
Now that’s a pretty terrifying concept if you ask me.
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 we 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. Especially 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. With the addition of a few palm trees and maybe a bit less snow, this Icelandic beach 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.
Holt Beach- one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Surely?
The water was completely calm and a vivid shade of turquoise. A curve of yellow sand around the bay merges 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.
This is Holt Beach, and without a doubt it’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.
Every summer the locals hold a sandcastle building competition on Holt 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 Flateyri Avalanche
It turns out Lady Taxi really was the ideal person to show us around this fairytale land. 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 about the Westfjords.
After our beachfront stroll she drove us round the other side of the little bay and through a comparatively very short tunnel- literally just a perfect cylinder cut out through a long ridge in the ground. We parked at the foot of the mountain and she proceeded to explain where on earth we were.
Back in 1995 there was a mahoosive avalanche which crushed some of the houses in the little village of Flateyri. The avalanche killed 20 people even though only one of their houses was thought to have been in a danger zone for ‘snow floods’ as the Icelandic call them. (What a horrible time.)
Summer in Iceland is stunning, but clearly winter can be a dangerous old time.
So the villagers decided to build a kind of barrier. There are now ridges of earth at the foot of the mountain to hold the snow back from hitting Flateyri again, and those barriers have saved the people several times. As we were in Iceland in Summer, 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 across the barriers of earth and beyond.
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?
What are those purple flowers in Iceland?
Here’s the deal with those pretty lupine flowers which are all over Iceland. They’re not actually native to Iceland at all; back in the early 20th century the country was experiencing a serious problem with soil erosion. This 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 get some nitrogen back into the soil. Everything was going to plan until people realised that the Arctic lupine flowers were also spreading like wildfire- 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 Flateyri Fishermen
After our sprint through the flowers we headed down to Flateyri to meet Lady Taxi’s extended family, who are a lovely bunch of fishermen.
Since the Flateyri 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 fewer than 200 remaining residents, so it’s highly likely that if you live here you’ll be related to a fair few of your fellow villagers, let’s face it.
After Flateyri’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, before 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. Obviously 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’s port 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 during winter people ski all over the mountains in the Westfjords, and the snow is so thick that you barely know what to do with it. Winter in Iceland also equals: eternal nighttime. Now there’s a concept that I find really unsettling.
Honestly I’d take summer in Iceland over winter any day- although I’m definitely a sunshine-dependent kind of a gal, and there’s no denying that winter is equally as pretty.
Even Lady Taxi herself said that winter is 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 of summer in Iceland. We had almost reached this 24-hour sunshine time in mid-June, and she explained that was sometimes just as difficult to cope with.
There’s a strong trade in blackout blinds round these parts, I’ll tell you that for free.
What to eat in the Westfjords
After our Magical Mystery Tour (which was honestly one of the best tours of the magical mystery variety that I’ve ever partaken in), Lady Taxi recommended that we 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.
SHE WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT IN HER ASSUMPTION THAT WE WOULD LOVE IT. Obv.
Unfortunately Tjoruhusid was closed by the time we reached it- this is one of the most famous fish restaurants in the Westfjords, with consistently outstanding reviews. (In fact it often tops lists of the best fish restaurants in the whole of Iceland).
Instead we ate at Edinborg Bistro, which was just blooming lovely as well. Not housed in a 200 year old building, but with equally fresh fish. Fresh fish, some delicious sauce with bulgur and potatoes. I was all around all about that Icelandic life.
What a joyous conclusion to a joyous day. Iceland, you are a dream.
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- Cruise ships dock in the centre of Ísafjördur, so it’s easy to reach the town on foot from the cruise port.
- 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 the Westfjords region, both of these locations are perfect.
- Don’t forget- just because it’s summer in Iceland, it doesn’t mean it’ll be warm! Pack accordingly and definitely don’t forget a raincoat!
- 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.