Of the various spots we’ve explored in Iceland, the Western region was by far my favorite. The west is relatively close to Reykjavik yet miles and miles away in feeling. We encountered far less tourists in this region, despite the Snaefellsness Peninsula containing the most vibrant colors of yellows, whites, mossy greens, and Caribbean blues. It’s silent and peaceful, surrounded by coastal waters and small fishermen villages. Instead of following the trend amongst the tourists and zooming around the Ring Road, – also, known as Route 1 – take a day or two to explore the long arm of this beautiful peninsula and you’ll discover some precious treasure that most fast travelers don’t ever experience.
We woke up in the car at sunrise. The nearby farm animals waking us up with the morning chatter. We rolled up our sleeping bags and hopped over the front seats and off we began another day on the road. The first thing on our agenda was a much needed shower. After 4 days without a rinse, we were desperate…even if that meant paying some krona. We pulled into the nearest major town, which happened to be the largest town in southern Iceland – Selfoss. A important (and ugly) trade and industry center, most travel guide books will tell you that you can grab some gas and groceries and move on, but wait right there! Alex and I discovered a local gem where the tourists never flock to 😉 After chatting with a local at the gas station, we were compelled to find Sundhöll Selfoss – a local geothermal pool filled with hot pots, water slides, and plenty of showers! This local pool has been here since 1914 and has been an integral part of the local Selfoss community ever since! We spent all morning lounging in the pools, relaxing, and sliding down the slippery waterslide countless times. Great way to start the day!
After a dose of fun and finally feeling clean for what felt like forever, we continued west. The temperature increased, and the bugs came splatting on our windshield. In order to save gas, we took the river tunnel to connect us to the peninsula and came out on the other side to beautiful views of steep rugged mountains and fields of marshmallow-looking hay rolls. We stopped in the next town Akranes to fill up on gas (there was not much else here) and continued to our destination of Borgarnes.
But before discovering a new town, we felt the need to get some hiking in at Hafnarfjall – a dramatically sheer mountain that rises across the fjord from Borgarnes. The 7km hike starts at the trailhead on the side of the road, but after driving around in circles, we decided to ask for help. “Follow the way of the sheep,” the woman told us. So, we found some nearby sheep and parked the car. One of the best hikes of our trip, we were surprised not to find any other hikers on the mountain. We didn’t make it all the way up, but we experienced sweeping views from high up along one of the peaks.
Across the fjord was the charming and unassuming town of Borgarnes. The buzzing petrol signs may trick you into continuing on along the Ring Road, but do make sure to stop and explore this old town! In the house of Skúlagata 13, you’ll discover the hidden gem of a flower and gift shop – with a cheerful Papillon dog that would love to meet you! – along with Kyrrð “Café Tranquility” a cozy cafe with lounge chairs, couches, books, puzzles, tarot cards and light meals. Alex and I fell in love immediately and had a waffle on the garden patio. The meals are super affordable, compared to the rest of Iceland, and you’ll have a chance to meet the local kitty Amy Winehouse on the patio. Next door to the cafe, we took a leisurely stroll at sunset along the waters and found a beautiful trail overlooking the cliffs. Hands down, my favorite moment. 🙂
I never had any intention of seeing Iceland….until Alex and I watched our favorite movie of all time – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Seeing Ben Stiller trek ice glaciers and longboard down gravel roads, past sea side villages and the colorful mountains, inspired us greatly that we instantly put Iceland at the top of our list. It’s amazing how a film can influence you! One of my favorite scenes was filmed in the local fisherman village and largest town in the west – Stykkishólmur. This picturesque village is built up around a natural harbor and protected by dramatic islands (which you can hike!). Colorful, scattered houses and plentiful accommodation and restaurants are here and the views are spectacular! Alex and I hiked the cliffs, rested in the wildflower fields, and acted like little kids at the local schoolhouse playground.
After locating the towering mountain of Kirkjufell, you’ll find a loaded parking lot to your left and tons of tourists with cameras. This is Kirkjufellfoss – the accompanying waterfall and river to nearby Kirkjufell. Alex and I parked and befriended a local hitchhiker who was making his was through Iceland before going back home to Prague. We sat along the water, and I set up my tripod. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a neutral density filter with me, but I set my camera’s settings to the slowest shutter speed I could before completely overexposing the mountain in the distance. Luckily, Lightroom is a wonder, and helped bring me back those tones. 🙂
Right across from the waterfall, you’ll see the looming mountain Kirkjufell, one of the most photographed spots in Iceland. You can see Ben Stiller skateboarding past in our favorite movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty! Park your car and bring the nearby horses some carrots (I didn’t have any, but you could tell they wanted them!). Be sure to bring your camera! I brought my Instax Fuji Film for this shot 🙂 After leaving Kirkjufell, we headed on to the sleepy towns of Ólafsvík and Rif, heating up soup at our favorite gas station (N1), and finding a spot to set up camp in Hellissandur.
Hellnar and Arnarstapi are two fishing villages located on the sea side cliffs of the peninsula, and they were high on my list to see! With only a few cafes, hotels and houses in the villages, we explored them in under 2 hours each, stopping along the cliffs to take in the view and have a picnic. We hiked the popular and scenic 2.5km coastal walk between Hellnar and Arnarstapi and followed the slender trail along the jagged coastline past lava flows and stone caves. The views of the jagged cliffs and surrounding seagulls reminded me so much of home in San Diego….but this was even more spectacular. Each way took about 50 minutes to hike, but when you have good company, the time flies!
Standing at the foot of a volcano and glacier is the only park that reaches the sea shore to the mountain tops: Snæfellsjökull National Park. We headed west along the scenic Route 574 as we skirted the rugged slopes before arriving at the park. Alex and I parked the car countless times to climb a volcanic crater, hike sheer sea cliffs, climb over crunchy lava flows and sit alongside sparkling fjords and golden beaches. We drove the rim of the national park and discovered the glistening ice cap that was famous in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth! Our favorite spots were Djúpalónssandur which offers dramatic walks with rock formations and Dritvik black sand beach. Keep your eyes out for some whales and puffins! 🙂
On our last night in the west, we parked our car on an off road, played card games until we fell asleep, and awoke at 1:30 in the morning to see gray and green swirling and dancing lights above us in the starry night sky. The sky was clear, not a cloud in sight. Perfect weather conditions for the Aurora. We were lucky to even see them as the Northern Lights are most visible during the winter months, October and March being the best months to spot them. We never would have woken up and looked for them if it weren’t for a couple we had befriended earlier today along the peninsula! Just goes to show how the Universe brings magical connections and conversations to light when you aren’t looking for them. 🙂
After finishing the long arm of the peninsula, we began the long stretch back to Reykjavik, but we felt in the mood for one last nature walk – Hraunfossar. Turning on Route 518, we found this spectacular park with it’s gigantic lava waterfall and streams great for a stretch after many hours of driving. The crystalline water streams from below the lava field all around and was my favorite waterfall of all the ones we’ve seen in Iceland. I found no other waterfall to be quite like this one.
I fell in love with the western region of Iceland, and it was mostly due to it’s Caribbean blue ocean waters, rocky cliffs and charming seaside villages. I felt the west to be more peaceful, less touristy, and with more wildlife than the southern and eastern region. On our way back, we camped out in our car, and drove back south on Route 1. Of course, we had to make a pit stop at our favorite cafe and flower shop in Borgarnes, Blómasetrið for some coffee and meditation. Next stop on our route: the big city of Reykjavik and a relaxing experience at the mystical Blue Lagoon.
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September 6, 2017