By now we have spent three days and driven around 800 km and seen bits of the Golden Circle and the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Today we take a two and a half hour ferry ride from Stykkishólmur to the Westfjords, firmly getting us out of the main tourist splash zone.
Our ferry is the Baldur, the most recent of a long line of proud Baldurs who have plied this route, their photos gracing the walls of one of the companionways leading up from the belly of the ship where we parked our cars to the top deck and the “floating restaurant”. The 68 m long vessel with a cruising speed of 14 knots was built in 1979 in Norway and extended by 12 m and outfitted with new motors for this current assignment. Things are chill in Iceland. We rolled into the car hold of the Baldur with no supervision at all. A few minutes later a 15 year old kid showed up and directed us to our parking spot. Then we were left to our devices to find our way out of the hold and to wander around the ferry.
The ship stopped briefly at the island of Flatey (where I took a photo of the red toy-looking tractor on the quay) and a bit later we found ourselves driving into the Westfjords. There wasn’t a town of village at the ferry terminus. We drove up to a nearby church and found a cafe next door. We had a quick snack (lamb soup for me, hot chocolate for the kids), took a photo of the departing ferry through the windows of the cafe, and headed out into the Westfjords.
The Westfjords are remote and empty even by Icelandic standards. The area is vast (about a half the size of Switzerland), and the deeply indented coast is about a third of the total length of Iceland’s coastline. But only about 7000 people live here, half of whom live in the town of Ísafjörður. So the rest of the Westfjords has about as many people as Jester, the largest dorm at UT. Geologically it is the oldest part of Iceland and has no active volcanoes and less seismic activity than the rest of Iceland. During the Quaternary ice age about 2.5 million years ago, huge glaciers shaved off the tops of the volcanos leaving behind flat topped mountains with steep sides that reach out into the ocean. The gaps between the fingers are the fjords – narrow inlets of the Arctic Ocean. Waterfalls and creeks collect ice and snow melt and cascade down the often desolate sheer cliffs. The few people that do live here cling to the coast when it is flat enough to build homes and sheep farms. The driving is dramatic, sometimes even more so because roads are often unpaved.
Our first stop was Rauðisandur – literally red sand. This is a beach reached by a dirt road that drops a few hundred meters in the last three switchbacks. There is a beautiful church and a cafe. We predictably stopped at the Franska cafe for waffles and more hot chocolate and then set out on foot to explore the area. The pictures say it all!
We then drove back over the heath and around the next fjord to the town of Patreksfjörður where we met Alu and Michelle for dinner at Albina – a small grocery store, ice cream shop, and pizza and burger joint. Here is Vivian reading/annotating her book because she didn’t need diner (too many summer sausages in the back seat). We saw an Italian couple we had seen with bicycles in our ferry that morning. They were going to spend the next 10 days riding and camping around the Westfjords.
After dinner we drove for 45 minutes on dirt roads to a point almost exactly across from Patreksfjörður on the other side of the fjord. We drove past the hulking rusty remains of an old whaler and then the wreckage of an US Navy DC-3 (you get the theme) to the end of a dirt road where we found the rather strange Hotel Latrabjarg. Unfortunately we were too wiped to drive to the famous Latrabjarg cliffs at the very western point of Iceland where puffins and other birds nest. Jo had to settle for a calf in the yard next to the hotel that was very curious about her. She initially shied away, but eventually came over and licked Jo’s hand like a big cow puppy.