There were no boats in the bay, no ships on the horizon. Underneath my feet was black sand that stretched a few hundred metres either side. The mountains of Deilir and Öskubakur were behind me and together we took in the sea view from Skálavík bay in Iceland’s Westfjords. The Denmark Strait was the water we watched and many miles north lay the east coast of Greenland.
Skálavík’s population is zero, the last residents having admitted defeat in 1964 in the face of weather that demanded more than a snug fleece and a decent pair of boots. Even in its pomp, in the 1890s, only 100 people toughed it out trying to make a living from the sea and the land. Now there are just hiking trails, plus a smattering of summer holiday homes and static caravans that sustain against the elements, courtesy of fences that rise above window level. Swings, a pushchair and toys on a porch or in a garden provided an eerie touch: a sort of presence amid absence.
This type of landscape provides the remoteness and beautiful melancholy that keeps me coming back to Iceland. It is a place where nature is at your fingertips, rather than maintained behind a guardrail. The scale is often huge, mesmeric, even foreboding at times, though there is wonder in the details: in the way a fjord appears altered as the weather changes from sunlight to showers or how – after seeing a powerful waterfall in the distance – you find that the road has been engineered over that deluge as you drive past.
For all the articles about Reykjavik’s cool hangouts and the “golden triangle” highlights being inundated by tourists, it remains a country where wilderness is easy to find. The Westfjords – which receives less than 10% of Iceland’s foreign tourists – is a striking place to discover solitude.
Nature in full force was evident once again after a 90-minute drive south from Skálavík to the waterfall at Dynjandi. The route went close to the town of Bolungarvík and past the Westfjords’ capital Ísafjörður. There, the previous evening, I’d stayed at Hotel Ísafjörður (doubles from £126 room only) and got a warning about the potholes to expect on Route 61 between Þingeyri and Bíldudalur – a warning I underestimated.
However, the 99 metre-high waterfall Dynjandi – it translates as “thundering noise” – is worth the drive. It is the largest in the Westfjords, though is actually a series of eight falls. The trek to the top wasn’t tough, the only battle being deciding which was more captivating: the power of the falls or the view of the fjords Dynjandisvogur and Borgarfjörður.
Many times on the journey, I was struck by the proximity of, and emphasis on, nature – as well as the trust that’s placed in visitors. At Dynjandi, there were only a few ropes and signs suggesting care be taken and that campers (a site is nearby) or walkers show consideration. There are none of the usual distractions, such as a visitor centre, gift shop or cafe.
Later that day, at the Harbour Inn (doubles from £100 B&B) in the fishing village of Bíldudalur, the B&B’s new owner, Fríða Matthíasdóttir, told me how as a girl she used to play around Dynjandi falls. As she talked, it was obvious how proud she was of the region. Fríða also owns Kirkjuból (doubles from £115 B&B), a farmstay with a cultural past, near Önundarfjörður. The farmers who used to own the property were noted for their stories and poetry, and even attempted to help establish Esperanto as a world language.
While the Westfjords’ main roads (Route 60 and Route 61) provide views along the jagged routes that rise, fall, twist and turn along each fjord, there are also activities to try: kayaking, hiking, cycling. One activity, however, doesn’t involve leaving the road too far behind. Iceland is famous for its outdoor hotpots – geothermal pools – and in the Westfjords they come with sea views. Try Hellulaug, a pool facing Breiðafjörður, or Pollurinn, behind a church on the western outskirts of Tálknafjörður. To me, the most dramatic was Reykjafjarðarlaug: a natural hot spring that feeds an adjacent swimming pool and looks out on Reykjafjörður.
It’s here where I think Iceland is at its best: when it just happens to you; when the landscape, weather, even the cultural oddities, decide the order of the day. When it’s possible to focus on something – beach, building, sculpture, museum – because it’s become part of the route and you’re compelled to explore. The hot pools are an example but it’s evident in the quirk that puts the Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft museum inside a restaurant, and in how the Jón Sigurðsson memorial museum (a champion of Iceland’s fight for independence from Denmark) is at a potholed and remote part of Route 61 near Hrafnseyri. It’s even there in the fact I was unable to visit Hringsdalur’s pagan burial sites or Samúel Jónsson’s sculptures at Selárdalur, because Fríða warned that the road conditions and the weather – and the chance of falling rocks – would be against me.
The Westfjords are rugged and tough, convoluted and hauntingly sparse, and a million miles from holidays about boutique hotels, trendy bars and cool districts. I got lost for a few minutes walking along the craggy coast that looks out on Vatnsfjörður while searching for Hellulaug. The sun was shining, the water was calm and deep blue; there wasn’t another person to see. The only sound was the breeze whispering to the grass: splendour in solitude.