Snæfellsnes and the Westfjords, Iceland

I’ve been back in the US for a few days already, but I figure I should try to get through the last couple days of my trip. I think this will be my last post, other than putting up my Iceland pictures at some point. It’s been pretty cool keeping a blog while travelling, and has been a great way to keep in touch with everyone at home. But I doubt I could keep it up in real life, when my routine is more routine, and the locations more mundane. So thanks everyone for reading, maybe I’ll try this again in the future if I do anything else interesting.

So from Reykjavík I took a bus to the tiny little town of Stykkishólmur, on the Snæfellsnes penninsula which juts out from the western edge of Iceland. At the very end of the penninsula is a volcano called Snæfell, which Jules Verne chose to be the gateway to the underworld in A Journey to the Center of the Earth. It looks the part, especially from Reykjavík where you can just barely see it in the distance across the Faxaflói bay, seemingly rising up out of the ocean, and covered in clouds. Impressive volcano.

Stykkishólmur itself didnt have much going for it other than being the town where you catch the ferry to the Westfjords. My plan was to stay there a night, then take the ferry the next day, spend some time in the Westfjords, then go to Akureyri. But I didnt count on the next day being a national holiday called Sjómannadagurinn. How could I forget Sjómannadagurinn? Such an easy name to remember… Anyway, it’s a day dedicated to seafarers (translated as ‘seaman’s day’), so it meant that none of the ferrys were running.

So instead, I celebrated Sjómannadagurinn by going on a whale-watching cruise from the nearby town of Ólafsvík. Apparently tourist whale cruise crewmembers dont count as seafarers, so the boats still run. And Breiðafjörður, the fjord that separates Snæfellsnes from the Westfjords, is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to see blue whales. 17 other species have been sighted there as well including humpbacks, sperm whales, and orcas. I was super excited about the possibility of seeing a blue whale, or maybe a humpback breaching. There are only estimated to be a few thousand blues left in the world, so seeing one would be totally amazing. I had to try. But unfortunately it was a little bit early in the season still for blue whales, so I didnt see any, or even any of the really big whale species. We did see a couple Minke whales, which are the most common around iceland, and a whole lot of white-nosed dolphins. The Minkes were kinda boring. We’d spot them, then they’d dive before we could drive the boat over, stay down for like 5 minutes, then reappear somewhere else, and we’d have to chase them again. They dont even fluke or anything when diving. They seemed totally unbothered by a big loud boat chasing them all over; just did their thing oblivious to us. The dolphins, on the other hand, were awesome. They were breaching, playing with each other, buzzing the boat and jumping all over the place. They really made it look like being a wild dolphin is the Most Fun Thing Ever. They were really cool. We also saw tons of seabirds. Iceland must be the seabird capital of the world. Thousands of birds, and dozens of species. The bay itself is really beautiful. There are something like 2700 little rocky uninhabited islands scattered throughout it, and always in the background the huge volcano. It was very cold, but I’m tough, so that was alright. Anyway it was a fun cruise, but I do still want to see a blue whale someday.

The next day I took the ferry to Brjánslækur, in the Westfjords. The Westfjords are like a big fjordy penninsula extending from the northwest part of the country, and are one of the more remote inhabited parts of the island. One thing I learned was that if I ever go back there again I should rent my own car. There is a single bus serving the Westfjords, driven by a guy, which does different routes on different days (and by ‘bus’ I mean ‘minivan’). So to get from Brjánslækur to ͍safjorður I sat on the bus for 9 hours while it drove around to every single little town along its route. Just me and the bus driver hanging out together all day long, which was a bit awkward. We made some attempts at small talk, but the driver didnt seem particularly moved by my usual gregarious and highly infectious personality, and we spent most of the day in silence. Which was just fine with me because I was busy alternately paying attention to the awesome scenery and mentally willing the bus to not fall off a cliff. The roads in the Westfjords are crazy. Mostly dirt, very narrow, and often just switchbacks up the very steep sides of a fjord. It was harrowing. The landscape there is incredible, though, and worth the drive. Spectacular wide fjords with horzontal volcanic layers exposed on the cliffsides, and interestingly, lots of white sand beaches. So the ocean often was a very clear light blue color, like on some tropical island. There was also an area called Rauðasandur, or ‘red sands,’ where the sand is a brilliant red because it’s made of shells instead of volcanic rock. All the mountain tops, and many of the passes we drove though, still had a lot of snow on the ground. And everywhere there are piles of stones to marks the roads. Iceland didnt have any real roads prior to world war II. All transportation was on horseback, so people made piles of stones to indicate the safe way through the dangerous landscape. I guess falling into a hidden ravine or volcanic tube isnt all that uncommon.

The coolest part of my trip around the Westfjords was when we stopped at Látrabjarg, which are these 400 meter high cliffs at the very western tip of the very westernmost penninsula of Iceland. They’re really spectacular, and are also one of the largest puffin breeding colonies in the world. So I looked over the edge and was immediately face-to-face with tons of puffins, who seemed kind of interested in me, but not scared at all. They’re really funny little birds, with their penguin-like bodies and fat bills. They just look silly. And clumsy. And when they’re on the ocean they do this flappy running-through-the-water thing which is pretty amusing. I guess they make their nests at the end of long burrows they dig into the ground so I dind’t see any baby puffins. Cool birds though. Id like to learn more about them.

I spent a couple nights in ͍safjorður, which is the main town in the Westfjords, up in the north. It’s only the ‘main’ town because all the other ‘towns’ only consist of like 2 houses and a church. There’s not much there, but there is a pizza place where I had a pepperoni and banana pizza. Actually kinda good, but didn’t taste like pizza really. I was a day or so behind schedule due to the seamans day thing, so I decided to not try to get to Akureyri. It’s supposed to be a cool city, near to some really incredible nature, so I guess I’ll just have to come back. I definitely do want to come back. It would be amazing to spend a few weeks in Iceland camping and hiking, maybe a little later in the summer next time so all the roads will be open. I’d like to do the whole ring road at some point. So anyway, from ͍safjorður I took a plane back to Reykjavík (the ‘bus’ wasnt running that day). I was lucky to get out because there was a huge windstorm that morning; the kind of wind you really have to lean against to not fall over. It was quite an experience taking off in a little propeller airplane, between the steep cliffsides of a fjord, in the middle of a windstorm.

But I made it back to Reykjavík okay, and from there flew to New York, where I’m staying for a week or so. It’s really nice to be back here with people who know me and speak english, more or less. It’s great to see a lot of my east coast friends again. Next I go to Chicago for my sister’s graduation, and then, finally, back to San Francisco and home. It’s been an amazing trip, and I’m very grateful to have had the chance to take the time off and do it. But I think I’m ready to be home. I’m sure in a month I’ll be itching to travel again, but for now, I’m done.

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  1. Becca
    Jun 20th, 2005at11:59 am

    Re: “It’s nice to be back here with people who know me and speak English, more or less.”
    Does the more or less refer to our abilities to speak English or to know you?
    Just wondering.
    Because next time you come to New York I might make you flatter my grammar before I let you stay with me again.
    And I want to know more about the puffins too. Tell me what you find out.


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