Iceland Day 9 — Around Westfjords (Part 1)

posted in: Iceland, Iceland 2014 | 1

We started our day with an excursion to Grimsey island. Actually, there are two Grimsey islands in Iceland, and the other one is much more famous because it is bigger, inhabited, and most importantly, the only place in Iceland that touches the Arctic Circle. It also lies just north of the Diamond Circle, which helps its popularity. The Grimsey island near Drangsnes is small, uninhabited and located in rural Westfjords, but it features many bird species, including puffins (there are an estimated 300,000 puffins on the island).

Grimsey island
Grimsey island

The trip to the island took only about ten minutes. We circled around the island first, stopping near cliffs to see several cormorant families nesting on the cliff side. It looked like the birds were very protective of their young shielding them from possible predators (including people, I guess).

Cormorant on a cliff
Cormorant on a cliff
Cormorant on a cliff
Cormorant on a cliff
Cormorant family nest
Cormorant family nest

At some point I started to wonder where we were going to dock. We could not see anything resembling a manmade structure, besides the lighthouse, until we almost made a full circle. Then we saw a wooden cabin but no docks or piers nearby. Then we saw a wooden fence but again no dock. We passed all that and made another turn, after which the boat headed directly to a cliff, where we finally saw a mooring rope and a raised gangway just wide enough to hold one person and fit between two rocks. I have not yet had a chance to fully process the fact that there was no dock when one of the guys on the boat told us that they were going to drop us off on the island and come back for us in a couple of hours. That news freaked me out a little since there were going to be only the two of us on the whole uninhabited island with who knows how many birds (and I remembered from our Day 3 in Iceland that birds could be very aggressive). The lighthouse was on the other side of the island, so even if there was someone there, they would not be able to help us much. Here, I thought, is a good place for a survival reality show. I looked at the guy who, I suppose, had to be a guide and told him, “Please don’t forget to come back for us!” He smiled and promised to return.

Grimsey island
Grimsey island
mooring rope and a raised gangway
A mooring rope and a raised gangway — the way to dock on Grimsey island

As soon as we got up a very steep gangway we entered a wooden deck with a picnic table, but as soon as we left the deck there wasn’t anything manmade, not even a trail. Instead, there was a lot of puffins and other birds. We found a sheep trail and went along it, hunting for a picture of a flying puffin.

Puffin
Puffin
Flying puffin
Flying puffin
Black Guillemot
Black Guillemot
Flying puffin
Flying puffins
Flying puffin
Flying puffins
Puffins
Puffins
Puffins
Puffins
Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting
Flying Fulmar
Flying Fulmar
Puffins
Puffins
Puffins
Puffins
eggs
Eider duck nest with eider down and eggs
some bird
Eider duck sitting on her nest
Colonies of birds on the island
Colonies of birds on the island
Puffin
Puffin
Oystercatcher
Oystercatcher
Puffin
Puffin

The two hours passed very fast and we climbed a cliff that overlooked Drangsnes watching for the boat. Thankfully, there was no surprise, and the boat arrived on time.

A boat coming back to pick us up
The boat coming back to pick us up

At noon we came back to Drangsnes and tried to check out of the guesthouse, but it was deserted. Alex was finally able to find an older couple who looked like employees or owners, and told them that we left the keys in our bedroom. They did not understand. Then Alex pointed his finger back at ourselves and said the key word, “Check-out”. They smiled and gave us a thumbs-up. And with that we went on to our next destination — Ísafjörður, the capital of Westfjords.

Our destination is 213 km away
Our destination is 213 km away

The fjords we were traveling along were magnificent, and I was a little sad that we didn’t have enough time to stop and enjoy the views. We even skipped an opportunity to enjoy a dive in a geothermal swimming pool at Reykjanes (which is not the same Reykjanes that we visited on Day 1). However, I went to a restroom there, and it was the most bizarre restroom experience in my life. When I opened the door I ended up in a large room full of naked women. One corner was occupied by showers, the opposite one — by toilet cabins (thank god they had doors), the third corner had some lockers and benches, and the fourth one had a hanger and a bench. The floor was clean and wet from running showers, and I was in my dirty hiking shoes and fully clothed, very much out of place. I guessed that the restroom was mostly for taking a shower before entering the pool, which of course was across the road as usual (see Day 8). I had an urge to leave right then, but since I was not expecting to find a restroom for another three hours, I decided on a compromise: I took off my shoes, socks and jacket in the hanger corner and went to do my business. The women did not pay any attention to me.

Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Sheep on the road
Sheep on the road
Sheep on the road
Sheep on the road
Westfjords
Westfjords — a mountain covered in clouds
Westfjords -- us on a picnic area
Westfjords — us on a picnic area
Westfjords -- cairns
Westfjords — cairns
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords
Westfjords

At 5pm we reached Ísafjörður. After a necessary stop for gas and groceries we went to find a place to eat and ended up at the Edinborg restaurant overlooking the harbor and airport. We saw the landing of a plane and it looked like it landed on water since the landing strip is located on the shore. The fish dishes we had were excellent but still not quite as great as fish at Malarhorn guesthouse’s restaurant yesterday. The total cost of the meal including desserts was $75, a very reasonable price tag for Iceland.

A cruise ship arrives at Ísafjörður
A cruise ship arrives at Ísafjörður
Ísafjörður
Ísafjörður
Ísafjörður
Ísafjörður
A fish dish at Edinborg restaurant
A fish dish at Edinborg restaurant

After the dinner we drove around town a bit, but it was so small and plain that we did not go out of the car and decided to drive to our next destination, Þingeyri, where we planned to spend the night. On our way we drove through a 6 km (3.75 mile) long single lane tunnel with a fork in the middle, which was an adventure by itself, especially when we saw a big tourist bus heading in the opposite direction just as we were between the “M” islands, where cars can pass each other. We did pull over to the next “M” island just in time for the bus to pass us and felt our car sway side to side from the wind wave in the bus’ wake.

Inside the tunnel
Inside the tunnel

Þingeyri looked like a sleepy little town with little going on in or around it. Nonetheless, the hotel where we were staying was fully booked. We didn’t stay long at the hotel because we had a planned hike to the top of the Sandafell mountain. Well, we planned to hike unless we could drive up the mountain. We asked at the reception if it was possible to drive to the top and were told that it would be no problem with a 4WD car. We were quite happy, since a drive would save us a couple of hours that we would love to spend on sleeping.

Þingeyri on the opposite side of the bay under Mt. Sandafell
Þingeyri on the opposite side of the bay under Mt. Sandafell
On our way to Þingeyri
On our way to Þingeyri
A girl on a street in Þingeyri
A girl on a street in Þingeyri
Þingeyri
Þingeyri
Þingeyri
Þingeyri
Hotel Sandafell
Hotel Sandafell
Þingeyri
Þingeyri
Þingeyri
Þingeyri
The sign for the road to mount Sandafell
The sign for the road to mount Sandafell

The road up the mountain was rough but wildly pretty, overgrown with lupines on both sides of it.

On the road to mount Sandafell
On the road to mount Sandafell
On the road to mount Sandafell
On the road to mount Sandafell

It wasn’t steep at first, and we proceeded at a decent speed. We went up quite high when, after one of the turns, I saw a sign for the hiking trail and a small parking space. I told Alex that this was probably the place to park and start walking, but it was too late since we already drove past it. The road became rockier and somewhat steeper but still drivable. However, in a short while we entered a section that was too steep, with both sides of the road overlooking equally steep drops. Finally, we stopped and realized the seriousness of our situation. First, the road on the ridge of the mountain was too narrow for us to turn around. Second, it was too steep for the car to stay put without Alex’s foot firmly on the brake. Third, we were in front of a blind hill with at least a 20% grade rocky road and who knows what at the top. And fourth, a cloud was moving in our direction, so if we did not do something right away, we would soon be doing the same thing inside a thick cloud with no visibility. We completely forgot about taking pictures and just wanted to turn around somehow and get down from that mountain.

So we kissed, looked at each other, Alex put the car in low gear, and we started driving up that hill. We had to drive to the top of it in one go, as it was too steep to stop anywhere in the middle. It must have taken us only a few seconds, but it felt much longer. Finally, we got over the top of the hill, and there, much to our relief, we discovered that the road got more or less level and a little wider, wide enough for us to turn around. We also saw that our final destination point was already inside a cloud, so there was no need to go there, photography-wise. In fact, we looked at each other and saw how strongly both of us felt that there was need to go there, period. I carefully got out of the car and took a few pictures to remember this place, while Alex slowly turned the car around little by little. The way down was surprisingly uneventful, although with more pictures, as we relived time and again the greatest scare Iceland has given us.

At the parking space
At the parking space
On the way up the mountain
On the way up the mountain
A view on Þingeyri from the mount Sandafell
A view on Þingeyri from Mt. Sandafell
On the way down from Sandafell mountain
On the way down from Sandafell mountain
A view from Sandafell
A view from Sandafell mountain
Between the clouds
Between the clouds
A view on a valley below Sandafell mountain
A view onto the valley below Sandafell mountain
Back to Þingeyri
Back to Þingeyri

Here is the map of the places we visited on Day 9.

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Iceland Road Trip Day 9

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Ísafjörður: 66.071600, -23.119800
Grimsey: 65.680623, -21.400681
Hotel Sandafell, Þingeyri: 65.879653, -23.491817
Sandafell mountain, Westfjords, Iceland: 65.876111, -23.507222
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