Attached to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of land barely 10km wide, the West Fjords are one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and least-visited corners of Iceland – only three percent of all foreign tourists make it out here. This peninsula of 8600 square kilometres, stretching out into the icy waters of the Denmark Strait, with its dramatic fjords cutting deep into its heart, is the result of intense glaciation. Everything here is extreme – from the table mountains that dominate the landscape, plunging precipitously into the Atlantic, to the ferocious storms that have gnawed the coastline into countless craggy inlets. Life up here, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is tough – even in summer, temperatures seldom rise above 10°C, and drifting pack ice is never far from the north coast.
Since flat land is at a premium in this rugged part of the country, towns and villages have grown up on the narrow strip of lowland that separates the mountains from the fjords. Geologically all but cut off from the outside world, the inhabitants of the West Fjords have historically turned to the sea for their livelihood, and today the majority of the seven thousand people who still live here are financially dependent on fishing and its related industries. However, the traditional way of life is changing, and the effects of rural depopulation are being felt in every village as outlying farms are abandoned and dozens of young people choose the bright lights of Reykjavík over a precarious and uncertain future on the very edge of Europe.
The unforgiving geography of the West Fjords makes travel here difficult and convoluted. Many roads are surfaced with gravel, and they’re always potholed and often circuitous. Route 61, for example, wiggles its way exasperatingly round no fewer than seven deeply indented fjords en route to the regional capital, Ísafjörður. Benefiting from a spectacular setting on a narrow spit of land jutting out into Ísafjarðardjúp, the town makes an excellent base from which to explore this 75km-long arm of the Denmark Strait at the heart of the West Fjords, plus Drangajökull, the only glacier in the region, and the outstanding natural beauty of the uninhabited Hornstrandir peninsula, which offers some of the wildest and most rewarding hiking in Iceland. From Ísafjörður, Route 60 weaves its way over mountain tops, round several fjords and past a handful of tiny fishing villages on its way to the ferry port of Brjánslækur, from where a ferry leaves the West Fjords for Flatey and Stykkishólmur. A brooding, lonely peninsula reaches out into the Atlantic from this point, terminating at Látrabjarg, Europe’s most westerly point and one of the world’s greatest bird cliffs, with large numbers of puffins, razorbills and other seabirds; and Breiðavík, one of Iceland’s most stunning beaches, with mile upon mile of deserted golden sand. Nearby Patreksfjörður, the second town of the West Fjords, is the only place in the west of the region with a population big enough for life to go on independently of Ísafjörður.
On the other side of the West Fjords, the eastern Strandir coast, which stretches north from the busy fishing village of Hólmavík, is hard to beat for splendid isolation, its few villages hardly visited by tourists, and with some of the most dramatic, forbidding landscapes this corner of the country has to offer, particularly around the former herring port of Djúpavík.