From Brú in the south to Norðurfjörður in the north, the lonely 220km of the Strandir coast form the West Fjords’ easternmost extremities and one of the least-visited corners of Iceland – if you’re looking to get off the beaten track, this is the place to come. The main entry point, and the region’s only substantial settlement, is Hólmavík, accessed along Route 61 from either Ísafjörður or the Ringroad at Brú – buses run this route three times a week in summer. North of here, the land is rugged, with snowcapped mountains and deeply indented fjords, the setting for some of the country’s most isolated communities, dependent on fishing and sheep farming for their existence. The only thoroughfare, the 80km Route 643, is always in poor condition, prone to landslips and impassable from autumn’s first snows until road maintenance crews break through again in late spring. There’s no public transport, but it’s worth making every effort to drive this earth road to really experience the wild and pioneering spirit of Iceland, notably at Djúpavík, a former herring-fishing village that’s now all but abandoned, and is home to one of the West Fjords’ most welcoming hotels. Beyond here, the road battles on north towards Iceland’s most remote airport, Gjögur, handy for reaching this forgotten corner of the country, and end-of-the-road Norðurfjörður, where it finally expires, marking the jumping-off point for ambitious overland treks north towards the uninhabited wilds of Hornstrandir.
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North of Laugarhóll, Route 643 cuts into one of the most remote corners of Europe, where towering rock buttresses plunge precipitously into the icy sea and the coastline is strewn with vast expanses of driftwood that originated on the other side of the Arctic Ocean, in Russian Siberia. Tourist facilities here are virtually nonexistent, but the region is stunningly beautiful and somewhere to really experience Iceland’s rawness close up. The road is in shocking condition, however, with huge potholes and some alarming narrow stretches, whilst the wind on this exposed coast is ferocious at best, hurling rocks and scree down from the mountain slopes onto the road below and blowing cars from one side of the road to the other.
Life in these remote parts has never been easy, and the village of DJÚPAVÍK, close to the head of shadowy Reykjarfjörður, is testimony to this hardship, dominated by the huge carcass of its old herring factory and the rusting hull of the 100-year-old former passenger and cargo ship Suðurland, another victim of the West Fjords weather. When the herring industry was at its height in the mid-1940s, several hundred people lived in this remote outpost, women salting the fish, men turning the remains into animal meal and oil. The factory went bankrupt in 1955 following a disastrous collapse in fish catches, but the enormous costs involved in demolishing the building – once the largest concrete structure in Europe – means that its hulking hollow shell remains, reminiscent of a Hollywood film set; Icelandic band Sigur Rós saw its potential in 2006 and even played a concert in it, attracting over three hundred people, a veritable throng in these parts.
Despite the evident failure of the herring adventure, there’s an endearing air to diminutive Djúpavík, consisting of just seven houses and one of Iceland’s most charming hotels, the Djúpavík, located beneath a braided waterfall. The hotel now owns the herring plant and runs tours inside (June–Aug daily 10am & 2pm; 1000kr), which take in the Sögusýning Djúpavíkur (Historical Exhibition of Djúpavík), a collection of evocative black-and-white photographs from the herring years.