Once you’ve seen the remote snow-covered hills and cliffs of the Snæfjallaströnd coastline, you’ll have an idea of what lies immediately north. A claw-shaped peninsula of land bordered by the Jökulfirðir fjords to the south and the Greenland Sea to the north, and attached to the rest of the West Fjords by a narrow neck of land just 6km wide, Hornstrandir represents Iceland’s very last corner of inhospitable terrain where habitation was at least attempted – the last settlements here were abandoned in the 1950s due to the harsh climate – and its coastline is the most magnificent in the country. The rugged cliffs, precipitous mountainsides and sandy bays backed by meadows of wildflowers make up this official nature reserve on the very edge of the Arctic Circle, and hiking here is an exhilarating experience; it’s quite common to walk for an entire day without seeing another person. The highlight of any trip to Hornstrandir is a visit to the majestic Hornbjarg cliff (533m) at the eastern end of Hornvík bay and the highest point on the peninsula. The cliff is home to one of the country’s greatest bird colonies and its many ledges are stuffed full with fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and razorbills. Elsewhere, where farmed sheep once devoured everything edible, there is now wild, lush vegetation of unexpected beauty and the wildlife is free to roam – the Arctic fox makes regular appearances – while offshore, seals and whales can be spotted.
Life for settlers on Hornstrandir was always extreme. For starters, the summer is appreciably shorter than elsewhere in the West Fjords and, bar a geothermal spring in remote Reykjafjörður, there’s no natural hot water source, no waterfall to generate electricity, no natural harbour, and no road or airstrip. In fact, the fertile valleys and inlets throughout this uninhabited wilderness are littered with traces of derelict buildings where hardy farmers and fishermen once attempted to battle against the inhospitable climate. The peninsula’s two main settlements, Hesteyri and Aðalvík, are now almost completely deserted, their abandonment marking the end of yet another Icelandic community.