We don’t go back to places.
However much we may enjoy a particular destination, the number of places we have seen and the variety of experiences we have gained along the way are still far outnumbered by those yet to be encountered.
It’s the traveler’s perennial dilemma. You travel thousands of miles, find your favorite place on Earth and then, once you’ve found it, must immediately begin the quest for its replacement. The impulse to return is strong, but you know that familiarity can only dilute the unexpected magic of that first meeting. Reluctantly, you move on, trusting to your fading memory as you seek the wonders of a world elsewhere.
And then there’s Iceland.
The country doesn’t just demand that you break the “Never Go Back” rule; it taunts you with a finger-pointing, manic laughter as you leave. It knows you’ll be back.
So it was that little more than two years after our first visit, we once again found ourselves at Keflavík airport, eager to commence another self-directed exploration of the country.
Ahead of a trip whose first stop would be in the southwest peninsulas of the remote Westfjords, I developed an obsessive addiction to the website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA), http://www.road.is. It is an essential (if occasionally alarming) resource for anyone driving in Iceland, particularly outside of the summer months.
I first visited the site approximately one month prior to our travel date and was greeted by reassuring green lines, each marking an “easily passable” road, heading north from Iceland’s south west corner.
As our visit drew closer, the green lines gradually disappeared as nine other road condition status colors marked each road’s deterioration, culminating in “impassable” red – or the equally concerning, simple question mark.
As the road colors change, a dozen yellow warning symbols – denoting everything from snow showers to blowing sand – and still images from strategically placed roadside cameras, help you to understand exactly what you should be worried about.
Armed with this invaluable information, at around 10:00 we started the drive north from Keflavík. A journey of approximately 240 miles lay in front of us which, if we could get to our destination at all, would likely take most of six hours. Or, put another way, all of Iceland’s daylight in late November.
Joining the Ring Road (the “1”) outside Reykjavík and having renewed our acquaintance with the precipitous Hvalfjörður Tunnel, we stopped in Borgarnes (40 miles north of Reykjavík) to assess the situation.
My concern was not only our ability to get to our destination for the night, but also our ability to get out again the next day.
The Westfjords splay out like a mass of misshapen fingers at the end of a thin wrist of land that connects the region to the rest of the island – and it’s a wrist that provides only one viable vein (route 60) along which inbound and outbound traffic can flow.
I called ahead to our destination for the night and was advised that while the roads in the area remained passable, the weather was expected to deteriorate. I was then asked, in a comfortingly nonchalant manner, “Where are you now?”
My response that we were still a good 170 miles away was greeted with a disconcerting silence from the other end of the line – followed by a sharp intake of breath and what sounded unnervingly like a short prayer.
Throwing caution to the wind, and armed with a large bag of life-sustaining pretzel sticks, we decided to proceed.
A further 20 miles north, we left an increasingly ice-covered Ring Road and turned onto route 60, directly towards what looked to be a major snow storm engulfing the Brattabrekka pass.
A continuous blanket of compacted snow and ice now groaned under our studded tires. The road ahead would occasionally disappear behind a rolling white veil of snow-filled clouds, but our concerns were slightly eased by the sight of an infrequent vehicle coming towards us. In the absence of flashing headlights and frantic waving from its occupants, we happily assumed it had successfully navigated the length of the road we were planning to travel.
With each turn of the wheels, our confidence in reaching our destination grew. Although a freshly-abandoned snow plow temporarily introduced a more somber mood to the car, it could not dampen our wonder as we travelled through a ruggedly pristine landscape.
And we practically had the place to ourselves.
Yet, it was a strangely claustrophobic experience. The sheer scale of the vast, empty terrain seemed to magnify our solitude. It was as if we were hemmed in by our own insignificance.
Despite the road conditions and numerous impromptu photo stops, we made remarkably good time – and our arrival at the Westfjords was greeted with fading daylight and a lesson in patience.
For the ever-efficient crow, the eastern edge of the southwestern peninsula (where route 61 passes route 635) is only 25 miles away from its main town, Ísafjöður. Down below, however, over 100 miles of road winds up and down the fingers of the fjords that lay between the two points. We only planned to go as far west as the bottom of Mjóifjörður – the second fjord from the right – but over 30 miles of driving still separated us from a destination less than five miles to our west.
Don’t expect to get anywhere quickly in the Westfjords.
And don’t expect to easily find a place to stay for the night, either.
Reflective of its dearth of visitors (only around 10% of Iceland’s ever-increasing number of tourists venture into the region), accommodation options in the Westfjords are few and far between and many of those close down for the winter months.
The Country Hotel Heydalur is a wonderful exception to the rule, and is a place you would want to stay even if it weren’t one of the only options.
We were welcomed by the owners – and their vociferous parrot, Kobbi – as if we were long-absent friends. Demanding our attention, their young daughter enthusiastically led us on a spontaneous guided tour of the property, which includes a natural hot tub and a swimming pool heated by Heydalur’s own thermal spring. And Loki, the dog, entertained us with his agility; leaping high to bite snowballs out of the air.
Shortly, the jetlag we had been defying all day finally broke down our defenses. We were spent. The irresistible gravity of heavy eyelids also meant we were physically unable to accept an invitation to join an end-of-season party for local residents in the hotel’s restaurant later that evening. However, judging by the beer can pyramids standing outside wide-open hotel room doors the next morning, the jetlag probably did us a favor.
Waking refreshed, my mind quickly jumped to concerns about what last night’s weather may have done to our only available route back out of the region.
The IRCA website answered the question with a question mark of its own – signifying a road of “unknown condition” at the Steingrímsfjarðarheiði road camera (where route 61 meets route 608; about halfway between Holmavík and the eastern-most fjord). Accentuating the question mark, the website indicated that a grand total of zero cars had passed it since midnight.
Deciding to keep this snippet of information to myself, after breakfast and a quick stroll around the hotel’s grounds, we hit the road again – and soon found ourselves in the middle of a surprisingly surreal experience.
In late November the sun struggles into the Icelandic sky, as if restrained by the horizon’s short leash. Consequently, as we weaved in and out of fjords, navigated valleys and crested hills, we were greeted by a seemingly never-ending series of sunrises. It was as strange as it was spectacular.
And the palpable relief of finally seeing a car travelling towards us, erasing that early morning question mark, only served to enhance the experience.
Although we were retracing our drive of the previous day – and immediately forced to betray our “never go back” doctrine – the journey south gave us a completely new perspective on our surroundings; yesterday’s small slice of rear view mirror had become today’s magnificent, wide-open destination.
We couldn’t wait to see more.
12th February 2017
If you’re in the region, stay here at least one night.
Great service, at about half the price of a 4×4 offered by the more established rental car companies.