Thus far on our Icelandic travels we’ve remained relatively close to Reykjavik. Initially when researching for our adventure, we thought we might take a small plane in to the far remote north. Many people drive the entire perimeter of the country with only a weeklong holiday! There were many route options available to us, but we really wanted opportunity to soak in a general vicinity – this always helps us to feel more connected to the country in which we are traveling; understanding the roads, people, grocery, culture. It is satisfying to feel as though you are a part of a foreign community.
There are three major peninsulas on the west coast of Iceland. The one in the middle is Snæfellsnes Peninsula. In a word – stunning. This peninsula is an absolute gem and is only about an hour north of Reykjavik via the 1 to Route 54. We traveled west along the south coast of the peninsula, planning to make the entire loop in one day. It is quite a drive. We left about 8:30am and didn’t arrive home until around 9pm.
Along the southern portion of the drive we took in the scenic views of reddish hued beaches and small farmsteads all overshadowed by the beautiful glacier capped volcano of Snæfellsjökull. It really is a wonder that these rolling hills have such large glaciers. Never having been so far north on the planet, I was intrigued by the shear size of the ice fields on such short elevations of land. Snæfellsjökull is a mere 4,744 feet (1,446m) tall, but appears epic in stature due to its glacier capped peak. Apparently, this particular volcano gains its infamy due to its role in Jules Verne’s, A Journey to the Center of the Earth.
I couldn’t help but wonder about the people living in these small homes; wondering at what occupied their time and their thoughts. I suppose from where I sat in our little Yaris, I saw the blessing of taking up residency with either a view of the ocean or a waterfall in one’s backyard. Perhaps my envy made the living situation appear a bit rosier than it truly is. After all, we were still in the warmer season.
We met a local man on the road where we stopped for a photo. He was a bit strange, but friendly and generally welcoming. He was taken with the fact that we had come so far out of town to pay a visit to his beloved peninsula and passed on the good advice of stopping at Rauðfeldsgjá, as well as tossed in a few odd stories of trolls and witches.
Rauðfeldsgjá is a deep and very narrow ravine cut in to the side of a mountain along the coastline and teaming with coastal birds. It is a foreboding sight; looming ahead like a great gate to the bowels of the earth. If it wasn’t for the birds floating about and the stream escaping from the crevice I’m not sure how courageously I would have approached. However, I believe God puts something innately in human beings that makes them want to venture in to such places. So we did. It was narrow and wet. We felt very clever climbing over boulders, small waterfalls and the occasional dead bird to see how far we could go. It certainly wasn’t far, but a small thrill nonetheless.
By this time, we had been driving for quite a distance, reading aloud about all the small fishing villages and their histories as we were passing. I realized I desperately needed the water closet. Fortunately we were approaching Hellnar, an ancient fishing village and gateway to Snæfellsjökull National Park where we had read there was a great museum and visitors center. Much to the dismay of my bladder the village was eerily silent and the museum was dark, despite the lovely weather. A cheery, red roofed church, looked promising. But alas, the little light on the sea cliffs was locked. Ugh… there ARE NO TREES IN ICELAND! In fact, the local joke is, “If you’re lost in an Icelandic forest, stand up!”
This was turning in to an urgent matter: Fjöruhúsið Café to the rescue. Mr. and Mrs. Couper had mentioned a small cafe on the cliffs overlooking the water, but we really had no idea where it might be. This cafe was so obscure, surely this was it.
Fjöruhúsið Café can hardly be done justice in words. The setting is picturesque, the waffles exquisite and the coffee, like everywhere in Iceland, superb. We sat on the outside deck in the sun, removing hats and scarves in this wind-protected cove. This was a moment where you just sit in silence and breathe it all in.
There was hardly a soul, except the old man and woman who served us out of their tiny kitchen and the occasional passerby on the Hellnar to Arnarstapi trail that starts at the cafe. I wanted to live there, savoring the crisp of the fall season, the sweet of crème and berries, the salt of the sea. Feasting on the brilliant colors and shadows of the low sun and the sounds of ancient rock being coaxed back in to the sea. Heaven.
I still dream back to that moment.
As we continued westward, we were captivated by what appeared to be a coastal fortress of sorts directly on the edge of the sea. With the sun silhouetting its outline, our minds could hardly comprehend what our eyes were taking in. As we approached we realized it was Lóndrangar, an old, eroded cinder cone. It looks like boiling lava hit the frozen sea and pushed it back in the shape of a wave. There is stands; a black pillar. Just down the road is Melariff Lighthouse, which offers a beautiful black sand beach and another angle on Lóndrangar.
Making our way up the western most coast you can take a very bumpy gravel (but 2WD accessible) road to Öndverðarnes on the westernmost tip of the peninsula. You’ll need some sort of guide book for this little gravel track, lest you get lost amidst the old lava flow.
First stop on this detour: Skarðsvík Beach. Who knew you could have a pristine, white sand beach and turquoise blue waters so far north. This would also be an ideal place to learn how to surf! The waves were rolling in perfectly (though a dry suit might be required). According to our Lonely Planet this was the site of a Viking grave discovered in the 1960s. There is a small historical marker with further literature located at the beach.
This is where the road really gets interesting with many large dips, bumps and lava rocks, until you arrive at the end where a bright yellow lighthouse seems to greet you with a smile.
Öndverðarnes Lighthouse sits along the dramatic Svörtuloft Sea Cliffs where days earlier, thousands of birds called home. This is also where in the past locals would collect their eggs for food by rappelling down the cliffs. There is a historic fresh water well and old volcanic crater in this area, but do to the time, we were forced to carry on.
We headed west a long the north coast of the peninsula, trying to make it in time to the farmstead Shark Museum, Bjarnarhöfn. This is supposed to be epic and we were sad to miss it. Judging by the smell outside the museum I’m not so sure of how upset I truly am. The museum is actually the region’s leading producer of Hákarl, a traditional Icelandic dish of rotten shark meat. The putrid smell hangs above the farm and seems to seep out the window as you press your face to the glass. Apparently visitors get a free sample. Reflecting back to my earlier ‘rosie’ perspective of living in isolation with views of the water, I realize there is always a sacrifice. In this case it’s culinary.
We said hello to the horses then quickly made our way to Stykkishólmur, the largest town on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, to catch sunset from the harbor’s island. Pink and purple sky silhouetted a sprinkling of small islands as we looked north. Back towards the town, the brightly colored homes pasteled in the fading light. It was a beautiful scene to top off a beautiful trip.
I wrote postcards on the way home and cranked a little Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel. This is life in forte.