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On the edge of the world: Iceland's Westfjords

By Jonah Flicker, for CNN
updated 10:24 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Six hours by road from Reykjavik, the Westfjords is a lonely peninsula that juts into the Denmark Strait. Bolafjall mountain (pictured) offers views to Greenland on clear days. Don't get too excited -- there aren't many clear days. Six hours by road from Reykjavik, the Westfjords is a lonely peninsula that juts into the Denmark Strait. Bolafjall mountain (pictured) offers views to Greenland on clear days. Don't get too excited -- there aren't many clear days.
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Rugged and remote: Iceland's Westfjords
Tjoruhusid restaurant
Hellulaug hot spring
Raudasandur beach
Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
Sudureyri pool
Latrabjarg bird cliffs
Isafjordur
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The peninsula of Westjords is Iceland's most remote region, six hours' drive from Reykjavik
  • Tjoruhusid is one of Iceland's best seafood restaurants
  • The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft explores the region's ancient obsessions with folklore

(CNN) -- Iceland -- the land of otherworldly vistas, air travel-disrupting volcanoes and polite, stylish Vikings -- already feels remote.

In Westfjords, a lonely peninsula that juts out like a thumb into the Denmark Strait toward Greenland, it seems even more so.

Here the weather can change in a heartbeat -- sunny afternoons quickly swallowed by icy winds and low clouds filled with fat snowflakes.

It's six hours by road from Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, but be warned: Driving the twisting routes of Westfjord's wind- and snow-whipped mountain passes can be hair-raising.

For those who make the journey (a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, as is a sense of adventure) the region's natural features, eating options and activities are worth the white-knuckle ride.

Patreksfjordur

Patreksfjordur may not be much to look at, but it's only 45 minutes from a ferry terminus (Smidjustigur 3, Stykkisholmur; +354 433 2254) that offers a shortcut to get here.

Not quite simmering: Hellulaug hot spring.
Not quite simmering: Hellulaug hot spring.

The village offers lodging and eating options that include the new Fosshotel Westfjords (Adalstraeti 100; +354 456 2004).

This puts you close to some of the natural wonders of the region, such as the bird cliffs at Latrabjarg and the beautiful beach at Raudasandur.

MORE: Descending into an Icelandic volcano

There are just a few restaurants in this small fishing town.

The best is the Fosshotel's Fjall og Fjara restaurant -- it offers entrees such as foal steak, crispy-skin salmon, and seafood pasta.

Isafjordur

The diminutive, charming town of Isafjordur (population 2,600) is located on the Skutulsfjordur fjord and is a well equipped hub for visitors exploring the region.

Its residents are proud of their remote, rugged location.

"A common joke ... is that since there's mountains on all sides, you only need a lid over it," says Haukur Magnusson, an Isafjordur native who edits Reykjavik Grapevine, an English-language magazine.

"It feels like ... the mountains are protective of you. It feels like a haven from the outside world, especially to someone who grew up here."

Tjoruhusid

One of the best seafood restaurants in the Westfjords, and really all of Iceland, Tjoruhusid (Nedstakaupstad 400; +354 456 4419), occupies a beautiful old building at the Isafjordur harbor's edge.

Here, Magnus Hauksson and his wife, Ragnheidur Halldorsdottir, serve the catch of the day and fresh vegetables in homey yet refined dishes along with a small selection of beer and wine.

There's no menu -- Hauksson cooks whatever is fresh, such as Atlantic catfish in a mustard cream sauce.

The atmosphere is warm and comfortable, and the food simple and remarkably delicious.

Bolungarvik

Just north of Isafjordur, via a long tunnel that bores through a mountainside, lies the village of Bolungarvik.

This small community feels like it's at the edge of the world, with stunning and dramatic views of snow-covered plateaus and mountains.

Raudasandur beach stretches for 10 kilometers.
Raudasandur beach stretches for 10 kilometers.

A short drive from the town center leads up Bolafjall, a mountain that locals claim offers clear day views across the strait to Greenland. (Don't get too excited -- few days are clear.)

It's also a prime place to see the northern lights during late autumn and winter.

Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft

Siggi Atlason, curator of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft (Hofdagata 8-10; +354 897 6525) in the small town of Holmavik, looks the part with his gnome-like hat, wool sweater and pointy beard.

Holmavik is located about 220 kilometers (135 miles) southeast of Isafjordur in the Strandir (or "the coast") region of the Westfjords.

The museum details Iceland's macabre and bizarre historical belief in the supernatural, with items such as "necropants," trousers reputedly made from human skin that were said to grant the wearer financial success.

Fortunately, many of the grizzly oddities in the museum aren't real.

"The necropants are a replica," says Atlason.

"It is one of the fascinating folklore stories you find in Icelandic culture, but the story is good."

Hellulaug Hot Spring

This beautiful geothermal hot spring is located near Flokalundur, not far from where the ferry to the Westfjords docks along the south coast.

Flokalundur can't really be called a town, but there's somewhere to stay: The Hotel Flokalundur (Vatnsfirdi; +354 456 2011).

The hot spring isn't hard to find. There's a parking area with a path down to the spring, which is situated against a cliff looking out at the ocean.

MORE: Secrets of Reykjavik's elf school

Heated conversations at the Sudureyri pool.
Heated conversations at the Sudureyri pool.

At about 38 degrees C (100 F), it's warm enough to soak in on a winter day, but easier to deal with than some Icelandic hot springs that simmer above 40 C.

Latrabjarg

These lofty cliffs, Iceland's westernmost point, are about a 90-minute drive from Patreksfjordur.

Huge numbers of birds roost here, including puffins, northern gannets, guillemots and razorbills.

At 440 meters, these are the highest bird cliffs in Europe and are a paradise for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts.

The nearby Hotel Latrabjarg (Fagrihvammur, Orlygshofn; +354 456 1500) is open in summer months.

Raudasandur

Raudasandur is exactly what it sounds like -- a red sand beach.

It stretches for 10 kilometers along the southern shore of the Westfjords.

There are almost no facilities here, but it's a great place to walk and enjoy the region's natural beauty and isolation.

In summer months, the water warms up to a brisk 16 or 17 C, so it's possible to swim.

There are no hotels or guesthouses in the immediate vicinity, but visitors can stay in nearby Patreksfjordur to the north or the Hotel Flokalundur to the east.

Sudureyri Outdoor Geothermal Pool

It seems like almost every Icelandic town has its own naturally heated geothermal pool, and the one in the village of Sudureyri is a local favorite (Sudureyrartuni; +354 450 8490).

The mountainous backdrop can't be beat -- bathers enjoy coffee and ice cream as they soak in one of two hot tubs or after doing laps in the main pool.

Jonah Flicker is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. His work has appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Paste Magazine, the Village Voice and Reykjavik Grapevine.

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