For a ruthless killer, the Arctic fox is a cute little rascal. The razorbills, puffins and northern fulmars who have their eggs and young stolen may not agree, but it’s hard not to side with the mammal when the birds are so abundant here at Látrabjarg. My only complaint is that the vixen I see out raiding enormous sea cliffs at Iceland’s westernmost point doesn’t hang around for a photograph. Instead, she regards me brazenly, with an egg in her mouth, then turns her bushy tail and bounds off into the long grass.
It seems fitting that this kind of intimate wildlife encounter would happen somewhere like Látrabjarg, the most distant end of one of Iceland’s most remote regions. Only around 7% of visitors to the country come up to the Westfjords — and that was before the pandemic hit. Numbers at Látrabjarg are lower still.
Travelling in the early days after Iceland reopened to tourists, this seems like a blessing. Over the course of three days spent driving around in the long days of the boreal summer, it often feels like I have the whole place to myself. Covid may be partly to blame, but the Westfjords is also a region where the population has been in decline for a century (just over 7,000 people call it home).
Ísafjördur has the region’s only airport and car rental companies, making it a natural base. Even on the flight in from Reykjavík, the landscape’s extraordinary beauty seems to call out from below. It looks like somewhere people should be running towards — to travel, to live — not leave.
“They say we’re cut off up here, that it’s impossible to drive or you need some kind of super jeep,” says Birna Jónasdóttir, from the local tourism office, when we speak by the town’s dock. “But I drive around here all year in all conditions in my little Suzuki Swift.” The land, she insists, is not as formidable as its remote geography might suggest.
She’s not wrong. But travelling in the unyielding light of summer, it’s perhaps easy to have a favourable view of the driving experience up here: I feel like I’m behind the wheel in a Hollywood road trip caper, dramatically turning the wheel this way and that, paying more attention to the scenery than the snaking, fjord-side roads, whistling and grinning all the while.
This is an ancient landscape, a natural home for the many myths and legends born here, but it has, in fact, recently been changed significantly. In essence, the Dýrafjardargöng Tunnel is just a hole through some rock, but for residents and visitors in the Westfjords, it’s a revelation. The opening of the 3.4-mile passage, which replaces a mountain road often closed during winter storms, lets drivers complete a loop of the region — even in the coldest months. No longer does it have to feel distant and inaccessible. Dýrafjardargöng only opened in October last year, and as tourism in the country resumes, few people have had a chance yet to drive the Ring Road 2 — now known as the Westfjords Way.
As the fulmar flies, it’s only 50 miles from Ísafjördur to Látrabjarg, but even with the new tunnel, the drive takes three glorious hours. The first half is characterised by the high mountains of the fjords and humpback whales — visible from the road — breaching the dark waters. The midsection is all waterfalls, including Dynjandi, a three-tiered monster, at the top of which the water fans out like a peacock’s tail. And then to the sandy south, where rivers bisect beaches and the land briefly flattens before building once more to those sensational cliffs in Látrabjarg. The Vikings sailed west from here to Greenland, but for me, this is far enough, for now.
It’s 9pm when I start my retreat to Ísafjördur and while the sun is still above the horizon, clouds keep it hidden almost the whole way. I don’t want the journey to end, and decide to follow the headland, through yet another tunnel to Bolungarvík, and emerge into sunshine so dazzling I have to pull over. It’s one of the near-magical moments this part of the world can gift you. Extraordinarily, the clock reads one minute past midnight.
Icelandair has flights from Rejkjavík to Ísafjördur year-round. Europcar, Avis, Hertz and Budget operate from Ísafjördur Airport. Rooms at Hotel Ísafjördur start at £109, B&B. For more information about touring Iceland's Westfjords region, visit westfjords.is
Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Follow us on social media