7 mins

Splendid isolation in Iceland

Spectacular scenery, epic history, wildlife in numbers and – sometimes quite literally – no people. Mark Stratton finds Iceland the perfect place for first travels after lockdown

One of Icelands estimated 10,000 waterfalls (Mark Stratton)

If a Norse saga reflected the zeitgeist of our times, it’s that of Bárður Snæfellsás. Half-troll and son of a giant, Bárður fled the tyrannical King Harald of Norway to Iceland’s remote Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Mythology recalls he killed his two nephews after they slighted his daughter, and thereafter vanished into in an ice-cave within Snæfellsjökull Glacier to find eternal self-isolation.

Snæfellsnes was my first journey outside the UK since the coronavirus lockdown. I arrived days after Iceland began admitting international travellers without quarantine. But while I wasn’t seeking the austerity of Bárður’s self-isolation, I was certainly keen on those wide-open spaces, away from urban crowds, where I could feel free to travel without the threat of the virus.

The legend of Bárður came to me during  a coastal walk between the villages of Hellnar and Arnarstapi on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula’s southern coast. On an evening bathed in perpetual light, supernatural enough to summon elves and trolls, I found a 6m-high stone statue commemorating him. With hunched shoulders and knuckles resting on the ground, he gazed towards the mighty Snæfellsjökull where he ended his days, alone. His isolation wasn’t lost upon me. During the next two days of my week-long visit  I would not see or speak with another living soul.

Svörtuloft lighthouse on  Snæfellsnes’ west coast (Mark Stratton)

Svörtuloft lighthouse on Snæfellsnes’ west coast (Mark Stratton)

A flower on Neshraun lava field (Mark Stratton)

A flower on Neshraun lava field (Mark Stratton)

An Arctic fox blending in (Mark Stratton)

An Arctic fox blending in (Mark Stratton)

Giant scenery, small crowds

Snæfellsnes is a true realm of giants. It lies around 180km north of Reykjavik on West Iceland’s ever-emptying roads, a 90km-long peninsula jutting into the Atlantic, its origins as explosive as its windswept beauty. I reached it on roads snaking through convex mountainsides that swept down onto lava plains scoured by marine transgressions, passing cascading waterfalls whipped by the Atlantic winds into shifting sprays as ethereal as ever-present Arctic terns.

Bárður ended his days on the peninsula’s western edge within the mighty Snæfellsjökull Glacier. His ice-cave ay somewhere within its crevasses, perhaps warmed by the active stratovolcano below it, an 800,000-year-old composition of ash and lava, vertical and still promising mischief. It last erupted in AD200 and if it sounds fanciful to assert that this is a portal to the underworld,  ask Jules Verne, for whom the volcano inspired Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

From my chalet base, a self-catering Glacier Lodge in Hellnar, I could gaze at Snæfellsjökull all hours, as the sun never set. I honed a Trappist evolution, my vow of silence broken only in conversation with curlews and ringed plovers, beseeching them to stand still for photographs. And when the wind blew strongly and my timber chalet creaked, my atavism got the better of me and I sensed Axlar-Björn, born locally in 1555 and executed 41-years later after committing 18 gruesome murders.

From Hellnar, the joy of hiking within the 170 sq km Snæfelljökull National Park is encountering otherworldly landscapes where wildlife thrives on the margins of survival. The longest of my hikes here was a magnificent day from Skarðsvík, a deserted cocoa-coloured sand beach on the peninsula’s north. I aimed towards Öndverðarnes Lighthouse on the north-west corner and passed sea-arches and teetering basalt stacks where nesting kittiwakes and guillemots clung on for dear life above the surging Atlantic waves. Life wasn’t any easier for humankind.

At Öndverðarnes, there was a disused slipway that once saw oarsmen ease their fishing boats ashore through a cleft in the lava. Watching the pulverising Atlantic, it was sobering imagining how tough life would have been. Watching me, was an Arctic fox, his white winter coat now a rich auburn fur.

From the coast, I picked my way inland towards a pimpled field of small volcanoes. Neshraun lava field was squeezed out like toothpaste through fissures in underground magma tubes, over 5-years-ago. I moon-walked through the blackened, abrasive lava, that teemed with life. Inside burst lava pustules, delicate ferns snuggle within microclimate pockets alongside purple dashes of wild thyme and saxifrage. In a pink explosion of sea-thrift, a snow bunting foraged in the shadows of volcanic cones militarily camouflaged by green crowberries, orange lichen, and white sphagnum as soft as lamb’s wool. On the rim of a 112m-high crater called Saxhóll, I inhaled a breath of post-lockdown freedom, eating dark rye bread sandwiches while watching ptarmigans with red crests as molten as the lava that once oozed around me.

The raw, rugged Snæfellsnes coastline winds towards Öndverðarnes to the east of the peninsula (Mark Stratton)

The raw, rugged Snæfellsnes coastline winds towards Öndverðarnes to the east of the peninsula (Mark Stratton)

A cairn sits on the rugged Neshruan lava field, where caves await visitors (Mark Stratton)

A cairn sits on the rugged Neshruan lava field, where caves await visitors (Mark Stratton)

The weight of time

The trouble with Iceland’s midsummer sunshine is that you never want such days to end. By 7pm, driving back to Hellnar, still bathed in bright sunshine, I detoured to a darkly beautiful black pebble beach at Djúpalonssandur on the peninsula’s south-eastern corner. The ocean raked and whetted the pebbles, rendering them shiny like precious opals. Above the foreshore lies the rusting entrails of a British trawler, Epine GY7, that foundered here in 1948. The ship’s skipper Alfred Loftis, was heard to call, “I do not mind what happens to me so long as the boys are alright.” He went down with 13 other mariners despite the best eorts of Icelandic fishermen to rescue them.

These fishermen were robust souls. They honed their muscle on four lifting stones still located on Djúpalonssandur beach, weighing 23kg, 54kg, 100kg, and 154kg. Only when they could manhandle the 54kg hálfdrættingur (‘half-strength’) stone onto a boat could they become an oarsman. The hernia I foresaw attempting to lift one convinced me that life at sea wasn’t my calling.

Over the following days, I hiked from a black-painted wooden church dating from 1848 called Búðir across magma twisted like liquorice ropes to Búðaklettur Crater, where an eerie and cold lava tunnel runs deep underground. Those thoughts of Axlar-Björn stopped me exploring too deep.  Then from Grundarfjörður town on Snæfellsnes’ northern edge, I circumnavigated Kirkjufell, a free-standing volcanic mountain where fiction has imitated nature’s art and popularised it as ‘Arrowhead Mountain’, in Game of Thrones. This was lost upon me but no matter because from Kirkjufell, I could see across the Breiðafjöður sea fjord to the Westfjord Peninsula, which possesses some of Europe’s largest sea-clis.

And this is another Icelandic problem. Every distant horizon induces chronic Fear Of Missing Out, the temptation of evermore fantastical landscapes disgorged from the belly of the earth. Duly addicted, I packed an overnight bag and next morning drove to the car ferry in Stykkishulmur for a three-hour crossing north to Bránslækur on Westfjord.

Volcanic cliffs and basalt rocks in Arnarstapi (Mark Stratton)

Volcanic cliffs and basalt rocks in Arnarstapi (Mark Stratton)

Westfjord ho!

Geologically, Westfjord is where Iceland bubbled into life some 16million years ago. It is Snæfellsnes’ older and infinitely harder brother. A landscape you should not mess with. Not pubescent with volcanic acne-like Snæfellsnes but wizened by glaciation and wearing the granite frowns of deep fjords and scoured U-shaped valleys.

From Bránslækur, it’s a two-hour drive to Iceland’s westernmost tip and Látrabjarg’s world-renowned bird clis. I had puffins on my mind but quickly added vertigo during a white-knuckle drive. Obscured in sea-mist, the passes between the fjords rose evermore vertiginously, the barrier-less road turned to gravel and narrowed. The highly sprung hairpin bends ensured I reached Látrabjarg with a grip on the steering-wheel tighter than any cli-nesting seabird.

Yet the ogre in this drive soon subsides amid a blizzard of birds. Látrabjarg is Iceland’s highest cli-line, running 14km and rising to a dizzying 441m. Its theme tune is the dissonance of hundreds-of-thousands of nesting seabirds. Guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and murres all nest on basalt ledges streaked white with pungent guano.

Naturally, I craved to be entertained by nature’s face-painted clowns, the puffins. Látrabjarg is a major stronghold for this endangered species, with some  50,000 pairs said to be breeding here. Feeling unsteady on high, I laid down on my belly to photograph a solitary puffin that emerged from a burrow. The puffin was fearless and unfazed, and we shared seaward views to where thousands of others bobbed on the sea like driftwood.

We were then joined by a razorbill emerging from a neighbouring burrow. Some 40% of razorbills’ global nesting population is found on these clis and close up I could see the veracity of the French description of them as ‘petit penguin’ – although their low-browed stare has always reminded me of a nightclub bouncer. As I eased forward for a clearer photograph, I could swear it gave me a ‘Sorry mate, you’re wearing trainers, you can’t come in’ stare.

Such accommodating fearlessness however once made both species easy quarry for hunters. These people put common sense aside and rappelled down the clis to collect the birds for food; a nearby interpretation panel explained that in one year alone (1886), 36,000 seabirds were taken.

By now, Freyr the Viking god of weather, intervened for my return drive from Látrabjarg, bestowing sunshine. I relaxed and adored the multiple shades of blueness in sea inlets and mountaintops sharpened into Mesopotamian ziggurats. On the kelp-striped strandline of Skápadular fjord lies the rusting Garður BA64 from 1912, Iceland’s oldest steel ship, now left to the excoriating elements.

That evening, east of Bránslækur, I recomposed myself at Hotel Flókalundur with a socially distanced pizza and beer in their restaurant and then soaked in a natural hot spring by the edge of a transcendentally calm sea inlet. Yet an email completely changed my lonely plans for the following day. I’d planned to spend the remainder of my time in Iceland doing some leisurely sightseeing around Westfjord, before making my way slowly back to Snæfellsnes. But a whale-watching tour-operator I was in touch with urged me to hurry back to Ólafsvik, and the message could not have been clearer. “You must come tomorrow. Many orcas in the bay.”

A Ringed Plover in flight (Mark Stratton)

A Ringed Plover in flight (Mark Stratton)

Puffins and razorbills call at the cliffs at Látrabjarg (Mark Stratton)

Puffins and razorbills call at the cliffs at Látrabjarg (Mark Stratton)

Out with the orca

With little need for a second invitation, I hurried o next morning tracing the wending coast of Breiðafjöður fjord to join Captain Gisli, who departed Ólafsvik harbour at 2pm. As we departed, I summoned the intervention of Ægir, the Norse god of the sea, because my previous attempts to see orcas were disastrous, either distant or no sightings at all, from Antarctica to Alaska. With the excitement of perhaps – finally – seeing them, I forgot any lingering reservations I may have felt about mixing with other holidaymakers, after endeavouring (like Bárður) to avoid people throughout previous few months.

Snæfellsnes’ killer whales number between 600-700. They can travel 100km per day so sightings are not guaranteed, warned our guide, Karl. Emphasising this, he explained how a pod of Snæfellsnes orca was recently identified in Italy, heading down towards Lebanon. “It’s over 3,000km, the longest recorded orca migration,” said Karl. “We don’t really know why they swam that far south. It shows how little we know about them.”

These orcas dine on herring, which shoal in large densities around the peninsula. Sightings of them are frequent, which has enabled a detailed photographic record of them to be collated, identifying them by bodily characteristics like nicks on their dorsal fins and scratches on their white saddle-patch markings.

After 20 minutes, their presence on the horizon was revealed by gluttonous black-backed gulls who squabbled for a share of the hapless herring that were being hunted by the orca. Captain Gisli drew closer until a dozen of them surrounded the vessel. Barrelling through the waves, they had the look of smiling assassins: slick black like a diver’s neoprene with a broad smirk across a torpedo-rounded heads that looked powerful enough to leave the doors to Neptune’s kingdom hanging o their hinges.

This pod is identified by a male called Sakkara, who has  a squarish notch in his dorsal fin. The pod dove and lunged around our boat eliciting choruses of coos and gasps that turned to ‘ahs’ when porpoise-sized babies arched in close attendance chasing their mother’s tails. Sometimes they surfaced in twos or threes and skimmed the surf with seamless synchronicity.

We encountered a second feeding pod later featuring d’Artagnon, although there was no sign of his fellow musketeers. “They swim around and ball the herring together and emit a low-frequency vibration with the same resonance of a herring’s swimbladder. It paralyses the herring, so they are unable to move, and get eaten,” explained Karl.

I found myself again thinking of Bárður Snæfellsás during this remarkable encounter. Perhaps he was too hasty retreating from life when things got bad, turning his back on the redemptive qualities of nature? At times during the initial coronavirus lockdown, I had squinted outwards from the darkness of my own cave of isolation. Now the eternal midsummer sunshine of the land of fire and ice felt like the light at the end of this tunnel and a glorious re-entry into the world.

Orca hunt the herring who’ve made the fatal error of massing in Breiðafjöður (Mark Stratton)

Orca hunt the herring who’ve made the fatal error of massing in Breiðafjöður (Mark Stratton)

The hull of the Garður BA64 sits rusting (Mark Stratton)

The hull of the Garður BA64 sits rusting (Mark Stratton)

Watching orca families (Mark Stratton)

Watching orca families (Mark Stratton)

Footnotes

The trip

The author travelled with Discover the World (01737 886131) on its 7-night West Iceland Hiking Escape. This self-drive trip is based upon self-catering at Glacier Lodge and includes first-night B&B at Northern Light Inn and vehicle rental. The author added an overnight excursion to the Westfjords and whale-watching to the trip; the Westfjords feature in Discover the World’s 14-day Iceland Backroads trip. Additionally, they offer a full tailor-made service.

Vital statistics

Capital: Reykjavík

Population: 364,000

Language(s): Icelandic

Time: GMT

International dialling code: +354

Visas: Not required for stays up to three months.

Money: The Icelandic Krona (ISK)

When to go

Despite a fearsome climate, Iceland is accessible all-year round, with two main tourism seasons.

June-late Aug: Daylight hours are long and temperatures between 10°-15°C. Driving holidays, hiking and nature-watching are popular.

Sept-Apr: Winter days are dark with sub-zero temperatures and snow possible. During this period the great attraction is the aurora borealis.

Top tip

If you want to keep in touch with the world from Iceland’s remotest corners, the roaming can be somewhat patchy so consider a local SIM-card, which are not excessively expensive, and offer excellent coverage.

Health & safety   

At the time of publishing, Iceland had one of the lowest rates of coronavirus infection in the world. All passengers are currently required to take a coronavirus test upon arrival at Keflavík Airport, isolate for 5 days, and then take another test. Alternatively, you can self-isolate for 14 days. But requirements can change at short notice so do check.

Landscape-wise, caution must be observed visiting volcanic features, driving challenging roads and hiking around glaciers, all prone to sudden weather shifts and changing conditions.

Getting there

The author flew with Icelandair, flying from Heathrow and Gatwick to Keflavík: a 3hr flight

Getting around

The author used a rental car from Europcar at Keflavík Airport as Snæfellsnes is relatively inaccessible beyond local buses. Booking through Discover the World would get a more favourable rate. 

Food & Drink

Iceland has Scandi-style cuisine with Reykjavík offering more cosmopolitan fare. Expect dark rye bread, creamy yoghurt skyr, plenty of fish, cod, haddock and salmon, and lamb. The Reykjavík hotdog is an institution while plokkfiskur is a popular wintery fish stew.

Steer clear of eating endangered species such as puffin and a type of fermented shark. Iceland also brews its own craft beers.

Accommodation

Glacier Lodge is a comfortable two-story self-catering property with three bedrooms and views to Snæfellsjökull Glacier. Rate part of booked package.

Centerhotel Midgardur is found in a convenient location off Reykjavík’s main thoroughfare, A medium-sized hotel with modern Scandi décor and a buzzy restaurant-bar. 

Northern Lights Inn (+354 426 8650) is a lovely, 42-room hotel close to Keflavík Airport and the famous Blue Lagoon. Geothermally powered, it is stylish with large rooms plus spa. 

Sitting by a sea-inlet, Hotel Flokalundur is a comfortable hotel with small rooms and a lively restaurant – a welcome relief after a long Westfjord drive.

Further reading & information

Visit Iceland – official site, Icelandic killer whale conservation and Laki Tours for Whale-watching and birding trips

Iceland – Lonely Planet Guide (2019)

 7 Icelandic adventures

1. Whale watching

A great place to watch whales with orca in both winter and summer, abundant humpback whales, and sporadic sightings of sperm and fin whales. 

2. Ice caving

Wrap up and take a guided tour into otherworldly glacial caverns like Breiðamerkurjökull, the crystal cave, a particularly beautiful excursion within Europe’s largest ice-cap.

3. Hiking

Well-equipped hikers can experience the raw wilderness of Iceland on numerous hikes, like the 55km, 4-day Laugavegur trail.

4. Pony trekking

Robust Icelandic ponies arrived with the Vikings and their powerful surefootedness are an ideal way to get intimate with rugged backcountry.

5. Volcanic power

It was the eruption of Mt. Eyjafjallajökull that created global chaos in 2010. Explore its fiery volcanic features on a Jeep-tour.

6. Northern lights

Aurora borealis sightings can never be guaranteed, such are the vagaries of the Icelandic climate. Yet the dark skies due to a lack of settlement ensures this is still one of the places to witness this light show.

7. Blue lagoon

Okay, it’s hardly an adventure, yet with few Instagramming visitors about, now is the time for a dip.

The road to Hellnar (Mark Stratton)

The road to Hellnar (Mark Stratton)

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