Travel to the Westfjords of Iceland – Episode 497

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Travel to the Westfjords of Iceland - Amateur Traveler Episode 497

Hear about travel to the Westfjords of Iceland as the Amateur Traveler talks to Katie Hammel of about her trip to this remote region of the island.


Katie says, “most people know the Ring Road, they know Reykjavik, they know the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon, but fewer people know the Westfjords which is this very remote region up in the northwest of Iceland that only about 3-6% of Iceland’s tourists ever visit. As Iceland has become more popular I find that on every trip I see more tour buses, more people. If you really want to go and have this amazing experience with nobody around it is harder and harder to do that.” The Westfjords are a place where you can do that. You might drive for hours and not see another car. A recurring theme on my trip was that every place my husband and I went, we were the only people there. It was incredible to see such natural beauty and be completely alone.”

There are 3 mains ways to get the to Westfjords. You can fly, take a ferry from the Snæfellsnes peninsula or drive. Katie and her husband chose to drive the entire way so as not to miss the beautiful scenery.

The roads in the Westfjords were winding. Some of the roads are not paved and filled with potholes but in a land where the waterfalls outnumber the people, Katie says the journey is worth the effort. The scenery is filled with stark table mountains butting up against the sea. There are few if any trees. As Katie says, the joke is that if “you are lost in an Iceland forest, stand up”.

Along the way, they visited an Arctic Fox center, the only native mammal on Iceland, and a museum about sorcery & witchcraft. They would like to have seen a sea monster museum but it had closed, as had so much else, at the end of the Summer tourist season.

Come experience the rugged beauty of this undiscovered corner of Iceland.

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Show Notes

Travel to Iceland – Episode 204
Westfjords Iceland
Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
Arctic fox
The Arctic Fox Center
Chris’s Iceland Pictures
Icelandic Sea Monster Museum
Katie on the Viator Blog
Where waterfalls outnumber people


about Travel to San Diego – Episode 494 we heard from 3 different listeners:

Mark said:

My wife and I were in the San Diego area during this Christmas. We had two days to spend with two of our grandsons, age 5 and 7. Day two we visited the Birch aquarium. The kids had a great time as did grandma and grandpa. We also were impressed by the views from Cabrillo NM. On the first day we did something your guest did not mention. We took Nate Harrison Grade, one of several gravel roads up the side of Palomar Mountain. Suitable for almost any family vehicle. Great views along the way.

Kristie said:

I am in San Diego right now for a conference! This episode is perfectly timed and I will take some of your guest’s recommendations. One thing I would add is that San Diego is full of craft breweries and great brew pubs, and I have been enjoying many of the different local beers. If people are interested, has all the information you could need to find the many breweries. Thanks for the great episode!

Jim said:

My parents retired to the San Diego area in the 80’s, and we went out there two or three times a year through this year. A couple of comments. San Diego is a car culture, and most of the sites Mike mentioned you will have to get to by car. Examples include Point Loma, Carlsbad, Safari Park (formerly Wild Animal Park), Julian, etc. And no matter where you go, there will be someone right behind you, and there’s no place to park. Traffic is my biggest complaint about San Diego. Another point is that Seaport Village, a place we really loved, has gone downhill. The last couple of times we were there, one-third to one-half the stores were unoccupied. I don’t have an explanation as to why this is. The Self-Realization Fellowship is just south of Encinitas, and the locals call it “Swami’s”. It is a very famous surfing spot, so famous that I’m a little surprised Apple hasn’t named an operating system after it. San Diego Safari Park is much better than the Zoo, if you have the time to drive out to Escondido. But be sure to check the weather forecast – it gets really hot out there sometimes. Triple digits are common. But the park itself is fantastic. Try to get the left side of the tram for the best view. The ‘behind the scenes’ rides are good, too. Also, be aware that if you go to Tijuana by car, your US auto insurance will not cover you, and traffic accidents in Mexico are treated as criminal offenses. You are better off parking at San Ysidro and walking over the border. Lots of taxis waiting for you. And, of course, you need your passport to get back in to the US. Having said all that, San Diego is a fantastic place to go and the weather is the best in the USA except maybe Hawaii. The marine layer does make the coastal area gloomy in May and June, but the sun usually shines further inland.

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What to do and see in Iceland. Travel to the Westfjords of Iceland - Amateur Traveler Episode 497


Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 497. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about fjords and waterfalls, arctic foxes and necropants, as we go to the Westfjords of Iceland.

Chris: This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. These colorful guidebooks are filled with great information and are one of my favorite guidebooks. I have 25 of them right here on my bookshelf. Learn more at

Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host, Chris Christensen. We’ll be talking more about our sponsor DK Eyewitness Guides but first, let’s talk about Iceland. I’d like to welcome to the show, Katie Hammel, who is an editor at and also a freelance travel writer and friend and has come to talk to us about Iceland. Katie, welcome to the show.

Katie: Thank you, I’m happy to be here.

Chris: We’ve done one more show on Iceland previously a few years back, which was about the ring-road around Iceland. But Katie, you pitched me something different.

Katie: Yes. Most people know the ring-road, they know Reykjavik, they know the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon but fewer people know the Westfjords, which is this very remote region up in the North-West of Iceland that only about 3% to 6% of Iceland’s tourists ever visit.

Chris: I didn’t realize it was that small. I know it is more difficult to get to them, for instance, the Golden Circle, which you can day-trip from Reykjavik to see. How do you get to the region that we’re talking about, first of all?

Katie: It definitely requires some effort. There are three main ways you can get there. You can fly, which is about a 40-minute flight directly into the larger city, which is called Isafjordur. The airport is this tiny strip of land, one runway, it actually looks like a terrifying flight into the airport for somebody who has flight anxiety like I do but the problem with that is, you miss out this gorgeous scenery along the way. The other option is, you can go up to an area called the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, which is about two hours from Reykjavik, and then you can take a ferry.

This is a little bit more adventurous, or you can drive, which is what I did. My husband and I actually went the long way around but if you’re going direct from Reykjavik, it’s about 6 hours, it’s about, I think, 400 miles but it takes a long time because it’s just so gorgeous, you’re going to want to stop. And the roads, they curve in and out of all these incredible fjords, so it just takes a long time to drive there.

Chris: Okay. And fjords is definitely one of the things that we’re up there to see. I appreciate that you’re saying the Iceland names at least with confidence because I’ve been on the Peninsula that you named and I still can’t pronounce it.

Katie: I jokingly call it the Snuffilofigus Peninsula sometimes.

Chris: That’s exactly what it sounds like to me. Excellent. Why are we going to this remote region of Iceland?

Katie: As Iceland has become more popular, I find that… I’ve been there four times now and on every trip, I see more tour buses, more people. These incredible natural wonders that you’re going to see and these remote landscapes that Iceland is so known for, are now being encroached on by more and more tourists, which is great for Iceland but if you really want to go and have this amazing experience with nobody around, it’s harder and harder to do that.

So, the Westfjords are a place where you can still do that, you can be completely alone, you might drive for hours and not see another car. A recurring theme on my trip was, every place my husband and I went, we were the only people there and it was just incredible to see such natural beauty and be completely alone in that area.

Chris: My experience was that really, once you got two or three hours from Reykjavik, you were past where most of the tourists were going. So, for instance, the Golden Circle really has a lot of tourists, sort of in any direction but even out on the Snaefellsnes, even out on the Peninsula, we didn’t run into any tourists at all, I think.

Katie: Definitely. And the further you get from the city, with a couple exceptions, the South Coast, along the black sand beaches near Reykjavik, that’s pretty popular. Up in the North, there’s a town called Akureyri, which is pretty much the only other city aside from Reykjavik, and that’s fairly popular now. If you’re willing to drive a couple hours away from the city, you’ll definitely encounter far a fewer tourists.

Chris: Excellent. What kind of itinerary would you recommend for visiting these fjords?

Katie: I spent about three days there and I wish I would have had more time because there was so much I didn’t get to do. And I think if you really want to dive deep, about five or six days in the Westfjords would be great but if you want to see something else like the Snaefellsnes Peninsula or travel more around the country or go see Reykjavik if it’s your first time, I would say, three days is a really good taster of the region. And then spend a couple of days in Reykjavik or maybe on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula or somewhere on the South Coast.

Chris: Okay. And how would you break up that time? Let’s just talk about the fjords for now.

Katie: I would say, I think spending your time in Isafjordur is a great base. It’s really the only big city and actually, it’s incorrect to call it a city, it’s more of a village. It’s about 2,500 people and really the only place of any significant infrastructure, in terms of multiple hotels or restaurants or things like that to choose from.

So, that’s my option for a base but I would definitely start with the first day of taking a really long time to get there, I really appreciating the drive, going in and out of these incredible fjords. Along the way, there’s a couple of hot-springs you can stop at. There’s a town called Holmavik, which is home to the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft.

Chris: Okay.

Katie: It’s one of those places where you’re probably going to be the only person there. It’s this one weird guy who runs this little museum. It talks about how the Westfjords have been a place that Icelanders have always felt had a little bit of magic, there was some dark magic going on. They have these things called the necropants, they have a replica, thankfully not real.

Chris: Is this something the people wear in the area or…?

Katie: It was a pair of pants made of human skin that the witches and wizards of the time basically made and then they put a coin in the skin and whoever wore the pants would be rich for the rest or their days. So, they have these on display and all these documents from witch trials and things like that that happened in the early 1900s. So, it’s a fascinating look at the dark thoughts of the time and the history. People thought the area was so wild that there had to be something going on up there.

Chris: You said, ‘of the time’ what kind of time-frame are we talking about?

Katie: It was the early 1900s. Much later than the witch trials in the US, I think. It was a much less developed country at the time.

Chris: Interesting. Okay.

Katie: So, beyond that, you just keep on driving up the road that you would take, it’s called route 61, and from Holmavik, it ends up going in and out of six different fjords and each one, I would say, takes at least half an hour. Because you’re driving in for 20 minutes or so, just to get into the apex of the fjords and then you curve around and come back out because there are no bridges built over the fjords, so you just have to keep going in and out of these incredibly deep short ends. It’s gorgeous.

So, you end up getting to Isafjordur, which is the main town and then, there are a couple of other small towns that are in that area that have some museums, some hot-springs, you can go see kayaking, horseback riding, whale-watching in the summer and there’s this little town called Sudavik. I might not be pronouncing that one correctly, but it’s about 20 minutes from Isafjordur and there is an arctic fox museum there.

The arctic fox is the only indigenous land mammal in Iceland and they’re very prevalent all over the Westfjords and they’re not very afraid of humans because they don’t have any predators. So, the Arctic Fox Center finds these ones that have either gotten onto people’s farms or a fender, somehow need a rescue and they rehabilitate them and put them back out into the wild, if they can.

Chris: Katie, you talked about it being gorgeous but let’s narrow down the type of gorgeousness that we’re talking about here. I’m picturing since we’re talking about Iceland that I’m not driving through woods, first of all.

Katie: Right.

Chris: Since I don’t recall seeing any on the island, very sparse landscape and in this case, since we’re talking about fjords, I’m guessing a very rocky landscape.

Katie: Yes. There’s a joke in Iceland that if you get lost in Icelandic forest, all you have to do is stand up because there’s very few trees. There are very few trees and they’re very small. So, the landscape of the Westfjords, it’s very, very mountainous, it’s actually the oldest part of Iceland and the mountains are these huge table mountains that rise up from the sea. So, there’s very little useable land aside from the Coast. So, everything, all of the towns, all of the roads, everything just hugs the Coast.

So, when you’re driving, it’s the road, directly to the right of the road is the ocean, if you’re going north-west, and then to the other side, it’s just the sheer mountains. I have a picture that I took while I was driving, there are no other cars on the road, so I grabbed my camera and took a quick picture from the driver’s seat. But you’re just driving straight into a mountain and at the last minute, the road curves and headed back out to the sea and went around the mountain. But it’s just completely surrounded by mountains.

Isafjordur, the town itself, comes out onto this spit of land in the water but it has mountains on three sides of it, and then it looks out onto the ocean. So, it’s just incredibly gorgeous and it feels very expansive but at the same time, very small because everywhere you look, there are mountains but they are huge and they’re towering over you.

Chris: Interesting. You were talking about driving, and I’m assuming that for this, as well as the Peninsula we talked about before, if you want to see it really, you’re going to rent a car?

Katie: Yes, definitely. If you fly in, you can rent a car in Isafjordur. If you take a ferry, you can bring your car on the ferry. Driving is definitely the way to go, there’s very few, if any bus services. You can take some tours but without a car, you’d really be very limited in what you could see and do.

Chris: Okay. And we should say, since Katie works for Viator, she’s certainly not opposed to taking tours. We’ve talked about Viator tours on the site before but there’s just not a lot of infrastructure in the Westfjords.

Katie: Correct. There are some organized things you can do, like going walking on glaciers or horseback riding, kayaking, things like that. But for the most part, you’re going to need to drive to the location yourself and then engage in the activity, versus having a guided tour.

Chris: Okay. So, when we’re done in Reykjavik, for instance, if I want to do a glacier tour, I can meet somebody that will take me on a bus and take me out to the glacier and do all of that and it’s a little different up here?

Katie: Correct.

Chris: Okay. Excellent. What kind of highlights do you have? What are the activities did you try for instance?

Katie: I took a very long time, as I said, driving up to Isafjordur. That was really my main activity the first day, just kind of gawking at this beautiful landscape. I stopped at the sorcery museum to see the necropants. Like I said, it’s a very strange experience, but fun. Then the next day I went to the Arctic Fox Center, and they had a little fox running around the property.

His name was Freddy, he was adorable. So, I got to pet a little arctic fox and just learn about the arctic fox and its habitat and how it unique to Iceland. It’s interesting that it’s kind of the only mammal that they really have, that’s an indigenous land mammal.

Chris: You were there in what season?

Katie: I was there in September, towards the very end of September. Really, the high season for the Westfjords is May to August. I spoke with some people who said that they’ve had winters that have lasted from September to May. The snow doesn’t melt until early June, so if you go before that, you could definitely run into some unfortunate weather and even in September, the day that I left, I woke up and there was snow on the ground.

So, winter come is very early and it is serious winter. So, not really recommended to go in January, February because you are going to be very limited in what you can do, because so many of the roads are going to be closed because of snow. Avalanches are a big problem up there. They’ve had some serious ones that have unfortunately destroyed homes and left people dead. So, you don’t want to mess around with the winter up there, basically.

Chris: Let’s take a break here and hear from our sponsor, who is DK Eyewitness Guides. As I’m looking at the pictures that Katie took of Iceland, I want more and more to go back to that country, then my wife was looking over my shoulder and now is more interested in Iceland and that’s one of the reasons I like the DK Guides, is they are so colorful and have so much information and so many pictures.

I don’t have the guidebook for Iceland but I was looking at the guidebook for the cliffs of Moher and the Burren areas of Ireland, which remind me of the pictures that we’ve been looking at from Katie. If you look at the Burren in particular, you just can’t understand it, I think in a picture of words, because it’s this limestone that almost looks like paving tiles and they have pictures of all of the different types of animals and all the different types of flowers that you can find in this very barren landscape in Ireland.

So, I think you’ll enjoy those guides if you take a look at them in your local bookstore or order them online. You can also get them directly from DK, by going to and thanks again to DK for sponsoring this episode.

I was there last year, not to the Western Fjords but up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula for instance in October. We ran into days that looked like summer and then the next day when we were in the Peninsula, for instance, I remember leaning into the wind at something like 30 degrees because it was so strong that you really were walking at quite a tilt to keep yourself from falling over. I literally had my glasses blow off from my face twice, so it seemed like there was no fall, it just went from summer right into winter.

Katie: Definitely. I was surprised by the fall color. Since they don’t have forests, they don’t really have that changing of the leaves, but there was a lot of like moss up on the mountains that did change to a nice, burnt orange. It was like, “It is kind of like fall color in September, even though it’s not a traditional fall.” But the weather definitely is very changeable and not to be messed around with. One of the days, my husband and I drove from Isafjordur, all the way down to this area called Latrabjarg, if I’m pronouncing it right, which is the westernmost point of Iceland and it’s basically the westernmost point of Europe, aside from the Azores.

It’s incredible bird cliff, by the time we went in September, all the birds had gone for the season, but typically, if you go in summer, there’s all these birds, there’s puffins, it’s the largest bird cliff in Europe. It’s 350 feet tall, home to millions of birds. But when we went, it was just this incredibly stunning cliff, it goes sheerly down into the ocean. But the wind there was so strong, they had a sign that was like a stick figure man kind of falling off the cliff.

My husband and I joked that maybe that sign doesn’t mean be careful, there’s a cliff, it means more like the wind is going to blow you off. Because it’s so incredibly strong that I was hesitant to get too close to the edge because I thought one strong gust and I’m going over.

Chris: One of the reasons I asked season was getting back to the arctic fox. When you see the arctic fox in September what color was it?

Katie: It was black. It was black with a little sprinkling of salt and pepper, gray. They do turn white in the winter, but I think in the summer, they’re mostly black or gray.

Chris: Okay. The color of the landscape, which makes sense. I assume their natural predators would be large birds.

Katie: Yes. They don’t really have any other large land mammals, occasionally a polar bear seems to wander over and then it makes the news but otherwise, there’s really no other predator for them aside for a large bird.

Chris: Interesting, excellent. And what else did you do?

Katie: We drove to the cliffs. Along the way to the cliffs, we stopped at a couple of small towns. They’ve dug these huge tunnels into some of the mountains to shorten the distances, so you don’t have to go all the way around. So, the tunnels themselves were kind of an attraction for me because at some points, they became single lane and every once in a while, a car would come and you would have to pull over into this waiting area and wait for the car to come.

So, I found it fascinating, like the ways that they figured out to cope with the extreme landscape. So, we did this drive and we went to a waterfall called Dynjandi, which isn’t actually one waterfall, it’s like seven waterfalls that cascade in various stages down from the mountain. It’s basically the top attraction in the Westfjords. We were the only people there for about an hour, hour and a half, hiking up to the waterfall, taking a ton of pictures.

Right as we were leaving, another car finally pulled up, but again, that was kind of the theme that we felt like we owned the whole place, like there’s no other human inhabitants. Even some of the towns that we drove through, we would see a sign saying, there’s a town 20 kilometers and we would get to the town, and the town was a gas station with a self-service pump and four houses and nobody around.

It’s just incredible to feel like there’s no one else around you. So, we went to the waterfall and then we drove over to the bird cliffs, which like I said, in and of itself, the drive is somewhat of an adventure because the roads are all gravel roads, very windy, up and down mountains.

I have a picture of this one road and it looks like a polka dot carpet because it’s just all these deep, deep circular potholes, with this pinkish-colored water in them because of the particular gravel, but it looks like this polka dot carpet to me, these deep, deep potholes filled with water. We were going maybe 20 miles and it took more than an hour to navigate this incredibly bumpy dirt road.

Chris: Well, I’m curious. Did you drive 61 only to 60 or did you do as much of the perimeters you could?

Katie: The first day we started in Holmavik, we drove up 61 all the way to Isafjordur, then the next day, it was fairly rainy, tempestuous weather, so we stuck close to town. That’s the day that we saw the Arctic Fox Center and stayed fairly near to Isafjordur. Then the next day we ended up on 60, going down. I think at some point, we connected to 63 over and kind of down and around and ended up on some nameless road that goes out to the cliffs. So, we mostly tried to stick to the perimeter and see as much of the fjords as we could, but for time’s sake, at times, we ended up on the larger roads.

Chris: Because I noticed for instance, there’s a nature preserve, a nature reserve rather in the very far north and it doesn’t look like the roads even go there.

Katie: That’s true, the roads don’t go there. It’s only accessible in the summer and you can hike in or you can take a ferry. So, since we were there in September, we unfortunately weren’t able to go, but we could see it from it Isafjordur and it looks just gorgeous. We spoke to people who said you can go in and you can hike for a week or you can just go for a day and do a day hike but there’s no road, so it’s been the most remote region of Iceland, it is definitely the most remote spot.

Chris: Did you stop and do any of the local hikes along the routes that you were on?

Katie: We did a hike around Dynjandi, around the waterfall. We mostly hiked up to the waterfall and spent some time up there, taking pictures and just admiring the view, but otherwise, we didn’t do any larger hikes on our trip.

Chris: Waterfalls are something that we should mention somewhat about because I’m guessing you saw more than just one waterfall in Iceland.

Katie: We did. I can’t remember where I read it, but at some point in planning this trip, I read something that said there are basically more waterfalls than there are people in the street and because the whole region only has 7,000 people. So I said, “Okay, that sounds interesting, let’s go there.” At one point I was counting the waterfalls and after an hour I hit something like 90 waterfalls and I was like, I’m just not going to count anymore because it’s crazy.

The Icelandic word for waterfall is foss. So, my husband and I made this game out of it. We were just like, “Oh foss, look there’s another foss,” and we started to give them like silly names and make up all these foss puns, but it’s just insane how many there are because there’s just water cascading down from the mountains, there’s lakes on top of mountains in some places. There’s just water rushing everywhere.

Chris: It’s interesting what I found before I went, I read about Iceland and its waterfalls, but I heard probably more about geysers and I would honestly say I was a little disappointed. I think if you want to see geysers, go to Yellowstone, which has more than the rest of the world combined, but if you want to see waterfalls, it was just stunning just the number of them, the beauty of them, just because of the landscape. I thought that was just very noticeable without going up to the region where you were, which I think is even more, is my impression.

Katie: Definitely. You almost get waterfall fatigue or at some point out you get, “Oh, there’s another one,” and then you have to catch yourself and go, yes, but it’s still beautiful and it’s amazing that there are so many, but they’re everywhere you look.

Chris: What surprised you about the Western fjords?

Katie: I knew it was going to be empty and remote, but I was surprised still by just how empty it was. Like I said, we drove for hours and didn’t see another car which, at some point, gets a little worrying because you think, “Oh, what if the car breaks down?” Especially on these rough road but throughout the whole time we had cell service, which is kind of funny.

But it was just incredible to be somewhere where there were literally no other people, even at these places that were billed as the big attractions like Dynjandi Waterfalls and Latrabjarg cliffs. We saw maybe two other people at the cliffs and we were there for a couple hours walking around. So, I just was still surprised by just how empty it was.

Chris: Well, I think part of the thing here is, we’re talking about something that’s empty in comparison to some place, that’s already pretty empty.

Katie: Exactly.

Chris: There really aren’t that many people in all of Iceland and most of them are in Reykjavik. Interesting. What’s one warning you would give?

Katie: I would say give yourself more time than you think you need, number one. Like I said, we…

Chris: Time to get around?

Katie: More time to get around and more time in the Westfjord. Three days was a great taster, but I wish we would have had more, because we would have done more hikes or gone horseback riding or things like that, which we didn’t have a chance to do because we spent so much time driving, because the distances are great.

But also, even if you think it’s going to take three hours or Google Maps tells you it’s going to take three hours, you know that the roads are rough and they curve and they go up and down mountains and the weather can be very changeable. And you’re just going to want to stop and pull over and take a million pictures of things that you think are going to be like at two hour drive, are really going to be more like a five or six hour drive.

Chris: It looks to me like the whole Western Fjords Peninsula is maybe 50, 70 miles total in length, somewhere in that range. Do you know how much you drove, how many total miles, because this road is very widely?

Katie: In kilometers, I think it was about 1,000, so about 600 miles. I do know that we had of a very generous allowance for driving. We rented a camper van, which we didn’t end up staying in, but we rented a camper van because we wanted to stay in it and we had a very generous daily allowance and we went over by 500 or 600 miles so we drove a lot.

Chris: Interesting. Because it’s deceptive. I knew it was going to be a lot larger number than I expected. Are there options if you had wanted to, were there places where you could have just pulled over and stayed in the camper van? I don’t know the rules in Iceland.

Katie: The rule basically is, if it’s someone’s property, you should get permission but if it’s like safe harbor law, if you’re in trouble, you can stay anywhere you need to. So, we actually did stay in the camper van in other parts of Iceland. We just didn’t do it in the Westfjords because it was much colder up there than in other spots, but where we pulled over in other spots, we just pulled off the road, found a little parking spot, a little bit off the road for the noise and safety and just set up camp there.

At one point, we actually found a little hidden makeshift hot-spring, where somebody had put a little horse trough over a bubbling hot-spring and was capturing that water, so we had ourselves a little nice hot tub for the night. In most places, you absolutely can just pull over wherever it’s safe and wherever you’re kind of not in the way, you’re not directly on someone’s property. The rule is just respect it and leave no trace.

Chris: It’s funny that you said that somebody had to use the hot-spring there because when I was there, they were talking about that the first thing you do when you’re going to build a house is first, you dig the well that is your hot water, that basically, there’s just hot water everywhere, under Iceland. And so much of their energy comes from geothermal. In fact, near Reykjavik, if you interested in that, there is a geothermal plant that you can visit, which all of the water for Reykjavik or much of the hot water for Reykjavik actually comes and is heated by geothermal at that plant.

Katie: Yes, you’ll never take a cold shower in Iceland. It just won’t happen.

Chris: Although it would smell a little like sulfur.

Katie: Yes. There are a ton of hot-springs up in the Westfjords as well. There’s one that’s at the end of the road, near the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. We didn’t end up going to that one, because we were worried about the condition of the road at that time of year. The other problem is, most of the places in the Westfjords where there are these hot-springs, there aren’t changing facilities or shower or anything. So, you’re going to be a little bit cold before and after you get out of the hot-springs. But there are a ton, just everywhere out there.

Chris: Well, that’s where camper van comes in handy there.

Katie: Yes, that’s true.

Chris: Excellent. And did you have a chance to read any of the guide books to see what they recommended and were there things that they recommended that you would say skip, for instance?

Katie: There were a couple of things that they recommended that were just things that we couldn’t do. The guide books pretty much assumed that you were going to be there in peak tourist season, so a lot of the things that I wanted to do were closed or shut down for the season, a lot of the restaurants that they recommended were only open in summer.

There’s a Sea Monster Museum, another kind of wacky museum that is just closed in the winter, you literally can’t go. And I would have liked to have gone to that because fishing is such a huge part of life in the Westfjords and they’re surrounded by the sea so, I thought The Sea Monster Museum could be interesting but just can’t do it.

Chris: Okay. And in term of restaurants, I’m assuming that the food you were eating was a combination of fish and sheep.

Katie: Exactly.

Chris: Okay. Very Icelandic.

Katie: Absolutely.

Chris: And a little putrefied shark in there or…?

Katie: No, I did not partake in that.

Chris: Nor I.

Katie: But in Isafjordur, that’s basically the main town, there are a couple of restaurants there, some of them were closed for the winter already. But there was a place called Husid, which basically just means house, which is just this little house cafe and I had one of the best lobster soups of my life there. I’ve had a ton of lobster soup in Iceland since I’ve been there several times, but it was just fantastic lobster soup.

They had really good fish, they had a couple of lamb dishes as well. Yes, like you’ve said it, it’s basically you’re going to eat fish or lobster or lamb. So, we enjoyed a couple of meals there. And then the other night, we just went to the grocery store and bought our own fish and cooked dinner in the apartment.

Chris: And grocery in Iceland is typically expensive. Was the fish inexpensive?

Katie: It was expensive. We bought a giant bag of langoustines.

Chris: Like a lobster?

Katie: Yes, like baby lobsters and that fed us for two nights for dinner but it cost us about $60. But they were absolutely fantastic but yes, it probably would have been about the same price for us to go out to eat but we wanted to cook and take advantage of that.

Chris: Okay, excellent. What do you wish you had known that you know now?

Katie: I wish I had known that I would be limited in certain things because of the time of the year. I knew that, I knew that May to August is really peak time but I thought, “Oh, I can just sneak in under the wire in September, that the season in Iceland is definitely getting slightly longer, in terms of the tourist season, as more people go. So, I thought, “Oh, maybe September will still be okay,” but it was definitely hard because a lot of things were already shutting down.

Chris: Well, in fact, we’re seeing a lot of people who are now doing the Northern Lights tours to Iceland, but it just doesn’t seem like they’re heading that far afield.

Katie: Definitely.

Chris: It’s just much more difficult to get to that area. Okay, excellent. Before we get to our last four questions, do you have anything else we should know before we head up to the Western fjords?

Katie: The towns that I mentioned are few and far between and very small. So, one rule that my husband and I had for ourselves was basically, when we see a gas station, we stopped, never let the tank get below a half tank. And we did have a couple of times where we were really like, “Oh, we are almost to that point,” and we hoped we find a gas station soon. So, it’s one of those places where, when you have the opportunity to stock up on something, you stock up on something.

Chris: Okay. Prettiest spot in all of the Western fjord, where you’re standing, where are you looking at?

Katie: It’s a tie for me between the Latrabjarg cliff, the bird cliff, because you’re looking out and it’s just pure ocean and the cliffs are spectacular, they’re so tall. Even when there’s not the puffins and the major bird colony, there still are some birds swooping around in the wind, the ocean’s frosting below you.

It feels very wild and it feels like you really are on the edge of the world. And then the other spot would be the Dynjandi waterfall. It’s kind of tucked into a fjord. So, when you’re standing on the waterfall, you’re seeing mountains to the right, mountains to the left and the water just spread out in front of you, the waterfall is gushing at your feet. So again, it’s very remote, very wild feeling.

Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, only in Iceland?

Katie: There was a man at the Arctic Fox Center who was talking about the search and rescue team. Basically every town has a search and rescue team and it might just be two people and if something actually goes wrong, they’ll run for people from other towns. And he was saying that a couple of years ago there was an avalanche on the road between where he lives and Isafjordur and his wife was working in Isafjordur and I said, “Oh my gosh, what happened? Was she stuck?”

He said, “Yes, she was stuck for about a week.” I said, “What did you do?” He said, “She just moved in with co-workers, that’s what you do, you take care of each other when you live so far away from any help or from anyone else. We just band together and that’s what we do.” So I thought like, “That’s such an Icelandic thing, there’s nobody else around to help, so you just help one another.” I thought that was really great.

Chris: Excellent. One thing I think, about Iceland that I was surprised when I went there last year, was that it’s such a small place that the phonebook is alphabetized by first names.

Katie: Yes, yes.

Chris: What?

Katie: It’s such a quirky place. If you’re in Reykjavik you’ll see people leave their babies in baby carriages and park them in front of a window, in a cafe or bookstore, and the people would be inside enjoying themselves and the babies would be just wrapped up outside, chilling out. And it’s like there’s no worry that somebody is going to snatch your baby because, everybody knows everybody. Why would they do that?

There’s very little crime. The first name phone book thing, there’s also an app that people can download to make sure that the person they’re dating isn’t related to them somehow, because it’s such a small country.

Chris: The first thing you do, or is it too related to you is really more accurate. Yes, it’s an interesting place.

Katie: Even in the Westfjords when we were so far away from everything, we had cell service the entire time. So, it’s like, “Oh, we’re in the middle of nowhere. Nope, there’s still four bars, we’re fine.”

Chris: Excellent. Finish this thought, “You really know you’re in Iceland, you really know you’re in the Westfjords when what?”

Katie: When it’s been five hours and you haven’t seen another car pass by.

Chris: And if you had to summarize the Westfjords in just three words, what three words would you use?

Katie: I would say, wild, rugged and beautiful.

Chris: Excellent. And I’ve heard people say the same thing about you, Katie, so there we go. Where can people read more about your travels, Katie?

Katie: I contribute to Viator, where I’m an editor to their travel blog. I also contribute to BBC Travel, where I wrote about this trip, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Daily News. I am around the internet.

Chris: Excellent. And our guest again has been Katie Hammel from Viator and from all around the web. Katie, thanks for coming on the show and sharing with us your new-found love for Iceland.

Katie: Thank you very much.

Chris: I want to remind you again this week that I could use your help filling out that survey that I need for PONtrack and you can find that by going to and that will tell me more information about you so PONtrack can help me sell the appropriate ads on this podcast.

April may still seem like a long way away for you but I just bought my tickets to go to that trip to Cambodia that we’re doing with some of the listeners of the show. So, if you’re still interested in that, there are still, last I checked it, a couple of slots open. Find out about that by going to the Amateur Travelers site and looking at book travel.

Mark left a comment on the episode we did recently on San Diego and said, “My wife and I were in the San Diego area during this Christmas. We had two days to spend with two of our grandsons, age five and seven. Day two, we visited the Birch aquarium. The kids had a great time as did grandma and grandpa. We also were impressed by the views from Cabrillo National Monument. On the first day, we did something your guest did not mention. We took Nate Harrison Grade, one of several gravel roads up the side of Palomar Mountain, suitable for almost any family vehicle, great views along the way.” Mark, thanks so much.

Also on San Diego, I heard from Kristie [SP], who said, “I’m in San Diego right now for a conference. This episode is perfectly timed and I will take some of your guest’s recommendations. One thing I would add is that San Diego is full of craft breweries and great brewpubs, and I have been enjoying many of the different local beers.

If people are interested, has all the information you could need to find many breweries. Thanks for the great episode.” If you’re unclear on that link, you can find that in the lyrics for this episode. We’ll have all the links that we mentioned and you’ll also find them in the show notes at

And then lastly, on San Diego, we heard from Jim who said, “My parents retired to the San Diego area in the ‘80s and we went out there two or three times a year through this year. A couple of comments. San Diego is a car culture, and most of the sites Mike mentioned, you have to get there by car. Examples include Point Loma, Carlsbad, Safari Park, formerly Wild Animal Park, Julian etc. And no matter where you go, there will be someone right behind you and there’s no place to park.

Traffic is my biggest complaint about San Diego. Another point is that Seaport Village, a place we really loved, has gone downhill. The last couple of times we’ve been there, one-third to one-half of the stores were unoccupied. I don’t have an explanation as to why this is. The Self Realization Fellowship is just South of Encinitas, and the locals call it Swamis. It is a very famous surfing spot, so famous that I’m a little surprised Apple hasn’t named an operating system after it.

San Diego Safari Park is much better than the Zoo, if you have time to drive out to Escondido. But be sure to check the weather forecast, it gets really hot out there sometimes. Triple digits are common. But the park itself is fantastic. Try to get to the left side of the tram for the best view. The behind the scenes rides are good, too.

Also, be aware if you go to Tijuana by car, your US auto insurance will not cover you and traffic accidents in Mexico are treated as criminal offenses. You are better of parking at San Ysidro and walking over the border, lots of taxis are waiting for you. Of course, you need your passport to get back into the US. Having said all that, San Diego is a fantastic place to go and the weather is the best in the US, except maybe Hawaii.

The marine layer does make the coastal area gloomy in May and June, but the sun usually shines further inland.” The other thing I would say too about Tijuana, you can buy car insurance that would work there. The place is right at the border. But again, you may or may not enjoy driving in Tijuana.

With that, we’re going to end this episode of Amateur Traveler. Don’t forget the survey and also our sponsor DK Eyewitness Guides. Transcript of this episode will again be sponsored by JayWay Travel, experts in the Eastern European travel. If you have questions, send email to host at or better yet, leave it as a comment on the episode at And, as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

One Response to “Travel to the Westfjords of Iceland – Episode 497”



I visited the Westfjords 4 years ago and was astounded by the remoteness of the region. I’ve never been anywhere so sparsely populated. At one point, I drove for two hours without seeing any evidence that humans existed (aside from the road). Two hours without seeing another car, a building, a fence, a trail, nothing. (And for this reason, I echo your guest’s warning to always know where you’re getting your next tank of gas).

Some highlights for me include hiking near Haukadalur. The mountain there is the second highest in the Westfjords and provides a stunning view of the region. We spent the entire day hiking there on one of the busier trails in the region and only saw one other person. I also enjoyed the sunset near Ögur with a view of the Hornstrandir glacier.

The Golden Circle is amazing, but in my opinion you’re missing out on the best part of Iceland if you skip the Westfjord.

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