Thursday, July 9, 2015

Stykkisholmur to Patreksfjordur to Isafjordur

This was done over two days, the first stretch being from Stykkisholmur to Patreksfjordur, and the next from Patreksfjordur to Latrabjarg and then to Isafjordur.

Day 1: Stykkisholmur to Patreksfjordur

Stykkisholmur is a glorious little seaside town. We had lots of time to walk around and take it in. Instead, we spent that time shopping at Bonus, the Icelandic equivalent of No Frills, which has a logo that looks not unlike a drunk pig. But it rocks there. It's the only place I've found where you can buy food at prices even roughly approximating those in Canada.

And we of course had to go to Vinbudin, the government owned liquor store. Because what's a holiday without ample supply of alcohol?

Our pre-booked boat tour of the Breidafjordur Bay started at 11am. The boat was packed, so it wasn't always easy to get the best view, but everyone was very cordial and made sure to move away once they'd taken their pictures. The purpose of the tour was to see the many birds nesting in the cliffs on the islands dotting the bay. Which we did. We saw guillemots, kittiwakes, shags (related to cormorants) and LOTS of puffins. And from a distance we could see a white-tailed eagle, of which there are only 200 remaining in all of Iceland.

According to the tour guide, something like 80-90% of the known world population of puffins summers in Iceland. There are a lot of them in this bay, in the Westman Islands, and on Latrabjarg, a cliff in the Westfjords that we get to soon.

Although this tour was supposed to be about birds, we got a lovely surprise when they introduced the Viking Sushi component. I didn't understand the name of the tour until it started. They dropped a small trawling rig to the bottom of the bay and dragged it for about 5 minutes. When they hauled it up, it was stuffed full with all kinds of sea creatures, including starfish, sea urchin, crabs, hermit crabs, and most of all, scallops.

Right in front of us, when the haul was dumped out onto the sorting table, the crew was shucking and cleaning the scallops for us. So it was every tourist for himself, grabbing at each scallop as it was presented. I ended up having 3, and they were made all the more delicious by the availability of soya sauce, ginger, and wasabi.

After the tour ended, we went back to the hotel shortly to "use the facilities". While waiting for Sarah, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman at the front desk. He was very friendly, spoke impeccable English, and was clearly very intelligent (Icelanders have the highest average years spent in education of all Europeans). We talked about our respective countries, and it was interesting to hear about how his country fared after the 2008 recession. In a word: badly. They were heavily reliant on the financial sector, so their economy really tanked, and inflation hit 20-25%. Since then, the cost of living has gone way up. Thankfully, they threw into jail many of the bankers responsible for some of the crooked trading that went on. But he said, to an extent, the labour participation rate is so high in Iceland, because you can't afford not to work.

Before hopping on a ferry and saying goodbye to Stykkisholmur, we climbed to the top of the island that houses the lighthouse. Sweet merciful crap was it ever windy up there. So bad that you could lean into the wind and not fall over. It was a gorgeous view, but I didn't stay very long.

We finally got onto the ferry around 1600 and started the 3 hour trek across the bay to Brjanslaekur. From there it was a short but mortifying drive to our hotel in Patreksfjordur. The Westfjords are the most isolated area in Iceland, particularly the area around Patreksfjordur. So the roads in the mountainous areas are almost all gravel, and very narrow. Just barely enough room for two cars passing one another. It was quite the experience.

Once we settled into our hotel we ate at the delightful family owned restaurant, Heimsendi. The burgers there were to die for. In fact, burgers in Iceland are just plain better. I don't know that their beef is any better, but they know how to cook it! They cook them around medium I'd say. Just a thin strip of pink on the inside. When you squeeze the bun together, so much juicy goodness comes out. Delicious. And their dessert was outstanding. It came out as what looked like a solid chocolate Death Star on a bed of yogurt. But then the waitress pours a hot caramel sauce on it and, voila! The chocolate melts, revealing two flavours of ice cream trapped inside. Brilliant.

Day 2: Patreksfjordur to Latrabjarg to Isafjordur

First thing in the morning after eating breakfast, we headed out to Latrabjarg. We'd heard that the 60 km trip takes 90 minutes. We didn't believe that until we started driving it. Oh. My. Goodness. The roads were so bad that at one point I caught Sarah on video, as I was filming their frightening state, saying "As soon as I'm done this drive, I'm having a drink!" They really were terrible. And it really did take us almost 90 minutes.

But when we got there, we knew why so many people make the trip. It was magnificent. A 14 km long cliff that is home to nesting birds of all kinds. The gull type birds are probably the most numerous but there are tons of puffins too. It is estimated that during the early summer there are roughly 1 million birds on this cliff. The puffins are surprisingly tame. I was within touching distance of quite a few of them and they just looked at me unfazed. They are beautiful birds and sort of silly like penguins. Some of the terns are not so silly. They form these circling towers in the air around anyone crazy enough to walk on the beach nearby and repeatedly dive bomb them. I saw a few tourists running frantically away from the beach waving their hat violently to get rid of them. The fulmar, if you make it feel threatened, will vomit on you as a way of scaring you from its chicks. Yuck.

Latrabjarg is also the site of the westernmost point in Europe. Iceland is not all part of the European continent, as it sits right on the mid-Atlantic ridge, so part of it is part of the North American continent. But it is politically part of Europe, so they list it as the westernmost point of Europe, about 2500 km from Cape Spear, the easternmost part of Canada.

After Latrabjarg we headed back to Patreksfjordur and then on to Isafjordur, the largest city in the Westfjords, with a population of roughly 2600. On the way, we drove in and out of numerous fjords, which made the drive much longer than one would think. But it was beautiful. Particularly when we came to Dynjandi. This is an enormous water that comes straight down from the top of a fjord and empties into the ocean. It is actually a series of waterfalls, and each of them is given a different name. The whole collection is 330 ft high. It is stunningly beautiful as the moss and lichen in the area grows thickly on the rock surrounding the waterfall, making it a deep rich green. The site was full of tourists but it was still pretty easy to access and take some great pictures. They will go up eventually.

Finally we got to Isafjordur, a beautiful little town that is built on a sand flat. It looks like it would be impossible to build a city there, but the sand flat is large and stable enough, I guess they figured out how to make it happen. Before entering Isafjordur, after traversing terrifyingly high mountain passes, you enter this enormous tunnel that goes right through the mountain and exits to Isafjordur on the other end. I've been through tunnels in the Rockies. This should be easy, right? Well, not when it is single lane traffic. Yeah. Single lane. And you are relying on the goodwill of those driving toward you to pull into the side spaces in the walls. They are frequently placed, but there are no apparent rules for when you have to enter them and when they other driver has to. Thankfully, it seemed like everyone going in the opposite direction was just waiting for our stream of traffic to get through before pulling back out, so we didn't have to stop. It was 6 km of uncertainty, fear, and claustrophobia.

Everything in Iceland closes at 6pm. Seriously. So early. And it doesn't open until 11am. So once we checked into our hotel, we set out to find a place to eat. Everywhere we went was fully booked. It was crazy. The only place we found was a really expensive place in one of the hotels, but that's what happens when you don't plan ahead. I ate a gigantic plate of fresh mussels from a bay not far from the hotel. They were fantastic. And Sarah had peanut steak. Yeah. I know. It was a vegetarian dish and was actually really delicious.

It was too damn cold (around 6C with a really cold wind) to really walk around town so we decided to save that for the next day.

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