The word on Iceland is well and truly out. Since 2010, the number of tourists visiting this once well-kept secret of Europe has multiplied by five.
And while it’s hard to blame people for wanting to experience its stunning landscapes, famously peaceful culture and myth-shrouded human history, overtourism poses a genuine threat, both socially and environmentally.
It’s all the more reason to visit the Westfjords, the broad peninsula in Iceland’s northwest. Not only is this region awash in everything we love about Iceland, it has a fraction of the visitors of Reykjavik and surrounds; in fact, a mere ten per cent of the tourists in Iceland actually make it this far. It’s way to not only take the pressure off the hotspots, but also experience this beautiful country in the quiet, unmediated way it deserves.
A major drawcard is Raudasandur Beach. In true Icelandic style, this Westfjords icon (nay, underground legend) eschews the cliché of the white-sand cove and instead offers up a wilder scene, of orange-red sand against a massive blue lagoon. It’s a very different lagoon to that other famous blue one, and for those who like their beach panoramas human-free, it’s a lot more photogenic.
The drama continues as one moves west, to the cliffs of Latrabjarg. The lack of foxes on this 14-kilometre-long collection of bluffs gives way to an extraordinary glut of birdlife. It’s about as easy as birdwatching gets. Puffins, arctic terns, razorbills and northern gannets congregate in droves, not to mention white-tailed eagles.
Then there’s the star of the show: Dyndjani. Located about halfway up the peninsula, east of Hrafnseyri and off Route 60, this waterfall flows down a 100-metre cliff into the fjord of the Dynjandisvogur inlet, with maximum drama and minimal visitors. A 15-minute walk from the car park reveals incredible views across Dynjandivogur, and the stream itself, spilling down the cliff like a big wedding cake, is a powerful thing to see up close.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Iceland without a healthy dose of myth and mystery. The Sea Monster Museum in Bildudalur (a town that also hosts an annual steampunk event) provides a great overview of mythical creature sightings. It sits on the shore of Anar fjord, a hotbed of supposed sea monster activity. While the large-scale models are sure to be a hit with any young ones in tow, these stories will pique the interest of even the most sceptical traveller.
The quiet fishing hamlets of the Westfjords feel a world away from the capital. Those looking for a relaxed alternative to the famed blue lagoon will find heaven in Drangsnes, a tiny town by the sea with three lone geothermal hot tubs right on the rocky shore. But for an authentic, albeit less idyllic, look at seaside life in Iceland, there’s the outdoor museum of Osvor near Bolungarvik. A fisherman-curator dressed in traditional lambskin garb runs you through 19th-century piscatorial life by way of an original fisherman’s hut, drying house and boat.
Those partial to hiking should head to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, on the far northern tip of the peninsula. Practically uninhabited, this park is the ultimate nature escape in Iceland, full of stunning cliffs, forests and mountains. It’s possible to hike for several days here without coming across a single soul – unless you count the arctic foxes. Thankfully, strict government regulations, including a ban on low-flying planes, preserve the serenity of the place.
Ready to get off the beaten track in Iceland? See Intrepid’s full list of tours and adventure cruises here.