Iceland’s vast landscape has spurred imagination for hundreds of years. It’s not difficult to imagine magical phenomena taking place in the sparsely populated areas where nature and weather control most of the aspects of life. Strandir, the coastal area on the east side of the Westfjords, has been one of the remotest regions of Iceland. It was the setting for a witch-hunting craze in Iceland during the seventeenth century. Due to its isolation, the locals have preserved stories of strange beings, ghosts, and everyday witchcraft.
These days, it’s still overlooked by many tourists because it’s not located on the ring road. However, Strandir is well worth your visit, and in this article, we will tell you about some of the best things you can do in the area.
Located at the southwestern side of the Steingrímsfjörður fjord, Hólmavík is the largest settlement along the Strandir coast. The small fishing village has embraced Strandir‘s past in the occult with its Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. The exhibitions display the bizarre spells and local witchcraft, as well as the unnerving witch hunt and trials of the seventeenth century.
But there is more to Hólmavík than its spooky past. The village sits on the long Steingrímsfjörður fjord, which is an excellent place to see humpback whales! Companies like Láki Tours offer 2-3 hour tours on the waters surrounding Hólmavík between June and October – the best time to see humpback whales. Other visitors to the fjord include Minke whales, pilot whales and white-beaked dolphins. Because the fjord is well-sheltered from the wind, Láki rarely cancels their tours.
Hólmavík is also home to the Sheep Farming Museum, where you can not only learn about one of Iceland‘s most important industries – for centuries, Iceland‘s domestic economy centred on sheep farming, while fishing dominated its foreign exports – but you can also feed and play with baby sheep!
Although Drangsnes is almost directly west of Hólmavík, it takes about 30 minutes to drive north around the head of the fjord to get to this small fishing village of about 100 people. Drangsnes (roughly translating to Pillar Peninsula) traces its name to a tall rock pillar on the shore. Named Kerling, the pillar is believed to be one of three troll women who tried unsuccessfully to dig a ditch to separate the Westfjords from the mainland.
The village is perhaps best known for three public-use hot tubs that sit on the shore of Steingrímsfjörður, providing an extraordinary vista of the surrounding mountains and the fjord. As there are no signs to mark their location, the tubs are slightly tricky to locate (they are located a few metres below the nearest road). There are two changing rooms and showers just across the street. Please note that in Iceland, it’s customary to shower before going in any pool. The hot pools are open to everyone and people are encouraged to leave a donation in the honesty box on the premises to help maintain these great pools.
From Drangsnes, you can get the ferry to the island of Grímsey – not to be confused with the bigger island of Grímsey that sits on the Arctic Circle. The Strandir Grímsey is not inhabited by people like its namesake but instead is home to puffins and numerous other bird species during the summer months. The owner of the Malarhorn Café offers boat trips to the island, which only takes about 10 minutes.
A semi-abandoned fishing town, Djúpavík is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the fishing industry. As a village, Djúpavík began around 1917. In 1934, a herring factory was built – then, the largest concrete building in all of Iceland. The factory operated until 1954, and the herring fishing industry collapsed the following decade. The building is now an exhibition centre. It features different artworks, has been used as the setting for a horror film, and was the site of a 2006 Sigur Rós concert. Nearby the factory is the remnants of an old shipwreck.
The inhabitants eventually left the village, and the houses that remain – apart from the hotel – serve as summer houses. In fact, Djúpavík is part of Árneshreppur, the least populated municipality in all of Iceland. There are only 53 people in an area covering 780 km²! So when you are visiting the Strandir area, always bring plenty of supplies and always check the weather.
Another tiny village in Árneshreppur – and also sparsely populated – is Norðurfjörður. This is the last village before road 634 ends. There is not much in the village except a small grocery store and a café. Just beyond Norðurfjörður is the popular Krossneslaug swimming pool, which rests on the shore of the Northern Atlantic Ocean.
Norðurfjörður also serves as a gateway to the remotest part of Iceland: Hornstrandir. While you can find small settlements throughout the 580 km² (220 sq mi) area, Hornstrandir is almost completely abandoned. It is now a protected nature preserve, popular with hiking enthusiasts. But without proper roads, the only way to get to Hornstrandir is by boat. Most people take the ferry from Ísafjörður, but you can also get a ferry from Norðurfjörður – quite literally the end of the road!
Sitting just north of Strandir but directly south of Hornstrandir is Iceland‘s northernmost glacier, Drangajökull. It is the only glacier in the Westfjords and, as one of the smallest on the island, it is the only glacier whose altitude is entirely below 1,000 metres. Interestingly, Drangajökull sits just outside of the reach of the Gulf Stream air currents, which is what keeps Reykjavík’s temperatures relatively mild. This is perhaps one of the reasons that Drangajökull, unlike the majority of Iceland‘s glaciers, is not retreating or thinning but rather growing!
If you are looking for a truly Icelandic experience, Strandir is an excellent option. Sparsely populated and incredibly beautiful, it has a little of everything: glaciers and hot tubs, swimming pools and whales, witchcraft and sheep. The only challenge is getting there!