Hraunfossar Waterfall, Iceland

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The west coast

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The panorama of the bay of Faxa Fiord is magnificent – with a width of fifty miles from horn to horn, the one running down into a rocky ridge of pumice, the other towering to the height of five thousand feet in a pyramid of eternal snow, while round the intervening semicircle crowd the peaks of a hundred noble mountains.

Letters from High Latitudes, Lord Dufferin

The panorama of the bay of Faxa Fiord is magnificent – with a width of fifty miles from horn to horn, the one running down into a rocky ridge of pumice, the other towering to the height of five thousand feet in a pyramid of eternal snow, while round the intervening semicircle crowd the peaks of a hundred noble mountains.

Reykjavík and the Reykjanes peninsula together form the southern edge of Faxaflói, the sweeping bay that dominates Iceland’s west coast and any journey north of the capital – the Ringroad clings to its shores as far as the small commercial centre of Borgarnes before striking off inland on its way towards Brú and the north coast. Although the scenery is not Iceland’s most dramatic, it provides visitors travelling clockwise around the country with their first taste of small-town Iceland and as such makes a satisfying introduction to the rest of the country. If you can, it’s a good idea to break your journey and get a feel for what rural Iceland really is all about – in summer the views of flower meadows dotted with isolated farms sheltering at the foot of cloud-topped mountains are picture-postcard pretty.

Travelling north, the first town you come to is ugly Akranes. With its concrete factory and fish-processing plants, it’s certainly no beauty, but its museum quarter can make an interesting diversion on the way to Borgarnes, a small commercial centre with an excellent museum. The town serves as a jumping-off point not only for Iceland’s largest hot spring, Deildatunguhver, and the hiking trails around Húsafell, but also the historical riches of Reykholt, the setting for Egill’s Saga and home to the only saga writer known by name, the thirteenth-century politician Snorri Sturluson.

The “pyramid of eternal snow” which Dufferin referred to when he sailed his yacht Foam to Iceland in 1856 was the glacier, Snæfellsjökull, which sits majestically on top of a dormant volcano at the tip of Snæfellsnes, a long arm of volcanic and mountainous land jutting out into the sea, which is the highlight of any trip up the west coast. Divided by a jagged mountain ridge, the peninsula not only marks the northern edge of Faxaflói bay but also the southern reaches of the more sheltered Breiðafjörður, with its hundreds of islands and skerries, over which lie the table mountains of the West Fjords. On a clear day the snowcap is clearly visible across the water from both Reykjavík and the West Fjords. A gem of a place on the peninsula’s north coast, Stykkishólmur is not only the main town hereabouts but also one of Iceland’s most attractive, with its brightly painted wooden houses nestling by a vibrant harbour busy with chugging fishing vessels. It’s from here that the ferry sails for the pastoral delights of Flatey, the largest island in Breiðafjörður. From Arnarstapi on the peninsula’s southern coast it’s possible to take a snowmobile up onto Snæfellsjökull for some of the most exhilarating driving – and vistas – you’ll ever experience. For splendid isolation, nearby Búðir can’t be beaten, its wide sandy bay home only to an unusually charismatic hotel complete with creaking floorboards and ocean views. Occupying a sheltered spot in the neck of land which links the West Fjords with the rest of the country, Laugar in Sælingsdalur has some hot springs and a few cultural diversions, and makes a good place to break the long journey from Reykjavík to the West Fjords.

What the west coast may lack in scenic splendour, it makes up for in historical and cultural significance – landscapes here are steeped in the drama of the sagas. Close to Búðardalur, to the north of Snæfellsnes along Route 586, Haukadalur valley was the starting point for Viking expansion westwards, which took explorers first to Greenland and later to the shores of North America as heroically recounted in the Saga of Eirík the Red. He and his wife lived at Eiríksstaðir and, having been outlawed from Iceland, together they pioneered the settlement of Greenland. It’s also thought that Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to set foot in North America, was born on a farm that has now been expertly reconstructed on the original site. More saga history can be found in Laxárdalur valley, northeast of Búðardalur, where characters from the Laxdæla Saga lived out their feud-torn lives.

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