Flying into Isafjordur fjord to visit the town of the same name is stunningly beautiful. Isafjordur is the largest community in the Westfjords and definitely worth the visit.
The nature of the narrow fjord encircled by tall and steep mountains means that the plane has to fly so close to the mountains that you feel like you can reach out and touch them and when you touch down on the tarmac you it’s like you’ve landed at the edge of the world. It‘s a calming experience, immediately thrusting you into the slower rhythm of life in the fjords.
The town itself is the largest town in the remote Westfjords of Iceland and has a population of around 2.600. It is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with plenty of hiking trails, some of the country‘s best skiing and kayaking in the fjord among the activities available. A boat trip to the bird paradise on Vigur island is a must for all nature lovers. The one family that lives there welcomes visitors with a tour around the island and tales of its history.
I arrive on a plane full of healthy looking Norwegians, there to take part in the annual Fossavatnsganga, the oldest ski race in Iceland. In fact the town is full of life as there are around a thousand visitors from all over the world there to compete in the race and experience the magnificent nature of the Westfjords. The atmosphere around the ski area is one of cheerful family fun. I watch as the 1 km Children‘s Fossavatns race kicks off and try to contain my jealousy as kids as young as two years old whoosh by, already much better skiers than I’ll ever be.
Luckily for us non-skiers there is plenty to do in Ísafjörður that doesn‘t involve thins sticks of wood. Kayaking on the still waters of the fjord is an etheral experience. It really puts you in touch with your place in nature as you sail along under the watchful eye of the ever-white mountains (one local told me that in his 37 years in Ísafjörður he‘d only seen the mountains completely void of snow once or twice). Afterwards, head to the nearby Bolungarvík for a soak in the swimming pool‘s hot tubs and a chat with the locals. The people of the Westfjords are extraordinarily welcoming and friendly and are always ready to tell visitors everything they know about the area.
A stroll through downtown Ísafjörður is a feast for the gourmand as there are plenty of exciting restaurants and bakeries in town. The most famous is the Tjöruhúsið seafood restaurant. Located in one of the oldest houses in Iceland the family run Tjöruhúsið combines charming atmosphere with first rate seafood. They only serve the catch of the day, therefore there is no set menu and children under 14 eat for free. If you’re after something other than seafood, Húsið and Edinborgarhúsið Bistro (hús means house in Icelandic, Ísafjordians are charmingly literal people) both serve tasty bistro style food. However, the town‘s hidden culinary gem is definitely the Gamla bakaríið bakery. It‘s been serving up scrumptious pastries and piping hot coffee to hungry customers of all ages for over 100 years.
Ísafjörður also has a large number of museums for its size. An old hospital has been transformed into a library and a cultural centre colloquially known as Gamli spítalinn (The old hospital. Again, very literal people). The Westfjords Maritime Museum is located near the harbour and will teach you all about the fishing industry in the area. Edinborgarhúsið houses a tourist information and hosts various cultural events, like concerts and theatre. Although not a museum, a visit to the local cinema is recommended. Run by a married couple who work the ticket booth and doors themselves every night, the cinema has an art-house feel with an endearing personal touch.
If you happen to be in Ísafjörður around Easter you can‘t miss out on the town-wide music festival Aldrei fór ég suður (I never went south. South being Reykjavík). The festival is the brain-child of musician Mugison and his father who wanted to give local artists (and maybe a couple of friends from down south) the time of their life to remind them of the abundant local talent. The festival has since grown every year and is now one of the most popular festivals in Iceland but admission is still free in keeping with the welcoming and inclusive nature of the locals.
Ever the sportsmen, late July sees the people of Ísafjörður host the European Championship in Swamp Soccer. And yes, that is exactly what it sounds like. Teams compete in the world’s muddiest soccer matches to the delight of everyone‘s inner puddle-jumping child. Just make sure you have access to a shower before the big party in the evening.
As you fly over the Westfjords‘ awe-inspiring mountain range on your way back south to Reykjavik, you can‘t help but ask yourself why anyone would ever want to leave.