Landscapes, legends and natural wonders
Discover deep fiords, dramatic landscapes and legends
It’s pushing midnight, but still a glimmer of gold lingers on the horizon, framed by the plunging walls of the fiord. Overlaid by a few wisps of pink signalling the end of a long, sunny day, and perhaps promising another tomorrow, the MS Panorama skims out of Patreksfjörđur on calm seas, cruising at a nice clip into the Denmark Strait.
Unusually warm and pleasant, that morning our generally stoic guide, Karl TK, was flush with excitement, gushing, “You only get one day a year like this!”
Now a finger of cold creeps down my back as we stand on deck above the bow, just a few hardy souls hanging on to the light as we transition toward the long overnight dusk of a subarctic summer, the moon, big and milky, having risen behind us.
Big, bearded and broad-shouldered, looking a little like a Viking despite his slightly adorable tuque, TK breaks his stoicism again. Icelandic to the core and well-travelled in his own country, he looks over at me. “It’s amazing,” he says, shaking his head, the tassels of his tuque waving back and forth. “It’s so special. Only, like, two per cent of Icelanders get to see something like this.”
Far from the busy streets of Reykjavik and, nearby, the jampacked Golden Circle, which teem with tourists in the warmer months, Iceland’s Westfjords remain one of the most isolated parts of this Nordic nation. Looking a little like a series of fingers, extended and reaching toward Greenland, these deep fiords and the dramatic landscapes in between remain sparsely populated and intensely wild. Difficult to reach by roads, which are forced by the geography to weave around deep bays and up over mountain passes, they’re best explored exactly this way — by sea.
Unfussy but comfortable, the Panorama is a 54-metre, threemasted sailing yacht with just 24 cabins, small enough to dock right at the main wharf of tiny villages. I’m here as part of a seven-night sailing with Peregrine Adventures, which — in addition to the basics of the voyage (meals, cabins) — organizes daily tours with local guides.
Rolling up the fiords from Reykjavik to Akureyri, the capital of the country’s north, most nights we steer out of the protected waters and into the North Atlantic, feeling a little like the Norse that once plied these waters, arriving each morning at a bright, new port.
Navigating north, we spend time on the Snaefellss Peninsula, exploring around the flanks of Snaefells sjökull, a soaring volcano capped with a glacier that served as the entrance point to a subterranean world in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
We hike along the edges of steep sea cliffs and across black sand beaches, spotting fuzzy sheep and dark lava formations. Jura TK, our cruise director, tells us to keep our eyes peeled for trolls and elves. In a land that’s naturally mysterious, where mists routinely roll in from the sea and soaring ridges remain almost perpetually wrapped in cloud, it’s not hard to see how the locals believe in mystical beings. “They are everywhere around us,” she says, quite seriously. “If you’re sensitive enough, you can feel, or even see them.”
While the trolls remain hidden, we see some Vikings — well, one at least. Docked at Isafjörđur, we make our way to the tiny village of Pingeyri, where we find a man willing to recount a saga. The only actor for miles around, Elfar Logi Hannesson performs a Viking play here more than 350 times a year, explaining that, hundreds of years ago, itinerant storytellers used to travel from farm to farm, regaling the families with stories drawn from their ancestors. “In the sagas, the Vikings are like superheroes,” he says, with a slightly ironic smile. “And they ’re all true.”
First, he outfits us in Norse robes, as we down big mugs of morning beer. Then Hannesson takes us for “saga walk,” recounting a story that, he says, took place right here. It’s an incredibly complicated and blood-soaked tale, involving a heroic brother, and a murder during a pond hockey game, plus something about Valhalla ... but it’s not long before I lose the plot.
Just before setting out on the walk, Hannesson told us, “When I fell in love with my wife, I fell in love with this fiord, the peace and quiet,” and that’s what repeats in my mind as we make our way over the green fields and down toward the grey expanse of fiord, as we pass Icelandic horses, manes flowing, and stark summits rising all around, a little fringe of snow hanging on, still, even now in the middle of summer.
And then we do something truly Nordic: We visit the (former) herring capital of the world. Docking in Siglufjörđur, we approach a cheery red building where five women decked out in red flannel and yellow waterproof aprons are gutting fish at a breakneck pace, slicing off the heads and pulling out the guts before dropping the finished fish in a bucket. The workers finish with a happy song, arm in arm, a man in coveralls accompanying them on accordion. Karl TK interprets it for me. “It’s a song about the herring process … I will take more salt ... I will go dancing tonight.”
Inside the Herring Era Museum, I learn about how this sleepy little place was once a boom town.
“It was almost like a gold rush. It was a herring rush,” a museum guide says, recounting how, from 1903 to 1968, Siglufjörđur became a major destination for thousands, both young fishermen who brought their boats back to harbour so heavily weighed down with fish that decks were almost even with the water, and the young women who processed those herring, sometimes for 20 hours a day.
The fish were shipped around the world, and the oil extracted lit the street lamps in London and Paris. By 1940, herring made up 40 per cent of Iceland’s exports, earning Siglufjörđur a nickname: Iceland’s bank account. But in 1968, when the boats went out for the season, the fish were gone, and stocks have never fully recovered.
Our journey finishes — as any proper Icelandic voyage should — in a hot spring. Navigating to Akureyri, the largest city in the country’s north, we tour the area south of town, hiking around Mývatn Lake, then getting close to the bubbling, steaming fumaroles and mud pots at Námafjall, and the tumbling majesty of Godsfoss — waterfall of the gods.
Wading into Mývatn Nature Baths, a blue oasis carved out of a
lava field with pools that contain 3.5 million litres of water that reach 40 C, I order a Viking beer. The sun slants off the sea nearby as I slide down to my neck in the mineral-rich waters, letting the geothermal warmth permeate my bones.
I may not be a Norseman, or a Viking, or even a herring fisherman. But having sailed the Westfjords, approaching these wild places from the sea, I feel a little Norse. And maybe it’s the beer, or the heat, but I image I see a troll, or maybe an elf, just across the way — beyond the blue.
The tumbling majesty of Godsfoss — the waterfall of the gods — is just one of many stunning sights in Iceland, a country of abundant natural wonders.
The Látrabjarg cliffs, Iceland’s westernmost point, offer vast coastline views and are home to millions of birds, including puffins, northern gannets, guillemots and razorbills.
The sleepy fishing community of Siglufjordur was once a boom town and the herring capital of the world.
Bathers soak in the sun and the blue mineral-rich waters at Mývatn Nature Baths.
Visitors marvel at the steaming fumaroles and mud pots at Námafjall, a geothermal wonder.