For my final day in Iceland on this trip, I had planned a exciting driving excursion around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. I’d read it called “Iceland in Miniature” in a number of places, since so much of what makes Iceland so captivating can be found on the peninsula.
As my trip approached, I had anxiously watched the forecast for my days in Iceland, determined to find pick the day with the best weather for this drive. It was cold and clear when I left my hostel in Borgarnes early in the morning.
The gentleman who ran the hostel in Borgarnes had warned me that the drive across the peninsula from south to north would likely be icy early in the morning. Having lived in cold weather climates almost all my life, I didn’t worry about this too much. There had been a light dusting of snow the previous evening, but nothing that concerned me too much. I was in a small 2 wheel drive rental car, and, as I had been warned, the road was slick as I traveled up and over the peninsula’s highlands toward the town of Stykkishólmur. The roads were made slicker by the fact that the sun hadn’t risen above the rises, and the upslope was always much icier than the downslopes which had been exposed to the early morning sun. The land to each side of the road was beautiful, covered in the light blanket of snow, and I fought not to be distracted by the views.
My first stop was a sight held sacred to Icelanders, the mountain known as Helgafell. It’s not a huge mountain, and, not being physically fit enough to climb an actual mountain, I was glad it measures only 240 feet high. Still, I was panting when I reached the top.
I didn’t venture far enough up the road to find the gravesite of Snorri Þorgrímsson. Legend has it that “a wish will be granted to anyone, who walks three times anticlockwise around her grave and then up to the top of the mound without uttering a word, looking back, thinking bad thoughts or telling anyone the wish.” I nonetheless hiked to the top in silence and made my three wishes anyway.
The views from the top were spectacular. Having such a clear day I could see the Westfjords to the north, and the snow-capped peaks of the mountains to the south and east, where I would be heading shortly.
I drove on into gorgeous little Stykkishólmur, population 1,100, and it’s harbor nestled at the base of the basalt island of Súgandise.
I took the causeway out and then hiked up to the top of the island, which contains a small lighthouse and provides sweeping views of Breiðafjörður fjord and the mountainous Westfjords beyond to the north, and the quaint little city and it’s harbour to the south.
I didn’t linger long in Stykkishólmur, as one of the most intriguing sights of my time in Iceland lay a few kilometers up a dirt road west of the town. The Bjarnarhofn, which is part a museum of everything maritime Iceland (plus other things) and part working farm, and part curing station for that most peculiar Icelandic dish, hákarl, or fermented shark. I’d tried the shark back in 1998 on my visit, and also a few days earlier at Cafe Loki in Reykjavik. The opportunity to see how it was cured was irresistible.
I first stopped for a look around in the museum, which turned out to be a fascinating look into Icelandic life over the years. There was a little of everything contained in the museum, including a number of large sheets of paper explaining hákarl, from the ocean to the table.
After looking around in the museum, it was time to venture out to the barn itself, sitting at the base of Mt Bjarnarhafnarfjall, to the the fermenting shark in person.
It certainly didn’t look appealing, and despite the silly photo above, it was interesting. I hadn’t liked it before, but I also hadn’t expected see the shark meat hanging in the barn to encourage me to like it more, and on that count I was spot on. The museum’s friendly proprietor insisted I again try it, this time with a little rye bread, saying it would be better with the bread, and it was, if only because the taste of the bread somewhat covered the taste (and smell) of the shark itself.
I continued driving west down the peninsula’s north coast, through some of the most beautiful glacially carved valleys. I’d heard so many great things about Snæfellsnes, but nothing that could adequately describe how breath-taking this stretch of road was.
A few miles down the road sat Grundarfjörður, another town of barely 1,000 inhabitants, set dramatically at the base of the peninsula’s snowy mountains, with the monolith Kirkjufell standing to the town’s northeast, looking like a formidable guardian over the small hamlet.
I kept heading west along the coastline and through similar small towns. I passed through Ólafsvík (1,010) and Hellissandur/Rif (540).
I finally made it out to the peninsula’s far northwestern tip, and area known as Öndverðarnes, which contains a lighthouse, the ruins of a chapel and farm and rocky cliff overlooking the Atlantic. I only saw one other car during my drive out to this desolate place, and although my little rental car proved up to the task, I wouldn’t have wanted to try the drive on anything other than a clear day like the one I had.
The road then headed south then east, all the time giving views of the peninsula’s most dominant feature, the volcanic cone of Snæfellsjökull, at over 4,700 feet, it can be seen from Reykjavik on clear days. It served at the entrance to the underground world in Jules Verne’s science fiction classic, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Today it is home to many outdoor activities like off-roading, snowmobiling, hiking and climbing. I’d tested my small rental car enough, and with visible snow on the mountain, I decided to admire it from a distance rather than driving inland to explore it further.
It was getting on toward late afternoon when I finally made it to the small village of Hellnar. I stopped briefly to take a picture of it’s small church and dramatic cliffs before returning to the road for the couple hours drive back to my guesthouse in Reykjavik. I was so pleased to have seen this part of the country, and it made me even more determined to return to Iceland someday and drive the entire Ring Road around the island.
Now, however, it was an early morning flight to continental Europe, to Amsterdam, a city I honestly though I would never see again…
Europe 2013 Posts-
Beers & Bars of the Europe 2013 Trip Series: