Finding meaning and magic in the Westfjords of Iceland

At a small tavern in the remote Westfjords of Iceland, I knew I was in my happy place.

Finding meaning and magic in the Westfjords of Iceland

As a carousel of cast iron skillets passes in front of me, you can hear the crackling fish skin and smell the buttery, briny aroma filling the air of the old converted stable. At a small tavern in the remote Westfjords of Iceland, I knew I was in my happy place.

I don’t think I ever booked a flight so quickly. As soon as I got that first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine, I was gone, baby. The “where do I go?” decision paralysis was made easy as those with itchy feet could only really go to one place at this point in 2021: Iceland.

Managing to keep COVID-19 at bay (for the most part) and setting up strict protocols, Iceland was the first country to let tourists back in. But this was fortuitous; I had always wanted to go back to Iceland after my brief stopover years ago.

So I packed my bags and headed to Iceland in style, #vanlife style.

After a long flight from Seattle and a negative COVID test, I figured I’d head to the famous Blue Lagoon to relax and ease into the trip. I was about to embark on a 10-day van-life road trip after all, so why not pamper myself just a bit?

While at the Blue Lagoon, I met two fellow travelers, who happened to be on the same flight as me. And as fate would have it, both are from the Pacific Northwest and on a similar post quarantine van-life trip through Iceland. From that moment on, my journey changed. Rather than a solo trip, it became a caravan around the country.

The first stop on our road trip was that same night. We head to the nearby Fagradalsfjall, the volcano which happened to be erupting this year. The locals have dubbed it a “tourist volcano,” since it poses little threat and you can get pretty close.

At this point, it’s around 10 pm. I was ill-equipped to handle the sharp winds and fading sunlight, and thus, admittedly skeptical to start a hike. But as I crested a nearby hill in my van, I could see the distant sky being lit by red, pink, and orange hues of the erupting lava. I was sold.

The hike goes through miles of otherworldly volcanic rock, constantly being reshaped by the ongoing eruption. After a few miles, the trail starts to gain in elevation. The small, loose gravel makes it hard to maintain traction, especially as twilight begins to fade. I can only think about what a bitch this will be going back down later.

After a few precarious steps, I see what is probably the most magnificent thing I’ll ever see in my life. Not more than a half-mile away was Fagradalsfjall.

Iceland volcano, Fagradalsfjall
Fagradalsfjall eruption at night

The volcano was a symphony of mesmerizing power. Every few minutes, you could see a river of lava starting to flow from the volcano’s base. Gradually, the size builds, resulting in a crescendo of lava and thunderous eruption. I wasn’t carrying an evil ring, but I could feel the spectacular power draw me in all the same.

This was my first night in Iceland.

The following day, still captivated by last night’s adventures, my newly acquired travel friends and I headed to the Snaefellsnes Penninsula.

Northwest of Reykjavik, the Snaefellsness Penninsula has almost everything you’re looking for in Iceland: beautiful waterfalls, rugged seasides, thermal spas, and quaint towns. Not to mention one of the most iconic landscapes you’ve probably seen:

iceland itinerary, kirkjufellfoss
Kirkjufell, Iceland

It was a long day of driving. And that’s one of the things people don’t really tell you about trips to Iceland; be prepared to spend a lot of time in the car. I’m talking at least 3-5 hours each day.

But with time in the car comes self-reflection. For me, this was mainly filled with time thinking about the difficulties of the past year. Challenges that have struck a chord with most people: losing loved ones, isolation, mental and physical distress, civil unrest, to name a few. For me, it was a loss of identity.

Ever since I stepped foot on the tarmac in Geneva, Switzerland, my first international trip, traveling has been my identity. I love exploring distant lands. I love meeting new people. I love the moments that make me realize I’m experiencing life. I love every moment of travel, even the not-so-fun ones.

Having that ripped away was probably the most challenging aspect of the past year for me. Admittedly, the pandemic has been a lot more painful and difficult for others. But in hindsight, the lack of travel had a rather profound effect on me, and to be honest, I didn’t even realize it for the longest time. Something was missing; I just didn’t know what it was.

In many ways, the first 24 hours of this trip were symbolic. It would be easy to think that humans would just turn more inward after a year of turmoil. After a year of isolation and loss, there wasn’t much reason to talk to strangers. Yet here I am, road tripping through foreign lands with two people I didn’t know until 24 hours ago.

At one point during my road drive, I had a rare flicker of optimism; maybe, just maybe, the shared trauma we endured the past year could actually help bring us together. Of course, I have no doubts that one look at CNN would shatter that optimism — fortunately, I’m driving.

Anyway, onward and upward.

We roll into town, a small village on the northern end of the Snaefellsness peninsula. Tired and hungry, we’re in search of food.

The odd thing about road tripping and hiking through Iceland is that you tend to lose track of time due to the seemingly endless daylight. So what feels like dinner time could end up being 10 pm. This is mostly great; more time for exploring. The thing is, though, most kitchens are closed at 10 pm.

One place seems to have some current patrons, so we check it out.

Waiting to get seated, this incredibly Icelandic-looking waitress (think blond hair, a strong jaw, and cheekbones that could cut glass) comes up to us.

“The kitchen is closed. We only have cake and booze,” she says, noticing our eyes wandering toward the food section of the menu.

Of course, we oblige, convincing ourselves that beer has carbs and is thus food. Or was that just me?

At the table and happily sipping the local Icelandic beer, Gull, the waitress comes back.

“You look like you need a shot,” ostensibly referring to the exhaustion and jet lag written all over our faces.

And without giving us a chance to answer she asks, “Do you want to see the bottle before or after?” The obvious choice being “after.”

Two menacing shot glasses filled to the brim with clear liquor are set down, almost taunting us to pick them up.

“Skål!” and down the hatch it goes. It was brennivín.

The waitress then invites us to the bar and proceeds to give us samples of various Icelandic brennivíns and beers made throughout the country. If you know anything about me, this is my shit. The last five minutes is the experience I live for.

At this point, it becomes rather apparent to us that our waitress, too, had imbibed in some of the local hooch. She starts telling us how there are fairies and magic in the Westfjords; how we should stand up, naked, and pee into the wind!

This was the second night.

For the next few days, our caravan went up and down the south side of Iceland. We saw more waterfalls than you could count, ate hárkal (fermented shark), walked on glaciers, and shared camp meals.

All I could think about during these few days was that this is what traveling is all about. Not the cool pics I’ll post on Instagram or other fodder for our online lives, which some attempt to make a career (sigh). Travel is about our experiences and human connection we find along the way, like sharing a glass of brennivín with two strangers at the edge of the world.

But everywhere we went, it was empty. Iconic locations you’ve seen posted all over Instagram with only a handful of other people. Iceland, and the world, clearly still waking from the COVID slumber. Remnants of food trucks and small campsite economies that once were, or according to Google Maps, should still be.

Some Icelanders saw it as a relief, a respite from the constant revolving door of tourism the country has seen over the last few years. But some business owners didn’t share that sentiment. When I talked with Eimverk Distillery, it was clear that most of their business came from the Duty-Free stores in airports. No tourists, no money.

Rest assured, the tourists will come back in droves. As I write this, a mere two months after my trip, Iceland has already seen an influx of tourists and travelers from all over as vaccines become more widely available. Or at least social media tells me so.

But for those few days, we experienced an Iceland that might not be seen again for a long time. And for that, I’m thankful.

Eventually, though, my companions and I had to part ways. It was time for me to head west.

Back in the Westfjords, I had just left my impromptu friends of the past week.

Initially, I had intended to make the Westjords the bulk of my itinerary; the prospect of vast emptiness was alluring. The Westfjords, I was told, are more like “old Iceland”; remote, rugged, and magical. That’s all I needed to hear.

On a map, the Westfjords might not look all that extraordinary. However, the only way to navigate is to drive into and out of these massive snow-capped fjords crashing down into the sea. Eventually, you start to feel their gravity.

A long day of beautiful yet grueling driving left me tired and peckish, so I was in desperate need of some libations.

Iceland road trip
Driving through the Westfjords, Iceland

Being at seemingly the top of the world, there weren’t a ton of options to choose from in their “largest” town, Isafjorder. Fortunately, I stumbled on Tjöruhúsið, a local seafood spot right in town. Okay, and by stumbled, I mean I searched on Google, but what’s the difference.

The place is set in an old converted farmhouse, nestled between two massive fjords. Inside are a handful of wood benches; seating is communal style. A flat 7,000 ISK (roughly $55) will get you as much seafood as you want, and you can eat; a buffet, if you will (drinks not included). The first course is a langoustine and cod seafood stew in a creamy tomato base. After that, the kitchen brings out an array of cast iron skillets filled with sizzling goodness. Different kinds of fish such as cod, plaice, and trout are prepared every which way.

The waiter/owner/bartender of this family-run restaurant scurries around to tend all the patrons. There was me, and two other people.

The waiter came over and placed a piece of Cod tongue on my plate. It was fucking good. Delicate, crispy, and full of flavor. After gorging myself on seafood, I drove my lodging over to a nearby campsite I’d call home for the night.

I poured myself a glass of brennivín and gazed up at the Westfjord night sky; the lingering northern twilight means light won’t fade for another few hours at least.

Suddenly, I felt it; that sense of identity was back, if only for a moment.

I take a breath. I take a sip.