One of the best decisions I made while visiting Iceland was to take a few days away from the comfortable capital city of Reykjavik, which is home base for most travelers to Iceland, and head out into a magical world of open spaces and natural wonders known as Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
While in Reykjavik, I made a three-day rental car reservation with SADCars, booked two nights online at the cute Harbour Hostel in Stykkisholmur, a city located at the northernmost tip of the peninsula, packed my bags and some snacks, and headed out on my own to find my way in the world. Or at least my way to Highway 1, which turned out to be quite a challenge without turn-by-turn Google map directions or a clear understanding of Icelandic roadsigns. After stopping a few times to turn around, park, study my downloaded map and turn around again, I finally located Highway 1 and was soon watching the scenery change in beautiful ways though my windows.
From Reykjavik, I drove northwest on Highway 54 through lava fields and farmlands; up steep hills and over bridges; past rugged mountains, picturesque streams and waterfalls; and around the imposing Snaefellsjokull glacier, which dominates the western tip of Snaefellsnes. I had to remind myself to breathe as I watched the deep turquoise ocean water crash against the coastline, and again when my rented Subaru wagon made its way along a winding cliff road with no guardrail. Yikes!
The highway that circles Snaefellsnes turns into 574 along the westernmost coastline, then merges back with 54 after curving back around to the north. All along the highway, there are areas where gravel or pavement extends to the right or left from the main road so that travelers can pull off and stop to take photos.
I wonder if these were added as a result of too many tourists stopping to pull out cameras on the middle of the highway. If they did so, I wouldn’t blame them, as I drove for miles without seeing more than a car or two, and the scenery all around me was definitely photo-worthy, almost from beginning to end. I stopped at as many of those roadside turn-ins as I could justify as I made my way to the hostel in hopes of arriving before dusk. I needn’t have worried, since in May dusk doesn’t arrive in Iceland until about 9:30 p.m. (and the sun begins to rise around 4:30 a.m.).
I did make it to Stykkisholmur in plenty of time and was rewarded with a breathtaking sunset on the harbor just behind the hostel. I ran outside in yoga pants and flip flops to take a few photos of the sun’s final moments amid hurling winds and chilling temperatures. Two guys standing nearby in long down coats with hoods tied tight around their faces just laughed at me.
The next morning found me back on the road, tracing the same path in the opposite direction, with more time to stop and get to know the area more fully.
My first destination was Bjarnarhofn, a farm located down a long paved road and a shorter gravel road near the oceanside in the shadow of Bjarnarhafnarfjall mountain. The farm is home to a small but informative shark museum, situated in what looks like a large converted garage. The museum includes a video showing the whole process from catching the shark to slicing the meat to hanging it in an open outdoor structure to ferment for about four months. Also on display are shark jaws, pieces of rough shark skin, remnants of animals found in the sharks’ stomachs (including a polar bear’s skull!), various stuffed birds and seals and other oddities related to life on the Icelandic coast.
The cheerful proprietor didn’t speak English, but a Danish couple also visiting the museum was able to interpret for me. At the owner’s behest, we posed for silly photos next to a fishing boat on display and sampled the famous fermented shark, called hakarl, which was served on a toothpick with a piece of rye bread. The hakarl smelled strongly of ammonia but didn’t taste as bad as I expected! After browsing through the rest of the museum, I signed my name in the guestbook along with the words “Phoenix, AZ, U.S.A.,” and waved goodbye.
Further along the road, I stopped at a lighthouse and several other beautiful sights before returning to my hostel in Stykkisholmur. I didn’t realize it when I scheduled my stay in Stykkisholmur, but scenes from the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” including the one when Ben Stiller’s character jumps into an open helicopter, were filmed just outside my hostel.
I arrived to find that six of the beds in my hostel room were occupied by a group of mid-30s Irishmen who were traveling together. They were a fun and friendly group, and together we talked, laughed and sampled a variety of whiskeys that they had brought with them from Ireland late into the night. Around midnight, we bundled up in our coats and hats and climbed the hill behind our hostel to see the small lighthouse and enjoy the view overlooking the harbor. Unfortunately, it was too late in the season to see the Northern Lights, but still the view was beautiful and the company good, and we were satisfied with the knowledge that we had tried.
On the way back to Reykjavik the next day, I stopped in the small costal town of Borgarnes to take in more beautiful views and enjoyed a fascinating audio tour and interactive museum detailing the settlement of Iceland and the Egils Saga, one of the famous stories from Iceland’s early days that has been passed down through generations.
On the whole, it was a truly wonderful few days. I would highly recommend that any visitor to Iceland take time to explore the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula.