30 August, 2023

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula...

Having driven the Golden Circle, we decided to explore a path less travelled and do a loop of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula about an hour north of Reykjavik, in Iceland's Vesturland ('west'). As a base, we picked a hotel in the peninsula's northernmost town of Stykkishólmur. The long drive to Stykkishólmur involves passing through the almost 6km long Hvalfjörður Tunnel on Highway 1 under a fjord of the same name. The tunnel, opened in 1998, took 45km off the journey. For the next fjord, Borgarfjörður, from the map, we anticipated another tunnel, but no, there was a causeway and the Borgarfjarðarbrú bridge, the second largest in Iceland.

Leaving the town of Borganes we entered the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and the first harbinger of a major problem was an ambulance and police car travelling at extremely high speed in the other direction. Now on Highway 54 and half an hour later, we came across a traffic jam which held us up for 3 hours. It was a fatal head-on collision between (we saw later) two tourist campervans. Cleaning up the mess and completing police forensics took that much time, with no traffic allowed through, and no practical alternate route. The queue of held-up cars must have been 10km long, even though traffic was light. Route 54 is a regular two lane road with good visibility, and at the accident site, there was no obvious reason for a head-on collision. Obviously a dampener on our visit to Snæfellsnes, not to mention at least two families distraught.

We arrived in Stykkishólmur just in time for dinner and checked in to the Egilsen Hotel, a very well located and cute stand-alone red-coloured wooden building right at the harbour. There's nothing much the owners could do with the building - it's probably heritage listed - but it was pretty unsatisfactory as a hotel with tiny rooms. The staff were friendly, as everywhere, but the fittings inside were quite run down. No TV even, but there was WiFi. Overpriced too - per square meter, this must be the most expensive hotel we have ever stayed at! A nice continental breakfast was extra. Since we first booked this hotel (before COVID!), a new and modern Foss Hotel has sprung up in Stykkishólmur and would surely have been more comfortable, although it's not in as good a spot as the Egilsen.

The Hotel Egilsen in Stykkishólmur catching the afternoon sun. [2213]

Stykkishólmur itself is a very pleasant fishing town, well equipped with supermarkets, gas stations, a bakery and a large hospital. There were two fine dining restaurants, a bit of a surprise, both of which we patronised, as well as a fish 'n' chips van, and next to it, an ice cream van. These last two were at Stykkishólmur's very pretty harbour which also hosts a daily car-ferry service to the West Fjords with a stopover in Flatey, both of which we had previously visited when on board the NatGeo Explorer. We saw little fishing activity, the main commerce around the harbour seeming to be the ferry operation. The natural harbour has been used since the Middle Ages, being a protected area bewteen the mainland and the island of Súgandisey, according to a sign posted there, and the port was first mentioned as a trading post in 1596 by merchants from Bremen. As a town grew around the harbour, sailboat fishing started around 1830. A causeway connecting Súgandisey to the town opened in 1989, improving the protection offered by the harbour.

From the top of Súgandisey Island this view of Stykkishólmur encompasses everything, the hospital, the Lutheran church, the new Foss Hotel and the old Egilsen Hotel. [2351]

Fishing boats in Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2223]

Fishing boats in Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2217]

The daily ferry to Flatey and Westfjords leaving Stykkishólmur. [2244]

A metallic Viking Ship sculpture catches the wind at Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2243]

Columnar basalt on Súgandisey Island. [2226]

Súgandisey Island navigation light. [2354]

Nice windy spot to dry your washing at this Stykkisholmur house on a ridge. [2366]

A splendid hospital overlooks Stykkisholmur Harbour. [2224]

The unique architecture of the Lutheran Stykkishólmskirkja Church. [2349]

Fish 'n' Chips at Stykkishólmur Harbour. [2357]

We dedicated a day to drive the loop around Snæfellsnes, about 200km in total. We chose to go anticlockwise. The hotel offered verbal advice, but didn't have a map of peninsula to even show us, only a full map of Iceland (to sell!), one of which we had anyway. It's another criticism of the Hotel Egilsen, but it seems to us that every tourist hotel ought to be giving away maps of attractions in the local area. In the historical township of Ólafsvík, we found a tourist information office where the lady fell over herself to annotate a peninsula map with highlights. This was one of those tourist maps that are torn off a pad, and is the very least the Egilsen should have offered. Without the Ólafsvík advice, our loop would have been much less rewarding. In the Viking Book of (Iceland) Settlement, it says that Ólafsvík was first settled around 900AD by Ólafur Belgur, thus its name.

Calm seas, black beach, on our approach to Ólafsvík. [2262]

Traversing the northern shore of Snæfellsnes, before we arrived at Ólafsvík, we passed the pretty town of Grundarfjöður (where a large cruise ship was anchored, filling us with some trepidation about crowds we might encounter) and passed the spectacular mountain of Kirkjufell ('church mountain', 463m), one of the most recognisable in the country. Early Danish mariners called the mountain 'the sugar top', maybe inspired by snowy cap. Opposite the mountain are Kirkjufellfoss falls.

A kayak group from the nearby town of Grundarfjöður enjoying the view of one Iceland's iconic mountains, Kirkjufell. [2250]

The Kirkjufellfoss waterfall, beautiful in its own right, is greatly enhanced by its magnificent setting. [2253]

Our rental car perched on the edge of a sheer cliff at the Bulandshöfði lookout, facing north-west over a crystal blue Atlantic. Out there is Greenland! [2257]

The Highway 574 loop around Snæfellsjökul glacier-capped volcano (1446m) passes through a National Park ('Þjóðgarður') at the extreme west of the peninsula, and this is where most of the attractions are. Snæfellsjökul is no recent volcano, being 700,000 years old, but its still active, 2000 years ago being the last time. On a clear day, it is visible from Reykjavik, 120km away. Like almost all other glaciers, Snæfellsjökul is diminishing with climate change. In 2012, for the first time, there was no ice at the summit. The glacier is now about 11km2 in area

The mountain and glacier of Snaefellsjokull (1446m) looking over a lava field. The suffix 'jokull' means glacier, so this particular mountain is named after its glacier.[2346]

We visited all of the attractions recommended for us, plus one or two more. Just before entering the park is Hellissandur, a village dating back to the 16th Century. A 412m longwave radio mast outside the town, the tallest structure in Western Europe, and the tallest longwave radio mast in the world. It is due to be retired due to the obsolescence of longwave broadcasts. In the park is the Saxhóll Crater, quite close to route 574, which erupted 3000 years ago, leaving a collapsed core and a lava field spreading for kilometers around.

The quiet town of Hellissandur is famed for its painted murals of which this is just one example. The tourist centre lady in Ólafsvík referred to the murals as 'graffiti'. [2265]

The Saxhóll crater is about 9km south of Hellissandur. It's from a volcanic eruption 3000 years ago. Visitors can park right at the bottom and climb 385 steps, about 100m, to the rim on steel steps. It's a good workout for a great view! [2269]

The stark landscape at the rim of Saxhóll, its collapsed core, and all around are lava fields cast by the eruption. About 5km behind, is the Atlantic Ocean! [2295]

The lava fields which surround the Saxhóll crater. This characteristic landscape is common around Snæfellsnes and indeed all of Iceland. [2299]

A particular treat was Djúpalónssandur, a black pebble beach, often called the Black Lava Pearl Beach. No black sand in sight here - the entire beach is made up of smooth black stones of various sizes. To get to Djúpalónssandur, we drove about a kilometer down an windy one-lane track through a lava field to a very busy car park, and were amazied to find that tourist coaches and cars towing vans had already made it down this torturous trail! Are these coaches off the cruise ship? The walk to the beach goes down a path called Nautastígur which means 'path of the bull' because of cattle being led down here to water at freshwater lagoons which give the beach its name, Djúpulón meaning 'deep lagoons'. The path traverses large lava formations including one large stack called Gatklettur. People like to take photos of the Snæfellsjökull glacier through a hole in this rock.

The descent to the Black Lava Pearl Beach takes us through a beautiful lava formations including this rock, Gatklettur[2312]

The Black Lava Pearl Beach has debris from the British trawler The Epine GY7 which was wrecked near here in 1948 with the loss of 14. Five crew members were rescued by locals. In the background are the lagoons used to sate thirsty bulls.[2304]

The lava formations and black stones of Djúpalónssandur. [2310]

A farm and church once near this memorial to mother and child dates back to the earliest Viking settlement. The mother is Guðriður þorbjarnardóttir, born here and emigrated westward around 1000 to became the first European to bear a child in America. [2316]

Our helpful guide in Ólafsvík had recommended a restaurant in Hellnar for lunch. We think the fish soup was the not-to-miss specialty, but when we got there, it was too busy. So we moved on to the next town of Arnastapi where we had better luck at an open-air cafe which charged eye-watering prices for two bowls of soup. This town is not far off Highway 574 and is close to a uniquely shaped mountain Stapafell, 525m. Arnastapi has a monument to Jules Verne (who featured the glacier in 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'), a signpost to Sydney saying 10621km, and a spectacular 6m assembled sculpture of local stones featuring the half-giant, half-human Bárður Snæfellsás, the god of Snæfel, an important character in Icelandic saga.

It was too busy at the recommended lunch restaurant at Hellnar, left of this shot, so we had to move on. [2319]

Bardur Snaefellsas, Deity of Mt. Snaefell, constructed in 1985 by sculptor Ragnar Kjartansson. [2343]

At the base of Mt. Stapfell, short term rental cottages. [2345]

Our several days in Vesturland were very pleasant, dampened only by coming too close to a fatal road accident. Thereafter we drove back to Reykjavik and then onto Keflavik where the International Airport is for our rather sad departure from Iceland. On the way, we splurged on another visit to the wonderful geothermal pool at the Sky Lagoon.

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