The Westfjords sit atop the northwestern corner of Iceland — a skillet whose rim has been sliced into fork-like tongs. The skillet’s handle connects it to the remainder of the island while the tongs slip into the far northern sea, forming the fiords that give the area its name.
I wasn’t going to come here. On the map, it looks so removed from the remainder of the island that I doubted I’d have time. And while my guidebook enticed me with descriptions of this rugged country, I thought its many gravel roads and few amenities would make it just too tough.
I am happy to say I listened to my guidebook.
Finding I had more time than I had originally thought, I turned the car northward and plowed into the skillet handle. I went as far north on the eastern coast of the Westfjords that I could go, right before the paved road ended.
I discovered a paradise.
If you packed all the beauty from all the rest of Iceland into one small place and tucked it away from any hint of tourism, you’d have the Westfjords. They are wild and rugged with looming mountains in the middle and the cold, cold sea on all sides.
And in the fiords, which attract large numbers of whales and fish, are scattered islands. And on these live the puffins.
I had hoped to see these avian comedians from the moment I stepped on the island. But no matter how many times I stopped a spot where my guidebook assured me I would see puffins, they eluded me.
Now, here I was at the end of my northern-most paved road and the possibility of puffins appeared. But I’d have to take a boat to one of the many islands. And the boat didn’t leave until 9 a.m. – the next morning.
Although the town I found myself in, Drangsne, is a fair-sized community (all of 71 people), there was not a campground in sight. Moreover after having whetted my appetite for a mattress at the tiny cabin where I’d spent the previous night, I wasn’t looking forward to spending a night outside in the very cold arctic wind.
Do you have any rooms, I asked the owner of the puffin tour, who also happened to own the only guesthouse on town (Malarhorn, in case any of you are lucky enough to ever go).
I don’t think so, but let me look, he replied, running his finger down the list of rooms. No … yes, we have just one. My only chance to see a puffin was riding on staying the night, so I took the room.
But puffins and a mattress weren’t the only things to surprise me in this Westfjord end-of-the-road town. The owner pointed me to the town’s hot pots, which were actually built outside into the piled rock walls against which the sea rolled. It was a perfect ending to the day.
The next morning I rose early to catch the puffin express. We sped toward a small island in the middle of the sea. I could see flocks of birds diving from the cliffs and seated on the ocean. Some of them were indeed puffins!
The ungainly big-billed birds were diving into the cold ocean pulling out as many as a dozen fish in their bills to feed their young. Like flying cigars with too-short wings, they took off from the waves with difficulty, often dipping down several times to splash into the ocean before gaining enough altitude.
Their nests were buried deep inside the cliffs and earth of the island in holes the puffins build that can continue for nearly two meters. Hundreds of puffins lined the cliffs while other sundry birds soared overhead and nested nearby.
It was avian nirvana.
Then as we made our way back from the island to the shore, the pilot stopped the boat. Would you like to fish, he asked. There was immediate consent from all seven of us on the boat and soon we were pulling in multi-pound cod and other fish.
Just as we were getting ready to get underway again, one of the Icelanders aboard pointed over the side of the boat. A plume of mist shot into the air and a minke whale breached nearby, flipping its tale up before disappearing again below the waves.
A magical end to an unplanned detour.