Exploring the Westfjords with Hidden Iceland
Exploring the Westfjords with Hidden Iceland
Balancing adventure and relaxation in the island nation's remote region
Shards of glacial icefall chop up the landscape left and right. They're milky in coloration, though shot through certain areas with the most magnificent blue veins—a color that denotes areas that have been recently exposed to air. This is merely a corner of Iceland's Vatnajökull National Park, perhaps most famous for housing a volcano that disrupted air travel for weeks. Our guide Ryan Christopher Connolly, co-founder of boutique travel agency and operator Hidden Iceland meticulously scans our surroundings. He adjusts the pace of our small group, reading our skill levels and the shifting terrain. Connolly refers to the glacier, Falljökull, as his favorite place on Earth, though it's hard to tell you're on the same planet while up in the crevassed ice-world. He's conducted hundreds of trips here. In fact, it's this glacier and those around it that lead to the formation of Hidden Iceland. Connolly and his two partners, Scott Drummond and Dagný Björg Stefánsdóttir, felt they could offer something smaller—and more tailored. And they have.
Our glacier hike was extraordinary, nuanced and frequently awe-inspiring. But so was what came afterward. For a country that's in the midst of a tourist boom, many roads still stretch for miles car-free, and several excursions are simply remote. Nothing comes close to the location of Hidden Iceland's brand new tour into the Westfjords. Stretching like fingers off the western part of the country, the fjords feature such drastic beauty that every waking moment feels as if it were imagined. Winding roads lead to stunning vistas and sleepy towns. Lying outside of the famed Ring Road, the Westfjords represent all manner of Icelandic topographical drama. And from local cheese to arctic foxes, Hidden Iceland knows how to weave through it all.
"We want to honor our name, Hidden Iceland, and try to find these spots that are away from the main tourist areas. We do those, and we feel we do them well with our own tweaks. But we really love to do these immersive trips which try to capture what Iceland really is," Drummond explains to CH. "I've visited this area many times with Dagný who was raised in Þingeyri [in the Westfjords]. Her family is still up there. To me, the area encapsulates Iceland. It's just ridiculous and breathtaking scenery around every corner with tiny towns steeped in tradition. We want to show people this. There are not too many tours providing a fully immersive experience to the area from Reykjavik."
The tour, which runs from June through September by request, commences with a pick-up in Reykjavik. No group will be greater than eight people. And the specifics of the trip are best left discovered with Hidden Iceland—as we ourselves did over four days—but be certain that substantial time is spent in hot pools, gazing out into the distance. Guesthouses are minimal but top quality, clean and populated with friendly faces. And the information that's conveyed along the way by a guide enhances every striking visual. From the exact westernmost point of the island to arguably the country's most beautiful waterfall, it's all in their itinerary. Each moment stuns, even in light of the previous moment's grandeur. And honestly, there's nothing like sustained periods of road tripping that are entirely cell service free, something that happens from time to time between the stops.
Hidden Iceland conducts day trips to major sites from Reykjavik. They also hit the iconic spots like the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the Golden Circle—places that most tourists must visit. But for those of us who have been drawn to the country time and time again, there's no better way to dig deeper or venture further. And the fact that there are both scheduled trips to join (featuring a mix of the famous stops well-timed before and after some more obscure destinations) and private trips to customize means many types of budgets can be accommodated here.
Back on the aforementioned glacier, more than a five hour drive from what would be our forthcoming adventure in the Westfjords, Connolly sets up a picnic a few steps from an ice cave that's too unstable to enter. He talks about his role as a Wilderness First Responder and the dangers of the mountain. Aside from a few stray whips of wind, the weather remains on our side—something that can change in an instant. Connolly encourages adventure with enthusiasm. And he makes all the guests feel safe. "It's all so beautiful," he says, "it's important to remember to look for the beauty in every direction." And so we did.
You can explore Hidden Iceland's offerings online.
Images courtesy of Hidden Iceland: first three photos by Norris Niman, all other photos by Scott Drummond