The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is at the westernmost edge of Iceland. It is home to quaint fishing towns, mountains, waterfalls, beaches, dramatic scenery, a national park (Snaefellsjokull) and a glacier and mountain that are reputed to be the most picturesque on the island and the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The lower part of the peninsula consists of miles and miles of gently rolling pasture land, punctuated by picturesque mountains, occasional lava fields, small and mid-sized towns and occasional access to the ocean (primarily via roads to fishing towns).
The mid-peninsula is more scenic, more challenging to drive, and more historic. It becomes much more mountainous, has more waterfalls and is generally much more dramatic. The winds, however, try their hardest to push you off the road—presumably to protect the sanctity of the beauty that lies beyond. It has two, particularly noteworthy stops, one scenic and hikeable, the other pretty and historic:
- Eldborg Crater is a perfectly formed, 60-meter, conical volcano crater that can be hiked via a 2.5 km trail.
- Stykkisholmur is a lovely, harborside town whose center is graced with several hundred+-year old homes, commercial buildings and a church. The scenic harbor which is filled with trawlers and, when we were there, a ferry, is framed and protected by a dramatic lava monolith and several small islands.
The western tip of the peninsula is the home to its primary sites and tourist facilities. Its primary attraction is the National Park.
The centerpiece of Snaefellsjokull National Park is a dormant volcano that has erupted more than 20 times in the last 11,000 years. Today the volcano is topped by a rapidly shrinking (from more than 23 to 9.2 sq km over the last century) glacier. The mountain was the setting for Jules Verne’s novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. It is Iceland’s only national park that stretches to the sea.
The park also includes miles of moss-draped lava fields with weirdly shaped formations and dozens of other notable features. These include:
- Saxholl Crater, with its pretty, architectural award-winning “necklace-like” staircase that takes you roughly 300 steps to the top, which provides views into the crater, across lava fields and to the cliffs at the western end of the Londranger Range, which forms the backbone of the peninsula.
- Vatnehellir Cave, a roughly 200-meter lava tube through which regular tours are given.
- Djupalonssandur, aka Black Lava Pearl Beach, a black sand/pebble/rock beach surrounded by dramatic black basalt headlands and cliffs, one of which has an arch. The headlands provide sweeping views of the coast and the Londranger Range and the beach is scattered with the rusty remains of a trawler that struck the rocks in a 1948 storm. It also has rocks that the fishermen lifted to prove their strength.
The Western Edge of Snaefellsnes Peninsula
The western edge of the peninsula is also home to a number of interesting towns and sights. These include south shore towns such as:
- Arnarpatapi, on a coastal headland with dramatic basalt columns and ravines that appeared to have freshly flowed from a volcano. The town also has a large lava field, several fish and chip restaurants, including one with a sod roof, and a stone monument to Bardur Snaefellsas, a troll who supposedly lived in the nearby Randfeldgjn Cave.
- Randfeldgjn Cave, just outside the town, is a tiny, narrow cavern that can be accessed with a roughly half km climb and a scramble from rock to rock through a stream.
- Buoir, a tiny speck of a town whose main attractions are a cute black church, a sand beach, pretty cove, strolls through its hilltop meadows and wonderful views of the glacier.
- Bjarnarfoss, a couple of hundred-foot waterfall that plunges scenically over a cliff formed by an ancient volcano.
- Lysuholl’s carbon dioxide-charged hot mineral algae pool.
The west coast’s North Shore, meanwhile, has a few of its own interesting towns, such as:
- Olafsvik, with its pretty harbor, lovely waterfall (Baejarfoss) and a nicely restored 1844-era warehouse that now serves as a museum with 19th– and early-20th-century ship models, workman’s tools and household furnishings and products.
- Hellissandur, whose streets are home to more than 30 large outdoor murals that have been painted by artists from around the world.
Its most impressive attractions, however, are along the road east of these towns: a stretch that provides stunning views of steep, couple hundred-foot cliffs that plunge down to the sea, rugged, emerald-green mountains that line the inland side of the road and views that stretch across bays to distant mountains and one particular mountain that is claimed to be the most beautiful in the country:
- Kirkjufell is a 463-meter, mountain that is indeed stunning. The multi-stream Kirkjufell waterfall is also lovely.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula Restaurants
- Vidvik (Hellissandur),. This intimate, sister-owned restaurant was wonderful. We shared three very good dishes. The langoustine soup with scallops and dill was rich and delicious. The pan-seared plaice with pumpkin, hazelnuts, lemon and capers was as delicious as it was lovely. The pan-seared cod with cauliflower, dill pesto, and kale was good but not as great as the other dishes. The pesto overwhelmed the taste of the fish. The sisters are continually making sure you are enjoying your food and engaging you in conversation (if you want). They were more than happy to recommend a hike. All-in-all, a great place to stop if you are in the area.
- St. Pinn, an Arnarstapi’s restaurant, specializes in fish and chips. While heavily breaded, the fish was fresh and the dish was tasty. We were less impressed with the thin, watery mushroom soup, which was graced with three thin slices of button mushrooms.
Our Greatest Iceland Skips and Misses
Although we covered much of the roughly quarter of the island that we did explore, there were a number of sights within this area that we either decided not to visit or we were unable to explore. Among the most important of these were:
Whale Watching. Although whale watching tours are a premier Iceland activity, we opted out. Having lived in Boston and San Francisco, we have been on a number of sightseeing cruises, have seen whales from shore and have even snorkeled with whales in the South Pacific. We didn’t need another whale tour.
Icelandic Horse Riding. Among the greatest misses of this excursion was skipping our chance to ride the small, almost pony-like Icelandic horses. This unique breed has remained pure for more than 1,000 years. We did, however, see a few of the lovely horses grazing in pastures. So graceful and with beautiful long manes.
Seeing the Northern Lights. This is one item that remains on our bucket list Although it is true that most of our near-Arctic trips (Central Alaska, Northern Canada, Scandinavia) have been in summer, when the night skies are too bright to see the show, we have been in Aurora Borealis areas several times on darker, autumn nights. So far, however, our efforts to see the colorful lights (caused when charged particles released in solar flares strike the earth’s atmosphere) have been quashed—typically by cloud covers. Unfortunately, this trip was no exception. It is starting to look like we have to arrange a special (burrrr) winter trip.