Names in Iceland can seem impossible to pronounce for travelers. One of the first regions we put on our list of areas to visit was Snæfellsnes, which until we learned how to say it (sn-ay-fells-ness) we would just refer to it by the name of the Muppet character Snuffaluffagus. Actually Kelly still calls it by that name!
This area is almost indescribably beautiful. Around every corner there seems to be a new waterfall, lava field, black sand beach, mountain, or other astonishing view. We rapidly realized we could have spent an entire week just in this area, rather than the couple of days we have.
Kirkjufell over the Grundarfjörður bay
Our starting point, where we are staying is Grundarfjörður, which is the main town on the peninsula. It is a fishing town, with a pretty harbor placed in front of a backdrop of a steep mountain shelf, which in Iceland, by default, comes with some waterfalls. As mentioned in yesterday’s post the picturesque mountain Kirkjufell looms over the town also.
We had hoped to go whale watching today as the operator of such boat rides in this region is located in Grundarfjörður and have boats that go out from either there or Ólafsvik, another town about 20 minutes down the coast. Just our luck that for some unknown reason they are not running any whale watching tours today or tomorrow from either of these locations. We could however, drive 3 hours north to their other location in Hólmavík, which is supposed to be one of the best whale watching sites in Iceland, but that is just too far and in the wrong direction, so regrettably we did not get to go out on any boats.
However, there are some spots on land where you can try to see whales, including Öndverðarnes, which is the westernmost tip of Iceland and located in the Snaefellsnes National Park. It also includes the opportunity for some walks, so we headed for there.
Once you get off the main road in Iceland, often you will drive along a stretch of paved road that will suddenly transition to a “gravel road”, most of which have little if any gravel on them. The ride on these roads is bumpy and you have to go a lot slower. At the end of one such road was a small car park and a squat orange lighthouse. We had reached Öndverðarnes, inside the National Park.
There are a few things to do in this area. First off we walked a short distance to the Fáiki ancient stone well, which is said to provide three waters – fresh, holy, and ale! Walking to the nearby coast we looked for signs of whales, but alas had no luck.
A short drive away is the second, taller lighthouse in the area at the Svörtuloft bird cliffs. We did indeed see lots of birds here, including a number of puffins. Some women arrived after us and told us they had gone out on a puffin spotting cruise and only seen three puffins. They were delighted when we pointed out more than that right below them. Also in the area were a large number of guillemots (also called murres in North America) that are members of the Auk family, i.e. close cousins of puffins. There are actually three varieties of guillemots here, including the less common Brünnich’s Guillemot, which has the distinction of having the highest flight cost of any animal, meaning that they have to expend enormous energy to fly, but are great divers, as their wings are optimized for diving, not flying.
On our way out of the area, we stopped at the Skardsvik beach, which is very pretty, but it was bitterly cold with the bracing wind. A couple were having some wedding photos done nearby – you can see them and the photographer in the corner of the photo above.
Heading further around the peninsula, we stopped at the rust red slopes of the Saxhöll crater. There is a wide staircase that wraps around the cone of the extinct volcano which was responsible for most of the volcanic debris in the area. The stairs are setup at what was an awkward distance for me, so it was not the most comfortable climb. The view from the top is great, but there isn’t really much to see inside the crater – just a grassy bowl.
Further along the coast is Malarrif, which for some reason Google maps shows as being in the middle of the ocean. Although our guide book listed the National Park Visitor’s Center as being in Hellnar, several kilometers east, it is in fact now located in Malarrif, Aside from the Visitor’s Center, with very helpful staff, there are a couple of sites to see here, including a pretty beach. More interesting to me was a rock formation that old Icelanders called the Elf Church. Given the various, sometimes spooky shapes of the volcanic formations and the often moody lighting, it is not at all surprising to us that many Icelanders believed (and indeed continue to believe) in elves, trolls, and the like.
A case in point are two rock pillars at Löndrangar nearby. From a distance it is easy to see them as the shapes of different creatures. Also of note in this photo is the lava field, which is covered in what appears to be moss. Driving through the countryside one finds areas of bare rock, mossy covered lava fields, and fields of grass. However, we can’t recall seeing any trees on the peninsula and indeed saw very few trees at all in Iceland.
The visitor’s center recommended the cliff walk between Arnarstapi and Hellnar which is very pretty. They suggested starting at Arnastrapi as that is the prettier part of the walk and if one doesn’t walk the entire cliff walk to Hellnar there and back, at least you get to see the nicest parts.
A little further along, and just outside the national park is Sönghellir song cave. To get there we had to drive up what was listed as an F road on older maps, but has since been declassified as such. F roads are rough mountain trails that standard rental cars are not authorized to drive on. You need a properly equipped, high clearance 4×4 to drive on them, or to take a specially equipped, high clearance bus. Declassifying the road from being an F road means in theory that the road should now be maintained, but it was a really rough drive just to get to the cave, which is said to resound with the songs of dwarfs. It was actually a very small cave, but had very good acoustics inside.
Our last main stop of the day was at the Black church of Búðir, which is an iconic spot and frequently photographed. It seems like the middle of nowhere for a church – there didn’t seem to be many houses anywhere close by, however this used to be a major fishing village, but the old buildings have now disappeared. The church is still in use – we arrived and saw people inside and thought we could go in, but it was a private function, so in the end we only got to see the outside of the building.
In order to get back to the north side of the peninsula, we drove across the Fróðárheiði pass – which was half paved, half tarred road.
After bumping our way back to the main road, we had dinner at Hraun in Ólafsvik. Hraun means lava in Icelandic, so you see the word in a number of places. They even have a candy bar called Hraun, which is a wafer with what appears to be pieces of puffed rice, all enrobed in chocolate, so it ends up with a bumpy appearance, somewhat reminiscent of the lava fields to be encountered here.
We had a lovely meal (more fish!) before heading back to Grundarfjörður to rest up after a long, but very enjoyable day’s explorations.