One-Day Coastal Drive along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
October 26, 2016
I’ve been dreaming of visiting Reykjavik for the longest time ever, as I was attracted to the Northern Lights. In June this year, I finally made the trip! It is easy going on a trip but the tough part lies in planning the trip. If you’ve done bucketloads of research like me, you’ll understand how hard it is to eliminate certain places and squeeze time in for the really important ones you want to go. So, to make the best of my trip, I approached Reykjavik’s local tour agency and booked a day tour with “I Heart Reykjavik” to explore the wonders of Snaefellsnes. This tour is undertaken by their partner tour agency, Reykjavik Excursions.
Here are some interesting facts on Reykjavik. It is the capital and largest city of Iceland, with a population of 210,000. There are 330,000 people in the entire Iceland. With an extremely low crime rate, Reykjavik is one of the safest cities in the world, with only 135 prisoners. The coldest temperature they get is -24.5 degrees Celsius while the average temperature during summer season is 13 degrees Celsius. The water in Iceland is about 80 degrees Celsius so people there have no need for heaters. They always have to cool the water down. McDonalds’ is actually banned in Iceland but you can find KFC and Subways around.
Snaefellsnes is a peninsula located in Western Iceland and has been named “Iceland in Miniature” due to the numerous national sights that can be found in the area. This 90-kilometre-long peninsula comprises a world of diversity. With a crashing coastline, spectacular volcanoes, treacherous cliffs, beaches of sand and pebbles, beautiful glaciers and remnants of shipwrecks scattered here and there, you’ll be so bewildered by the magical Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
We departed Reykjavik on a big tour bus early in the morning and our first stop was Ytri Tunga. It is a farm situated at the centre of the Southern Snaefellsnes Peninsula but what actually draws visitors to this place is the seal colony at the beach. There is a gravel road leading towards the farm but just before entering, you should turn right and head for the coastline. There is a carpark there which is just a stone’s throw away from the beach. The adorable seals bobbing their heads up from the water and looking curiously around is bound to melt your hearts. Sometimes, you can see them lazing around on the rocks just a few meters off the coast.
Two species of seals breed in Iceland – harbour seal and grey seal. Harbour seal is considerably smaller than grey seal and can be recognized by its shorter snout. Males weigh on average 100kg while females weigh about 90kg. Both genders measure to an average of 1.6metre to 1.7metre in length. Female harbour seals are longer-lived than males and can survive for more than 30 years. Grey seal, on the other hand, is much bigger, with males almost weighing three times as heavy as one harbour seal. They have a relatively large and broad head and a long muzzle. Their coat is often grey or dark grey but their pups are born with a dense, soft, silky, white fur, which they replace with a waterproof pelt 3 to 4 weeks after birth. Like harbour seals, the female grey seals live longer than males, some reaching at least 45 years.
You can spot both these species at Ytri Tunga but most of the seals on dry land are harbour seals. Seals are best viewed at low tide when they may be observed lying on the shore. The ideal conditions are mild and calm weather. Binoculars are very useful while seal-watching. The best time to see seals at Ytri Tunga is in June and July. I’ve never learnt so much about seals till this Snaefellsnes Peninsula day tour. So interesting!
It’s not difficult to spot this impressive waterfall due to its visibility from Highway 54 on the south side of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It is located where the main road splits to Fróðaárheiði leading to Ólafsvík in the northern part and to Búðir and Arnarstapi on the south shore of the peninsula. This is more like a photo-stop but if you have more time to explore the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, you can hike all the way up to the main waterfall but be warned that the climb is relatively steep. The path to the waterfall is only accessible during summer season so please don’t endanger your life during late fall and winter season. Sometimes, the water source for the waterfall is limited, causing it to look like a small stripe falling from the cliff from a distance. If strong winds happen to blow at this moment, the waterfall will be temporarily “gone with the wind”.
There is no large town along the Snaefellsness Peninsula and Arnarstapi is one of the little fishing villages dotted along the coast. This charming little fishing village is located right below the Snaefellsjökull Glacier and used to be a very significant trading post in the past with a much bigger population than it has now. The best time to visit Arnarstapi is during summer as it is nearly deserted during the winter season. There are some stunning rock formations by the harbour where various species of birds like to nest during summer. If you walk further, you’ll notice a massive sculpture of the half-man-half-troll Bárður Snæfellsás, made by Ragnar Kjartansson, one of Iceland’s most renowned sculptors. The statue is Ragnar’s interpretation of the giant character that dominates the area around Snaefellsjökull Glacier.
Before I tell you the story of Bárður Snæfellsás, here’s something to take note of – you’ll be walking through the nesting grounds of the Arctic Tern. They are tiny but extremely aggressive when it comes to protecting their young. They often attack the highest point (your head) and they peck really hard! So, it wouldn’t hurt bringing a stick along and raising it above your heads, just in case.
Back to the story on Bárður Snæfellsás … His story was written in Medieval times in the 15th century and is part of the Icelandic Sagas. His mother was one of the tallest and most beautiful women in her days but his father Dumbur was a half-giant or half-troll. Bárður was also considered extremely handsome with a large presence. In his youth, he was fostered by Dofri, the mountain-dweller, of Dovrefjell in Norway and received an excellent education and training. Bárður married Dorfi’s daughter Flaumgerður and had three tall and beautiful daughters by her. Like he, she also had a human mother. After she had passed away he married Herþrúður, his second wife who was human and he had six more daughters by her.
Along with his wife and daughters and some friends, Bárður migrated to Iceland and settled at Djúpalón on the south coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Bárður’s half brother, Þorkell, also migrated with his family and settled at Arnarstapi. They were fleeing the tyranny of Harald, the King of Norway. Following an altercation after a rather dangerous prank played on Bárður’s daughters by the half-brother’s sons, Bárður was provoked to a point of uncontrollable anger. An event that made him extremely depressed and lost his mind completely in the end. Finally, he gave away all his land and all his earthly belongings and vanished into the Snaefellsnes Glacier.
In the glacier, rumor has it, that he built an ice cave more in line with his troll or giant side. There, he became known as the Guardian Spirit of Snæfell as the locals worshiped him and looked at him as their savior. For centuries, they would call upon him in times of hardship and trouble. Bárður wandered the region wrapped in a gray cowl held together by a walrus-hide rope. In his hand was a cleft staff with a long and thick gaff for mounting the glacier. Therefore, many names of many places in the area around Snaefellsjökull Glacier are related to Bárður Snæfellsás and his story.
From Arnarstapi, there’s an easy 2.5km hike by the seaside to Hellnar, the next village. It takes approximately an hour and you’ll pass by sea caves and arches to tumbles of lava rock. The lava field that you will hike across is called Hellnahraun and you’ll notice more unique rock formations.
We had lunch at one of the cafés called Prímus in Hellnar. This café specialize in serving hearty soups, light homemade meals, sandwiches, fresh salads, cakes and other desserts. My taste buds are always more adventurous when I travel so I tried Plokkfish stew which doesn’t look that appetizing but it is actually really tasty. It’s kind of like mashed fish and potatoes with a white sauce and served with rye bread. This café is open daily from 10am to 9pm from 1 May to 15 September and 11am to 4pm from 16 September to 30 April.
Djúpalónssandur beach is covered by countless little black pebbles shaped by the natural forces of the ocean and the wind. Upon entering Djúpalónssandur beach, you’ll notice lifting stones which were used to measure the strength of fishermen in the past. The biggest one is called “Fullsterkur” (full strength) and weighs 154kg and only the very strong can lift that one. Well, I tried and obviously, failed! Please don’t break your back or pull any muscles trying to lift this stone up! Fishermen in the past have to be able to lift at least 54kg or they will not be accepted on the fishing boats. Nowadays, stones like the ones you see at Djúpalónssandur beach are used in the strong-men contests, which are very popular in Iceland. So, if you have a fetish for musclemen, Iceland is the place to go to!
Besides stones, ruins of a shipwreck can also be found on Djúpalónssandur beach – true evidence of the tumultuous weather conditions in the area. The iron remnants you see on the beach are from the British trawler, The Epine GY7, which was wrecked East of Dritvik on the night of 13 March 1948. 14 men lost their lives and 5 were saved by the Icelandic rescue teams. Note that the remains should not be touched! Moreover, the suction of the sea in Djúpalónssandur is very powerful so never ever go too close to the ocean! Heed the warning signs by the carparks.
The Snaefellsjökull Glacier is a dormant strato-volcano regarded as one of the symbols of Iceland. With its height of 1446 meters, it is the highest mountain on the Snaefellsness Peninsula and has a glacier at its peak. Its crater is 200 meters deep and it is believed to be one of the seven energy centers in the world. This mountain is also famously known as the setting in the novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by French author, Jules Verne. It was drizzling when I hiked up and the wind was super strong but it was a really great experience!
Before heading back to Reykjavik, the bus allowed us to alight at Mount Kirkjufell in Grundarfjorour, a small charming town, just to capture shots of the picturesque mountain. This prominent mountain is the landmark of this fishing town. Many have rated Mount Kirkjufell as the most gorgeous mountain along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Here’s some advice
Iceland’s weather conditions are known to change dramatically within a split second so if you’re spending a day along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, please make sure that you check the weather forecast and road conditions regularly. There are areas along the coast that are known for being extra windy while some roads can get icy so do drive carefully and always be alert, keeping your eyes on the roads. Bring adequate windbreakers and wear proper footwear. Do remember to pack some food and drinks, especially during winter season, as some cafés and restaurants might be closed and the only available food will be hot dog buns at gas stations, which might be a really long drive away from where you are at that point of time.
The majestic Snaefellsnes Peninsula has so much more breathtaking sceneries to offer besides those that I’ve mentioned above. Click here for the link to “The Wonders of Snaefellnes” day tour that I joined. Thank you so much to “I Heart Reykjavik” for such an amazing tour with a knowledgeable and helpful local guide. Hope you’ll find my article useful and interesting, especially if you’re planning to travel to Iceland soon! Stay tuned for more Iceland travel guides!