Adventure seekers at heart, many Aspenites look to destinations that continue to feed that spirit in the off-season. This fall my beau and I chose to explore the otherworldly landscape that is Iceland. As first-timers, we wanted to see as much as possible over the course of a 12-day sojourn. But with the crush of tourism since the nation’s economic crisis in 2008—about 2.2 million visitors are expected to stream into the sparsely populated country this year alone—we opted out of circumnavigating the highly traveled Ring Road.
Instead, we focused on the Westfjords, a region that only 10 percent of visitors ever see. This coastal treasure trove of remote fishing villages, black sand beaches, majestic waterfalls, jagged cliffs, and rare wildlife remains one of few places to experience traditional Nordic life.
But before hitting the open road, though, we stopped in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, to get our bearings, checking into an ocean-view room with private bath at Kex Hostel (kexhostel.is; from $166 per night), which feels more Ace Hotel than budget dormitory. Housed in an old biscuit factory, its eclectic lobby bar and gastropub make it one of the hippest hangs downtown. Words of wanderlust adorn the hostel’s walls and boutique swag, and we adopted one saying immediately: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.”
Reykjavík’s small size makes it easy to explore on foot. How to fit in the must-see's in just one day? Start at Reykjavík Roasters for a strong cup of coffee before taking in the view at Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church that, at 244 feet high, ranks among the tallest structures in Iceland. Head to the Reykjavík Art Museum, which exhibits iconic Icelandic artists like Erró, Kjarval, and Ásmundur Sveinsson. From there, make your way down Laugavegur, the city’s chicest shopping street where you can score vintage Icelandic sweaters at Spúútnik, design-minded souvenirs at My Concept Store, outdoor gear at 66 North, and homegrown threads at Farmers & Friends.
Warm up with a late lunch at Noodle Station, which offers affordable and tasty Thai-style bowls, before visiting one of the world’s most unusual collections at the Icelandic Phallological Museum—215 penis specimens from the country’s native mammals. For the ultimate fine-dining experience, head to Matur og Drykkur, where chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson riffs on rural traditions with modern Icelandic cuisine. The menu’s star? Cod head flambéed in chicken stock.
Three days of assimilating the urban vibe was enough, so we headed off to the Westfjords. To tackle the area’s narrow, jarring, and steep dirt roads, we had booked our dream adventure mobile, a four-wheel-drive Land Rover Defender that we could sleep in, through Kúkú Campers (kukucampers.is, from $224 per day). The Reykjavík-based outfitter (which added a Colorado outpost earlier this year) offers vehicles stocked with everything you need for life on the road. With Iceland’s reputation for sky-high prices (although we found food and drink comparably priced to Aspen), car camping was a solid way to give our budget a break.
We began in the seaside Snæfellsjökull National Park (approved campsites are hard to come by, so arrive early in the day). On the way in, we stopped to view Kirkjufell—Iceland’s most photographed mountain that’s also recognizable from Game of Thrones. The next day we drove to Stykkishölmur to catch the car-friendly Baldur Ferry across Breidafjörður Bay, where we sailed north for overnights in Bíldudalur and Isafjörður. Inclement weather forced us into quaint guest houses the next few nights (around $100 per night, easily reserved through booking.com). The last leg of the road trip landed us in Hvammstangi on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, an area known as the “land of the seals” that includes a scenic loop drive for prime pinniped spotting.
After roughing it on the road, we were ready for the ultimate rest and relaxation we found at Deplar Farm (elevenexperience.com; from $2,530 per night; all inclusive), a luxuriously renovated former sheep station tucked deep into the Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland. Upon checking into one of the 13 guest rooms—each the epitome of farmhouse chic—we met our personal adventure guide, Griff, who took us whale watching, horseback riding, hiking, and clay shooting. When ski season starts (March-May), head here for its unrivaled heli-skiing operation with access to 1,500 square miles of terrain.
During the few hours of downtime we had, we indulged in gourmet meals and an impressive wine and cocktail program, as well as the chance to dip into the property’s geothermal pools, float therapy pods, cold plunge, and outdoor "Viking Sauna."
Deplar Farm’s operator, Eleven Experience, aims to go above a perfect 10, so it’s only fitting that its newest property goes beyond five stars. And our overall entrée to Iceland? A perfect 12.
Where to stop in the Westfjords:
Before catching the car ferry, lunch at Sjávarpakkhúsið in Stykkishölmur for the freshest blue mussels, which, touts the menu, come from “our friend Simon.”
Just outside of Bíldudalur, the Pollurinn hot pot in Tálknafjörðu is a public geothermal pool with expansive views.
Don’t miss Dynjandi (also known as Fjallfoss), a series of waterfalls reaching a towering total height of 100 meters.
When we asked for menus at Tjöruhúsið in Isafjörður, the matriarch of this family-owned restaurant in a wood cabin replied, “We have fish,” as she slammed down our Viking beers. It was the best fish we’ve ever eaten.
While snaking around the longest stretch of Route 61 in Súðavík, watch for a seal-watching sign; there, you’ll find a roadside honor box stocked with binoculars, homemade jams for sale, and a guest book to sign.
Dive into the folklore of Iceland’s 17th century at the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík. The display includes a pair of luck-bearing “necropants”—made from human skin.
The Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammstangi features a museum and seal-watching tours.
Shop for Icelandic sweaters at the Kidka Wool Factory in Hvammstangi, where you can watch the knitwear being made on site.
During low tide, visit the Hvítserkur on the Vatnsnes Peninsula. Legend has it that the nearly 50-foot-high, sea-surrounded rock is a petrified troll.
When to go:
Almost complete darkness occurs during winter months, so plan ahead for spring or summer. Icelandair offers direct flights from Denver from $450 (roundtrip beginning in March) including the popular #MyStopOver extended layover program on international routes. icelandair.us