A magnificent crystal clear, blue sky, warm summer’s day awaited us in our next port, Ísafjörður. A small community of about 2,600 residents, Ísafjörður is tucked away in the northern part of the Westfjords and is the largest town in that area. In fact, the total population of this remote part of Iceland is less than 3,000, just over 1% of Iceland’s total population of 330,000 (about the same population of the greater Wellington Region in New Zealand). The residents of these towns historically earned their livelihoods from the sea, whether from fishing or processing. A bit later, the industrial base shifted more to the engineering, transport and logistical (trucking) services for the fishing industry but in the 1970s, even these supporting services became unsustainable and a painful contraction of the area’s industry occurred. Today, there is still a fishing industry, but one which is focused on extracting the best out of each fish plucked from the sea as well as manufacturing tools and machinery for a global market. However, the main focus is on tourism which has become the fastest growing industry in the region since the early, successful days of fishing.
Upon arrival, we found that we had to tender to shore, not being the only ship in town. The Thompson Spirit (ironically, formerly Holland America’s Rotterdam) was parked up at the main berth while the very elegant Le Soleal was berthed a bit further along. Three ships in this very small settlement? More than enough to do and to see for each and every passenger.
Perhaps it is because of the area’s remoteness that a remarkable town has developed. Some of Iceland’s oldest buildings can be found in Ísafjörður, as well a thoroughly modern town, with interesting shops, plenty of activities within or near the town area, and a host of museums.
We had a good wander through the streets, ducking into shops with a great selection of locally made souvenirs, clothing, design items and other stuff, and people watching – in front of cafes and pubs, and taking in the rays on the town’s commons, in front of Ísafjörður’s imposing Culture House, which used to be the town’s hospital. Designed by one of Iceland’s most famous architects, Guðjón Samúelsson in 1925, this elegant building was tranformed into a cultural centre in 2003 and now houses a library, archives, photo collection and art collection.
Just off the main streets in the old town we found houses tightly squeezed together to preserve most of the town’s land for drying areas for the fish catch; these architecturally interesting houses are often painted in bright colours, showing signs of extensions as families grew.
The town’s ‘mall’ seemed to consist of three or four businesses: the post office, a well-stocked supermarket (Coop), a Subway (!) and if I remember, the town’s pharmacy.
Also in the centre of town, we found not only two vintage Ford cars, but also two of our friends from the ship, and decided that this sparkly clear day could best be celebrated by having a taste of the local, Icelandic beer – Viking, while sitting outside and watching the world go by. We found ourselves sitting at a rustic refectory table, outside, in front of the restaurant adjacent to the Maritime Museum – a restaurant which we were told is a 5-Star restaurant with a well-known Icelandic chef. The four of us sat in the gorgeous sunshine for several hours, chatting with two lads dressed in heritage costumes, as part of the adjacent Maritime Museum’s experience.
Both teenagers, one had just returned from living in Canada for several years, both with excellent English, and a surprisingly sophisticated and knowledgeable view of Iceland and the world. When we asked about the relative proportions of daylight and night, the answer was fascinating. Ísafjörður is surprisingly light in the wintertime: the amount of snow and clear moonlight actually lights up the town! As to the summer months, the sun travels in a circle around Ísafjörður, never setting, but darkness can be experienced if you stand a few meters away, in the shadow of the fjord. The older boy, who had lived in Canada, seems most content to be back in Ísafjörður. When asked if he likes Reykjavig, his answer was “no, it is boring.” When we asked him what he meant, he said that he didn’t like that Reykjavig is spread out, and things are not as accessible as they are in Ísafjörður. That simply and succinctly describes Ísafjörður’s warm and welcoming environment – small, compact, and well-supported by the local businesses and services.
I wish we had had the time to visit some of the smaller villages around with their 894, 145, 264, 199 and 262 populations, respectively. Reading through the tourist information we collected, it is evident that there are some fascinating things to do in these towns, too. One calls itself the “friendliest fishing village you will ever find, while in another, a man is working on a replica of the WW2 destroyer, Bismarck. In another is the Nonsense Museum, a museum where collectors can display their sugar cubes, pens, uniforms – or whatever else they have collected throughout the years.
With a surprising number of multistory buildings, an airport which provides twice daily service to Reykjavig, three tunnels connecting it to three other villages and a tight-knit community, Ísafjörður is doing everything it can to keep going, and I hope that it does. It is a very special little town, tucked up in a very remote part of Iceland.