Dream Trip: A Midsummer Night’s Drive Through Iceland by Jen Rose Smith

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

Dream Trip: A Midsummer Night’s Drive Through Iceland by Jen Rose Smith, Bergen County Moms
Dynjandi Waterfalls

Iceland's smoldering beauty appears, at times, indistinguishable from magic. Fresh coats of molten lava flow from the earth amid clouds of sulfurous smoke. Glaciers melt into subterranean pools, then return to the surface in scalding geysers. Eruptions dot the landscape with jet-black, volcanic-stone sculptures resembling fairy-tale creatures. Perhaps that’s why the country’s stories of elves, hidden folk, trolls, and charms have endured for so long. Even in recent decades, a majority of Icelanders have professed a belief that elves, at the very least, might be real.

“When in Iceland,” I decided. So along with a map and hiking boots, I packed a book of Icelandic folklore for a weeklong June road trip to the Westfjords, a peninsula at Iceland’s northwestern edge. At first, I’d considered driving the two-lane Ring Road that circumnavigates the country, but then I spoke with Erling Aspelund, cofounder of Virtuoso on-site tour connection Iceland Encounter. “It’s a remote area in every sense of the word,” he said, describing the Westfjords’ wind-whipped cliffs, beaches, and waterfalls. In summer, near perpetual sunshine illuminates wild landscapes; by fall, the northern lights flicker after dark. Only about ten percent of travelers to Iceland visit the Westfjords at all. Far from southern Iceland’s population centers, it seemed like just the kind of place where old stories might thrive.

Also intriguing: a newly established 590-mile route called the Vestfjardaleidin – the Westfjords Way. Tracing a path between deep fjords and steep mountains, it winds through the crevices of a region stretching nearly to the edge of the Arctic Circle. Last year a new tunnel, Dyrafjardargong, burrowed under a high pass there, making the area’s natural charms easier to navigate. The landscape promised to be spectacular, even by Iceland’s already lofty standards.

“It’s these tall mountains rising up from the water – the scenery is quite amazing,” Tietse Stelma, CEO and cofounder of 50 Degrees North, a tour operator that specializes in Nordic countries, told me. Even some main roads between settlements remain unpaved, he warned, and driving is slow. But taking the time to explore would bring me to soaring bird cliffs and waterfalls with few visitors in sight.

Dream Trip: A Midsummer Night’s Drive Through Iceland by Jen Rose Smith, Bergen County Moms
Raudasandur Beach

To reach the Westfjords, I drove due north from Reykjavík, following the Ring Road, then steering onto smaller and smaller tracks. My map folded on the seat beside me, I traced a zigzag path up and down fjords that tumbled straight to the sea. Even main roads in Iceland look like country lanes back home; in some parts of the Westfjords, the pavement gives way to narrow dirt tracks.

Circled on the map was Raudasandur Beach, reputed to be one of the Westfjords’ most arresting sights. To reach it, I made my slow way down a steep dirt lane in the car, descending in switchbacks. The sand below me, unusual in a country known for jet-black beaches, morphed in the changing light from bright gold to henna red. Shallow pools of seawater reflected the morning’s cornflower sky. But even if I returned to the beach for a midnight stroll, a gentle glow would pervade the landscape: At this latitude, around the summer solstice, night doesn’t fall for weeks.

Here and across the far north, that generous allotment of sunlight sparks frenzied activity. At Raudasandur, great drifts of wildflowers bloomed in seaside meadows, and seabirds streaked past on their way to nearby nests. But in Iceland, the power of Midsummer Eve goes beyond the natural world. According to local folklore – and my clothbound book of stories – this day is charged with enchantment too.

Elves might be spotted at crossroads, I read, where they’ll try to tempt you with gifts and delicious foods. Cows gain the power of human speech. Midsummer is celebrated on June 24, a few days after the summer solstice, and it’s a time when the natural and supernatural begin to mingle, explained Terry Gunnell, professor of folkloristics at the University of Iceland.

“The gates open between two worlds,” Gunnell told me, words that returned as I trained binoculars far down the beach. There, a cluster of fat gray seals sunned on the sand. Gunnell said that, according to Icelandic mythology, some seals may shed their skins on the beach at midsummer, briefly assuming human form. Old tales recount besotted farmers stealing seal women’s skins, in order to prevent their return to the sea, and spiriting them home.

Dream Trip: A Midsummer Night’s Drive Through Iceland by Jen Rose Smith, Bergen County Moms

“There’s a lot of stories about trolls and elves here too,” said my guide for the day at Raudasandur, a young German woman who’d settled down in a nearby fishing village. One was a kind of just-so story about the island-strewn bay we were gazing at from the beach. “Long ago, there were three trolls who wanted to keep the Westfjords for themselves,” she said. “They decided to dig a channel and turn the peninsula into an island.” The trolls worked at night, chiseling away at bedrock. Each time they threw loose stones into the sea, they created dozens of new islands in this very bay, called Breidafjordur. But one night, the trolls kept digging past dawn and turned into stone, their project unfinished. “That’s why the Westfjords are still part of Iceland,” she said, smiling.

Part of Iceland, but a place apart. And for the birds that nest at the towering Látrabjarg cliffs, another of the Westfjords’ scenic highlights, this region is a haven. Stepping out of the car, I heard the cliffs before I saw them. Wind whistled up over the edge, bringing with it the sounds of seabirds. Atlantic puffins poked their bright-orange beaks above the cliff band, primping for visitors’ cameras. The eight-mile band is one of the largest bird nesting areas in all of Europe, and puffin nests burrowed deep into the earth beneath my feet. By July, they’d be filled with fluffy, black-and-white chicks, adorably called pufflings.

On the day I visited, pairs of puffins were enjoying their pre-baby downtime. Glossy-feathered couples rubbed beaks and took turns gliding to the water to fish. It had started spitting light rain. During my week in the Westfjords, clouds often clotted the sky; when they cracked open, rain streamed from the high cliffs that flank narrow, always-winding roads.

Dream Trip: A Midsummer Night’s Drive Through Iceland by Jen Rose Smith, Bergen County Moms
Hand-knit Sweaters

The next day, I sheltered from the weather at the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum in Bíldudalur, which gathers tales of creatures spotted in the surrounding fjords. In grainy videos, craggy Icelandic fishermen wearing hand-knit sweaters recounted long-ago sightings of monsters from the deep, such as the dragonlike merhorse.

Wild and brooding, the Westfjords themselves make it easy to credit such stories. Outside, a summer storm had turned the nearby fjord opaque. That afternoon I headed to the Dynjandi waterfall, a stepladder of cascades hemmed in by lush greenery. It was still raining when I got there, and water from the surrounding peaks swelled the falls into a torrent.

Southern Iceland’s waterfalls can draw blockbuster crowds, but that day, just a few other hikers were trekking to Dynjandi’s base. Glowing pale yellow by the side of the trail, arctic poppies swayed with each gust of wind. Pert and pretty mountain avens, Iceland’s national flower, foamed up out of the soaking moss.

Even Icelandic plants take on special powers at midsummer. According to old stories, you could dream of a future spouse by picking seven wildflowers and slipping them under your pillow. Herbs gathered then would have extra potency, I read, when hung to dry for the coming winter. And as the proprietress of a farm restaurant in Heydalur, an idyllic property surrounded by meadows and pasture, told me, “If you roll in the dew on Midsummer Eve, you get one wish.” She was slight – elfin, even – and her white-crowned head and half-moon spectacles barely peeked above the restaurant’s high counter. Heydalur was my final stop before leaving the Westfjords peninsula. A calendar on the wall behind her read June 23: Midsummer Eve.

“One wish if you roll in the dew at midnight,” she repeated. “But you can’t tell anyone what you wish. And you have to be naked.” Walking outside the restaurant, I saw the sun had dipped below the lip of the valley. A shadow swelled up the facing wall. Shaggy Icelandic horses grazed nearby, and patches of snow lingered high on the slope.

For the last week, I’d watched for elves at every crossroad, monsters in the fjords, and seal people each time I passed a beach. On the other side of the valley’s shallow river, a quiet meadow lay at the foot of a gentle slope. After days of gusty rain, the landscape had turned suddenly quiet, as if by magic. I glanced once more at the clock, and at the sky that was still bright above me. I set out walking through the flowers, headed for the opposite side of the valley. No one seemed to be around, and just a few hours remained until midnight.

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