Flatey, Iceland

Photo: Hótel Flatey
Photo: Hótel Flatey

Have your travel destinations become a bit too predictable? You alternative between the same few islands every winter. You keep returning to your favorite European cities each spring. While your family’s summer plans haven’t changed in decades. It’s time to shake things up.

Iceland should throw you out of your comfort zone. No, not Reykjavík. In-the-know travelers have been extending their layover, en route to the European mainland, in the capital for a while now. Instead, you head to Breiðafjörður, a bay on the west coast that was formed by glaciers during the last ice age. The large, shallow bay is surrounded by mountains: the Westfjords peninsula sits to the north, and Snæfellsjökull, a vast glacier, sits on the Snæfellsnes peninsula to the south. Whales and seals live in the chilly water. Seabirds nest on thousands of islands and islets that dot the bay. But only one of them, Flatey, is inhabited by people year round.

Flatey, the largest island in Breiðafjörður, was the location of an Augustinian monastery in the 12th century. It later became an important fishing center and trading post around 1900. That’s hard to believe when you arrive on the ferry from Stykkishólmur. A single road leads from the ferry dock in the old village into town. About 25 colorful houses stand along the water; some still have turf roofs. Small boats, dragged out of the water, rest along the shore. Sheep and chicken seem to roam freely. Diving Arctic terns greatly outnumber people. About 50 people live on “Flat Island” during the summer months, when the sun shines almost 24 hours a day. The population greatly decreases—down to about five people—during the dark, cold winter months.

Photo: Hótel Flatey
Photo: Hótel Flatey

So where are you staying on Flatey? At the only hotel on the remote island, of course. Hótel Flatey sits on the west coast in the center of town with a view of the sea and Hafnarey island. Old timber warehouses, flanking the former market square, were converted into guest rooms and a dining room. The simple rooms have wooden furniture and bright walls. Bathrooms are, not ideally, shared. While an eider duck is nesting under one of your windows.

After walking from the dock to the hotel—it’s a quick, 10-minute stroll—and unpacking in your room, you set out to explore. The church, built in 1926, features frescoes of the local landscape. The small yellow building behind it is both the oldest and smallest library in Iceland. A marked trail leads to Klaustursteinn, the highest point on the island, where the monastery once stood. Another trail heads to a small cliff and nesting Atlantic puffins. Plus, if you watch carefully, you might spot a breaching killer whale just offshore.

By the time you return to the hotel, dinner is about to be served. Despite the remote location, the dishes arriving in the dining room look elegant and refined. Choose between local blue mussels and marinated lumpfish roe on blinis to start. Your options for entrées include a hearty fish soup, pan-fried cod, or lamb with blueberry salt. While a lemon bake sounds like a perfect ending to the meal. Then retire downstairs to the Salt Bar for an Icelandic beer and live music. There’s nothing predictable on Flatey.

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