Feathers, fjords and fins

Paul Sullivan experiences extreme underwear and ice-fishing in one of Europe's most remote outposts.

You will not find this lingerie, or sales assistant, in a La Perla boutique. A lugubrious, weather-hammered Icelander named Finnbogi is threading a coarse rope between his sturdy legs. "This," he explains, "is the world's first G-string."

It clearly has more potential for severe chafing than eroticism but the most important quality for fishermen is that it has saved lives in the wild icy waters off Iceland's north-west coast. "It acted as a grip if you fell overboard so the person next to you had something to grab hold of," he tells me. "It has saved many lives, this G-string." Which is not something La Perla can claim.

Fish are an important business in this isolated region of Iceland, which has deep, narrow fjords rather than flat farming lowlands. So essential have the silvery shoals been to the culture that I've ended up in a reconstructed turf hut, part of the Osvor Maritime Museum in tiny Bolungarvik, surrounded by hooks, lines and barrels, as Finnbogi pulls on replica sheepskin overalls and talks about the industry's stirring history.

The region's fortunes waxed and then waned since it was settled in the 10th century, particularly in the past 100 years, when natural disasters (avalanches, mostly), unfavourable fishing quotas and the lure of Reykjavik led to mass migration and abandoned villages. Tourism and marine research have provided a counter-balance but the Westfjords remains one of the country's least-populated areas.

It is also one of its most beautiful, which is saying something when you're talking about Iceland, certainly no slouch in the epic landscape department. The fjords are fringed by steep, flat-topped mountains that dwarf the fishing villages dotted intermittently along this sinuous coastline. Where Reykjavik is perennially touted as Europe's dinkiest den of designer hipdom, the Westfjords are a taste of Olde Iceland.

Despite some colourful museums pirates in Patreksfjordur, witches in Holmavik this area is really about nature: visiting the bird-lovers' haunts of Hornstrandir, Vigur (a beautiful day trip by boat) or Latrabjarg, the north-western tip of Europe; hiking to the Dynjandi's fat waterfall; riding horses around the mighty Drangajokull glacier.

It's only a 40-minute flight or a winding, photogenic six- to eight-hour drive to reach the Westfjords from Reykjavik, yet only 15 per cent to 30 per cent of visitors take the opportunity. Their loss. I flew but bad weather diverted the plane, necessitating a dramatic drive through a brooding landscape of snow-capped mountains and swooping gulls in metallic skies. Apart from the canary-yellow posts that dot the roads and the occasional fish-drying hut, the lack of colour lends the views an unreal, pencil-sketch quality.

Isafjordur is vivid enough, though. On a curvaceous spit of sand between two fjords, this tiny hub is hemmed in by towering mountains and expansive skyscapes, yet has a strangely urban feel a consequence of its reasonably developed tourist infrastructure: pleasant cafes, bars and restaurants one of them, Tjoruhusid, allegedly sells Iceland's best fish but is open only in the summer a few shops, a hospital and the country's oldest music school. Home to just 4000 souls, Isafjordur is the kind of town where you find yourself nodding at familiar faces in the bakery on your second day, or discovering the man who just gave you directions is the local mayor.

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I stayed in its one "proper" hotel, the Isafjordur, a blocky three-star with "light Scandinavian style" simple, comfortable and with free WiFi. Thanks to the devalued krona, the tariff is surprisingly reasonable but the highlight is the mesmerising view I have of the pretty harbour through large picture windows as I munch on my morning muesli.

Inspired by Finnbogi's ripping yarns of shark-baiting and sea survival, I jump on a tourist boat to Hornstrandir, a formerly prosperous area to the north, abandoned en masse in the 1950s and turned into a national park in 1975. It's ridiculously serene, its moors, beaches and bays home to puffins, seals, arctic foxes and an abundance of plant and bird life. We land in the ghost village of Hesteyri in the silver light of late afternoon.

In the 1930s, when the herring trade thrived, Hesteyri had a population of about 80 and was fairly wealthy. Now its huddled houses are merely the summer residences of former owners; the doctor's house has been transformed into a hostel and the small cemetery and a church bell are preserved for posterity. As I hike up the small mountain behind the village, looking out at the lonely mountains across the sea, it's hard to shake the feeling of being on the rim of the world.

Sunshine finally arrives on the third day the signal for a 130-kilometre drive to Heydalur, a farmhouse with horse riding, snowmobiling and wonderful homemade food. It was opened in 2000 by Stella, a diminutive Icelander with brilliant white hair and near-perfect English, and her two sons. The farm's barn is now a rustic restaurant with impressionist daubs and an entertaining parrot and the cow sheds are eight cosy guest rooms; there are also camping facilities, six beautiful Icelandic horses for riding and a swimming pool.

This is rather nice but I want a different kind of water the hot pools just 20 minutes away. Rectangular concrete walls give them a strangely Soviet look but the experience of soaking in a hot bath while looking on to a beautiful fjord is not to be sniffed at. On my return, Stella plies me with coffee and tasty skinkuhorn (baked rolls fresh out of the oven, filled with ham spread) and asks if I'd like to go ice-fishing up in the mountains.

Snow in the Westfjords often lasts until May, sometimes into June and 30 minutes after departure we're revving our way over a mountain top in a convoy of four-wheel-drives led by Stella's son, Gisli, passing fox trails en route to a frozen lake. Our guides dig holes a few metres from the shore and hand out brightly coloured fishing rods that look suspiciously like toys.

I am fairly sure I will be leaving empty-handed but within a few minutes my line is twitching as I reel in a glistening, 30-centimetre trout. Before I can throw it back, Gisli slaps its head against his hiking boot to knock it out and urges me to bite off its back fin "for luck".

He doesn't seem to be joking, so I bite down, waiting for an explosion of hysterical laughter. None comes. This is clearly a serious business. I tear off and swallow a gristly, tasteless nub of fish spine, earning myself a round of applause.

I am, it seems, officially a man, undermined only slightly by my feeling sorry for the fish. Finnbogi would surely have been proud.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Icelandair has flights from several European cities to Reykjavik. It has a one-way fare from London for about $343, including tax, and from Paris for about $243. Singapore Airlines has a return fare to London from Melbourne and Sydney for about $1420, including tax. Icelandair flies from Reykjavik to Isafjordur from 12,000 krona ($120), including tax.

Staying there

Reykjavik Downtown opened recently and is the first hostel in the heart of the old city; beds from 2300 krona. See www.hostel.is.

Heydalur operates tours in the Westfjords region year-round; double rooms from 7900 krona, camping 700 krona a person. See heydalur.is. Doubles at the Hotel Isafjordur from 10,800 krona. See hotelisafjordur.is.

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