Icelandic towns present a compelling contrast of isolation and worldliness, with no better exemplar than Ísafjörður, the economic, administrative, and cultural capital of the Westfjords. In such a remote and unlikely setting, even the most ordinary tokens of urbanity -- nice restaurants, trendy shops, cafes full of laptop users -- take on a charmed aura.

Built on a gravel spit in a fjord within a fjord, Ísafjörður possesses an ideal natural harbor and has been one of Iceland's busiest trading centers since the late-18th century. In the late-19th century, it was the same civilizational oasis it is today, with two hotels, several gaming clubs, and a drama club. The current population is under 3,000, more than half the Westfjords total. Its steep mountainous backdrop and conscientiously preserved architecture encourage relaxing strolls around town.

Boats leaving Ísafjörður soon enter Ísafjarðardjúp, the enormous fjord that nearly cleaves the Westfjords in half; the lovely, winding drive along its southern shore is also the fastest route to Reykjavík.