Rif and Hellissandur villages in Snæfellsbær municipality
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
Rif and Hellissandur are two tiny villages, situated merely three kilometers apart, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, with a population of 600 as of January 2021. By any definition, they are the same village and today belong to the same municipality—Snæfellsbær—which was formed in 1994 when Ólafsvík and both these communities merged. Both villages trace their origins to rich fishing grounds in Breiðafjörður Bay and good natural landing spots for small boats. Until the 20th century, most of the people in Iceland lived on farms, and agriculture was the primary source of food and income. Historically, both villages contained what constituted as additional resources for many farms located inland, including access to the shoreline and fishing at fishing posts such as Rif and Hellissandur. These farms would send their men to fishing posts during the winter months, from February to April. In the first years of the 17th century, there were more than 60 fisherman huts in Hellissandur; thus, Hellissandur is often considered as one of the first fishing villages in Iceland. This cluster of houses might have developed into a larger town if it wasn't for its isolated location at the tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Another factor that contributed was a smallpox epidemic that hit the area in the early 17th century with dramatic consequences—the two villages almost ceased to exist.
Trading Posts and Rich Fishing Grounds
In the second half of the 18th century, both communities began to regain their strengths. Hellissandur became more of a trading post when in 1891, the village became a certified trading place, authorized by the Danish King and authorities. At that time, Iceland was a Danish colony. On the other hand, Rif became the fishing and fish processing part, as it had a better harbor. Fishing and fish processing are still the primary sources of income for most people, although service is also essential. Rif preserved its position as a fishing village, even after the Icelandic government introduced the fishing quota system in 1983. Fishing and fish processing thrive in Rif, benefiting the whole municipality of Snæfellsbær. The owners of the most significant parts of the fishing operation in these small communities were quite clever when it came to the new reality, after the quota system was implemented. Since then, they developed their fishing sector ownership into the largest fishing industry company in Iceland, with extensive operations in Reykjavík and many places along the shoreline.
The Most Isolated Villages became part of a Popular Tourist Attraction
Due to landslides and avalanches, the short part of road nr. 574, below the northern slope of Mt. Ólafsvíkurenni, was a notorious and dangerous drive, until the late 80s. This is the road connecting the two villages, Rif and Hellissandur, on the one hand and Ólafsvík town on the northern side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the other. This challenging part of the road contributed to the two villages' isolation for a long time. The other alternative, the drive from the south side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, was considered a long drive through a difficult and poorly maintained gravel road. This is hard to picture in your mind when now one can drive through both the south road and the road that was moved farther from the slope of Mt. Ólafsvíkurenni in 1984, on a well-maintained asphalt road. But the road below the slope was a significant step in linking the two small villages to the rest of the country as well as in opening the westernmost part of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula with many fascinating natural wonders to tourists.
Part of a Larger Municipality
Most of the homes in Rif and Hellissandur are single-family houses, built in the 70s and 80s. Unlike most of the towns and villages in Iceland, the houses are not heated with geothermal heating as they are situated in what we call the "cold area," with no access to geothermal water. Here, the homes are heated with electricity.
Although a small community, and often isolated throughout decades and centuries, the municipality has always provided good basic services. The first elementary school started in 1891. Today, there is an excellent elementary school in Hellissandur as well as a preschool, whereas the library opened in 1913. The municipality of Snæfellsbær also has a good sports center and a swimming pool. In Hellissandur, there is a maritime museum that emphasizes the history of the rowing boat—a great place to visit if you want to understand the complicated lives people endured in this part of the world for centuries. By the museum, you will also find an excellent camping site and, in both villages, accommodation and small restaurants and cafés. In Hellissandur, two of my good friends run one of the most charming cafés in Iceland, Gilbakki, in a beautiful house by the main road. I highly recommend this place for anyone driving through Hellissandur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.