The Westman Islands
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The Westman Islands – Vestmannaeyjar – are an archipelago of fifteen or so scattered, mostly minuscule volcanic islands around 10km off the coast south of Hvolsvöllur. The only inhabited one in the group, Heimaey, is an easy trip from the mainland on the frequent ferries, and there are two immediate draws: Eldfell volcano, still steaming from its 1973 eruption, an event that doubled the width of the island and almost swallowed Heimaey town; and the sadly reduced numbers of seabirds and puffins. You can pack everything the island has to offer into a couple of days, though many visitors simply take a day-trip from the mainland, arriving late morning on the first ferry and departing in the evening.
Heimaey aside, the other Westmans are difficult to land on and so only infrequently visited, but you may be very lucky and score a rare trip around Surtsey, the group’s southernmost outpost and newest island, which sprang from beneath the waves during the 1960s.
Geological babies at only 12,000 years old overall, the Westman Islands played a part in the tale of Iceland’s official first settlers, Ingólfur Arnarson and his foster-brother Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson. The brothers had British slaves with them who, coming from the lands at the west of the Viking world, were known as Westmen; Hjörleifur’s slaves rebelled, killing him and fleeing to these islands – hence the name.
The Westmans lay more or less outside the mainstream of Icelandic history until Algerian pirates raided Heimaey on July 16, 1627, killing or enslaving several hundred people. It took some time to get over this disaster, but by the twentieth century mechanization and the country’s economic shift from farming to fishing saw Heimaey becoming a prosperous little haven, well positioned for taking advantage of the North Atlantic’s richest cod and haddock grounds.
Fresh problems lay ahead, however. On January 23, 1973, a 2km-long volcanic fissure suddenly opened up eastern Heimaey. Within 24 hours the island had been evacuated and the new volcano, Eldfell, was gushing lava in violent spasms; houses were buried beneath the flow or simply collapsed under the weight of accompanying ash. Worse still, the lava threatened to block the harbour mouth until halted by the novel method of pumping seawater onto the front of the flow. When the eruption ceased in June, Heimaey was two square kilometres bigger, had a new mountain and, amazingly, a better harbour – the entrance is narrower now, but more effectively shielded from prevailing easterly winds. Only one person was killed during the eruption.
The main port and airstrip for the Westman Islands are at Landeyjahöfn, 15km south off the Ringroad at Seljalandsfoss via Route 254.
You can fly to Heimaey, though weather frequently cancels or delays services. Atlantsflug flies from tiny Bakki airstrip at Landeyjahöfn by arrangement, while Eagle Air departs Reykjavík City airport.
Strætó bus #52 runs from the Mjódd terminal in Reykjavík to the Landeyjahöfn ferry terminal via Ringroad towns; the first service originates at BSÍ before heading to Mjódd. Note that if the ferry is cancelled or diverts to Þorlákshöfn near Hveragerði, buses terminate at Hvolsvöllur.
Destinations Hella; Hveragerði; Hvolsvöllur; Reykjavík; Selfoss.
The Herjólfur car and passenger ferry – with a new ferry being built – departs from Landeyjahöfn. Buy tickets a day or two in advance; services tend to get booked out during the summer. In rough weather, ferries might use the old port at Þorlákshöfn near Hveragerði, in which case the crossing takes 3hr and there are only two services daily.
By far the largest of the Westman Islands, Heimaey – Home Island – is only around 6km in length. At its broad top end you’ll find Heimaey town and the harbour faced by a narrow peninsula of sheer-sided cliffs; east of here, buildings are hemmed in by Eldfell, the fractionally higher slopes of Helgafell, and the rough, grey-brown solidified lavafield, Kirkjubæjarhraun, under which a third of the original town vanished in 1973. Moving south, you pass the cross-shaped airstrip, beyond which the island tapers to a narrow isthmus, over which the rounded, grassy hummock of Stórhöfði rises as an end point – one of the best places on Heimaey to watch birds. Heimaey’s compact spread of lava and volcanoes – including a still-steaming Eldfell – some stiff cliff-hikes around the north peninsula or easier trails down south, and abundant birdlife need a day or two to do them justice.
If possible, pick a sunny couple of days between May and September to visit Heimaey, allowing time for walks, close contact with puffins and thirty other breeding bird species, plus the chance to see whales, orca and seals. If you want to party, join in the August Bank Holiday Weekend Þjódhátíð, a festival to commemorate Iceland’s first steps towards full independence in 1874, which involves bands, fireworks, a huge bonfire and three days of hard drinking with thousands of other revellers. All accommodation and transport to the island gets booked long in advance.
As to the Westmans’ weather, temperatures are among the mildest in Iceland, but things can get extremely blustery – the country’s highest windspeed, 220km an hour, was recorded here.
With tourism to Heimaey booming through the summer, accommodation can be packed; always book ahead. You’ll be very lucky to find a room for the Þjódhátíð festival – all are reserved up to a year in advance – so plan to camp.
Heimaey Town is an attractive place, quiet and low-key, with puffin-themed signposts directing you towards key sights. The small centre is split by the south-running main street, Heiðarvegur, with most services and attractions in the streets east of here between the harbour and Hásteinsvegur. Down at the harbour, you’ll find a tightly packed fleet of fishing boats, several warehouses processing their catches, and yards piled with kilometres of black and green fishing nets being examined and repaired.
The joy with Heimaey is there is always something to do whatever the weather. When the sun is shining, there are natural landscapes to enjoy and when the rain is pouring there are culturally and interesting places to retreat too.
The Aquarium and Natural History Museum (Sæheimar) is in three parts. Most interesting is the aquarium itself, full of tanks of live fish and some enormous crabs; check out the endearingly ugly lumpfish, an important part of the local fishing industry. The remaining sections of the museum are more humdrum: glass cases of stuffed birds, including almost every species that breeds in Iceland, and a similarly thorough display of rocks from all over the country. Ask whether they have any orphaned seabirds that you can handle; there’s currently a tame puffin and guillemot living at the museum.
East of the harbour along Strandvegur, the road crosses the edge of Eldfell’s 1973 flow and passes the neat lava-block walls of Skansinn fort. Only chest-high, this wall is pretty much a token defence, built by English pirates in the thirteenth century and revived after the pirate raid to house Iceland’s first and only army. This wasn’t the sole occasion that pirates took advantage of the Westmans’ isolation: a sixteenth-century rover named Gentleman John once stole Heimaey’s church bell.
Just across from Skansinn, the extraordinary Stafkirkjan is a Viking-era-style wooden church with a steep, black shingle roof, consecrated in 2000 to celebrate a thousand years of Christianity in Iceland. The building faces the presumed site of the country’s first purpose-built church, raised by Gizur the White a few years before he championed the new faith at the Alþing in 1000 AD.
South of the harbour, you can follow first Kirkjuvegur and then Heimagata and Helgafellsbraut below the two-storey-high, steeply sloping Kirkjubæjarhraun lava flow that swallowed up the eastern end of town. Steps from Heimagata take you up on top of the lava, though it’s hard to imagine this huge mass of sharp-sided, weirdly shaped rubble moving at all, let alone flowing. Signs map out the original street plan 16m underfoot, while engraved headstones and collections of little stones painted with windows and doors mark where somebody’s home lies buried.
Due to the airstrip running over the eastern cliffs, it’s not possible to circuit Heimaey completely, though that still leaves you with a decent 12km of coastal trails to follow. A clear 6km trail heads down the west coast from the golf course, a pleasant couple of hours following the crumbly clifftops south. The little beach at the end is good for ducks and waders, then it’s a steep, short climb up grassy Stórhöfði, its top capped by a transmitter tower. There’s a viewing platform on the northwestern side for watching bird activity, while the south cliffs house a sizeable puffin colony and are a good spot to scan the seas for whales and gannets, the latter nesting on the sheer-sided islets to the southwest.
From Stórhöfði, carry on up Heimaey’s east coast to a steeper, rockier and weedier beach, often with some serious surf – this side of the island catches the prevailing winds – and occasional seals dodging in and out of the swell. Tidal pools and a couple of interesting caves might slow you down for a while – if you can get to them – else climb the messy scree behind up onto a ridge and follow this north until it reaches a fence line. A stile here gives access to the high, stumpy Landstakkur peninsula, complete with another puffin colony and scenic views. Continuing up the coast, you stay high above the sea with a dramatic drop into the deep blue on one side, and a gentle, grassy backslope on the other. Another stiff stretch uphill and you’re at a beacon above the airstrip, from where you’ll have to cut west across country to the road and so back up to town.
Puffins – lundi in Icelandic – are, without doubt, the most charismatic of Iceland’s seabirds, plump little auks with an upright build and pied plumage, all set off by bright orange feet and a ridiculous sail-shaped bill striped yellow and red. This comical livery is compounded by an aeronautic ineptitude: their method of landing seems to consist simply of putting out their feet and stopping flying – bad enough to watch on water, but painful to see them bounce and skid on land. Puffins also seem to get victimized by just about every other sea-bird species: when feeding young, they fly back from fishing with their catch carried crosswise in the beak like a moustache, a clear signal for gulls, skuas and even razorbills to chase them, hoping they’ll drop their chick’s meal.
Until very recently, some two million puffins bred on Heimaey each year, excavating their burrows and raising their chicks – pufflings – in huge, dense colonies on the island’s grassy cliffs. Each August, all the adult birds depart Heimaey at the same time, and hunger draws the pufflings out for their first flight. Many then become confused by the town’s bright lights and fly, dazzled, into buildings; local cats get fat on this easy prey, but residents round up birds and release them.
However, since 2005 the puffin population on Heimaey – in common with all colonies across Iceland and the rest of Europe – has gone into serious decline, most likely because warming sea water has driven away the sand eels (herring fry) on which they feed. In some years adults have abandoned the young too early, while in others they haven’t even hatched their eggs. For the time being you can still see plenty of puffins on Heimaey, but unless the situation changes it’s likely that they might have almost vanished from Iceland within the next decade.
Top image: Volcanic view of Heimaey - "Westman Islands" (Vestmannaeyjar), Iceland © Chris Howey/Shutterstock