Hrefna and I stumble onto Strætó’s 53 bus at precisely 5:43 in the morning. Behind us, the Mjódd bus station looks as if it belongs in a ‘CSI’ murder scene. The bus driver breaks the morning silence with a booming exclamation: “Where the hell are you guys going?” When we tell him we’re taking the ferry from Þorlákshöfn to Heimaey (“Home Island”) to do a travel article for the Reykjavík Grapevine, he asks, genuinely curious, “They make you do this kind of stuff often?”
The answer is no. It was actually us interns who came up with the idea of visiting Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands, during wintertime, and to find the least expensive way of getting there. Our research on Strætó’s website left us with one option: taking a bus in the wee hours of the morning and finding somewhere we could wait in Þorlákshöfn, the small town from which the ferry leaves in the winter months.
After some wandering in the cold and seemingly dead town, we decide to kill time in the cosy and warm Kaffistofa Meitilsins, which miraculously opens at 7am. Despite the comfortable surroundings, the four-hour wait for the ferry was still a long one. Even we began to wonder where the hell we were going.
Winter in the Westman world
Given the lack of demand, the lack of easy transportation hardly shocked us. Research had already told us that many restaurants are closed and tours are limited in the off-season. Understandably (and due mostly to lack of wild puffins), tourism drops drastically during the colder months on Heimaey, the only inhabitable island of the Westmans.
To top that off, travellers must also endure a longer ferry ride in winter, as the boat only sails from Þorlákshöfn rather than the much closer Landeyjahöfn. An extended ferry ride and stronger winds increase the potential for seasickness, a fact made evident by the vomit receptacles sprinkled around our ferry boat. It was also evident by my wooziness on the way over.
Despite these challenges, Hrefna and I were determined to make it work. With growing concern over swells of summer tourists, what better way to ration the crowds than to see sites in the snowier months? Though activities such as wild puffin viewing and boat rides were off-limits, we found myriad ways to keep ourselves occupied. One of those ways even involved explaining to locals, and to ourselves, why the island is worth visiting in cold, cold weather.
Westman of winters past
Though many summer tourists come to the island to see puffins, Heimaey is perhaps best known as the site of a volcanic eruption. In the early morning of January 23, 1973, lava and debris began shooting from Eldfell. Though the volcano had been active for a while, it was at this point officials decided to initiate evacuation. That same night, many of the island’s inhabitants were taken by boat to the mainland of Iceland, or the “northern island,” as the Westman locals like to call it. Though the evacuation was successful, many people lost their homes during the event. Following the eruption, about 400 houses were completely covered by a brand new lava field.
The eruption is hard to ignore once on the island, even from the hotel. Hrefna and I drop our things in our rooms at Hótel Vestmanneyjar, and immediately step out onto the balcony. The sun hits the city sideways, magnificently lighting up the houses. In the distance, Eldfell and Helgafell, the island’s two volcanoes, loom, beautiful but menacing.
Right down the street is the new lava field. We climb a set of steps up the steep wall of lava, and immediately start exploring the paths that wind through the clumped masses. Standing on the lava field, we have a beautiful view of the city below. From here, it’s especially easy to imagine the ground beneath us sliding over the nearby buildings.
Later, we find out that Hótel Vestmanneyjar has redone some of its rooms. The one we see uses the eruption as inspiration for its design. The lava, it seems, slid not only into the city’s buildings, but into its aesthetic as well.
Sifting through debris
The relatively new, fascinatingly high-tech Eldheimar Museum was a huge help in understanding how formative (literally and figuratively) the eruption is in Westman Islands history. The museum’s bottom floor contains a house that was buried in the eruption. Cameras mounted in various rooms allow visitors to see aspects of the room using a joystick and a video screen. Visitors are encouraged to spot household items such as a curling iron, a glove, and even an unopened wedding present, all of which are scattered and half-covered in volcanic rubble.
The exhibit not only promotes interaction with the excavation process, but also underlies the eruption as something that literally swallowed people’s material lives. It treats the eruption as a tragedy, and demonstrates the event’s grave impact.
The upstairs portion of the museum is a bit happier. Rather than the natural disaster, it focuses on the geologic phenomena of the most recently born Westman island, Surtsey. Surtsey is a sort of “quickie island,” arising in the late twentieth century and now rapidly disintegrating. Unless the rate of erosion slows drastically, it will likely be gone by 2130.
The most exciting part of the upstairs exhibition involves a timeline with a sliding dial, in which you can watch Surtsey’s size, geology, plant life, and animal life change over time. Watching the changes in land area and species occupation over time illustrates an intense and fascinating process of geologic and ecologic aging: Surtsey as an island very much stuck in time.
For those who want a taste of the wildlife beyond Surtsey, there’s also the Sæheimar Aquarium and Museum. Like Eldheimar, Sæheimar is a must-see on the island, especially for winter visitors. The museum houses many aspects of the Heimaey’s natural history, from an extensive collection of volcanic rocks to an aquarium with fish species that live in the waters around the island. It even has stuffed versions of birds that frequent the Westman Islands.
The best—and our most-anticipated—part of Sæheimar were its three resident rescued puffins. Margrét, a curator at the museum, tells us about each puffin and how he or she came to be rescued, asserting that each bird has a distinct personality. While Margrét shows us pictures of Tóti, the museum’s longest avian tenant, Tóti himself plods up to the photo frame, as if to marvel at himself.
Visitors during quieter hours can even hold Tóti, as he is accustomed to and comfortable with human handling. At one point while holding him, I notice he’s strangely restless. I set him down and he promptly (and very politely) poops on the floor, clearly versed in bathroom pleasantries. Everyone in the room is suitably impressed with his manners.
Margrét tells me that when taking in puffins, they ultimately aim to release the birds back into the wild. The puffins that live there, however, could not be released, so now they live the comfortable lives of minor celebrities. Other puffins that come to the museum are tagged and released, and information from tagging is used to shed light on the aging and geographic patterns of the birds. Using tagging, one puffin was even recorded as being 40 years old, revealing that the birds live longer than researchers had previously thought.
Taking the tour
As much as we loved seeing the birds, our tour guide, Alfreð Alfreðsson of Viking Tours, gives us some perspective on puffins and tourism in the Westman Islands. He tells us many tour guides hope to steer tourists more towards the volcanic history of Heimaey, as this aspect is more unique to the island and is a more dependable interest to foster.
As it turns out, a winter tour of the island is to focus on this aspect. We drive all over the island, and there is nary a puffin in sight, save for the puffin heads inscribed on the city’s signs. Instead, we get to focus on the site of the popular summer festival Þjóðhátíð; the windiest place in Europe, Stórhöfði; and Heimaklettur, the oldest part of the island, among other places.
Alfreð even shows us the house he lived in before the eruption, and recalls playing in an area now covered in a thick layer of lava. Though his parents moved to the east after the eruption, Alfreð returned to Heimaey to live with his friend Óskar and Óskar’s parents. Alfreð is eager to tell us about his experience during the eruption, and his memories add a personal, invaluable flair to the seemingly unfathomable event.
The land is alive
Standing on the ferry’s deck as it sails away from the Westman Islands, I think back to one point in our tour, when Alfreð tells me, “The land is alive, and we choose to live on it.” Heimaey is alive in many senses, but most apparently in its oscillation between eruption and recovery, as well as its transition between busy summers and tranquil winters. Running through it all is a determination to carry on, an attitude that seems to imbue both its history and people.
While walking around the docks on our last night, we see perhaps the best example of this determination. When a man clad in a scuba suit walks by, we immediately follow after him. As he patiently answers question after question, he continues to pull on his gear, not pausing for a second.
The scuba diver’s name is Smári, and he doubles as dry cleaning store owner and commercial diver. After I make a comment about his interesting hobby, he smiles and says “I’d rather be doing this in the Caribbean.” Still, he bravely jumps in, even nodding to the camera after doing so. Coupled with our shock and admiration, his nonchalance reveals the fascinating routines going on behind the scene.
As we begin our journey back to the mainland, Hrefna and I grow increasingly nervous about missing our bus from Þorlákshöfn back to Reykjavík. We call Strætó, only to find out the bus will wait for all ferry passengers to exit the boat before leaving for the city. We also find out that a seemingly phantom bus, not mentioned on Strætó’s website or anywhere we can find online, leaves for Þorlákshöfn from BSÍ at 10. It’s explicitly intended to transport ferry passengers and costs the same amount as our 5:43 bus from Mjódd.
Hrefna and I can laugh about the early morning bus ride and four-hour wait now that we’re fresh off a successful trip. The mystery bus even seems a well-deserved treasure now, something we had to go to the island to find out about. It’s the kind of thing you inevitably learn when you venture onto lesser-treaded paths in the lesser-treaded seasons. And we’re grateful for it.