From Iceland — On the Puffin Trail in Vestmannaeyjar

On the Puffin Trail in Vestmannaeyjar

Published September 12, 2008

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Vestmannaeyjar (also known as the Westmann Islands to English-folk) is the ideal remote milieu for an exotic off-the-mainland excursion. Replete with an ethereal terrain, the island is a Mecca for Iceland’s famous quirky little auk birds known as puffins. A striking off-the-beaten-path archipelago 7.4 km from the southern coast of Iceland; the largest and only inhabited of these islands is Heimaey.

After getting off the plane and heading for the “downtown” (Heimaey has a population of 4,036), the otherworld feeling of this place cannot be any starker. A quarter of this island-hamlet is draped in a hellish post-apocalyptic landscape. In 1973, the island was caked in volcanic ash expulsed from Mount Eldfell, swallowing up a large segment of the village. Astonishingly, only one person died from the disaster. More than three decades later, houses still remain buried in the aftermath and are an amusing sight to behold. Besides Eldfell’s vast volcanic residue, the rock formations throughout the island are especially breathtaking, especially ‘The Elephant’ – a giant crevice shaped like a giant pachyderm head.
    Nearby, on the edge of the island, somewhat campily, is a statue dedicated to emigrant Icelandic Mormons who travelled to the Promise Land of Utah. My compatriot is irreverently incredulous of the monument, noting its unusual placement. Also in the vicinity are some remnants (beer cups and party hats) from a few weeks earlier from Þjóðhátíð, one of Iceland’s biggest festivals known famously as a youthful celebration of debauchery.
     When it comes to the island’s topography, geologists will have an igneous-rock field day here. But for others, the true excitement certainly comes from seeking out and tracking down the little native puffins. In late summer, pufflings, also called pysjur, get lost and local rescue teams of kids and adults come together to gather them and bring them back to their homes.
    Despite the overwhelming puffin kitsch that permeates Heimaey (including but not limited to trinkets, advertisements, directional signs (!) and wall murals dedicated to the diminutive sea parrot) the little birds don’t wander the streets. That would be TOO easy for the puffin-obsessed tourist paparazzi. Their habitats are among the insanely treacherous steep cliffs that line the island. While hunting for puffins here, TV chef Gordon Ramsay nearly died after careening off one of the island’s 85-metres high crags, tumbling into to the sea below.
    I vowed not to make the same mistake as Ramsay, although the vertigo from fear of a sharp 90° drop did get to me. Attempting a peek on a peak requires grace, boots not sandals (my Crocs were barely keeping tread on the cliff!), probably a spotter and, for the extra-safety-obsessed, rope for the most ambitious puffin hunters. Frighteningly feeble grassy overhangs feel as if they’re ready to collapse at any minute as you traverse the little birds’ world. You just need to channel the skills of the high-altitude sheep that wedge themselves up impossibly vertical ledges . During the puffin’s peak season (July to mid-August), the pointy rocks below hold thousands of the little dudes. Watch your step!
For those lightheaded around cliffs and other travellers curious about the natural exterior wall of the islands, the Vestmannaeyjar boat tour is a charming adventure, as long as you don’t fall out! (I almost did after a crashing wave nearly knocked me overboard).
    The little boat surprisingly roars, gliding over waves at an impressively sprightly pace around the rocky periphery as a rabble of seagulls and puffins sashay adjacently. If you’re lucky, you may spot some whales overboard (trivia note: Vestmannaeyjar was where the late Keiko of Free Willy fame used to live). Prepare to be soaked as the island boasts the worst weather of the country with howling winds and torrential downpours. The drizzle though certainly adds to my giddy enchantment of this soggy nautical journey. At the end of the trip, the captain of the tour boat unleashes a surprise musical tribute to jazzman Perez Prado in a dark cave that must be witnessed for oneself to be believed.
    Overall, the experience is a wonderful excursion for Iceland completists who love the complete raw outdoorsy kick that this country can provide. 

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