For most people, Iceland, with its population of only 360,000, fulfils the desire for rural island experiences. But if you’re hankering after another level of remoteness, Vestmannaeyjar has got your back. At least, that’s what I found when I hoped over the archipelago with Hidden Iceland.
Vestmannaeyjar—or ‘The Westman Islands’ as they are often called—are a collection of around 15 islands and rock formations off the southwest coast of Iceland. Only one of these, ‘Heimaey’, is actually inhabited year-round. The archipelago is steeped in history–both ancient and modern–and all kinds of wild tales can be found there, from islands that rise suddenly from the sea, to marauding pirates, to children collecting lost baby puffins in cardboard boxes.
A ferry good arrival
But the first adventure that a trip to Vestmannaeyjar offers is actually getting there. The most common way to do this is by boat, although Heimaey does have an airport. In the winter the boat departs from Þorlákshöfn–when it can leave at all–for a three-hour journey. But in the gentler summer months, a faster service runs from Landeyjarhöfn, and takes only 30 minutes.
Arriving by boat, it’s hard not to be struck by the archipelago’s variety of incredible cliffs, caves, basalt columns and other geological features. The cliffs house Vestmannaeyjar’s famed puffin colonies, which are some of the largest in the world. More than two million puffins come to nest and raise their young during the summer months every year.
The proximity of the nest sites to the town on Heimaey leads to an adorable natural phenomenon every year, when the baby pufflings (yes, that’s the scientific term) spread their wings and fly the nest. Like many hip young things, they are drawn to the lights of the big city—and unfortunately, find themselves stranded in the streets and gardens of Heimaey. But there are helpers on hand to assist the poor pufflets (definitely not a scientific term). During the time in August and September that the fledglings are taking flight, local children are allowed to stay up late, roaming the streets to collect the baby birds and provide them with a safe haven for the night before releasing them back into the wild the next day.
In addition to peculiar puffin pastimes, Vestmannaeyjar is also well known for its recent, turbulent volcanic history. The best place to learn about this is the Eldheimar Volcano Museum, which is housed in an impressive modern building on the hill above the town. The museum was created around the excavated ruins of a house that was completely buried by volcanic ash and tephra during the 1973 eruption. The story of this eruption and the consequent evacuation of Heimaey is one of the defining narratives of Iceland’s recent history.
In the early hours of the morning on January 23rd, 1973, the inhabitants of Heimaey were awoken by a violent volcanic eruption. In an incredible stroke of luck, stormy weather the previous day had inhibited the fleet of fishing boats from going out to sea, meaning they were all available to be used for a quick getaway.
In an impressively short amount of time, the majority of the island’s 5,300 residents were evacuated to the mainland. The eruption lasted for 5 months, destroying around 400 homes and drastically changing the landscape of Heimaey. The Eldheimar museum effectively retells the story of this dramatic time in Iceland’s history through personal stories of residents and interactive exhibits, and is well worth spending some time in.
Take it to the top
Another way to gain perspective on the 1973 eruption is to climb up the volcanic cone ‘Eldfell’ which was created during the eruption. More than 40 years after the event, Eldfell is still starkly bare and lacking the plant life that covers nearby older peak Helgafell. What’s more, in various rock cracks and crevasses on the hill, it is possible to reach in and feel the heat from the slowly-cooling reaction. In fact, the warmth from the lava flows was harnessed by the islanders on their return to Vestmannaeyjar and subsequently went on to heat the houses of Heimaey for years afterwards.
The short, steep hike up Eldfell offers panoramic views of the whole of Heimaey and the surrounding islands, including Surtsey. Another product of violent volcanic activity, Surtsey appeared as if by magic from out of the ocean in a matter of days in 1963 and is now a highly protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the top of the hill, it is possible to make out its outline in the distance, looking like the curved side of a guitar lying submerged in the water.
Heimaey’s geography hides a few more stories, many of which speak to the resilient and irrepressible nature of the island’s inhabitants. One of the more tragic tales involves the invasion of Vestmannaeyjar by Algerian pirates in 1627. Around 500 people were living on the island and more than half were ultimately captured by the pirates, who transported them back to Algeria where they were sold as slaves. Many locations around Heimaey still bear names that relate to this time, including Hundraðmannahellir, ‘the cave of the hundred’, where 100 of the island’s terrified residents were said to have hidden to try and evade the pirates.
Today, Vestmannaeyjar is calm and peaceful, with only the roaring wind from the Atlantic Ocean to liven things up. But it only takes a look at the landscape around you to remember the islands’ rich history, and realise that there are plenty more stories yet to come.
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