No matter what the gods have thrown at the Westman Islands (known locally as Vestmannaeyjar)—eruptions, turbulent history, harsh living conditions—it seems only to have strengthened its inhabitants, creating a resilient population that lives with endearing optimism and a complete and utter lack of fear. Unscathed by worldly worries, the locals we met on Heimaey, the largest island of the archipelago, embody childlike wonder—they are dreamers that make things happen. Where else can you find a beluga rehab program with a reintegration facility in the neighbouring bay or a sustainable brewery run by best bros?
For us, Vestmannaeyjar became more than just a fun tourist destination with breathtaking views, but rather a chance to connect with some of the amazing people we met on this oft-overlooked island.
Hold on to your hats
The only way to see most of the archipelago’s raw natural beauty is by boat. Luckily, Ribsafari was available to take us on their popular one-hour tour. The family-run business has mom Helga greeting you at the front desk, while her husband and her son captain the boats. The extremely friendly staff eagerly showed us around the islands they love dearly.
Imagine speeding over the water’s surface, inhaling the summer sea breeze and freedom, overlooking crystal clear blue water and Avatar-worthy rock formations. It was pure joy and adrenaline—or at least that’s how we felt.
Something we did not expect on a boat ride were all the eye tests the crew gave us, challenging us to partake in one of their favourite hobbies: finding faces and silhouettes in the rocky cliffs. Fictional characters, eagles, elephants, and even a T-Rex.
After the captain showed off his masterful manoeuvring skills—playing with the waves, making us jump off of our saddle-shaped seats—the boat raced past the smaller, rugged volcanic islands. There we noticed tiny solitary houses. Don’t rush off to Airbnb just yet though, these are spartan cabins for puffin hunters, surrounded by the cutest living lawn-mowers you’ll ever see—sheep, of course. How did they get there? Easy, farmers pull the sheep up the 15-metre cliff using a rope. Fret not, our guide reassured us that they enjoy the ride.
Heimaey natives are protecting their cherished traditions, mainly rooted in hunting and gathering. These include collecting fulmar and guillemot eggs from the cliffs. To do so, one needs to undergo training—that’s why you can often spot ropes attached to the cliffs. Nowadays they are also a rite of passage for teens, who swing on the ‘spranga’ to prove their bravery. We passed on egg gathering, but we did try the infamous rope … unsuccessfully.
Our pride intact, we moved on to another famed sport in Vestmannaeyjar—football. With the sun disappearing behind the rocky backdrop, we kicked a ball and bantered with Kristján, a curious 8-year-old local. After realising the local football club has won the Icelandic Cup four times and has been around since 1903, we started to understand why such a small island would dedicate precious surface area to numerous football pitches.
Fantastic beasts and birds
By far the most satisfying part of our trip was also free—admiring the wildlife on our many hikes. Despite Vestmannaeyjar boasting over 1 million puffins during the breeding season, we rarely saw one flying around. As it turns out, puffins don’t love sunshine as much as humans do, preferring to spend a day out at sea to stay cool.
If you’re not a diehard birdwatcher, do yourself a favour and go visit the sheep. Heimaey’s sheep are quite different from those you can find in mainland Europe, one of the purest breeds of sheep in the world. Their fluffy and bouncy behinds aren’t just cute and chuckle-inducing, they serve a purpose. For hundreds of years they have been keeping both man and beast nice and cosy through the harshest of winters.
Klettsvík Bay—once home to Keikó, the famous killer whale from the ‘Free Willy’ movies—will soon have two new residents, belugas Little Grey and Little White. For now, you can visit them at the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary; there is also a puffin hospital.
Although Vestmannaeyjar has some breathtaking camping options, and some lower budget hostels, we urge you to find 11 friends and splurge on ‘Westman Islands Villas and Apartments’ ocean villa. Grill on the spacious patio while the hot tub fills up, and then go for a midnight dip as the sun slowly sets behind Elephant Rock. Get someone to pinch you!
On the ferry ride back to reality, we were already planning our next visit. However, rumour has it that there are only four days of sunshine per year—two down, can we also claim the rest?
Accommodation provided by: Westman Islands Villas & Apartments
Tour provided by: Ribsafari
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