The islands, just a few miles off the south coast, are composed entirely from lava, formed when volcanoes erupted under the sea. For many years these subaquatic fissures were thought dormant. In 1963, however, the earth surprised scientists, not to mention islanders, throwing up a whole new island, Surtsey. An eruption on Heimaey in 1973, the only inhabited island, led to the temporary evacuation of the island. Fortunately, no one was hurt. When the islanders returned, they found that their island had grown somewhat in size.
The group is composed of at least 15 islands, depending on whether you count every outcrop or not. While the Westman islands are small in comparison to the mainland, the variety of landscape and wildlife is truly impressive, from rugged lava fields to rich fertile agricultural land. Tourism, fishing and agriculture provide the small population with a prosperous standard of living.
So what to do when you get there? Well just taking a hike up the now dormant volcano cone was enough for me on the first day. From the summit the view is splendid and on a clear day you can see clear across the island group. For the nature enthusiast, bird colonies abound and are easily visible from any of the major island peaks. The most incredible aspect of these islands is their pristine nature. The earth is still literally forming under your feet.
In a strange reversal of normal trends for a natural phenomenon, these eruptions actually brought immediate beneficial results. The still hot rocks provide geothermal heat for many buildings and newly formed tongue of lava provides improved shelter for the harbour. If only all eruptions were so benign and indeed downright helpful. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the outstanding Natural History Museum that contains all manner of stuffed birds and fish and is a mine of information about local wildlife. Though I didn’t get a chance to do it, the boat trip around the island is apparently also very worthwhile.
Summer is undoubtedly the best time to go, though even then good weather is not guaranteed. A lesson I learned to my cost on the first night. I was unlucky enough to get caught in one of Iceland’s summer downpours. Soaking in a circa 1950s tent that was not really up to the job, I was forced to seek more concrete shelter the following evening. As you might expect in such a small, touristy spot, even the most basic accommodation does not come cheap. If you are, unlike me, properly equipped and on a tight budget, camping is definitely the way forward.
To get there you can take an expensive internal flight or take the daily ferry, which is much more reasonably priced. More to the point, it’s much more fun.