Iceland seems fantastical so much of the time. Travelling around the country, I’m always reminded of novels and films of lands that aren’t based in reality. Just when you think you’ve seen the most magnificent landscape imaginable, you’ll stumble upon something even more remarkable at the next turn.
The ferry ride from the south coast of Iceland to the Westman Islands was the first indication that, for the duration of our two-day visit, this kind of happy bewilderment would be a constant. As we approached, the green peaks that had seemed like just some distant rocks jutting out of the sea grew into a fantastical little archipelago. We passed several tiny islands as we docked in Heimaey, the largest of the islands. Elliðaey, the fabled “isle of Björk” is visible from the harbour—a dramatic islet, with a single house on it that was rumoured on social media to have been gifted to the singer by the Icelandic government, but which, in actuality, is a lodge for puffin hunters.
An unconventional paradise
July is the the peak of Iceland’s midsummer, when the Westmans are as green as they get. The landscape, almost completely devoid of trees, looked particularly dramatic at this time of year, with grassy, steep embankments and sheer cliffs towering over the crashing waves. It’s a little wilder than your conventional island getaway.
The extremity of the Westmans’ beauty is reflected in the severity of all its elements–the frigid ocean temperatures, the powerful current, and the precipitous edges that sketch out the island’s periphery. Even the settlement of the islands has a sense of drama—the land’s name derives from the Old Norse word “Vestmenn,” or Westmen, in reference to the Gaelic slaves who had been brought to the island by Norsemen sometime around AD 875.
Walking amongst such all-encompassing natural beauty, I felt detached from the realities of day-to-day living in this remote place. But as we walked to visit the Heimaey stave church, we caught site of a preserved house that would remind us of the hardships of island life. Upon entering, we realised we’d found a museum dedicated to the history of medicine on the island.
Perhaps it’s my obsession with ‘Call the Midwife’, but I find the study of medicine in ages past fascinating. Within the house is a nineteenth-century medicine cabinet that formerly belonged to the island’s lighthouse keeper, Jónatan Jónsson, who lived so far from town that he needed to maintain his own personal medicine store. I began to imagine the lives of Westman Island inhabitants over the years. The thought that first struck me upon entering the harbour returned—this is no white-sand paradise, but a wild island where the elements are menacing in their ferocity and strength.
A much-anticipated highlight of the trip was a boat tour of the smaller islands. As our small motorboat laboured across the choppy water, our intrepid captain steered close to large rocks being pummeled by the tide and ventured into watery caves. It was a thrilling ride that brought to mind ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Jurassic Park’, peppered with tidbits of information from our guide about the history, geology and nature of the Westmans.
It’s difficult to go from fancying oneself a seafaring Long John Silver-type adventurer to appreciating an intricate restaurant experience—but sometimes, sacrifices must be made. The Slippurinn Eatery, open May to September, is a collaboration between brother and sister Gísli Auðunsson and Indíana Auðunsdóttir, who introduced each dish of the tasting menu at the table themselves. We were served some of the season’s last guillemot eggs. They were creamy and rich, cooked with brown butter and served with lovage in their pastel blue shells.
Each dish was paired with a wine, and they kept coming. Kelp flakes were followed by langoustine and sea truffles, topped with white wine sauce, leeks and dill. The whole-cooked lemon sole bathed in caper vinaigrette was entirely de-boned, so we shoveled heaping forkfuls straight from serving dish. We finished with rhubarb confit on almond cake, its tartness juxtaposed against a glob of homemade ice cream.
The next morning, we took a walk past the famed golf course that runs along Heimaey’s windblown western coast. Traipsing straight over the holes amongst steep green hills and block rocks, we stood on the windblown, tide-battered seashore. It could have been Neverland, Scheria or Lilliput. I could have stood there forever. But alas, the ferry back to reality was waiting.
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