The tiny propellor plane descends into the clouds, buffeted by the ferocious wind. Along with my twelve or so fellow passengers, I’m jolted left and right as a tiny sea stack appears in the round window through a blanket of fog. A small island appears soon after—little more than a dramatic slope, really, its heart scooped out over time by the elements. Another follows, with a single white house perched improbably in its centre. The plane swoops past several more small islets, closely skirting a large moss-green mountain before thumping onto the short runway and jamming on the brakes.
I emerge into a fresh winter morning and immediately feel the bite of a stiff sea breeze. The tall, blackened, conspicuously volcanic cone of Helgafell towers over the tiny airport, silhouetted against the choppy ocean. The lights of the town are dimly visible through a light mist, cradled by tall green hills. Despite being just a twenty-minute flight from Reykjavík, landing on Heimaey—the largest of the eleven isles and four skerries that make up the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago—feels like stepping out of Iceland completely.
There are no taxis at the tiny airport, but one shows up in minutes. The diminutive size of the island quickly becomes apparent—there’s really just one gently curving 5km road that runs from shore to shore. We coast into the town’s quiet streets, passing a hotel, a supermarket, a football ground, and a couple of clothing stores, cafes, and crafts boutiques before arriving at our home for the next two nights.
The house’s chipped red-painted exterior, emblazoned with year 1911, is only half of its story. Inside the small, creaky doorway, the building has been renovated into a luxurious rental home. Its three floors hold a well-equipped kitchen and dining area, three plushly furnished lounges with Kjarval sketches adorning their grey wooden walls, a spacious bathroom with a large tub, and all kinds of tasteful, homely touches. The harbour and surrounding mountains are visible on all sides. A humble fisherman’s cottage, it isn’t.
After chatting with the owner of the cosy local health food cafe, Gott, it becomes apparent that it’s the evening of advent, when the whole island celebrates the end of Christmas. We’re told that elves and trolls will descend from the mountains to commune with the people of the town.
I set out just after dark, following the sound of some nearby music. The streets are completely empty, and the strong wind makes it seem like the source of the sound is shifting around. But after a few minutes of wandering, five tall trolls stride silently from a side street. They pass by without noticing me—a gang of towering, eight-foot-tall beings with red, glowing eyes set in their gnarled faces. One sports a top hat and a walking cane; another has a face set in a permanent scream with a white light emitting from its deep gullet.
The trolls make their way to the town’s central square, where a throng has gathered around a bonfire in a roped-off field. As they circle the area, a flatbed truck pulls up carrying twenty or thirty more of these hulking, furry beings, who slowly descend the walkway and shamble off into the gleeful crowd. Fireworks explode overhead, bathing the square in colourful light, and buckets of gasoline are thrown onto the fire, sending clouds of thick black smoke over the monstrous celebration. A sole grey-bearded Santa wanders through the melee. It’s a surreal and creative mash-up of old and new Christmas folklore.
The following morning, we pull on some rain clothes and head for the hulking red volcanic cone that stands overlooking the town. Eldfell became one of the most famous volcanoes in the world when it erupted suddenly and unexpectedly in 1973. The large-scale eruption forced an immediate evacuation of the island, engulfing part of the town with a wall of molten lava that almost sealed the harbour, and ultimately added 2.5km² of new land to Heimaey.
The path starts behind the Eldheimar volcano museum, skirting over some rough grassland before evolving into an ash-grey trail that winds its way to the foot of the mountain. We crunch slowly up the spine of the volcano over bright red, orange, white and maroon volcanic rocks. After forty minutes of easy uphill hiking the crest approaches, crowned with strange, sculptural lava formations that jut up from the bright soil.
From this vantage point, the smaller Westman Islands are visible on all sides, petering out into the mist. The view down to the shore of the island reveals a dramatic meeting point between the red volcanic soil of Eldfell, the green fields of the old island, and the sprawling black Nýja Hraun lava field. In the distance, the mountains of mainland Iceland’s south coast curve gracefully into the steely sea.
The black maze
After descending the back of the volcano down a steep scree slope, we wander into the tangled network of trails over the lava field. One side of the Eldfell cone broke off during the eruption, separating into huge pieces as it travelled over the molten lava flow. Today, the fragments stand irregularly scattered over the gnarled black and grey rock formations. Some are the size of a 4×4, and others jut from the ground like natural cathedrals.
The people of Vestmannaeyjar have used the new land in various ways. There’s a road that threads through the lava field, passing various viewpoints, tucked-away industrial areas, and a small garden with pagodas and miniature wooden houses. As we circle back towards the town, we pass signposts that indicate we’re walking over buried streets that now lie silent, twenty metres below the ground.
If this sparsely populated country sometimes feels like a world within a world, exploring the vivid volcanic landscape of Vestmannaeyjar feels like being on the inside of a fantastical snowglobe. Tiny as it is, Heimaey is a memorable and beautiful pocket of southern Icelandic nature.