Iceland is already one of the most unusual places on Earth. It’s the only country to have a written account of events since the first human is known to have set foot there; it has 30 active volcano systems in a space the size of Kentucky; and, despite a population of 338,000, it sent its soccer team to the World Cup and has given us iconic musical artists like Björk.
No place embodies the uniqueness of Iceland better than the Westman Islands. And unlike some of the sights closer to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, the Westman Islands are not yet mobbed with tourists. Here’s what makes them special.
They have a fascinating Viking history.
The Westman Islands are called the Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic, or “west man islands.” Back in the 800s, a bunch of Vikings sailed west to the modern-day British Isles to pillage and kidnap some damsels and then continued on towards Iceland. Those nasty Norsemen stole so many women that a full 65 percent of Icelandic women trace their roots back to present-day Ireland and Scotland. Most Icelandic men, on the other hand, trace their heritage to Norway.
But apparently, the feisty Vikings grabbed a few men, as well. Since Ireland is west of Norway, the Vikings called them “west men,” which became their term for slave. In the late 800s, a couple of those slaves murdered their captor and escaped to an isle off of Iceland’s south coast. However, the dead man’s brother tracked them down and killed them, and – for this inglorious reason – the archipelago became known as the Westman, or Slave, Islands.
They’re home to one of the most destructive volcanoes ever.
Iceland is no stranger to volcanoes. So much magma heats up the groundwater that it seems everywhere you look steam rises up from the earth. And we all remember that unpronounceable volcano that mucked up air traffic for weeks in 2010.
Even with all that, there’s no place like the Westman Islands to sense how it is to live with molten rock just below the ground. In the middle of a winter night in January 1973, the main island of Heimaey became hell on Earth. The meadow behind town sent flames soaring towards the sky: It was the volcano they live on erupting. Within 48 hours, over 5,300 residents, along with every last sheep and horse, were on fishing boats and evacuated to the mainland.
The volcano ripped a fissure over a mile long across the island, lava gobbled up hundreds of homes, and oceans of ash buried the island, covering many homes entirely. The eruption went on for five months. When it was over, Heimaey was a square mile bigger, and the volcano — called Eldfell — was a 720-foot mountain.
You can still feel the heat of the volcano.
The intense heat of the volcano could be felt for decades. After the Westman Islanders returned to Heimaey to dig out their houses and start over, they created a central heating system that used the lava’s heat to warm their homes for years. In those post-Eldfell years, they also baked “lava bread” by burying dough in the ground.
Today, the volcano is still cooling off. If you climb to the top of Eldfell, you’ll be stepping on tiny lava rocks, smaller than walnuts, your feet sinking with every step. The first few hundred feet, you’ll step over black rocks, and then, in the upper third, they are all red — signifying a higher iron content and, apparently, the end of the eruption.
Westman Islands are home to some of the windiest spots in Europe. On a blustery day, you can’t really feel Eldfell’s heat on the soles of your feet — no matter what the guidebooks promise — since the brisk air cools the surface of the mountain.
But stand at the top of Eldfell and find a small crevice into which you can stick your hand. It’s like an oven; you will feel the warmth even without touching any surfaces. Carefully, lay your hand on the ground. You’ll feel the heat of Middle Earth — of a volcano that erupted 45 years ago.
One of the Westman Islands is a science experiment.
Eldfell was not a one-off. It came only six years after another of the Westman archipelago volcanoes finally stopped erupting. Due south of Heimaey, the island of Surtsey came into existence in 1963 when a volcano exploded and spewed fire, lava, and ash for the next four years.
At its largest, Surtsey was a square mile; it’s smaller now due to erosion, but it still has to be one of the largest Petri dishes in the world. Scientists have prohibited human visits there, so they can study how quickly life can establish itself. In just 50 years, Surtsey has over 30 plant species, multiple bird species nesting on it, its shores are covered with seaweed and urchins, and seals have begun breeding there.
You can’t visit Surtsey, but you can learn about it at the Eldheimer Museum, probably the best place in the world to grasp what an eruption is like — without actually living through one. The museum is built around a house that was unearthed from a mountain of ash after 40 years. Seeing personal objects, like mirrors and dishes, from a lifetime ago is an eerie feeling.
The museum also has photographs, footage, and audio reels that take you through the nightmare that was the Eldfell eruption. Behind the museum, a recreated house sits buried in ash, the Eldfell peak looms, and beyond that are 500 acres of black land where there once was ocean. Locals have been trying for decades to grow something there, but nothing useful seems to take hold.
You can break bones looking for eggs.
Given the harsh climate and volcanic soil, little more than grass grows on the island, anyway. Luckily, there’s plenty of that grass, which is fertilized by fishy poop from the islands’ birds and munched on by a small population of sheep. Ebbi, a Westman Islander who leads tours of his home isle, says potatoes are the only edible plant that grows there. He grew up eating those potatoes with lamb, fish, and dried seaweed. If you want a place where no one will tell you to eat your vegetables, the Westman Islands are it.
Westman Islanders also used to eat bird eggs caught from the soaring cliffs where the multiple bird species make their nests. But holding onto ropes hung from the tops of cliffs — swinging from one tiny crag to another to get a toehold — is dangerous stuff.
Locals learn how to do this as kids, practicing on ropes that are low to the ground. The sprangan ropes close to the Heimaey harbor have been there for 70 years although the actual ropes are replaced annually. You can give them a try — swinging from one part of the cliff to another looks easy enough.
Turns out it’s hella hard. “It’s better to practice here when you’re young and break a bone here than to try on the real cliffs when you are older and break your neck,” Ebbi, the tour guide says. He makes it look effortless, though, whizzing back and forth from one tiny cliff outcropping to another, eventually ending with a mid-air somersault.
You can get your teeth fixed by a famous coach.
Hopefully you won’t bash your teeth in trying to swing on the sprangan ropes. Should you do so, though, not all will be lost. You might be rushed to one of the top dentists in Heimaey, Dr. Heimir Hallgrimsson. Hallgrimsson also happens to be the manager of Iceland’s national soccer team, which made it to the 2018 World Cup.
With so few people in Iceland, everyone has to hold a lot of jobs. Given its small population of just over 4,100 people, the Westman Islands takes that up a notch. Everyone is connected to someone else on Heimaey, and they can trace their roots back to the earliest Westman arrivals.
You can see puffins – and rescue them.
Iceland has more puffins than anywhere else on Earth, and the endearing birds’ biggest colony is on the Westman Islands. You can see them from viewpoints on the islands or, better yet, get on small speed-boats that zips you over to the backside of Heimaey and the other islands. Ribsafari can take you on one- or two-hour boat trips in the summer months when puffins are nesting and feeding their young.
You can also see a puffin up close at the aquarium and bird shelter, especially if you take a tour. In September, they had two puffins in residence: a full grown female and an adolescent male puffin. You shouldn’t touch them as your oils can affect their feathers – but they are remarkably social creatures.
At the end of September, you may be able to help local kids rescue baby puffins, called pufflings. It’s the end of their nesting season, and they wander away from their nests to make their way towards the sea. The young pufflings can swim but not yet fly.
Since Heimaey has cars and cats, it’s not a great place to be waddling around. The kids search out the pufflings, bring them into the rescue center overnight, where they’re weighed and placed into cozy boxes, and then release them the next day to the sea — where they happily swim away.
You can eat some of the freshest fish in the world.
Even though veggies don’t grow in the Westman Islands, the mainland of Iceland is a short 30-minute ferry ride away, and a large boat docks in its harbor multiple times a day. Moreover, the Westman Islanders catch up to 20 percent of Iceland’s fish. They’ve done well for themselves in a country where fishing was, until recently, the most important industry. You see it in Heimaey’s comfortable houses and its handful of nice shops and restaurants.
Restaurants like Slippurinn serve local Icelandic food, heavy on the fish. At Gott, which means “good” in Iceland, you can sit on a colorful wooden chair and order from a menu you’d find in any urbane setting, sampling truffle burgers or goat cheese salads. Just be sure to order some of the rye bread on the side.
They’re home to the largest music festival in Iceland.
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Behind Heimaey’s harbor, cliffs make up the back wall of a natural amphitheatre that hosts the largest music festival in Iceland. Music is as woven into life in the Westman Islands as it is elsewhere in the country, where nearly everyone plays an instrument or sings in a choir at some point in their life.
This last August, the Þjóðhátíð music festival drew almost 20,000 participants, who listened to music in the stunning outdoor setting and camped out on the island for days. On the last night of the festival, a flare was set off from the cliff-tops to commemorate every year of the festival. One hundred and forty-four flares were shot into the sky.