Vestmannaeyjar: The Westmann Islands ARE AMAZING, GO THERE!

DISCLAIMER: This place is real, I promise.

Bloody history and Irish rebels

Vestmannaeyjar is often Anglicized as Westmann Islands: Vestmann meaning the obvious, and eyjar meaning islands (sidenote, this is a good place name suffix to know). Located south of the mainland, right at the point where the famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano sits very close to the ocean. The “West Men” were the Irish slaves brought by Norseman Ingólfr Arnarson, the first permanent settler of Iceland in the later ninth century (Reykjavík was founded around 874, give or take a few years). His brother, Hjörleifur, was murdered. Ingólfr tracked down the murder to the slaves, who had fled to the islands. He cleaned shop by murdering all of them, you know… just to be safe. However, their name stuck to the island, preserving their rebellious Celtic history.

Land younger than my parents

While an archipelago of many islands and volcanic rocks peeping above the water, Heimaey (heim meaning home), is the only one that is inhabited by a little over 4,000 residents. The town is named Vestmannaeyjabær, predictably and practically meaning Westmann Islands Town. Residents have an active fishing industry, along with the ubiquitous tourism services. Six other islands hold just a single hunting cabin. Some of the newest islands can only be accessed by permitted scientific researchers. Surtsey is the youngest, formed in a 1963 underwater eruption that created the 350 acre island.

Blowing up (before social media)

Vestmannaeyjar was brought to global attention in January 1973, when a sudden volcanic eruption created a 200 meter high mountain where a field had once been. Residents were evacuated, as lava cascaded down onto the town. By the end of the eruption’s most violent stages a couple weeks later (the eruption was about 5 months long in total), hundreds of houses were consumed by the lava flow and most of the island was covered in tephra (particles flung from an eruption, rather than flowing). Damage was done to everything, threatening the port and the islander’s livelihood, damaging power supply and other utilities. In early February, a sea water pumping operation began to cool and stop the flow, which was ultimately successful. As the lava cooled, inventive Icelanders captured the heat for warming water and generate electricity. Larger tephra was used to extend the airport’s runway and serve as landfill for the construction of new homes. No lives were lost, and most of the population returned soon after the eruption, with fishing operation back to normal within a year. If all of this doesn’t encapsulate the Icelandic spirit, I don’t know what does. The incident earned the island of Heimaey the nickname “Pompeii of the North.”

Getting there: visiting your ferry godmother

Vestmannaeyjar Ferry

There are two ways to get to Heimaey: by air (only from a couple domestic airports in Iceland, not from Keflavik International), and by ferry from Landeyjahöfn, called Herjólfur. Landeyjahöfn ferry terminal is about a 15 minute drive south of Route 1, very near Seljalandsfoss. The road is fully paved, and you can take your car on the ferry (or, I believe, leave it at the terminal), so if you’re renting, it’s easy. Regular but not frequent public bus service is also an option (Stræto bus 52, which leaves from the east side hub Mjödd). When I got to visit Heimaey in 2017, we took our rental car on the ferry for a reasonable fee (about $25 each way). It was very handy to have, we drove to the far south end of the island twice to take in the views in vastly different weather, and it saved us a lot of walking after the volcano tired us out. Plus, packing the cars into a ferry is quite an experience! At the terminals, only the driver may be in the car, other passengers proceed to the on-foot entrance. It usually pays to be early in line, as the driver has more time to get the car into claustrophobic decks, and squeeze their way out to find their fellow travelers. The deck of the ferry is reasonably comfortable, and there’s space to ride outside in good weather to take in the amazing views. The ride is only about half an hour itself. I didn’t have any trouble feeling seasick, though the water was calm for both trips.

First-hand volcano experience

The cone of Eldfell (“eld” meaning fire and “fell” meaning hill), located on the east side of the island, is a moderate climb, and can be easily walked to if you stay on the east side of town. DO wear sturdy shoes, preferably with good firm soles and ankle support, as the path can be steep and the coarse tephra requires attention while hiking. As you get toward the top, the rock becomes more and more red, and you’re sometimes convinced you’re on Mars. Right along the top, the trail is narrow, and the wind can really be whipping, but the views are amazing. (Top image, looking south into the Atlantic.) You can see the 2.2 square kilometers of new land if you look to the east, the abrupt edge of the cooled lava flow from 1973 to the west, and if it’s clear enough, the mainland and Eyjafjallajökull to the north.

One more small note: Helgafell, located south of Eldfell, is also climbable and offers similar views. If you’re into hiking and come over without a car, definitely do this one, as you’ll get a full view of the south end of the archipelago that is otherwise an incredibly long walk. I’ve only climbed Eldfell, which was a stretch for my chronic pain and fatigue, but was incredibly glad I did it.

New land to the east
Panorama from west to east, with the mainland along the horizon obscured by clouds
Narrow Martian trail at the top of Eldfell

House graves

At the base of the volcano crater, you’ll find some marked graves for houses swallowed by the eruption, now among beautiful summer wildflowers. There are several paths up to the plateau where these can be found.

Our guesthouse (on the right, an OK place findable on AirBnB) was right at the edge of the lava flow, missing destruction in 1973. Most streets ending on the east side of town at the lava flow have similar endings, and most have access paths up onto the plateau where street and house markers have been put.
Looking down at the guesthouse (first building on the left), Kirkjubæjarbraut is one of several streets that ends at the lava flow. Sadly, street markers were made in Comic Sans.
Lava flow plateau at the base of Eldfell
Lost house marker below Eldfell
Rough translation: Water Valley, Our Family Home, stood 1925-1973, under lava 22 March

In the town

In the town of Vestmannaeyjabær, there are several things worth checking out. The local public pool is fantastic, with deep hot tubs and special new area for kids outside, and a nice 25 meter lap pool indoors. The shower and locker area (at least in the women’s side) was surprisingly small and very crowded, so beware this when visiting during busy times for tourists or locals. Fantastic place to relax, though!

There are a few museums in town: Sagnheimar, a folk museum; the fascinating-looking and pricey Eldheimar about the eruption; and the aquarium/natural history exhibit Sæheimar (which may possibly be closed now, in some way, conflicting information comes up on searching). I have seen mention more recently of a combined museum pass, but haven’t been able to find a link tonight worth attaching. Given too short a time on the island and an incredibly foggy half a day, we opted for the aquarium and were delighted to meet Toti, a rescued puffin who was a total ham waddling about the exhibit and when the museum docent let us have a closer look and told us about him, before returning him to his rescue habitat.

Eat, drink, and be merry

There are plenty of places to eat in town, most located in the center of the settlement, along with a fully stocked Bónus supermarket. Right at the harbor are a couple nicer restaurants, though we had great fish and chips for a decent price at Fiskibarinn and delicious traditional soup and bread at the simple, efficient Café Varmó. We also had some delicious brews at The Brothers Brewery. Expect to pay at least $20 for a modest sit-down meal and $10-15 for a pint, like the rest of Iceland.

The Brothers Brewery
Heimaey Puffin Sign
The iconic puffin street sign at the harbor, near restaurants and the ferry

Come and stay

I suppose to sum up my advice, stay at least a few days. Unless you’re on a blinders-on trip of Route 1, Heimaey is well worth the trip for hikers and townies alike. There’s even a golf course, clinging to the west edge of the island’s cliffs! Even for Iceland, it’s a place unlike any other. Be aware that there is a huge outdoor summer festival on the weekend before the first Monday in August each year. Enjoy!

Heimaey West Cliffs
Cliffs and more islands on the west edge of Heimaey, near the golf course
The very south end of the road