Murderous slaves, pirates and volcanic eruptions: the history of Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) is a surprisingly bloodthirsty one…
At first glance the Westman Islands are the seemingly innocuous home of fishermen and their families. But the locals here are tough, having faced many challenges throughout the island’s history. For a visitor however, this quiet island encapsulates everything that makes Iceland great. Wild, wave-battered landscapes, towering volcanic cones and thousands of beautiful puffins. My guide to Vestmanneyjar should covers all the best things to do and see on your visit.
A brief history of Vestmannaeyjar
In the early days of settlement, Icelanders would raid neighbouring countries, capturing foreigners to use as slaves. So the story begins in a farm on mainland Iceland. Two Irish slaves escape captivity and kill their master. Fleeing on stolen vessels, they sail to Vestmannaeyjar. Unfortunately, they are pursued by the master’s brother. The first slave is killed by the brother, while the second, fearing capture, jumps from the cliffs.
To the first Icelanders, the Irish were known as West Men, thus the Westman Islands were named after the Irish slaves who were died here.
A grizzly beginning to be sure, but it was by no means the end of the island’s bad luck. Algerian pirates raided the island in 1627 and took many locals prisoner. Later still, an outbreak of neonatal tetanus in the 18th century devastated the population.
However, it was the eruption that took place the island of Heimaey in 1973 that would forever shape the story of Vestmannaeyjar. At 8pm on Sunday 21 January 1973, a series of tremors occurred around the island. These kinds of earthquakes are common between plate boundaries and caused the locals little concern. Two days later, a fissure torn open on the eastern side of the island, under a kilometre from the main town. The fissure then grew to a huge cone 600 feet in the air, burying the town in 1.5 million tonnes of hot ash. It was only a stroke of luck that saved the residents of Heimaey from the onslaught of the volcano. A fierce storm the day before the eruption had meant the entire fishing fleet had stayed in port. The entire town was evacuated onto the boats in a matter of hours and only one person lost their life.
After the evacuation the lava flow crept worryingly closer toward the town. It took five long months and 6.2 million tonnes of seawater to cool the lava flow and save the town.
Eldfell, Icelandic for Fire Mountain, the youngest and newest volcano in the world, was born.
Guide to Vestmannaeyjar
Nowadays Vestmannaeyjar is a popular spot for intrepid tourists. Out on the water, boats cruise around the stark, volcanic coastline, while on land you can treat yourself to some of the freshest seafood in the world or explore the local museums. Of the 15 islets that make up the Westman Islands, Heimaey (or Home Island) is the only inhabited one, making it the perfect base camp.
Heimaey Tourist Office
There is a charming little tourist office located in Eymundsson, a book store & cafe, which offers more information, pamphlets and trail maps. If you want to visit, the address is: Bárustígur 2, 900 and they are open everyday apart from Sunday.
I’ll put my hand up and admit it: a chance to see a puffin in the wild was a huge part of our decision to come to the island. The untameable landscape and rich fishing grounds make Heimaey the perfect breeding ground for the Atlantic puffin and the island is actually home to one of the largest puffin colonies in the world, with thousands of these cute creatures nesting here. Reportedly, there was once two million puffins born on Heimaey every year. However, due to warming seas there has been a lack of food leading to a worrying decline in their number.
Despite being one of the best places to birdwatch in Iceland, it can still be tricky to find puffins on the island, since the best season to see puffins is April – early September. In the south of the island, you’ll find a puffin lookout at Stórhöfði – a rocky peninsula at the south of the island. Tours on a rib safari boat are also a great way to get up close to these unique creatures.
Alternatively, Kasha and I did manage to find a good lookout spot on the grassy banks beside the golf course to the west. I have treasured memories of us hiding behind a grassy verge, peeping out to spot puffins on the cliff edge. Incidentally, I have a wonderful tip for spotting a puffin mid-flight. They are extremely ungraceful flyers – their big bodies and small wings mean they can’t glide on air currents in the same way as seagulls. So, if you see a black and white bird flapping like a crazy, you’ve probably spotted yourself a puffin.
We visited in September, the season where adorable baby puffins, or pufflings start leaving their burrows. Being juvenile, the pufflings have a tendency to fly toward the town, attracted by the noise and bright lights. It’s the favourite time of the year for local kids on Heimaey. Armed with flashlights and cardboard boxes they patrol the streets in the evening to collect wayward pufflings. This saves them from the dangers of cats, dogs or traffic. The cute pufflings are taken to the Saeheimar Aquarium, where they are counted. The adorable birds spend the night in the home of their rescuers and safely released in the morning. I spotted many cute photos of children and the pufflings they rescued lining the walls of the aquarium.
There was once a resident puffin in the museum called Tóti who sadly died in 2018. Tóti was found by curators of the museum abandoned in the nest, aged only one week old. Having hatched much later than the other pufflings, Tóti wouldn’t have survived without the curators help. One of the staff members even showed me Tóti’s Icelandic football team jersey which he’d had hand-made.
The building itself is actually more of a museum, hence its full title: Aquarium and Museum of Natural History of Vestmannaeyjar. You’ll find exhibitions on Icelandic birds, lava rocks and minerals and an interesting aquarium.
Eldheimar Volcano Museum
If you want to learn more in depth about the story of the Eldfell you have to visit Eldheimar. This incredible volcano museum is centred around an excavated cottage that was buried in ash in the eruption. The home was once owned by Gerður Sigurðardóttir and Guðni Ólafsson, who built it in 1971 and lived there with their three sons. It’s heartbreaking to see all the personal belongings, broken, abandoned and half buried. An audio guide directs you around the museum and there are numerous remote control cameras that allow you to see certain aspects of each room in more detail. When the eruption happened, this family only had time to grab a bottle for the baby. Unearthing the cottage from the ashes gave the family the first glimpse at the scale of the destruction. The museum goes into great detail about the volcanic eruption and features many original photos that tell the dramatic story. By the end, I was reeling at the sheer, brutal power of nature.
Hike Eldfell Volcano
You’d have to have a pretty good excuse to miss a chance to climb one of the planet’s newest volcanoes. The start point of the short hike is actually near the Eldheimar museum, which shows you just how close the lava flow was to destroying Heimaey. The easy climb takes approximately 20 minutes to the top of the 200-metre cone. Over the rim of the crater you’ll get a magnificent 360° view of the island. It’s also the perfect place to stop for lunch. The scorched red rock and lava formations will make you feel like you’re walking on the moon.
Surtsey – UNESCO World Heritage Centre
On the 14 November 1963, crew members aboard the fishing boat Ísleifur II saw a dramatic column of black ash emanating from the sea near Heimaey. A volcanic eruption on the seabed had begun which continued for four years. This new island rose from a height of just 10 metres to finally over 170 metres and a total area of 2.8 square km. Named Surtsey after Surtr, a mythical Norse fire-giant, this new island is not open to the public, making it one the world’s most pristine natural laboratories and a truly unique UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The lack of human interference means scientists have been able to study in depth the colonisation of plants and animals. My favourite story about the island however, is one that occurred in 1969, when scientists discovered a strange plant that they couldn’t identify growing from the volcanic rock.
Scientist Ágúst Bjarnason, who worked on the island, wrote in Vestmannaeyjar newspaper Eyjafréttir:
“At first I was stunned because of the strange plant which looked like a potato plant. I bent down and rolled two lava rocks aside which lay against the plant on either side. Underneath was a peculiar pile which was very soft when I poked it.”
“Suddenly it dawned on me what it was. Someone had done their business… and this beautiful tomato plant, 15-cm tall, had grown out of the faeces. … I put everything in a plastic bag and closed it securely. I made sure not to leave anything behind so that the natural settlement wouldn’t be compromised,”
For those curious, there is an exhibition about Surtsey in the Eldheimar museum.
Bizarre and beautiful. This natural rock formation looks exactly like an elephant has its trunk submerged into the water of the Atlantic Ocean, enjoying a well-earned drink. It’s well worth exploring to see if you can find this basalt rock formation.
Heimaey Stave Church
In recognition of 1,000 years of Christianity in Iceland, Norway gifted this church to Heimaey in 2000. You can find the church in the old harbour, in an area of land created by the 1973 eruption. The jet black walls of lava that once spewed from the volcano provide a striking backdrop for the black wooden church. The Norse timber construction is a detailed replica of the Haltdalen Stave Church built in Norway in 1170. Inside you can also find a replica of the Norwegian medieval altarpiece of Saint Olav.
Where to eat in Vestmannaeyjar + drink
For those on a budget, there is a Bonus supermarket on the island where you can pick up sandwiches and baked goods for lunch. If you’re looking to splash the cash, Slippurinn is a restaurant with a focus on sustainability and is frequently rated as one of the best places to eat in Iceland. If all you want to do is kick back with a beer, head to Brothers Brewery, a microbrewery with 30 beers available and a laid back vibe.
How to get to Vestmannaeyjar
The easiest way to reach the island is by ferry. The Vestmannaeyjar ferry takes around 40 minutes and has multiple departures per day leaving from Landeyjahöfn (about one hour and 45 minute drive from Reykjavik). You can ferry across your car across as well, but the island is only 13 square kilometres – so you can walk the whole island with no trouble. The ferry crosses open water, so if you suffer from seasickness, take motion sickness medicine before you board and nibble on ginger cookies (which help settle the stomach). The island does have a small airport that can take light aircraft, but beware the buffeting wind can make the journey unpleasant. Do your bit for the environment and catch the ferry instead.
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Have you visited Vestmannaeyjar? Share you comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!