One of my favorite places in Iceland is a cluster of islands south of the mainland called Vestmannaeyjar or Westman-Islands. I love it for a number of reasons, not least for its dramatic history and awe-inspiring views. If you plan on seeing anything other than Reykjavík and the Golden Circle in Iceland, make the trip to the Westman Islands. I’m sure it will be an unforgettable experience.
What it is
The Westman Islands’ dramatic history begins with the formation of the islands only 40.000-10.000 years ago in a series of underwater eruptions, meaning the Westman Islands are brand new geologically speaking. Then there’s the notorious Turkish Invasion of 1627 when pirates kidnapped and enslaved 242 people and murdered 36 in three days. They left behind a mere 200 people of the entire population, people that had managed to hide in caves all over the islands. The southernmost island Surtsey (and also the southernmost patch of Icelandic land) was formed in an underwater eruption that lasted from 1963 until 1967. This 50-year-old landmass in the Atlantic is a godsend to scientists who use it to study how life migrates and adapts. For this reason, Surtsey was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Last but not least there’s the volcanic eruption on the main island Heimaey in 1973 where, incredibly, the entire town of over 5.000 people was evacuated in a single night while part of the town was sunk in lava and ash. I’ll write a special blog about that later.
What to do
My absolute favorite activity in the Westman Islands is honestly just taking long walks, staring at the scenery and breathing in these breathtaking views. You can walk out to Stórhöfði peninsula and look at the islands south of Heimaey with their little hunting cabins. You can walk around Eldfell volcano and marvel at the fact that you’re walking on ground that’s only 44 years old, perhaps even younger than you. You can hike up to the mountains, walk along the shore and wonder how on earth the sheep get to the edge of a seemingly impassable cliff. If walking is not your thing I highly recommend Eldheimar museum. It is built around a house that was excavated after being buried in ash for over 40 years. You can learn all about the 1973 eruption and the formation of Surtsey in a way that makes you feel like you witnessed these events. There’s also an aquarium, a folk museum, pubs, restaurants, a horse rental business and a swimming pool of course. If you’ve come this far a boat ride around the islands is a must, to explore these geological wonders up close. Oh, and did I mention the Westman Islands are home to the largest single puffin colony on Earth? I’ll also go out on a limb and claim that the inhabitants here are generally a super friendly bunch so don’t be shy and enjoy the atmosphere.
The ferry Herjólfur sails there all year round but more frequently in the summer. You can bring a car on board and tickets are cheap. The tricky part is which port it sails from. The preferred option is Landeyjahöfn, a smooth 2-hour drive east of Reykjavík. Due to the conditions of the shallows around the port they sometimes need to sail from Þorlákshöfn, especially in high waves/stormy weather. Þorlákshöfn is only a 30-minute drive from Reykjavík but instead of a 30-minute boat ride you’re stuck on that boat for nearly 3 hours, and usually in rough sea. Luckily this mainly happens in the winter and there’s always plan B: flying. Airline Ernir offers daily flights all year round (except on Saturdays in the winter) and even though the prices are considerably higher than the ferry, it’s an easy “breezy” 25-minute flight.