Not many visitors to Iceland know that it isn’t the only island sitting atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. As with all islands created by volcanic activity, such as Hawaii and New Zealand, there is never just one. About 30 islands surround this Nordic nation, although only four are inhabited. These are Flatey, Grímsey, Hrísey, and Heimaey. The last, Heimaey, translates to ‘Home Island’ and is part of the collection known as the Westman Islands of Iceland. Locally, these islands are known as Vestmannaeyjar.
The Westman Islands of Iceland
Found below the south coast, there are in total 14 Vestmannaeyjar islands and many more rock stacks. The largest and only inhabited island of the group is Heimaey, which covers 13.4 km2 (5.2 miles2). There are just over four thousand inhabitants on Heimaey, and most of them live in the island’s main town, Vestmannaeyjabær. Some of the smaller islands have basic cabins that are used when bird hunting in summer.
Vestmannaeyjar experienced a major event in living memory. In January 1973, the volcano Eldfell, located on the island of Heimaey, erupted. It spread lava and volcanic ash over most of the island; all of the inhabitants were evacuated within six hours. Four hundred homes were destroyed and the local fishing industry crashed to a halt.
However, within two years most of the population was back and the fishing had returned to normal. In optimistic Icelandic fashion, the eruption actually led to some positive changes. The eruption improved the harbor and heating systems were put in place to utilize the lava flow for hot water. Today, Vestmannaeyjar is one of Iceland’s most important fishing locations. This is saying a lot, as Iceland’s biggest export is fish.
On July 3rd, 1973 the eruption was declared officially over. To commemorate this date, annually on the first weekend after July 3rd there is a celebration known as Goslokahátíð. This celebration is characterized by lots of live music around town.
How Long is the Ferry to Westman Islands?
The ferry to Vestmannaeyjar leaves from Landeyjahöfn, which is 137km (85 miles) from Reykjavík. From Landeyjahöfn the ferry ride to Heimaey is around 35-40 minutes. You can even take your vehicle on board, whether it’s a car, motorhome, or bicycle. The price per foot passenger is ISK 1,600 and the vehicle transfer price will vary depending on its size.
The ferry runs seven trips per day, but tickets sell out fast in summer so book in advance. Aside from the ferry that takes you to and from the mainland, there are also boat trips around the island. It’s not uncommon to see whales and seals while sailing around this area.
Alternatively, you can fly to the Westman Islands from Reykjavík Airport. This takes about 25 minutes and prices vary depending on the date.
What to do on the Westman Islands
So how should you explore this serene landscape? Should you drive around, traverse Vestmannaeyjar on foot, or perhaps cycle along the island?
The ferry will drop you off at Heimaey on Vestmannaeyjar. From there you can either join a guided tour or make your own way. The island is small enough to cover on foot, but it depends how much walking you want to do. There are some incredible mountain hikes on the Westman Islands of Iceland: Eldfell, Klif and Heimaklettur among others.
Eldfell is of course the volcano that caused so much disruption in 1973. It’s only a 15-minute hike to the top and the bright red ash covering it is fascinating to behold. Klif and Heimaklettur both have ropes dug into the ground to assist you with the climb to the top. They’re fairly steep but don’t take too long to ascend; just be sure you have good footwear. Both provide incredible views of the island, and Heimaklettur is the highest point on Heimaey. These hiking routes won’t show on every map of the Westman Islands, so Iceland’s locals will be happy to help.
If you want to get around slightly quicker, you could also cycle around Heimaey. Note that the roads undulate a lot, so a good level of fitness is required. There are several companies on the island that hire bikes for as little as ISK 3,000 for three hours.
Alternatively, you could bring a bike from the mainland, but know that the ferry will charge for transporting it. It’s best to bring a mountain bike rather than a road bike.
While you’re there, why not take part in spranga? It’s a sport whereby you swing from a long rope across a cliff.
Bird watching is also a popular activity on the islands. Thousands of puffins make the cliffs of Vestmannaeyjar their home between April and August, as well as many other species. More on puffins below.
Around August and September every year, the people of Heimaey have a special role to play in conserving puffins. Puffins make their nests in holes in cliffs, and lay eggs in those crevasses. When those eggs hatch, the pufflings’ instinct when they’re ready to leave the nest is to get to the ocean. They do this at night, and since they can’t properly fly at this point, they drift downwards towards the ocean. However, the lights of Vestmannaeyjabær attract them, so they drift into the town by mistake. Not being able to fly, they are stuck on land and would die if not for the locals’ intervention. The town’s youth head out at night, search for the pufflings, and keep them safe until the next day. The pufflings are then taken to the island’s puffin center where they are weighed and their wings measured. If they are deemed ready to be released into the ocean, that’s where they’ll go. If not, the puffin center will look after the pufflings until they are ready.
The Þjóðhátíð Festival
On the first weekend of August every year, Þjóðhátíð (translation: The National Festival) is held on Heimaey. It lasts for three to four days and there’s different entertainment every night, including bonfires, fireworks and live music. On the final night, the whole crowd joins in on singing traditional Icelandic songs; this draws in over 15,000 people.
This is one of Iceland’s largest festivals and many locals come from the mainland to enjoy it. Most people camp near to the valley where the festival is held. You could rent somewhere to stay in town, but it’ll be expensive and you’ll miss out on the campsite atmosphere. Bring a rain jacket and decent shoes. As a rule, it’s a good idea to always bring a towel and swimming costume wherever you go in Iceland. Hot springs and naturally heated swimming pools can be found everywhere, including on Vestmannaeyjar.
Þjóðhátíð will be from July 31st to August 2nd this year. Families are welcome but know that the legal drinking age in Iceland is 20. More information on the festival can be found here: https://www.dalurinn.is/en/.
From volcanoes to puffins and lava fields to fisheries, Vestmannaeyjar is Iceland in miniature. It’s recommended to take at least a couple of days exploring and soaking up the culture; one day isn’t enough. Why not grab your rental car and take a side trip there on your way around Iceland’s ring road?
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.