The Vestmannaeyjar are also called The Westman Islands in English and refer to an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. This small area has an active and interesting history. The name comes from its earliest history of being inhabited.
From wikipedia: “Not long after Ingólfur Arnarson arrived in Iceland, his blood brother Hjörleifur was murdered by the slaves he had brought with him. Ingólfur tracked them down to the Vestmannaeyjar and killed them all in retribution, hence the name Vestmannaeyjar (the islands of the west men). This is speculated to have occurred in AD 875.”
The slaves, i.e. Westmen, refers to Irish slaves captured by the vikings. Interesting to note is that the Westmen’s home of Ireland is actually east of Iceland. I guess I am a modern day Westman, since I hail from Ireland also.
The islands were also raided by Barbary Coast pirates from Algiers in 1627, who carted away most of the population at that time.
We took the ferry from Landeyjohofn to Heimaey (Home Island), the largest and only populated island in the group. Travel time is about 35 mins and costs US$12.50 per person one way for foot passengers. In order to take the car it would have been a lot more and we would have needed to make a reservation in advance. But the island is not huge, so exploring it on foot is fine, as long as the weather is not too nasty. It is about a 6KM walk from one end of the island to the other, which we explore by foot.
The port on Heimaey is situated in a very picturesque location, with very steep volcanic hills right around you. I had been napping on the way over, so it was quite a reveal to open my eyes and see where we had arrived.
We decided to take a less direct route to the southern end of the island by starting to walk west from the port. We stopped at the soccer stadium so we could use the seats for a picnic. Then we walked past the golf course at Herjolfsdalur, which is very dramatically situated.
When I sent a photo of the place to a golfer friend, he also noted that you could probably play here until midnight during the summer. Perhaps so, if the sun was out.
Along the way south, we passed some fields with Icelandic horses.
We got some good exercise walking along the west coast road all the way to a puffin viewing hide at Storhofdi. This is located at the side of a cliff and provides a great view of the puffins coming out of their burrows and flying off in search of food. Apart from helping hide us as we viewed them, it kept us out of the wind and it ensures that visitors don’t disturb the birds (or probably kill themselves tripping over their burrows!)
It is easy to see puffins here, especially since we had brought binoculars with us. However, photographing them is a bit more challenging. For one thing, they are far enough away that taking a photo with a phone camera is a waste of time. I had brought my “big gear” with me and was shooting with the equivalent of a 900mm lens setup for these images. Even so, the birds aren’t huge in the frame.
Also, puffins generally don’t sit still for too long. It is easiest to photograph them while they are on the ground, but I also have images taken of them in flight, but it will be a while before I have a chance to process those photos. With the light levels pretty low (did I mention we never saw sunshine during our weeklong stay in Iceland?) I also had to boost the ISO levels and even then, the shutter speed was slower than I would ideally have liked.
The weather had turned bad again and we were facing a less fun walk back into town, but there were some other visitors at the hide who had a car with them and nicely gave us a lift back into the center of town.
Finding ourselves with a little more time left than we had originally planned, we walked for about 15 minutes to the edge of town to visit Eldheimar, a museum about the 1973 volcanic eruption on the island.
As a kid, my parents used to get National Geographic magazine (actually I think it was my uncle who sent it to them as a gift). Although it was probably well after it was originally published that I read the issue, I vividly recall the photos from 1973 about a town in Iceland that had been buried under volcanic ash and lava. It only dawned on me when we got here that this was the same place, which some call the “Pompei of the North”.
The museum is literally built around an excavated building from that time and remote cameras allow you to explore the inside of the building, searching for objects that were left behind in the haste to leave. There is another building partially exposed right outside the museum. The rest of the museum is mostly photographs (including many of the same ones that were in this Nat Geo edition) and displays that are part of the story being narrated to you via an audio guide.
When the volcano Eldfel erupted that year for several months, the entire population had to be evacuated. The museum tells the story of the eruption, evacuation, and attempts to save the island, as well as the aftermath. The population today is still less than it was at the time of the eruption.
The archipelago is still very active – the island of Surtsey was created virtually overnight in 1963 and the area remains one of intense study for vulcanologists.
The islanders obviously know that visitors come here especially for puffins and volcanoes. Puffin decorations are easy to find, such as this signpost, right as you get off the ship.
And the volcanoes decorate all the benchseats near the Eldheimar museum.
Back on the mainland we headed towards our accommodations in Vik, stopping first to have dinner at the restaurant Gamla Fjosid just under Eyjafjallajökull- the volcano that grounded all air traffic between the US and Iceland in 2010 when it erupted. The restaurant is at an old farm and one eats in an old cowshed.
We arrived at our guesthouse thinking we had a room with a private bath, but no, $200 a night here gets you your own bedroom, but you have to share the bathroom with guests from two other rooms. At least the bathroom was really nice!