Icelanders sort of shake it off if you tell them they are brave. But truth be told, they are. They essentially live on a rock with active volcanoes on and below it. Eruptions typically occur every two to three years and sleeping giants could cause mass devastation at any moment without warning. And that’s exactly what happened in the Westman Islands in 1973.
Helgafell, the volcano cone that lie at the edge of Heimaey, had been sleeping for more than 5000 years and volcanologists considered Heimaey volcanically inactive. As Heimaey’s residents peacefully slept on January 23, 1973 a 1600 meter fissure suddenly opened in the ground on the tip of the Helgafell lava field just 300 meters from the town. Spewing about 40 lava fountains into the sky, some as high as 150 meters, and the molten lava rushed down toward the town and harbor.
Luckily, there had been a terrible storm the previous day and many ships had sought shelter in Heimaey’s harbor. Nearly the entirety of the 5000 inhabitants fled for their lives by boat that night. Only about 500 stayed behind, which included police and firefighters, and they fought to save their town by spraying cold sea water on the lava.
The eruption was officially declared over in July 1973, but by then nearly one third of the homes and buildings had been burned or completely buried under 200 million tons of lava and ash. Heimaey had become a modern day Pompeii. Yet, for an island that was so devastated just barley 40 years ago, there’s a lot to see and do:
One of the most popular things to do on Heimaey is to climb Eldfell, the volcanic cone that formed from the eruption in 1973. At just 600 feet high and only 41 years of age, Eldfell is a baby of a mountain. Sounds simple to climb, right?
Eldfell is actually a bit of an ass-kicker and I had to climb it twice. You see, Heimaey also holds the distinction of being the windiest place in Europe. On my first ascent, that lovely wind blew in some storm clouds so quickly I could hardly see my hand in front of my face, let alone take any photos. So naturally, I had to climb it again for the photographic evidence.
Eldfell is so young and the still steaming tephra is only suitable for baking bread, not growing grass yet like its 5000-year old neighbor Helgafell. When the wind blows, which you are sure it will in the windiest place in Europe, it erases the faint semblance of any sort of trail. So on my second ascent in the off-tourist season at 6:30am when the sun burst above the horizon, it was just me and an unforgiving landscape.
I mostly scrambled my way up the black tephra, sinking in with each step. With no perceptible trail, my calves burned as I pushed upward. It only took about 20 minutes to reach the top, but it felt like ages amongst the utter absence of life.
My sigh of relief to reach the top was short lived as a gust of wind, which had been non-existent on the way up, nearly knocked me down. The ridge is narrow and on one side drops off right to the craggy lava field that enlarged the island by 2.5 square kilometers. On the other, you’d be blown right down into the crater below. I slowly made my way around, snapping photos of the crater and lava field still engulfing homes below.
In 1973 there weren’t even any instruments to measure earthquakes or volcanic activity, but today a seismometer stands at the very top as a reminder that Eldfell is merely taking a nap. I have no idea how to read it, but I take a look none-the-less before snapping a few photos.
Residents seriously do bake bread – a very delicious bread called geysir bread – up here in the ground. I see a steam vent rising near one of the sheltered rocks and it’s one of the few places I can distinctly make out footprints. The bread bakes for 24 hours and I wonder if there is any buried there now.
The second hiker of the day arrives and I’m a bit relieved to see another person up here with me. He hands me his iPad and I have white knuckles as I grip it with both hands to take his photo. The iPad nearly blows off the volcano as I try carefully hand to it back to him.
I figure that’s my cue to head back down and already the biting wind has erased my footsteps.
Excavations began in 2006 on 10 homes buried in the lava. Though it was thought the homes were likely destroyed, they were actually found frozen in time. Clothes were neatly laid out to be worn the next day and breakfast spreads were ready for fisherman.
The Eldheimar Museum was built around one home in particular, Gerðisbraut 10, the home of Guðni Ólafsson. The walls were still standing intact and even with the original paint. Ash and lava have painstakingly been cleaned away and visitors can have a look at the house.
The museum also has an exhibition explaining the eruption of 1973 with original photographs from it. It’s a must visit to learn more about how Heimaey nearly suffered complete devastation and how the clever residents saved their harbor, which is essential to the livelihood of Heimaey.
Check the Eldheimar Museum’s website for opening hours, which change by season.
Sæheimar Aquarium is a small aquarium, but you certainly wouldn’t expect something the size of the Baltimore Aquarium on an island as small as Heimaey. It has just 12 fish tanks with fish and shellfish typically found in the waters around Iceland. The visit doesn’t take much more than 30 minutes to see all of the exhibits, including those on the bird life in the Westman Islands. But I promise you won’t want to leave…
Sæheimar’s resident puffin is sure to steal your heart. He didn’t hatch before all the puffins took to the sea after their breeding season. Rescued as a puffling (yes, that is the actual name for a baby puffin!), he has spent his entire life around people and acts more like a cat than his wild puffin friends. If you ask nicely, you might just even get to cuddle him. Totally worth the 1000 kroner entry fee, if you ask me!
Check the Saeheimar Aquarium’s website for opening hours, which change by season. Admission is 1000 kr.
In 1988 one resident couple from Heimaey began growing this garden in the lava just 15 years after the devastating eruption. It’s been cultivated ever since and today there are over 700 different types of plants in the garden. It’s easy to miss and on my visit, I had the lovely little garden completely to myself while others unknowingly passed it by. It’s definitely worth a stroll and has lovely views of the new land area that was formed in the eruption.
To commemorate Iceland’s 1000 year anniversary of their conversion to Christianity, the Norwegian state presented Iceland with a replica of the Haltdalen stave church, originally from around the 1170s. It was erected near the harbor in Vestmannaeyjabær in 2000. The church is a beautifully, yet sparsely decorated inside.
The meteorological station at Stórhöfði is famous for recording the highest windspeed in the Northern Hemisphere at 220 kilometers per hour. Around 700,000 puffin also call Stórhöfði home each August. There are a number of marked paths that you can follow to get some spectacular views of Heimaey and several other of the Westman Islands. Just be sure to stick to the paths, as the puffins make holes and cause erosion.
On November 14, 1963 a cook aboard the Ísleifur II, a fishing trawler that was sailing off the coast of Iceland, spotted a plume of smoke that seemed to be rising from the sea itself. As there was no land mass charted on any map, the captain determined it must be a boat on fire. The captain turned his trawler to go investigate, but what the crew actually found was the world’s newest island in the process of being born. A volcanic eruption beneath the sea was spurting ash in to the air.
The eruption continued until June 1967, at which time the island had grown to over 500 meters in length and 45 meters high. Volcanologists studied the island extensively. Then biologists became fascinated as life took form on the once barren island. Afterall, Surtsey is one of the few islands known to have emerged from the sea in recorded history.
Because of the incredible research Surtsey has provided the scientists studying it on succession and colonization, Surtsey was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Under UNESCO protection, it has stayed free of interference from people. You cannot technically set foot on Surtsey, unless you are a scientist, but you can take a boat ride around Surtsey Island if you want an up-close look at it.
Take a Rib Safari is see Surtsey Island. The boat only goes in good weather and is 16,500 kr per person.
Getting to and Around and Where to Stay in the Westman Islands
Heimaey is worth spending at least two nights on, as the weather is often unpredictable in Iceland. It’s easy and fast to reach by ferry from Landeyjahöfn, just 11 kilometers from Heimaey and around a 1 hour 30 minute drive from Reykjavik. Book online and check the timetable here.
There are also a variety of day trips to Heimaey by both tour bus (the bus drops you off at the ferry) or by air.
Heimaey is a fairly small island and everything can be reached by walking. Taking the ferry also enables you to bring your rental car over so that you can fully explore Heimaey.
I highly recommend the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar, located right in the heart of the town. The rooms are simple, yet elegant. My favorite amenity was definitely the spa. The two hot tubs and sauna located in the spa are perfect for relaxing after climbing Eldfell.
This post was brought to you in collaboration with Go Iceland and the support of Hotel Vestmannaeyjar. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.