Westman Islands in Winter Solitude

Vestmannaeyjar at the South Coast of Iceland

Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Islands are small archipelago located at the South Coast of Iceland. They are mystically beautiful and historic. Although I have gazed at them laying in the ocean mist hundred of times on my way to Þórsmörk or other destinations in the South, I didn’t manage to get there. Until now in the middle of winter – and it was perfect timing.

My flat mate and me were thinking of what to do for the upcoming weekend, when I realised I hadn’t been to the Vestmannaeyjar, literally translated “The Islands of the Western Man”. They recalled to my mind when I was hiking at Reykjadalur near Hveragerði with my grandma the previous weekend. You can see them from this point of view and will stay in your vision while traveling South Iceland to a great extend (you will most probably start to lose sight of them after you passed Vík eastwards). They always make a great sight when slowly revealing out of the deep ocean mist and look as close to touch. When that happened, I stopped hiking and showed my grandmother this phenonemon. I also explained to her, these islands are called Westman Islands as the first settlers of Iceland (some call them Vikings, but technically they’re not really Vikings, but that’s a different story) brought slaves from Ireland with them, who back then were called Westman. They stirred up some trouble with their master on mainland and fled to the archipelago, which didn’t prevent them of being slaughtered by the masters brother, who, of course, seeked revenge. Ever since they’re called Westman Islands. Generally their history is pretty bloody. For example, in 1627 Algerian (some say they were Turkish) pirates executed and kidnapped half of the population. However, when I was there, it was peaceful as it could be. I hope for their future this will stay that way. Because that’s what makes this little treasure at the Icelandic shores worth a visit during off-season.

Skannsins at Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar
View over the so called Skannsins. Here the lava stopped 1973 after the eruption came to an end. You also can find a Norge timber church and a kind of fortress

When we were telling our co-workers and friends about our plans they were increduously looking at us, like “What on earth do you want on Vestmannaeyjar, there is nothing to see”, “Vestmannaeyjar are worth for being a prison, nothing more” or getting started on their horror stories about the ferry trips (“I once almost died of seasickness when the journey lasted 9 instead of 3 hours, because there were 15 metres waves. They had to clean the ferry afterwards for days, because the vomit covered the floor 5cm high”). And indeed, the journey didn’t start very well.

In the very second, the for me almost unprouncable ferry “Herjólfur” [HChjejoulfür or something like that], took off the habour in Þorlákshöfn (almost as unpronouncable as the ferry), began to shake. It was windy that evening and I couldn’t understand how all those teenagers on board started to stuff themselves with fries and burgers. Later I was told, it should be one of the best ways to actually fight seasickness. As much I wanted to eat one, too, I didn’t dare. This was actually a wise decision. Only ten minutes after I found myself grasping the railing in a freezing wind, trying to focus on the lights on the shore to keep my orientation and well-being. When sailing the Calanque in Cassis, France, I got the tip from the skipper to always search and concentrate on one spot on the motionless mainland. This time the trick wouldn’t work for me. My saviour was a coach at the deck, on which I spent the rest of the journey, trying to hold on to myself as best as I could. Eventually I found some peace in the up and down and side to side of the ferry, convincing myself it being a huge cradle rocked by the ocean. Ironically the ferry often leaves its old habour in Þorlákshöfn from which the journey takes about 2:45 hours when there is rough sea as the new habour in Landeyjahöfn, from where the journey would take endurable 30 minutes, isn’t very well planned and with more waves arriving quickly filling it up with sand.

After we survived the approach, the next day we could start to explore Heimaey. That’s what we did.

Winter Solitude at Urðavíti in Heimaey Island
If you want to get away from it all: Here you can see me standing on a lonely road at Heimaey, the main island of Vestmannaeyjar facing neighbouring Bjarnarey

What to do or “When there are no puffins”

You could argue that basically all main attractions are not available during the winter season: Puffin season doesn’t start before end of May. Also other birds are not around much besides the sea gulls at the fish factories in the habour. And the popular speed boat trips around Heimaey, the main island of Vestmannaeyjar or the island teenager Surtsey, which just appeared on the map 1963 thanks to a massive submarine volcanic eruption being famous for its scientific value, do not operate their business. Scientists want to find out, how nature manages to bring life to new, so far uninhibited islands. So, why to go to Vestmannaeyjar during winter at all, when the main attraction isn’t there and all your Icelandic friends are confused at your plans to go there anyway? Because its beauty is striking even with the cold wind biting at your face. In fact, a lot of other sights and activities are available all year around.

Hike up the new lava field

This was pretty much the first thing we did on the islands. I was told, you can still feel the heat on the field, but I was climbing down the hill a bit disappointed, because I didn’t feel any. But since I was barely feeling anything in my fingertips due to the adamant cold wind, I eventually might have missed that. Anyway, this is a perfect start for your little trip on the island, you will get a perfect view (if you’re not hiking in mist, as we basically did) and will discover colorful new ground, which is shimmering in red, green and yellow.

Enjoy ease and solitude

There are about 5.000 people living on Heimaey. We didn’t see much of them during our stay. If you just walked some few metres out of the very village centre, you could have guessed this is a ghost town. We were the only guests staying at Aska Hostel, which I warmly can recommend. Sit at the coast and stare into the ocean and contemplate the beauty of Icelandic South Shore from a very special point of view all by yourself.

Hike up Stóraklif or Heimaklettur

… and enjoy the breathtaking view over whole Heimaey in the South and mostly the two glaciers which dominate the Southern coastline, if you turn to the North: Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. If the wind isn’t blowing too harsh, what basically kept us from climbing any higher at Stóraklif! After we descended we had sand and rocks everywhere: In our face and mouth and even felt it managed to get into our underthings. If you are a bit afraid of heights, you should maybe try Heimaklettur instead. Heimaklettur is the big cliff which  mainly protects the habour as there are staircases all the way up. Sheep will greet you up there. I still wonder, how they made it up there and how those fluffy balls do not get blown off the scarp. Stóraklif does also has stairs, or better to say “had” – they’re rotten now. You have to continue with ropes to get to the top and the ground is very loose.

Visit Sæheimar Aquarium

If you’re desperate to see puffins even during winter, you will meet them here, in the natural history museum. In fact, it is adorable puffin foundling Tóti and his girlfriend, who live here and greet visitors. In case you wonder about Tótis unusal dark appearance unlike the bright colours you see all around on brochures and souvenirs: It is his winter feathering. Did you know that these little fellows can get up to 60 years old? Besides Tòti you can have a look at living Icelandic fish and marine creatures, which I find very interesting to know what is swimming around this chilly island.

Tóti the Puffin at the Sæheimar Museum
Who said there are no puffins at all in winter at Vestmannaeyjar? This is Tóti, the Puffin foundling who is greeting guests at the Sæheimar Aquarium. He is just adorable.
Walk around the habour

Actually, Heimaey hosts one of the most productive habours in Iceland. Naturally protected it isn’t just beautiful, but also very important for the whole island. During the winter it is definetly the biggest employer. I guess, during the summer it is already tourism, similar to the mainland. If you can stand the smell of the fish factories there, you’re almost local. Oh, and if you long for some dried fish – good luck finding some. Although they produce it in the habour, for some odd reasons, you won’t find it in the local stores, but you sure would in Namibia … Oh dear, globalization.

Drink with the locals

There’s nothing more to be said about this – go and see yourself.

As if the ocean spirits wanted to make up our quite horrible approach, the way back was much more enjoyable – with smooth waves, sunshine and a clear view to the white beauty of Eyjafjallajökull.

Thanks to Ben for making those lovely photos

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