In South Iceland lies an archipelago and place of stunning natural beauty: the Westman Islands, created by volcanic eruptions which occurred underneath the ocean. In fact, one of its islands, Surtsey, is one of the youngest islands in the world! It was formed in 1963 and is a protected area for scientific study. The main island of the Westman Islands is Heimaey, which is home to approximately 4,500 people. This is the main hub, harbor, and even has its own airport.
Pompeii of the North
On January 23rd, 1973, at around 02:00 am, the residents of Heimaey in the Westman Islands awoke to all hell breaking loose. A fissure had opened in the earth only 1 km away from the town. This took everyone completely by surprise and threatened to engulf the entire town in ash and lava. The residents made a desperate attempt to flee the danger in fishing boats. Families packed up and fled. They escaped with their lives, but they were not able to return to the island until six months later. When they returned to the island, they saw complete devastation: Over one-third of the town had been either burned or was covered in ash. What followed was a significant clean-up of the damage. Nowadays, the town has now been largely restored. The Westman Islands have often been referred to as “The Pompeii of the North”.
Invasion of the Westman Islands
Iceland was invaded in the early 17th century. In 1627, Algerian pirates, referred to as Turks, raided the islands and kidnapped almost half of the population. The prisoners were sold into slavery in Algeria, and many were never able to return home. Some were ransomed by the King of Denmark, including Guðríður Símonardóttir, who was taught by, and eventually married, Hallgrímur Pétursson. Pétursson was a priest and scholar, and the main church in Reykjavík, Hallgrímskirkja, is named after him.
There are still some names around the island that commemorate this event, such as Pirate Cove and Hundred Man Cave, where people were said to have hidden from the pirates.
How to get there
Heimaey can be reached by ferry from the port of Landeyjahöfn, and there are also flights to the local airport. In good weather, the ferry will take around 45 minutes. However, in rougher conditions, you would take the ferry from Þórlákshöfn. This would be a journey of around 3 hours. Rough weather can significantly affect ferry crossing, so we recommend that you always ensure you leave plenty of time in your itinerary to visit without any problems. You can even take the public bus (Strætó) to the ferry terminal. Of course, you can always take your rental car on the ferry for an additional fee. We recommend that you book this in advance, as well as booking any hotels or guesthouses.
Activities in the Westman Islands
There are far more things to do in the Westman Islands than you might expect. For example, embarking on one of many types of boat ride to explore the sea caves, visit the famous ‘Elephant Rock’, or to pay a visit to the puffin colony on Bjarnarey. You can go hiking or take an ATV tour to visit the Eldfell volcano, as well as visit Eldheimar museum to learn more about the eruption in 1973. Animal lovers might want to visit the Beluga Whale Sanctuary and Puffin Rescue Center. Here, you can meet two Russian Beluga whales, Little White and Little Grey, swim freely in a large bay area. The rescue center is where they rescue injured or lost baby puffins. It is here that they nurse them back to health and release them back into the wild.
Culture in the Westman Islands
The Westman Islands are also the site of the yearly music festival, Þjóðhátið. This is an extremely popular event, especially amongst younger revelers. They often arrive dressed as fishermen, to enjoy music from some of the biggest names in Icelandic music and a spectacular fireworks display.
Keen runners can take part in the Puffin Run or the Westman Islands run. There is also a festival that takes place on the first weekend in July every year. This is to celebrate the end of the 1973 eruption, with live music and all sort of fun for the family.
There are also wonderful restaurants in the Westman Islands. So, why not spend a relaxing evening in one of Iceland’s best-kept secret locations?
Bonus – The Lonely House
You might have seen a meme going around that shows a lone house, standing in what looks like a completely remote area and surrounded by lush, green cliffs. Well, this area isn’t actually as remote as you think. It is in the Westman Islands, on the island of Elliðaey. The house itself is a hunter’s lodge. So, the next time you see it posted, you will know exactly where it is!