Come ashore with Anne and her sister Vera, as they explore the Icelandic Island of Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago, the Third Port on their Oceania Insignia ‘Atlantic Glaciers and Harbors’ cruise.
Exploring the Icelandic Island of Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago
The following morning we arrived at our third port in Iceland, the small town of Vestmannaeyjabær on the island of Heimaey, the largest island in the Icelandic archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar (also termed the Westman Islands by some) . Although a very small and rather isolated area, it proved to be an absolutely fascinating place to visit and one of my favourite ports of the entire cruise.
Much of what made Heimaey so fascinating could be summed up by the title of our excursion there – ‘Puffins and Volcano’. Ever since I had booked this tour I had been eagerly anticipating it, particularly to see the puffins.
Our fabulous guide Ebbi, a multi-generational island local, was so wonderful at showing us many special spots on his island, telling us all about the amazing history, and often throwing in some funny and personal stories as well.
Ebbi first took us to see the lovely Herjolfsdalur Valley, where the largest outdoor festival in Iceland is held annually, there is a beautiful golf course, and from which you can see Elephant Rock – a natural rock formation resembling an elephant’s head with its trunk in the water. Here is also Herjolfstown, Ebbi’s own Viking replica houses complete with life-size Vikings and authentic-looking furnishings. It was amazing to wander the few rooms, sit at their table, and see what it must have been like for them way back in the 900’s. Vikings were known to be quite tall, but they had low doorways so as to hold the heat inside their dwellings, and Ebbi frequently reminded us to “Watch your head”.
As if being a tour guide wasn’t enough, at the next stop Ebbi amazed us by demonstrating Sprangan, the local cliff-rappeling sport of Heimaey. At an extremely steep rock face, he nimbly climbed up and grabbed the rope hanging there. Then, as we held our collective breaths, he swung from side to side, each time landing effortlessly where there didn’t even seem to be room for a foothold. This sport is useful for the locals when collecting abandoned puffin eggs, which are then hatched and set free.
Following that thrilling demonstration we drove a short ways to Storhofdi, where the excitement would be more light-hearted – viewing the puffins! As we walked up to the lookout area, there on the path as if to greet us were two very woolly and friendly sheep. We paused to admire and pet them before carrying on up the pathway.
Then we saw them – hundreds of adorable-looking puffins! Some were walking on the grassy slopes and some were flying. They were rather smaller than I had thought they would be, but oh-so-cute, and we couldn’t get enough of watching them and taking photos. At one point when I was videoing, Ebbi just happened to be answering someone’s question about when the puffins leave Iceland, so I was thrilled to get his voice and explanation in the video.
He told us that millions of puffins come to Iceland each summer to breed, then fly to the Atlantic Ocean to feed on marine life for the rest of the year. Some baby puffins (pufflings) get confused and fly towards the lights in town instead of the moon, so each September the people of Heimaey, including small children, rescue pufflings and throw them off cliffs to the ocean in order to save them! We learned that puffins only lay one egg each year, they mate for life, and some have lived to be 42 years old.
Eventually we reluctantly had to tear ourselves away from the cute little puffins and say goodbye to them. Before leaving Storhofdi, near the puffins lookout we paused to take pictures at what is known as the ‘windiest place on earth’. On this day there was not much wind, but apparently it is often extremely windy, and has also set records for the lowest air pressure in Europe.
Then Ebbi drove the bus up a narrow lava sand road to our final exciting stop, the Eldfell volcano crater. On the way he told us that in 1973 Eldfell had violently erupted with no warning, and the whole town had to be quickly evacuated. The molten lava would have wiped out the whole town, but in an ingenious idea the people of Heimaey tirelessly pumped cold seawater on the lava for months, and ultimately saved the harbour and part of the town.
As we walked on the lava in the volcano crater we were filled with awe at the power of nature. The eruption was so powerful that apparently some volcano ‘bombs’ were ejected several miles into town, setting buildings on fire. Ebbi showed us the different coloured lava rocks, where the initial hottest ones are orange and as they cool become red, brown, and finally black, but even those can be extremely hot.
On the way back into town, Ebbi pointed out many dead-end streets and explained that we were driving on new streets built right over streets and houses that were covered with lava rocks. Some houses are apparently perfectly preserved under all that lava. At one lucky house closer to the harbour, he paused to show where huge boulders of lava rock had filled the back yard but the lava flow had amazingly stopped right at the back door of the house.
Ebbi drove through the tiny ‘downtown’ area and showed us his favourite place to get pizza, the best craft beer made right in Iceland, and the movie theater which the town only got 20 years ago.
The entire tour had far exceeded my expectations, and as we strolled through town on Heimaey’s few streets we pondered and exclaimed over what we had seen and learned.
Tips & Recommendations for Exploring Heimaey
- I highly recommend the ‘Puffins and Volcano’ tour with the company Eyjatours.
- Ebbi Baldursson is the owner and tour guide, and it was easy to contact him and book the tour online.
- Wear layers of clothing, as it can go from feeling quite warm to very windy and cool during the course of the tour.
- Bring along a power bank for your phone when going on tours. It came in very handy for us as we were taking lots of pictures and videos.