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The Westman Islands: Practicalities

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You’re never going to catch us praising Iceland for its cheap and efficient public transportation. Without your own car, getting around the island is prohibitively costly and inconvenient. But as far as day trips from Reykjavík go, an excursion to the Westman Islands is about as simple as it gets.

Ferry Westman Islands

How We Got There
The public Stræto bus #52 leaves from Mjódd and runs directly to the mainland ferry terminal at Landeyjarhöfn twice a day. In the summer, ferries run five times daily (but only four on Tuesdays for some reason). The two and a half hour bus ride costs 3500 krona, while the forty-minute ferry is 1000kr. So you’re looking at 4500 total ($37) per person, from Reykjavík.

You can find up-to-date and detailed information about the bus schedule on Straeto.is, and about the ferries on Eimskip.is. There’s no need to pre-book for either.

Herjólfsdalur crater Camping

Where We Slept
The Westman Islands are a popular destination for vacationing Icelanders, and so even though it was a Monday, all the hotels were fully booked when we showed up. But that was fine, since the camping ground in the Herjólfsdalur crater is one of the coolest we’ve seen. We set our tent up alongside a large number of other campers, almost all of whom were from Iceland. The facilities are good and the bowl did a fine job of protecting us from the famous wind of the Westmans. [Location]

Plokkfískur

Where We Ate
The best meal we had in Heimaey, and one of the best we’ve enjoyed in Iceland, was at the Slippurinn. Housed in an old metal-working factory on the port, this place specializes in local Icelandic fare. I tried Plokkfískur for the first time: fishy mashed potatoes. Sounds good, doesn’t it? I’ve long complained that my mashed potatoes simply weren’t fishy enough. [Location]

Icelandic Kleina

Another good spot, particularly during one of Iceland’s rare sunny spells, is at the Vinaminni Kaffihús on Barustigur. There’s a large terrace where you can relax and enjoy affordable and surprisingly good meals like burgers and pizzas. Next door is a bakery, which sells some traditional Icelandic treats. [Location]

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September 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm Comments (4)

Vestmannæyjar: The Westman Islands

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Just a few miles off the southern coast of Iceland are the Westman Islands (Vestmannæyjar). Though the archipelago consists of over a dozen islands, only Heimaey is large enough to support a community. With beautiful nature, relatively mild weather and an exciting history, the Westmans have long been a popular spot for day-tripping Icelanders.

Westman Islands Panorama

The story of the Westman Islands begins with Iceland’s original settler, Ingólfur Arnarson. After murdering his blood brother, a group of slaves Ingólfur had kidnapped from England stole a boat and fled to Heimaey. Vikings of the day referred to British Isles as the “Western Lands” and their inhabitants as “Westmen”, which explains how the islands got their name. The slaves didn’t enjoy their freedom for long, as they were almost immediately found and executed, but the name stuck.

Ever since the settlement, Heimaey has been home to a decent population of Icelanders lured by the rich fishing and bird-hunting. The islands are home to the largest puffin colonies in the world, and the people here have always been, and still are, expert hunters of the little birds. Alone on their island with abundant eggs and fish, the people of Heimaey enjoyed an idyllic existence for most of their history. Until the fateful year of 1627.

In what has come to be known as the Turkish Abductions, a crew of Algerian pirates landed at Heimaey on July 17th, 1627, and brought havoc to the tiny town. 242 people were kidnapped into slavery and 36 were killed. Catastrophic, considering that Heimaey only had a population of 500. Those who managed to survive did so by hiding in caves around the island’s shore.

The next catastrophe to hit the Westman Islands came in 1973, with the eruption of the Eldfell volcano. What had previously been a flowery meadow on the eastern side of town was suddenly a growing volcano spouting smoke and lava. The town was evacuated within 24 hours. Amazingly, only a single person died during the eruption. Heimaey was radically changed as a result: entire blocks of the town had been buried under lava and the size of the island increased immensely. Today, you can still see remains of some of the houses where the lava flow stops, half-buried under tons of rock.

Heimaey is a great place to spend a day or two. Ferries leave frequently from Landeyjahöfn, and take just a half-hour to make the crossing. The town itself is fun, with interesting sights and good restaurants, and there are any number of rewarding walks one can make around the island, including a climb to the top of the volcano.

-Accommadation On The Westman Islands: Hostels And Guesthouses

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September 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm Comment (1)

A Day in the Hornstrandir

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The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, in the northwestern corner of Iceland, has been almost completely spared from the corrupting fingertips of mankind. No roads scar the landscape and there are no permanent residents, unless you count the arctic foxes which abound in its hills. We spent a long day exploring a small section of the reserve.

Red House Valley

Hornstrandir is a major destination for hikers seeking to get away from civilization, and most stay for four or five days, walking from one end of the peninsula to the other. The experience must be incredible. Unfortunately, our schedule didn’t allow for such a long excursion, so we had to be satisfied with a cursory peek into Iceland’s wildest corner.

The ferry let us out at Hesteyri, where there’s a café/guesthouse catering to hikers passing through. A number of ports around the peninsula are irregularly served by tour companies based in Ísafjörður, but Hesteyri is the easiest to reach. By the way, the process of booking tickets to Hornstrandir was the most frustrating and expensive part of our trip. If you’re planning a journey, try to arrange tickets as early as possible.

With seven hours to kill, we decided on a hike to Aðalvík Bay, just over a hill to the west of Hesteyri. This was a simple hike, with a clearly-defined trail and moderate incline. The lack of challenge was initially disappointing, as I had been expecting, and perhaps unconsciously hoping for, a “vicious clash with nature” in the lonely reaches of the Hornstrandir. But since we didn’t have to waste time searching for the trail or battling the elements, we were better able to appreciate the amazing nature surrounding us.

Flower hike Iceland

Our path went through a gorgeous field of purple and yellow flowers, over patches of snow and through a massive field of stones, and we needed two hours to arrive at an overlook from where we could see Aðalvík Bay. There was a lonely red farm house below us and a beach of white sand, but we didn’t descend. We wanted to make it back to Hesteyri with time to spare, since there was something else which warranted our attention.

A couple kilometers from the guesthouse are the remains of a decommissioned Norwegian whaling station, called Stekkeyri. Following the station’s founding in 1894, Hesteyri grew into a functioning community with a few families residing there full-time. But when the factory closed up in 1940, the settlement was abandoned. The skeletal remains of Stekkeyri are easy to reach from the guesthouse, and fun to poke around.

Locations on our Map: Hesteyri | Aðalvík

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August 29, 2013 at 4:07 pm Comments (2)
The Westman Islands: Practicalities You're never going to catch us praising Iceland for its cheap and efficient public transportation. Without your own car, getting around the island is prohibitively costly and inconvenient. But as far as day trips from Reykjavík go, an excursion to the Westman Islands is about as simple as it gets.
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