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Over Vatnajökull and the Westman Islands

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It was a beautiful morning when we arrived at the Reyjavík city airport for our third flight into the skies above Iceland. Our trips over the Golden Circle and the Westfjords had been outstanding, and today we’d be soaring over Iceland’s four biggest glaciers, the Þórsmörk Valley and the Westman Islands.

Strange Landscapes Iceland
Near the Langisjór Lake, Southwest of Vatnajökull

Soon after settling into our four-seat Cessna, we were climbing above a sleepy Reykjavík still shaking off its morning mist. We headed east over the Hengill Mountains and Þingvallavatn Lake on our way to Langjökull, the second-biggest glacier in Iceland. Langjökull is shrinking rapidly and climatologists believe that it may disappear entirely within a couple centuries. Thanks to global warming, all of Iceland’s glaciers are losing mass, with the sole exception of Drangajökull in the Westfjords.

Leaving Langjökull behind, we soared over the highlands, passing the Klöjur Road which we would soon be driving across, and skirting the southern end of Hofsjökull. Soon enough, we were approaching the big boy: Vatnajökull. With an area of 8300 km², this enormous chunk of ice is about the size of Puerto Rico. We only saw the southwestern corner of it, but even this was enough to boggle the mind.

Now we turned around, following the Mid-Atlantic Ridge southwest. This was an area we had hiked across on the Fimmvörðuháls Trail, but from above it took on whole new dimensions. In a single, spectacular panorama, we could see craters, the valley, rivers, lava fields and volcanoes. I couldn’t help but be amazed that we choose voluntarily to walk across this murderous landscape.

From here, it was a short hop across the water to the Westman Islands, which we had recently spent a couple days visiting. From the air, the damage wrought by the Eldfell explosion was much more apparent than it had been on the ground. It was shocking to see the size of the area which had so swiftly been covered by lava in 1976. We moved on to some of the other islands in the archipelago, including Surtsey, which was formed in 1963 during a four-year-long eruption. The island was immediately declared off-limits to humans and is now being used to monitor how life develops on a brand new patch of land.

An amazing flight, and one we were very lucky to experience. If you’d like to hire a pilot for a similar flight, get in touch and we can put you in touch with our contact. You truly haven’t seen Iceland, until you’ve seen it from the air.

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September 30, 2013 at 9:20 am Comments (4)

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)

A Boat Trip Around Heimaey

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We had already walked around Heimaey, but we also wanted to check out the island from the water, and so we bought tickets for a 90-minute boat ride offered by Viking Tours. Caves, cliffs, seals, puffins and some of the other uninhabited islands which make up the Westman archipelago were all part of the program.

Amazing Iceland

The tour looped around Heimaey in a clockwise direction, with our captain pointing out the various natural features in both Icelandic and English. We saw plenty of sea birds, including puffins and kittiwakes, and even spotted a seal wallowing about the mouth of one of the island’s caves. The seal moved aside as our boat entered, giving us the chance to admire the cave’s strange colors.

Although the weather was bad and the sea was choppy, the boat ride was a lot of fun. We circled around a couple of the smaller islands just off Heimaey’s coast, and entered another cave near the harbor where our captain, a hulking man with shoulder-length blonde hair, pulled out a saxophone to show off the cave’s acoustics. As a kid growing up in Ohio, I couldn’t have guessed that one day I’d be soaking wet in a cave, in Iceland, on a boat, listening to a direct descendant of the Vikings play Amazing Grace on a sax. One of those surreal moments you’d have never been able to anticipate.

Viking Tours – Website

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September 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm Comments (0)

An Unexpected Encounter at Heimaey’s Aquarium

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Whereas we had enjoyed wonderful weather on our first day in Heimaey, our second day was marked by unrelenting rain. We tried to grit our teeth and ignore it, but eventually had to seek shelter. Soaking wet and in toxic moods, we burst into the Aquarium and Natural History Museum, never expecting to encounter a little fellow who would brighten our spirits immensely.

Puffin Kiss

Before escaping into the refuge of the museum, we toured around Heimaey Town. During the 1973 eruption of Eldfell, the eastern section of the town had been buried, and some of the buildings are still half-poking out the pitch black wall of rock. Today, you can walk atop the cooled lava field; memorial plaques indicate which building is buried under your feet.

Stafkirkjan

Walking across the lava was neat, but by the time we reached the Stafkirkjan (Stave Church) bordering the harbor, the rain had dampened whatever enthusiasm I’d started the day with. Despite my rancid mood, even I could recognize the simple beauty of this black-timbered church. A gift from Norway, it was built in 2000 and modeled on the famous Urnes Stave Church in Bergen.

We stayed inside for awhile, drying off, and then darted across town into the Sæheimar, Heimaey’s aquarium. We weren’t expecting much, and were only visiting because it was so miserable outside. But the place quickly won us over. There’s a room with stuffed models of the birds of Iceland, another with the island’s various minerals, and a third with aquariums that house all manner of indigenous fish and crustaceans.

It was enjoyable enough and worth the 1000kr ($8.30) ticket price. But then, as we were about to leave, the staff introduced us to a young puffin who was found orphaned as an infant, and now lives in the building. He’s known humans his whole life, and is completely comfortable with our species. “Cute” doesn’t even begin to describe him. He was so soft and quiet, so colorful and personable, I thought of putting him in my pocket and sneaking out.

By the time we left the Sæheimar, we were feeling great and had completely forgotten about the awful weather. Of course, minutes later we were soaking wet again, and the smiles had disappeared our faces. But for a short period at least, the Sæheimar and its resident puffin had cheered us up.

Locations on our Map: Stafkirkjan | Sæheimar
Sæheimar – Website

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September 21, 2013 at 11:03 am Comments (5)

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.

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September 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm Comment (1)
Over Vatnajkull and the Westman Islands It was a beautiful morning when we arrived at the Reyjavík city airport for our third flight into the skies above Iceland. Our trips over the Golden Circle and the Westfjords had been outstanding, and today we'd be soaring over Iceland's four biggest glaciers, the Þórsmörk Valley and the Westman Islands.
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