Admittedly, I had never heard of the Westman Islands or as Icelanders call them Vestmannaeyjar Islands. I did a TON of research for this trip to Iceland. I read through trip advisor reviews and blogs and spent a decent amount of time googling the top things to do in Iceland. I came across some really unique adventures, but never came across anything talking about the Westman Islands. Then one day, I was talking about my upcoming trip with one of my patients and she said “oh you should go to Heimaey. They refer to is as the Pompeii of the north since it was once covered in volcanic ash.” I stayed silent for a moment and then said “where is that?” She proceeded to tell me that it was the largest island of the Westman Islands. How had I not come across anything that mentioned this part of Iceland? That same day I researched the location and found that Westman Island is off the south coast of Iceland. I added it to our google doc incase we found ourselves with extra time.
I distinctly remember sitting in our Airbnb, a cottage near Thingvellir National Park, discussing what adventures we wanted to take on the next few days. As a group, we decided that the Westman Islands was a viable option. I had already researched that there was a tour available during the “winter season” put on by Eyjatours. This was called the “Westman Islands express tour” and it specifically stated that some tours are weather dependent. I called the number listed for the tour company to see if this tour would be running the next day. The gentleman who answered asked how many were in my group to which I replied three. He said that usually they require at least four, but that he would go ahead and do it for us. I asked about ferry times and meeting points and had a clear idea of what time we would need to leave the next morning to make our ferry. It seemed odd to me that we were told there was a requirement on the number of people in a group since I did not read anything about that, but we didn’t think too much about it otherwise.
That night, we went to bed early as our ferry was scheduled to leave early in the morning and we needed to drive to the ferry port. Our ferry was scheduled to leave for the Westman Islands at 9:15 AM. Elise and I were both awaken by what sounded like an animal scratching in the closet. Neither one of us wanted to be brave enough to open the closet to investigate so we laid in bed and talked to drown out the noise. That was going to make for a long day the next day, but we figured we could nap on the ferry. Morning broke to a beautiful red sunrise over the lake in our backyard. After briefly admiring this, we packed our day bags and headed out to the car.
Our first ferry ride seemed to be pretty rough. Elise and maggie both felt slightly seasick. I seemed to be okay, but it was definitely rocky on the boat. About 35-40 minutes later we arrived on the island. It was early when we arrived, but since our tour didn’t start until 2 PM, we figured we could take some time to explore the island. We began our self-guided tour by taking pictures along the area where our ferry docked. Next, we ventured over to a small shop that was right next to the ferry dock. We browsed around a little, but decided we would come back later to make purchases so that we would have time to grab breakfast. We found a nice place on the other side of the dock called Tanginn and decided that we would head that way to grab something to eat. Unfortunately, they didn’t open until 11:30, so our self-guided tour had to go on.
Next, we headed onward toward some streets further onto the island. We came across a fire station with the garage door open. Maggie thought it would be cool to check out their fire and EMS equipment, so she politely shouted out a hello and knocked on their door. Much to our surprise, they were very welcoming and let us look inside the fire and EMS trucks while giving us history of their use on the island.
After our private little tour, we headed toward the aquarium. There was a cost to get in, but we figured this would kill some more time. Wrong again. The aquarium was only open for three hours, from 13:00-16:00. We continued to trek along taking in the views of the island until it started raining pretty heavily and we decided to head back to the gift shop since the restaurant still wasn’t open. I mean after all, there’s nothing wrong with a little browsing right?? The browsing turned into buying fleece lined wool mittens and a matching ear piece along with puffin pens for my niece and a few other trinkets. We continued to make conversation with the young girl working at the shop and then moseyed over to Tanginn to have lunch.
Tanginn is a beautiful restaurant with big glass windows that allow you to look out over the harbor. They have a wide variety of foods to choose from on their menu.
Once we were done eating our food, we headed back outside (in the rain) to explore more of the Island before our tour. We still had about an hour to kill. We found a nice walking path that took us up to views of the island from above and read the signs scattered throughout the area that touched on the damage from the volcano eruption in 1973. We also found a cute area for photo ops which we later found out, on our tour, that this is the cove where free willy was sent in retirement. How cool is that?! Free Willy was one of my favorite movies from childhood.
Westman Island Express Tour
According to my research of Eyja tours, the Westman Islands express tour was set to run though Iceland’s winter months: specifically 20 September to 20 April. They list the following as their top spots for this tour:
- Sprangan- where you see your guide do the islander local acrobatic
- Storhofdi- the windiest place in Europe
- Eldfell- you will be in the middle of a volcano
- Elephant rock- you will see the famous elephant rock.
- Herjolfsdalur- you will see the ruins of the farmhouse of the first settler of the Westman Islands
- Skansinn- you will see the wooden viking church
There was also a brief mentioning of seeing Toti, the most famous puffin in the world, and let’s be honest, this is the real reason we wanted to do this tour. Who would want to miss out on an opportunity to see a real life puffin? The tour length was listed as two hours, which made it perfect to take the earlier ferry back to the mainland at 5:10 PM. When we arrived at our meeting place, we made sure to tell our guide that we needed to be back in time for the ferry. He told us that he has lived on the island his entire life and that he is very familiar with the ferry schedule so he would be sure that we were back at the dock in time for departure. He also told us that there were only two other people on our tour. It can’t get any better than a nice semi-private tour of the island right?!
Our first stop was to watch our guide perform Sprangan, scaling and swinging along the rocks of Heimaey. Our guide explained that this technique is used to gather eggs from the Guillemot birds. These eggs are pear shaped and come in a variety of colors with speckles of black. Since everything eaten on the island comes from the island itself, these eggs were/are an integral part of the diet of the people of the Westman Islands. This led to the creation of Sprangan which has become the national sport of the island. As one could assume, this is a dangerous sport which requires strength, agility, and proper training. One would have to be extremely skilled to continue climbing and gathering eggs without breaking any!
Stop number two was to meet Toti the puffin!! Finally the long awaited puffin sighting! We loaded back up into the van and headed to…The Aquarium. Our first thought: Wait, what? Then, “good thing this wasn’t open before our tour or we would have already been here.” Much to our surprise, despite the fact that this aquarium was small, we really enjoyed this stop. We learned about the wildlife of the island and got to interact with Toti! Toti was such an adorable little puffin. We were able to watch him explore his surroundings and he let us play with and pet him. The workers at the aquarium provided information about puffins as well. We were told that they actually spend the majority of their lives as sea and that they only return to the island in the spring to breed. There is a lot that researchers still do not know about puffins, but about 60% of the world’s puffins are located here. On our way out of the aquarium, we saw a pigeon flying around and giggled to ourselves since this bird is everywhere in the US. One of the workers heard us and informed us that this bird is the only of its kind on the island. They felt that it must have come over on a cargo ship somehow. They began feeding and looking after it and now it stops by every day to say hello!
The last few stops took us past the elephant rock to a large outdoor amphitheater and then to Storhofdi, the windiest place in Europe. The wind here was so strong that it felt like we would be blown over if we weren’t careful. Our guide explained that this is also where you can look out and see the puffins in the spring. We ended the tour with a stop at Eldfell where we learned about the volcano that erupted in 1973 and covered the island in ash. He informed us that everyone on the island survived this volcano eruption. He also told us that the US sent over equipment that could be used to pump water into the burning lava to stop its flow. This did not completely stop it, but it redirected it from the house and into the ocean. The lava came very close to closing the island off by creating barriers. It was very interesting to hear a local’s take on living on a volcanic island. He said that an expert came to the island once and said that this was one place in the world that he would never want to live due to the amount of volcanic activity. On the island, they just don’t even think about it and plan to worry about it when the time comes.
Our tour ended and just when we thought that we were all set to head back to the mainland, we got a text message that our ferry was cancelled. This text was followed up with a text that we were re-booked for the later ferry that night, 18:45. We already had a self guided AND a locally- guided express tour of the island soooo now what?
Eldheimar Museum and the Brother’s Brewery, a gateway to our most memorable night in Iceland
As we were doing our self-guided tour we stumbled upon signs for a volcano museum and for a local brewery. Our thought was to walk up to the volcano museum and then to grab a bite to eat and drinks at the brother’s brewery. This seemed like a good idea so we went onward we went to the volcano museum. We underestimated the distance and braved the wind and pouring rain only to arrive and realize that we had about thirty minutes to see the entire museum before it was set to close for the evening. Luckily for us, the nice girl working there offered to stay over so that we could take our time exploring the museum.
This museum was very unique as it was built around the remains of a home that was affected by the eruption in 1973. There are audio guides which explain all of the different areas of the museum. A few take away points that we found interesting:
- Everyone survived the eruption
- There was bad weather the day before so all of the fisherman boats were docked allowing many people to escape to the mainland via boat before too much damage was done. Those that could not travel by boat where taken out via airplane.
- When allowed to return to the island, one of the first places that people dug out from ash was the cemetery
- The size of the island increased due to the lava flow.
- The eruption lasted about 6 months
After finishing up at the museum, we decided to head out to the The Brothers Brewery. We didn’t want to walk all the way there in the rain, so luckily the nice girl at the volcano museum set us up with a driver. We arrived at the brewery and decided to wait out the rain with local beers and popcorn!
The Brothers Brewery
Waiting on the next ferry at the brother’s brewery turned out to be one of the best choices that we made on this trip. We ordered a sampler of local beers and munched on popcorn. We spent time talking to the bartender who happened to be one of the owners. When we told him that we were waiting for the next ferry to head back to the mainland, he warned us that that ferry was most likely going to the other dock that was much further away and would leave us without access to our car. He informed us that this happens all the time and that we would be better off requesting for change our ticket for the next morning and to spend the night on the island. Insert freak out moment here. If you were to ask my friends about any of my qualities that would be sure to mention that I am a planner and that I sometimes have a hard time when things don’t go as planned or when they are off from schedule. I was worried about find a place to stay and about having a toothbrush and my medication meanwhile Elise was just happy that we didn’t have to go back to the Airbnb with the unknown animal in our closet so she convinced me that the better option would be to listen to the local guy and to stay the night on the island.
Once our decision was made, he gave us directions to the ferry dock where we could exchange tickets and to the local grocery store where we could get toothbrushes and toothpaste. Hallelujah! While we were out doing this, he was kind enough to call the local hostel for us to set us up with a private room. When we returned to the brewery we figured we might as well try a few more of the beers since we would be staying the night on the island. Much to our surprise there was another couple stuck on the island as well and they were also staying in our hostel! We decided to join them for dinner at GOTT and then went back to the brewery because really, why not?! This time, we met two guys who were on the island for work as fisherman engineers. After conversing with them for awhile, they told us about these cool lava tunnels/tubes that they had found earlier that day. Elise and I thought they sounded really cool so we asked if they would be opposed to going to find them that night. After a few debates back and forth, we decided that all systems were go for a self guided night tour of the westman islands!
Life is full of unexpected adventures like leaving the bar at 1 AM to check out Lava Tubes
Our two new friends headed back to their hotel room to get headlamps, beer, and a camera while Elise and I headed back to the hostel to tell Maggie where we were headed. After exclaiming “seriously?!”, Maggie decided to stay back and rest and we headed out to meet up with our new friends. As we were walking toward the lava tubes we realized that the Heimaey is really quiet at night. There wasn’t a soul in sight. This was shaping up to be a perfect murder scene if things went south. Luckily this thought passed and we continued onward talking and learning more about our new friends. The lava tubes were really unique. We were able to crawl down into them where we could sit and talk and just enjoy the serenity of the wide open outdoors. The tubes stretches out to the ocean and there was a bright, full moon in the sky. Because of this, our chances of catching the northern lights were slim. We did, however lay on the ground and marvel at the brightly star speckled sky. We spent some time picking out constellations and caught a few shooting stars before heading back to our hostel and resting up for our ferry ride back to the mainland the next day.
Disclaimer: yes, we are two females traveling alone. Yes, this may have been dumb, but we did take some necessary precautions. We let our friend know where we were heading to and we exchanged phone numbers with the owner from Brother’s Brewery so that we could send an SOS if things went south. Luckily, this was not the case, but we live for adventure and this was something that sounded so cool that we did not want to miss.
- If heading to the Westman Islands, pack a small backpack or day bag with essential items in case of ferry cancellations or bad weather. Essential items include:
- quick dry towel
- rain jacket
- phone charger/device chargers
***Do not leave important items in your car which may stay at the ferry dock overnight.
- Go to the westman Islands! Some of the best experiences are unexpected ones
- Sign up for text messages from the ferry system. It is best to stay informed with any changes to the schedule so that you can plan accordingly.