Westman Islands

The town that almost went under. Volcanic island of Heimaey is well worth a visit but do your homework in advance for full appreciation. PIC Christine Thomas

If weird landscapes is your thing you could do a whole lot worse than visit the Westman Islands. A collection of small islands to the South of Iceland these have been getting greater and greater attention and for a good reason.

Most visitors, local and foreign, are actually most often visiting the largest of these islands and the only one inhabited. Heimaey boasts some fine views over to mainland Iceland and also has a story worth knowing more about.

this place will only really blow your mind once you know its history

The town itself is quite lovely if rather unremarkable but what makes this trip is history, tons of molten lava and the towering cliffs guarding this island against harsh Atlantic winds.

If coming over with the ferry from Landeyjahöfn, Landey harbor on the mainland, the first thing that may strike you is the harbor. As natural harbors go this is absolutely first class. Coming into town you may or you may not be struck by the small houses and the quite lively town compared to many others of only four thousand inhabitants.

But this place will only really blow your mind once you know its history. In 1973 volcanic eruption destroyed or damaged over 60 percent of the town and threatened all life here. Indeed, to save the people and the 40 percent of houses that did not disappear under the molten lava the largest rescue mission the government of Iceland has ever launched was needed and in a big hurry.

And lo and behold. There are still visible parts of houses here that went under and are constant reminders of the dangers of living on an active volcanic island. In the area around Helgafell mountain and Eldfell mountain it is easy to see the black ash that once carpeted the island under the vegetation. A very famous picture from this time of the volcanic eruption shows the local churchyard completely under meters of ash.

Apart from the lava show here the island is known for the biggest outdoor festival in Iceland. The islanders celebrate their own national holiday, Thjodhatið, every year in Herjolfsdal. This four day festival brings crowds of up to 15 thousand to the island and is certain to entertain the most hardened traveller.

De facto

Heimaey is one of 15 islands making up the Westman Islands. The youngest of which is Surtsey which rose unexpectantly from the sea in 1963

Gettting here

Daily flights from Reykjavik and by ferry from Landeyjahöfn. Buses to Landeyjahöfn from Reykjavik daily

Our humble opinion

Once home to the famous whale Willy from the movies this place is amazing. Loads of great hiking places and Storhofdi cape is the windiest place in Iceland. Two days here are definitely worth it