Pirates, Hiking, and Volcanoes: The Ultimate Guide to the Westman Islands
The Westman Islands might catch your eye as you putt along the south coast, but for many, this volcanic archipelago seems too far out of the way to include on a campervan trip. Still very much in the making, the Westman Islands are amongst Iceland’s youngest landscapes, sharing the same precarious position on a volcanic rift that feeds the explosive volcanoes Hekla and Krafla. This means though that the landscapes are amongst the most beautiful and prehistoric – soaring cliffs, lush verdant plains, and freshly hardened lava fields all make up these islands. Heimaey is the only one that is inhabited, where around 5000 people proudly live their lives on Iceland’s southern edge making it one of the biggest settlements in the country. But they’re far outnumbered by the millions of sea birds who call this their home in the summer months; the craggy cliffs are the ideal breeding ground for puffins, arctic terns, and more. Coupled with a lot of peaceful hiking and views back towards the epic glaciers of south Iceland on a clear day, and you’ve got one of the country’s most underappreciated regions; perfect for a visit whilst your on your Icelandic camper trip.
How to Get There
There’s only one way to get to Heimaey if you’re in a campervan, and that is to take the ferry from Landeyjahöfn. You can either book space to take your campervan over if you’re planning on staying the night, or leave it parked in the ferry terminal parking lot and just take yourself over. You can book your tickets here. If you’re planning on being on the island during the first weekend of August, book way ahead – it’s the weekend of the biggest festival in Iceland and will be extremely busy.
What to Do
Eldheimar Museum is by far and away the best thing to see on the island, this historic museum a remembrance and memorial of the violent eruption in 1973 and what it meant for the island. A great display of photos, videos, personal accounts and even some ruins from the actual eruption can be explored inside.
There are plenty of hiking trails on the island, particularly the many different trails that lead up to Mt Blatindur. Severe drops from either side once you’re up the top call for some caution. The other two popular mountains for hiking here are Mt Helgafell and Mt Eldfell, the latter laying claim to the title of Iceland’s youngest mountain. One trail will lead you towards the centre of the crater, where the ground is still warm from the most recent eruption and only 1m below the surface temperatures reach a scorching 470°C. If you’re after the most challenging hike on the island, investigate heading towards the highest point Heimaklettur, a difficult but immensely rewarding trek that swoops around the north western edge of the harbor. Remember to be respectful of your surroundings, stick to the trails and follow the lead of any signage in the area when trekking anywhere in Iceland.
Another museum on the island is the Sagnheimar Folk Museum, delving into the history of the island in fascinating detail. Equal parts horrifying and fascinating is the story of Algerian pirates raiding the island in the 17th century, pillaging, plundering, and burning farms before capturing 242 of the 500 locals that called the island home at the time. There are many place names on the island that recall the horrific attack; Pirates’ Bay, Hundred Man Cave (where it’s said that 100 people hid when the attack took place), and the fish caves where others sought refuge.
Of course, puffins are a big part of any visit to the islands. This is where Iceland’s largest puffin colony comes every summer, over 2 million of them. During August it has become an island tradition with the local children to go out in the evening and save newly hatched baby puffins, who have become confused by the lights of the town and lost their way instead of making it to the ocean. They’re taken care of overnight, and then released at sea the next morning. To see the puffin colony for yourself, head to the cliffs of the island – the biggest collection is around the northwest, but you can also see them all along the west coast, in the south, and a bay area in the east. See the map below for details.
Heading to the southernmost point of the island will bring you to a place called Stórhöfði, the windiest place in all of Iceland. The strongest wind ever recorded in the northern hemisphere was recorded at this point, and regularly experiences winds only rivalled by those of Antarctica. This is also a great place to see puffins.
There are also plenty of great places to eat on the island. Slippurinn might just be the best restaurant in Iceland outside of Reykjavik. Seasonal and local dishes are lovingly prepared using old Icelandic cooking techniques, presented with a modern flourish. Fiskibarinn and the restaurant Gott also come highly rated. And for drinks, the local Brothers Brewery crafts their very own award-winning beer.
For the self-caterers, there’s both a Bonus and Kronan in town.
The campsite on Heimaey also happens to be one of Iceland’s most spectacular, with easy access to a myriad of hiking trails nearby. The natural amphitheater that hosts the August festival Thjóðhátíð is nearby, the site where tens of thousands of Icelanders gather to drink, dance, light bonfires, and watch fireworks every August. The central building has showers, a large kitchen for cooking, laundry facilities and even a drying room. The local swimming pool is very close as well. The price for the campsite is 1500 isk per person per night.