Volcanoes, puffins, wind, and views: Visiting Iceland’s Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands)

I learned of Vestmannaeyjar about a year ago, when I read about their annual “puffin patrol” – actually a “puffling patrol” – where the children of Heimaey, the only populated island of the Westman Islands archipelago, collect the baby puffins who land on the town’s streets at night, take them home for a sleepover, and send them flying again the next morning.

After reading up on the island’s turbulent history, its dramatic scenery, and the devastating charm of the puffling patrol, I had to see the islands for myself. And it still defied expectation.iceland westman islands vestmannaeyjar

The islands are the “newest” part of Iceland, formed by dozens of volcanoes, which presently consist of 14-18 islands and a bunch of other rocks, skerries, and other volcanic landforms. A dramatic volcanic eruption in 1973 which resulted in a total evacuation of Heimaey with no loss of life, is the defining moment of the Westman Islands’ modern history.iceland westman islands vestmannaeyjar

Getting to the Westman Islands

Located approximately 10 kilometres off the south coast of Iceland, and a 90-minute drive from Reykjavik, visiting the islands is an easy daytrip. We rented a car and drove from Reykjavik to the ferry departure at Landeyjahöfn. It’s a popular route in the summer, and we snagged one of the last car spots on the ferry Herjólfur. Plenty of passengers walk on – Heimaey is small and easily walkable – but we only had the day, so exploring on foot would have been limited. One-way fares (August 2016) were 1320ISK per adult, plus another 2120ISK for our car, which was pretty reasonable for the scale of adventure we enjoyed.

iceland westman islands vestmannaeyjar ferryThe trip is pretty exciting. As we approached Elliðaey, the first island in the chain, the excitement was palpable and contagious. Birds flew close to the sea, letting the ferry bear the brunt of the intense winds.

The Herjólfur sailed confidently through the narrow channel, giving us breathtaking views of the steep, volcanic rocks. We had arrived.

Puffins and pufflings: Meeting Tóti and Þór

Our first stop – and primary reason for the trip before seeing these beautiful islands – was to meet Tóti the Puffin, who lives at Sæheimar Aquarium. The Aquarium is an interesting introduction to the sea and bird life of the islands, highly recommended if your trip to Iceland includes birdwatching. There’s lots of information about island life, including the puffin patrol and the famous evacuation of 1973, as well as live fish and sea creatures, including a touch tank.

Meeting Tóti, however, was beyond expectations. He’s pretty friendly – when he doesn’t want to nap – and will pose indefinitely for photos.

After Tóti decided naptime was non-negotiable, we started chatting with the head man, who introduced us to the newest member of the Sæheimar team, Þór (Thor in English), an orphan puffling. If you want to see three adults lose their minds, let them hold a chirping baby puffin. Meet Þór:

As a special treat, we got to watch snack time:

We took turns bonding with Þór for about half an hour, exhiliarated by the unexpected adventure, and were also surprised by another visiting puffin, who came out from under a desk to see what we were doing.p1160549

After pledging eternal loyalty to Toti, Þór, and the rest of our new friends at Sæheimar, we headed off to see the rest of the island.

Driving around Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar

What to see? Easy: everything. Heimaey is small and easy to explore, a little more than 13 square kilometres. Burning off our Aquarium excitement, we drove around the island, stopping for sweeping views and lush fields full of sheep and Icelandic horses, who were interested in our company, and more interested in whether or not we had snacks. Presumably mistaking my finger for a carrot, the only injury I incurred on the island was a small bite from an otherwise gorgeous horse. The horses and the sheep could give Beyoncé a run for her money when it comes to working a gorgeous mane in the wind.

Seriously, the horses are stars:

Continuing on, we drove the twisty road to Stórhöfði, an outpost/lighthouse/birding station on a peninsula at the southern end of the island. It faces the strongest recorded winds in Iceland, exceptional birding spots, and a great spot to see whales. It also faces a set of smaller islands including Surtsey, the newest island in the chain,formed by a volcano that erupted from 1963-1967. It is completely off-limits to visitors, holding special status as a site exclusively for scientific research for botanists, ornithologists, and other natural scientists.

Heading back toward town, we stopped at the windy golf course, which has a stunning view of Smáeyjar, a small group of islands near the golf course (Vestmannaeyjavöllur), a flock of puffins, and Elephant Rock, a rock formation that looks exactly what it sounds like. On clear days, you can see Eyjafjallajökull, the famously troublesome volcano back on the mainland, which we could see faintly in the distance.

We drove through town and took in the view from the eastern side of the island, toward the mainland, where we encountered a couch in the middle of nowhere, which, again, was perfect for seeing Eyjafjallajökull in the distance.

iceland westman islands vestmannaeyjar heimaey

As the time for our return ferry approached, we headed back to town for a delicious dinner at Gott (a rather famous restaurant in its own right) before begrudgingly boarding the ferry and heading home.

Our return trip was incredibly rocky, and even this bunch of hardy eastern Canadians were rendered queasy by the trip.

Visit Vestmannaeyjar says you haven’t seen Iceland until you’ve seen the Westman Islands and I agree 100%. My next trip to Iceland will definitely include a longer, overnight stay of one- to two nights, so I can take a boat tour and see more of the other, uninhabited islands. What are you waiting for? Go!

bitesized travel iceland

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