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As you drive down Iceland’s south coast, you might notice a line of mountains that seem to rise straight out of the sea. These are the Westman Islands or Vestmannaeyjar, a volcanic archipelago that over 4,300 people call home. A short forty-five minute ferry ride will take you from the mainland to the home island, Heimaey. This vibrant village offers visitors many fun activities and adventures. From puffin sightings, to gourmet delicacies and interesting museums–a day trip to the Westman Islands is a perfect adventure for guests at Hotel Rangá.
History of the Islands
Settlers first made a home on the Westman Islands around the year 900. Since then, there have always been inhabitants on Heimaey. When entering Heimaey’s harbor, you will notice a plethora of fishing boats. In fact, the fishing industry plays a prominent role in the islands’ economy, and many islanders still work at sea.
In 1973, the Westman Islands grabbed global attention when the volcano Eldfell began erupting, forcing a mass evacuation. Thankfully, the islanders were able to rebuild their community, making it possible for the evacuees to return. Nowadays, travelers can visit the Eldheimar museum to learn more about this fateful eruption. The museum is actually built around the remains from a house that was destroyed in the 1973 eruption. It is fascinating to get up close to the village’s history and learn more about volcanic activity in Iceland.
World’s Largest Puffin Colony
A Westman Islands day trip is the perfect way to see a puffin. In the summer, the Westman Islands become the world’s largest puffin colony as thousands of puffins gather for their mating season. In fact, over 1 million puffins lay their eggs on the islands during this time. You can even find a puffin lookout on Stórhöfði, Heimaey’s most southernmost point.
To access the lookout, you will need to bring your rental car or book a tour with a local company. Drive to the lookout parking area and follow the path until you reach a small wooden cabin. Inside you will find huge windows through which you can watch thousands of puffins as they dive and soar from the nearby cliffs. The birds are hunting for small fish to give to the baby puffins–called pufflings–who hide inside cliffside burrows.
As the pufflings get older, the parents stop bringing them food. This means the pufflings are ready to leave their burrows and go search for food themselves. Once they are hungry enough, the brave pufflings will leave their homes in the middle of the night. However, instead of going straight out to sea, they often become distracted by the lights of the town and head there instead.
Not to worry–the children of Heimaey stay out late to help the pufflings find their way. Kids walk around the town, gathering any stray pufflings into cardboard boxes. The next morning, the children take the birds to the sea and throw them high in the air. There, the pufflings will swim and learn to hunt for their own food until they grow big enough to fly. If you want to take part in a puffin rescue, you should visit the islands during the month of September.
Westman Islands Day Trip: The Call of the Sea
The Westman Islands also offer visitors the chance to explore the surrounding ocean and learn more about sealife. Try a Rib Safari tour where you will zoom across the sea and visit interesting rock formations like Elephant Rock–a unique cliff that looks surprisingly like an elephant. Your guide will also take you to see beautiful sea caves and local wildlife like seabirds, seals and perhaps even whales.
Speaking of whales, it is also possible to visit a pair of two beluga whales at the Sea Life Trust Whale Sanctuary. Little Grey and Little White journeyed from China to live in a protected bay in the Westman Islands. Visitors to the exhibit will learn more about beluga whales and might also see some rescued puffins up close.
Hiking on the Westman Islands
There are several wonderful hiking paths on the Westman Islands. Visitors can hike up the volcano Eldfell that erupted in 1973. At only 1.7 km (1 mile), this is a good option for families. From the top of Eldfell, you’ll see stunning views of the islands and sea. For more adventurous hikers, try the Heimaklettur hike. This steep track takes you to the top of the island’s Home Rock. Do be aware that the path includes ladders and rope handholds. However, this adventurous trek is definitely worth the effort–the views from atop Heimaklettur are astounding.
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Fine Dining and Local Brews
Despite being a small island, there are a number of delicious dining establishments located on Heimaey. The casual eatery Gott is known for serving tasty dishes such as locally caught fish, soups and salads. During the summer months, you can enjoy a gourmet dining experience at Slippurinn. This restaurant is known for its seasonal dishes filled with local products including hand foraged herbs and seaweed.
Heimaey is also home to its own craft brewery, The Brothers Brewery. Visitors can enjoy a glass of locally brewed beer and even tour the brewery itself. Sample a flight of different types of beer and learn how these tasty pours are made.
Westman Islands Day Trip: Summer Festival Fun
During the first weekend of August, the Westman Islands become the party epicenter of Iceland. The islanders throw a huge festival called Þjóðhátíð to celebrate Verslunarmannahelgin or Tradesmen’s Weekend. Long summer days are filled with bonfires, fireworks and live music. What’s more, the final Sunday night celebration features an incredible hillside sing-along, as over 10,000 festival-goers sing together as the sun sets.
Golf on the Westman Islands
On the Westman Islands you can play a round of golf inside the crater of an extinct volcano. The golf course was founded in 1938 and slowly expanded from 6 holes to 18 holes. It is best to try a game of golf during the middle of summer. Iceland’s unique midnight sun makes it possible to play at almost anytime of day or night!