Westman Islands Travel Guide
When we read the CamperStories, we get a feeling that Westman Islands might be one of the more ignored destinations in Iceland among Campervanners and we don’t know why for the islands are simply stunning, a world on its own. It has gorgeous nature, fantastic Puffin colonies and whale watching too. You won’t find waterfalls nor hot springs there which you can enjoy when driving to Landeyjarhöfn to take the ferry to the archipelago. To help you out planning a trip to the Westman Islands, we lined up the highlights for you in this travel guide.
Harbor points Points of interest Camping Swimming Pool
Travel to Westman Islands
There are two ways to go to the islands. By boat or by air. If you go by boat you can bring your camper van on board the ferry Herjólfur but you need to book that in advance here before going. If you are leaving your camper on the mainland, you can usually just buy your ticket when you arrive in Landeyjarhöfn (see map). The cruise takes around 35 minutes and the ferry departs many times a day.
From Reykjavík, it’s a 151km/93.8 miles south on the Ring road to Landeyjahöfn where the ferry departs/arrives and takes you well over two hours to drive there, nonstop. At times, the docking of the ferry is moved to Þorlákshöfn but that is usually only if there is very bad weather.
You can also fly there from Reykjavik which only takes you like 50 minutes.
Westman Islands is a collection of 15 islands and the biggest one and the only one inhabited is Heimaey. 6 of the islands have hunting cabins. Around 4000 people live there and the main industry is fishing of course. People have lived there since the first settlements and the islands got their names from slaves the fled the mainland. The slaves, coming from Irleand and Scotland were often called West-men hence the name. All the islands have been built up by submarine eruptions and the sea and wind have created some stunning rock formations, caverns and caves. The Westman Islands archipelago is 38km/23.6 miles long and 29km/18 miles wide. The total area of the archipelago is 16.3km²/6.3 mi².
On November the 14th, 1963, one of the longest eruptions in Icelandic history started, an eruption that lasted for 4 years and gave birth to the 15th island Surtsey, the southern most island in the archipelago. An island closed for any visitors except scientists who studies the island’s fauna.
23rd of January, 1973 a devastating eruption took place when Heimaey grew with 2.1 km²/0.81 mi², an eruption that lasted for 155 days. 60% of all the houses on the island got destroyed or damaged. A third of those disappeared under the flowing lava. Almost all of the 5273 inhabitants at the time were moved to the mainland and most of them moved back after the eruption ended.
One interesting story from the eruption. The villagers were afraid that the lava flow would destroy the whole village so they tried to redirect the lava flow by hosing down the lava with cold ocean water with powerful fire pumps and in the process, cool down the molten lava and redirect the flow. A madhouse operation by any standards but it worked perfectly. That action saved many of the houses. Kudos to the brave men. You can still see houses, half covered in lava and frozen in time, a remembrance of those dark days in back in 1973.
On the main island you will find anything you might need from banks, hospital, museums, swimming pool, gas stations and whatever you need. The camping site also has everything you need.
The weather here is usually a bit warmer compared to the mainland and usually they have very little snow. Most people have heard that if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait 15 minutes while on Westman Islands they say they don’t have weather, they only get weather samples many times a day.
One of the more famous personalities from the island is Guðlaugur Friðþórsson who got to be world famous when his fishing boat Hellisey VE 503 went down 3 nautical miles/3.45 miles east of Heimaey 12th of March, 1984. Guðlaugur spent five hours swimming nonstop in 5°C/41ºF before reaching safety on the main island Heimaey. He then walked barefoot across a lava field for three hours in the storm, ice and cold before reaching help. Guðlaugur’s extraordinary feat baffled scientists and he went through research to find out how it was even possible to survive the swim and the walk. The Icelandic director Baltazar Kormákur made a movie about the whole event called Djúpið (The Deep), a movie about extraordinary events and an incomprehensible will to survive.
What to do
This is a very local sport stemming from the picking of seabird eggs on cliff faces. While searching/collecting the eggs, the spring from one place to another. Now kids are doing it for fun but it’s not for the fainthearted. There are guides there to help out the novice and it’s highly recommended you seek help before you try it out the first time as it might be dangerous. There are no safety nets of safety harnesses.
Iceland’s oldest aquarium. This place has a special place in the hearts of the islanders. During the 73′ eruption the islanders did everything they could to save the aquarium by bringing in diesel generators to keep the pumps going and they succeeded. The aquarium has most of the marine life you’ll find around Iceland in these aquariums so it’s an interesting place to visit.
This peninsula is the southernmost tip of the island. It is called the windiest place in Iceland an in fact, the strongest winds ever recorded on the northern hemisphere is here, only to be rivaled by Antarctic. It’s 122m/400ft high and the view there is just amazing. You’ll see many of the surrounding islands and it’s a special feeling standing there staring straight south that there is nothing between you and Antarctic except the big, blue Atlantic ocean.
On the west side of the peninsula, you have big colonies of Puffins. During high season around 1.1 million pairs of Puffins stay in Westman Ilands. They start to arrive in mid April but they arrive in full force in the beginning of May. All of Iceland’s seabirds can be found in Westman Islands.
You can drive to the peninsula and walk around there. Bring lunch! 🙂
There are many different sea tours to choose from and it’s highly recommended you go on one so you can see all the fantastic rocks and caverns. You might also see whales, seals and an abundant bird life too. Make sure to choose a tour that takes you to the famous Elephant head rock too. It really looks like the head on a gigantic Elephant (pic to the right).
There are also diving on the island and of course sea angling. You will get all the information you need at the tourist info’s and down by the harbor.
If golfing is your thing, you can play on one of the top 200 golf courses in Europe. The view will definitely take your focus away from the little golf ball! 🙂 If you haven’t brought clubs, you can rent them at the club house for a modest fee, including golf carts. They also have a golf simulator when the weather is not in your favor but still want to practice your swing.
As you can see in the pic to the right, you will be golfing with the Elephant head in front of you! Not bad! 🙂
Visit the local brewery
Like in many countries, Iceland also as its share of micro breweries popping up all over the place and one of them is found on Westman Islands. In 2013 The Brothers Brewery saw its first bottle was poured and it has been nothing but a success from the beginning. They offer tours and tasting around the facilities too. Now they also have a bar on the premises so you can enjoy a cold one, straight from the tap. Of course you will leave your camper van at the campsite when you plan to visit the brothers! 🙂
Sagnheimar Folk Museum
Here you can get further information about the big 1973 eruption, get to know in detail what happened, all the events, the aftermath. Or learn about the 300 Algerian pirates who raided Heimaey and took close to 300 Icelanders and sailed with them back to Algeria were they were sold as slaves. There is also an exhibit about the history of the harbor. This should be a nice stop before heading to your next adventure on the island.
This museum is only about the big eruption and it’s a very ambitious one too with interactive things to do, photos, videos and memorabilia from that disastrous times. You can study all the developments of the events that took place when the island was showered with molten lava.
There is also an exhibition about the Surtsey eruption we are sure you would enjoy. This is a high end museum for the whole family.
If you are up to it and are fit enough, you can hike to the top of Heimaklettur, the highest peak on the island. It reaches a height of 279m/915ft and offers a fantastic view over Westman Islands. The most difficult parts of the hike has stairs to help the hiker so you will not need climbing gear or anything. Just proper shoes and clothes. Tread lightly, bring lunch and warm clothes and just enjoy the hike!
It is possible to continue the hike east to the two other peaks too but locals consider it to be difficult and it’s not recommended one hikes there without a local guide.
This is the crater causing all the havoc back in 73. The mountain used to be 220m/721ft high but it went down slightly after the eruption. Now the lava has cooled down and its possible to hike to the top of the crater with ease.
Go to the tourist information and get information where the trail starts and such. There are a few amazing hikes in that area and the Tourist center will have all the information for you.
While in the area, you could also hike up to Helgafell, a dormant volcano with a stunning view over peninsula Stórhöfði.
Þjóðhátíð – The National Festival
This is the island’s biggest event and one of Iceland’s biggest events. It takes place in the first weekend of August when somewhere around 10 to 15 thousand people all gather in the camping site and party the whole weekend. This is also the weekend when the majority of the Icelanders are found in tents, campers and motor homes all over Iceland celebrating Commerce day (similar to Bank holiday) taking part of festival all around the country but none of the festivals are as big as the one here on the island. None of them doesn’t even come close to this one.
If you want to take part of the festivities, you need to book your ferry ticket for you, your travel partner(s) and your camper van well in advance, the same goes for a camping spot. The whole island will be jumping the whole weekend until Monday when everybody tries to get home simultaneously. It gets very crowded with cops everywhere trying to control traffic and making sure nobody drives home intoxicated.
During the whole, long weekend things will be going on all over, from early morning to late, late night. There are concerts and all kind of happenings. The festival peaks on Sunday evening when all participant joins in Brekkusöngur (see the red pic to the right). The center piece of the festival is a huge stage with the surrounding hills works as a natural seating for all the thousands and thousands of people. When the concerts are getting close to the end, popular tunes are sung together and literally everyone takes part of the singing. Quite an experience we hear from everyone who has gone there.
Anyone traveling to Westman Islands will love it. There are so many things to do, see, experience and take part in. Just the hiking around the island is just fantastic. The islanders live life in their own pace and it’s a true joy to go there. You will be well met by the locals and you have a few restaurants and pubs where you can take a load off, eat the local cuisine and just enjoy life.
When your Westman Island trip is over, you will ask yourself: “Why didn’t I think of this before?”, leaving the place content and happy.
Happy Camping! #WohoCamper
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