Those names just keep on getting easier to pronounce, right? The good news is that I can now say both Hvolsvöllur – the town in which I am living – and Seljalandsfoss – the first waterfall I visited – well enough for a native to understand me, though a vague look of confusion usually passes over their face first. I’m not ready to take on Vestmannaeyjar yet. At least, not the pronunciation. The islands themselves… well, that’s another story.
And look at that, it’s the story I’m here to tell! How convenient. I actually hadn’t heard much about the Vestmannaeyjar Islands at all until visiting them a few weeks ago. My host had mentioned a harbor not far from the farm, but not what the harbor’s single purpose of existence is. Luckily, upon being introduced to my nearest fellow workaway volunteer (the lovely Marie of Germany – more on our adventures here), I was informed that a trip to the islands was already set for the very next day. Having not officially taken a day off yet, I talked my host into setting me free and took off for some adventuring!
The harbor itself, though laden with Iceland’s famous black sand, had little to see beyond the single small building leading tourists onto and off of a large ferry. We hadn’t purchased tickets in advance, and it turned out that with the rise of tourist season, several of the returning ferries that evening were already booked. If you are traveling here during the summer, I suggested booking this trip beforehand so that you can have the full day. We had to settle for the ferry returning to the mainland at 3:00 or risk being stranded, so we had less time on the island than intended, but it all worked out for the best.
It’s about a half hour ride to the island, and the ferry provides comfortable indoor seating, a small café for snack foods (I tried Skyr for the first time on the way back), and plenty of space on deck to watch the horizon. The water was stunningly blue, the grass on the approaching cliff faces shockingly green… In fact, I think the most memorable thing about Vestmannaeyjar overall was the colors, as you’ll see in the almost-untouched photos I snapped with my iPhone.
As you sail into the harbor, you become surrounded by these cliffs, most of which sported the tiny shapes of sheep lazily grazing on the sharply angled sides. According to many advertisements around town, you can go on boat tours around the coast, which would be a great way to get a closer look at the caves and inlets you can see above.
The island town is based mostly around its strong fishing industry, so the harbor was filled with boats painted in vivid washes of every color in the rainbow. We didn’t make it out to the edge for puffin-watching, but as you can tell from their street signs, they are quite famous for that activity as well.
After stopping by the tourist information center and picking up a helpful map of all the significant places (very easily walk-able, although you can load your car on the ferry if you prefer), we decided to hike the volcano Eldfell, which erupted in 1973, burying a section of the town and completely changing the coastline of the island. An unmarked staircase leading up from the street will start you out on this breathtaking trek.
Even if you ignore the fact that the trails cut straight through giant fields of wild lupine covering the cliffs (I mean, what’s prettier than that?), this climb is wrapped up in beauty. The view encompasses surrounding mountains, the wide-stretching ocean, and the brightly-roofed town below, mixed with sharp black volcanic rock and soft green and yellow mosses. It’s difficult to stop taking pictures and focus on where your feet are going, another reason why giving yourself plenty of time to explore this island is so important.
As we got closer to the volcano itself (we didn’t make it to the top due to our shortage on time), the ground changed from chunky black, porous rock to these finer red hills, suddenly rocketing us into a totally different world. It almost resembles a desert, if you ignore the chilly wind attempting to shove you off the path, and we were fairly certain that this landscape has shown up in movies, representing another planet. Looks like Mars, right? Google disagreed, but many places in Iceland have been filmed as other worlds, moons, and planets due to views like this.
After our hike, we consulted our map for the next activity and, curious about a description that made no sense to us, decided to check out something called “spranga” on the cliffs at the edge of town. The map noted that spranga is a favorite Icelandic sport involving climbing and swinging from ropes, but gave no instructions on how it was to be performed (although it did feature a warning to novices to exercise caution in trying it out). With my usual zeal for climbing, swinging, and placing my life in danger, I took to the rocks. I regret nothing.
After I swung around like an overexcited Jane during her first lesson with Tarzan in jungle transportation, a teenage boy from town showed up to demonstrate how it’s really done. It was quite impressive and a little difficult to describe, so suffice it to say that it reminded me of a popular circus skill called wall-running, except with no regard to safety. He also told us the story of a young tourist who managed to break both her legs after ignoring the warning in the map. I didn’t feel quite as daring as her then, but neither did I feel quite as stupid.
Having worn ourselves out pretty well, we headed for the wonderful relief located in every Icelandic town: the pool (more on Icelandic swimming here). Vestmannaeyjar’s swimming pool is rumored to be the best in the country, and we were not disappointed with the two hot tubs, adult and kid pools, three water slides, indoor lap pool with diving board, and steam room. (Unfortunately, you cannot take phones or cameras into any pool, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) We were content to relax here until half an hour before our return ferry would be shoving off.
The return trip was far more windy, which gave us a good excuse to chill inside and rejuvenate our exhausted bodies with food and naps. Good thing, because the day was far from over – another fabulous adventure lay ahead of us, and someday, I shall tell you all about it. And that day will probably be tomorrow. Until then.