June 1: Heimaey
Last night, we fell asleep to the soothing sound of rain on the skylights above our bed. This morning, we woke to beautiful sunny weather!
I guess what they say about Iceland is true: if you don’t like the weather wait 10 minutes (though so far in our experience it’s more like “wait 10-24 hours”).
We enjoyed a tasty breakfast spread at the hotel, though we did skip the Fishliver Oil, which was next to the coffee and cottage cheese. I do not know which of those three things were supposed to be mixed together…
I’m a big fan of Icelandic bread so far. There were three types to sample this morning! A dense, sweet ryebread, something wholegrain, and a loaf of cranberry or raisin bread. We also had blueberry skyr with granola and fruit. It was not the typical collection of nasty honeydew and melon! This was a mix of apples, bananas, oranges, and, incongruously, watermelon.
We needed to hit the road at 9 AM in order to make it to Landeyjahöfn to catch our ferry to the city of Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar islands, known for its proximity to numerous puffin colonies and a disastrous volcanic eruption in 1973.
We arrived at the ferry 30 minutes early, exactly as instructed, and discovered Icelanders and tourists of Iceland are a prompt bunch. We were at the back of the cue for cars driving onto the ferry!
The seas were calm (only 0.7 m swells) and the crossing took about 40 minutes. Inside had comfy chairs, tables, and a cafe, but we spent the voyage in the fresh air up top. Embarking and debarking (even with the cars) was speedy and we arrived in plenty of time for our noon tour.
Originally, we were booked on a 4 PM excursion, but while we were out walking yesterday our Puffin Safari tour guide called us and asked if we would be able to take an earlier tour because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to run tours later in the day due to weather issues. (Fortunately, the weather in question was wind rather than rain, which didn’t impact our afternoon plans for dry land at all.)
The timing actually worked out perfectly. We docked at 11:30, parked the car, found the tour office, used the bathroom, and went out to get suited up for our excursion! It’s the height of fashion.
We weren’t risking the phones to potentially choppy water, so Trish used the 360 camera and I used the head rig for the GoPro (definitely recommend! It allows you to record but still experience the scenery without looking through a lens!).
We definitely saw puffins but, strangely, puffins don’t like bright sunny days, so most were up in their nests, visible as little white specks against the green. We also saw a lot of seagulls and guillemots. The tour was really more about the geology and interesting rock formations around the island.
We both had a great time!
After the boat docked back at the harbor, we had lunch at Tanginn, a harbor-side restaurant with an eclectic menu. Trish and I both opted for reindeer burgers. Blindfolded, I don’t think I could reliably tell you the difference between bison and reindeer. It’s gamier than beef but very similar.
We took a couple tacky tourist photos with the giant puffin statue in the harbor.
Going on the earlier boat tour actually allowed us to hit both of the other main tourist attractions in Heimaey this afternoon, freeing up our morning tomorrow for either sleeping in or walking around the island. (I guess it’s three attractions if you count the tacky tourist photos with the giant puffin statue at the harbor…)
We went to the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary and Puffin Rescue Centre first. Part of Klettsvik Bay (adjacent to the harbor) has been netted off for the whales. This is the first whale sanctuary and is a bit of an experiment. The first two residents, Little White and Little Grey (who lived their whole lives in a Shanghai water park), only arrived in 2019… and they were scared of the bay!
Right now, they’re staying in the relatively small quarantine/observation tank in the main building (journeying between it and the bay requires truck and boat transfer, so is a bit complicated). The care teams are making changes to the bay to make it less overwhelming and they hope the whales will be able to spend a few months there later this summer. They’re planning to bring them back to the quarantine tank for the winter to test out the weather-proofness of their new bay accessories. If all goes well, the whales will then live in the bay full time.
For now, these chonky belugas are living their best life with numerous enrichment toys.
The sanctuary also rescues puffins who need some TLC, like this guy with only one eye.
Also, they ended up with a guillemot. I’m not sure what his story is but he was a bit of an attention hog!
They also have a small aquarium showcasing Icelandic fish and invertebrates.
One tank had cod and pollock. Until a few weeks ago, the substrate at the bottom of the tank was dark, so all the pollock were dark. Then, they switched it out for a lighter color and all the pollock changed color to match it… except for one!
After the aquarium, we went up the hill to the Eldheimar Museum, dedicated to the 1973 eruption of Eldfell. In January 1973, a firey rift in the earth opened up a few hundred meters from the town of Heimaey in the wee hours of the morning. The entire island (population ~5,300) had to evacuate in the middle of the night. Fortunately, a storm the day before had forced all the fishing boats back into the harbor so they were able to accommodate everyone. The eruption lasted for 5 months, increasing the size of the island by 20%, and forming Eldfell. Over 400 homes and businesses were destroyed by the volcano and 1/3 of the population never returned.
Some structures were completely destroyed by lava, but others were merely buried under 10 meters of pumice and ash. In the mid-2000s, the city decided to excavate a few houses and create a museum to memorialize the event. The resulting museum has been built around one of the fully excavated homes.
There aren’t many artifacts or much signage in the museum, but there is an excellent audio guide and video presentation.
We ran a few errands before checking into Hotel Vestmannaeyjar. We filled up the gas tank and stopped at a grocery store to get some road trip/picnic fare for the next few days.
After relaxing at the hotel for a bit, we had dinner at Gott.
Trish had the “Spicy Wrap” which was kind of like a burrito, except on more of a roti-like flat bread. I had the fish of the day, cod, with potato mash and vegetables and boy was it delicious! We finished the meal with some date cake and skyr-flavored ice cream.