Westmann (Vestmannaeyjar) – the Pompeii of the North

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Westmann (Vestmannaeyjar)

Beautiful North Atlantic islands

Four nautical miles off the south coast of Iceland is the Westmann peninsula and the community of Heimaey. Everything about this place is beautiful, dramatic and interesting.

The islands are a famous nesting ground for Puffins – enchanting fishing birds. The small port drives the fishing economy and an increasing number of visitors either fly or take the ferry to the main island. I love visiting!

There is still heat coming out of Eldfell volcano

Westmann is fundamentally Icelandic – so volcanically active it added the island of Surtsey on November 14, 1963 when the volcano appeared above sea level. This new island is large enough to see and is now home to plant and birdlife.

The town of Heimaey itself lost a third of its homes (400) when the Eldfell volcano erupted in January, 1973. No one died during the evacuation (well-done Iceland) and with the help of the United States, huge volumes of water were pumped on the lava flow and saved much of the town as well as the entrance to the small, protected harbour.

Looking out to Surtsey – the new island – at the far south of the archipelago

Islanders of course returned and are clearly doing well. Despite everything being expensive in Iceland, locals drive around in new cars and have nice homes. Residents enjoy excellent infrastructure and, when the weather cooperates, the place is outstandingly beautiful.

Westmann earned its name for enslaved Irish people who escaped their Norse captors. Throughout the isolated history of this archipelago, people suffered from pirate attacks and nature.

Ferry or air ?

I honestly feel that Vestmannaeyjar is among the most interesting islands in the world. Its geology, environment, culture, history and location are all special. Up on Eldfell (a very easy walk from town), the volcanic soil is still hot in a few places. The port smells of fish processing and the people seem to live well.

Climbing to the highest point on the main island

I was thrilled to spend a night in Heimaey on this trip. Previously I had only visited for the day. The ferry ride is a short 35 minutes and arriving into the harbour is dramatic. From the far end of the main island (on a clear day) Surtsey can be seen. To the north is mainland Iceland and snow-capped volcanos. Perfect.

While Iceland is a geological infant and a young country, places like Westmann are living their history. I can imagine a few Norse (or escaped Irish) families living of the sea and hunting Puffins and other birds. It would have been incredibly isolated, but somehow magical.

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