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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Vestmannaeyjar


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So far things had gone smoothly for us in Iceland. We had accomplished everything I had planned in the first day and a half and we were now proceeding to one of my most eagerly anticipated destinations. Eighteen years earlier I had stood alone atop the dormant volcano Helgafell and seen the most breathtaking view of my life up to that point. With no one to share it with, I resolved to return one day with a family of my own. That moment had now arrived although our late ferry departure meant it would have to wait until the next day. The short ferry ride passed quickly as I braved the sharp wind to watch birds swooping around the uninhabited islets of Elliðaey and Bjarney. The islands are ringed by steep cliffs and each has a single puffin-hunting lodge that is the only sign of human intrusion.
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Heimaey is the only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar, which is known to English speakers as the Westman Islands. The rocky outcrops surrounding the harbor were like natural versions of the stone forts ringing the port of Valletta, Malta. The twin volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell loomed behind the town with the former's enormous crater clearly visible.
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The town seemed larger and more impersonal than on my last visit, but perhaps my memory had eroded over time. The sky was overcast and there were few people on the windy streets. I had to drag the large suitcase with its eroding wheels about half a kilometer to our hotel, where our room was mercifully on the ground floor. We only had a short time to unpack and recuperate before walking around the corner to Einsi Kaldi for dinner. My first and second choices were closed on Mondays, but the restaurant provided us with a solid meal. Our friendly waitress helped address my confusion about the different names I'd heard for the town. Of Vestmannaeyjar, Vestmannaeyjabær, and Heimaey which referred to the archipelago, which was this island, and which was the town on the island. The waitress assured us all the terms were interchangeable and could refer to any of the locations but I think she just wanted to spare us from having to pronounce the longer words. We asked her about eating puffin and she told us it could no longer be found on restaurant menus due to a decline in the population from my last visit. Apparently there's still some limited hunting permitted and she actually called her aunt to bring in some cured puffin breast for us to try. The heavily spiced raw meat wasn't anywhere near as enjoyable as the savory grilled puffin breast I'd enjoyed on my prior visit but at least Mei Ling could say that she'd tried it.
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In the morning we fortified ourselves with breakfast at a no-frills bakery down by the port. According to my weather app it was low 50's, same as every summer day in Iceland, but it felt a lot colder thanks to a biting wind that whistled unimpeded through the low buildings. I knew if we headed southeast to the outskirts of town we would find our way to the base of Eldfell. It wasn't possible for us to miss it - the twin peaks were visible from every spot on the island. Not far from our hotel we passed through the beautifully-landscaped town park. There was a small playground with a colorful trampoline made of a vinyl sheet stretched over trapped air underneath. It was a quite effective piece of equipment and I wondered why I'd never seen anything like it before. Later we would see the same kind of trampoline in half a dozen other towns in Iceland.
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As we continued onward the wind grew stronger and more chilling. Thankfully we'd brought and worn our heavy winter coats but I'd decided against the long underwear that day. The islanders obviously took great pride in their small plots of land and many had quite creative arrangements of plants and flowers. I saw a sign for the Eldheimar Museum and we ducked inside more to get out of the cold for a short time than out of any particular desire to see the exhibits. The museum is dedicated to the 1973 volcanic eruption that created Eldfell and buried half the town under a lava field. Due to a series of fortunate coincidences no lives were lost during the eruption and much of the town was spared from incineration by the incandescent material ejected from the volcano. Although Heimaey could easily have been rendered uninhabited like the other islands in the archipelago, the town recovered and thrived and is now more populous than ever. Outside the museum we found an abandoned ball and passed it around for a bit before it was lost over the hillside.
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Behind Eldheimar we found a dirt path leading up a steep hillside. This was the beginning of the trail to the Eldfell crater. Even though the top of the hill was always in sight, it never seemed to get closer no matter how long we scrambled up through the green scrub. Spenser and Cleo tore off ahead and seemed to have limitless energy while I had to struggle to keep up. I couldn't let them get too far ahead because I didn't really know for sure what we'd find at the top. Warning signs are a rare sight in Iceland. Meanwhile the town below us was gradually beginning to look like it was made out of Lego.
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Once we finally clambered over the lip of the hill there was a sudden change in terrain. We were now on a wide platform at the edge of Eldfell crater, about halfway between the upper and lower lips. There was no sign of plant life on the edge, just volcanic gravel with a scattering of larger porous rocks. The northern cliffs, Norðurklettar, formed an imposing green backdrop to the town. they looked tame and surmountable from this angle but I knew from my research that it was one of the more treacherous areas of the island. Looking over the lower lip of the crater I could see the lava field from the most recent eruption, now coated with moss, and the mountains of the peninsula on the far side of the harbor.
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The beauty of Heimaey was beginning to reveal itself but we were still only halfway up the sloping crater. We could see a few scattered figures walking precariously on the upper edge, and I was weighing whether it was safe and advisable to push on to the top. Mei Ling, Spenser and Cleo took the decision out of my hands by tackling the upward path along the ridge while I was still trying to judge the force of the winds at the top. I had no choice but to chase after them, dragging Ian along with me.
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It would have been tragic if we had called off our ascent at the middle. As soon as we reached the upper edge I was reminded of why I had maintained my desire to return to Vestmannaeyjar for so many years. To the north Bjarnarey's green surface provided a sharp contrast to the volcanic barrenness we were standing on. Behind it the mainland blurred into the ocean so that the glacier Eyjafjallajökull appeared suspended in midair. To the south the lush Stórhöfði peninsula projected into the ocean and beyond that just a few rocky islets broke the serenity of the watery expanse. I pointed out to the kids how the wind created waves and ripples in the grass on Helgafell that made it seem like water. It's difficult to find words to describe the complexity of the exhilaration I felt at the ridge above the crater. It was a simultaneous awareness of the heights of the world's beauty, the constant struggle of living things to adapt to and overcome the environment, and the cruel indifference of our planet to the life that makes it unique in the known universe. The wind was frighteningly loud and gusty but never threatened to push the kids off their footing.
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We spent some time exploring the upper rim but there really wasn't much to do except gape at the views and examine some of the larger blocks of tephra from the eruption. I realized that there was no way we'd be able to walk to the end of Stórhöfði as I had planned. It was much further than I had remembered, and there was probably more to see if we walked north. On the descent I regretted not wearing my hiking boots as my knees kept twisting on the loose lava. We tried to find a trail that would take us directly through the lava field but eventually we gave up and followed the road to Gaujulundur, a whimsical garden carved out of the lava field a few years after the eruption. Besides hundreds of varieties of local plants, the garden contains elf houses and a miniature windmill.
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Here we found a walking path towards town that allowed us to enjoy some waist-high scrub and an overlook with views of the harbor channel. Some kind of quarrying operation was taking place at the water's edge but it didn't detract from the beauty of the ocean as it slipped serenely between the peninsula and the mainland.
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A few hours after departing town from the south we re-entered it from the east, close to the port. We ate at the popular restaurant next to our hotel which was awful, the first bad meal we had had in Iceland. We still had a couple of hours to kill before our ferry departure so we went to the Sæheimar Aquarium, which is also a beluga whale sanctuary. I'd been warned that if the belugas were sometimes out in open water and there was very little else to justify the high admission price, so I was careful to ensure that they would in fact be present before we went inside. They were indeed there and very interactive with the humans they could see through the glass wall of the enclosure. It was my first time being up close with these beautiful and graceful animals and I was glad we had chosen to stop by. The only other part of the aquarium worth noting was a puffin rescue center with just one occupant. I'm not sure if he was a recent rescue or one of the permanent inhabitants they get from time to time.
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We had spent less than half an hour in the whale sanctuary and still had time to kill. We followed the road past the port to the northwestern corner of town which was an industrial area with a strong odor of fish. We scrambled up a low wall and a grassy bank and we found ourselves at the foot of the northern cliffs. I was instantly wary because I had already researched this area and concluded it was far too dangerous for us to climb in. From one cliff we found a rope that the locals used for practicing spranga, the island sport of rappelling. Mei Ling and Cleo still seemed to have inexhaustible energy and took off up the steep grassy slope with Spenser not far behind. I really didn't want them to climb all the way up to the ridge and I didn't feel like chasing down the kids so I implored them to stop halfway up. Thankfully they acquiesced and turned their attention to following around some bemused sheep. After five or ten minutes of that it was time to head down to the terminal and catch our ferry back to the mainland. It had been an extremely productive day of hiking and although we hadn't explored the island completely I felt I had kept the promise I made to myself almost two decades earlier.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 00:09 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip tony family_travel travel_blog westman_islands tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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