Iceland Stories and Tips

Heimaey Island

Captain's Couragous Photo, Iceland, Europe

Iceland seems to make a tourist killing off puffins. The small penguin-like birds with colorful bills are on T-shirts, postcards, magnets, and the like. Many stores even sell stuffed puffins, although I've never seen anyone actually buy one. It was an email I got from Icelandair advertising a Puffin expedition and rescue that first got me to Iceland and to Heimaey Island.

Getting to Heimaey is possible by ferry and plane. My package included the flight. It was the smallest plane I had ever been on, just fitting about 20 passengers. Those who don't like small prop planes should take the ferry. If you don't like boats either, you are best off avoiding Heimaey.

Here's a little about Heimaey: it is a small community of 5,000 people. The main business of the people is fishing. The island had a volcanic erruption in the early '70s that destroyed or damaged much of the town but also expanded the island's land mass by about one-third. The island was exacuated with few if any casualties. Pretty much everyone now lives along the bay on the northern side of the island, with few facilities (including the small two-gate, two-strip airport) towards the middle or the south of the island. Much of the "new" island is untouched. There's a lighthouse and one garden on the lava rock. The people do, however, use the still-warm new lava as energy and heat 30 years after the eruption!

That one garden has its own bit of history. After the erruption, town officials announced that anyone who could master the new land could have whatever land they needed for free. Only one couple was able to do anything with the land, and thus there is the garden. The couple still goes to maintain their little oasis (open to anyone who wants to see it for free), but as they are up there in age, they rely on their neighbors to drive them to and from the garden.

Heimaey's most famous figures aren't human. First of all, there are the puffins, for which there is a different entry in this journal (or will be . . . ). Heimaey also was the home for Keiko the Killer Whale, perhaps better known as Willy from the "Free Willy" movies. Scientists used the bay of Heimaey as a staging point to try and reacquaint the whale with her natural environment. The last I heard, they had tried yet another time to release Keiko to the wild, but she was still prone to returning to human areas along the Scandinavian coast. She may be back at Heimaey, as she still wasn't sustaining herself.

One thing I wasn't prepared for on Heimaey, nor did I have the time for, was hiking. Heimaey has a number of trails and high mountains/volcanic rises for those who wish to hike. I can only imagine what the views would be like, and hope to one day find out for myself. The peaks and cliffs look awesome from the bottom though, presuming the low clouds and fog pull back long enough to see their tops.

Heimaey is best seen by boat. I think there is only one company that offers boat tours. Depending on the weather and water conditions, the cruise goes either around the whole island or (as was the case when I was there) only along the northern coast. The abbreviated trip is enough to see some of the smaller islands, some of the island's bird species at nest, and some wild goats and sheep on the cliffsides. The captain also has a treat for the passengers. Near the main bay of the island, right about where Keiko was kept, there is a large cave big enough to swallow up the whole boat. Once the boat is inside, the captain cuts the engine and pulls out a trumpet. The skipper calls this cave his "personal concert hall," and the acoustics give credence to that view.

The island has a movie theater that shows movies about Heimaey. I saw two short movies as a double feature. One was on puffins, the other about the erruption. Not even a block away was Heimaey's natural history museum, with an aquarium and live video feeds of puffin breeding areas.

I don't remember the names of the place I stayed or where I ate on the island, but accommodations strike me as all stripped down. There is nothing spectacular here, but they are certainly comfortable enough. I ate at one restaurant (opposite the dome supermarket in the center of town) that offered local cuisine. I can't bring myself to try puffin (called "lundi"), but I loved the fish. As I said, fishing is the main commerce on the island, and so the fish is fresh and great. I especially loved the salmon.

There are a number of bars in Heimaey. I went to two. One was right next door to the hotel I was staying at; the other was a couple of blocks east. Both were good, but the latter one was a large place with live music until 4am. There was a cover charge and prices for drinks were kinda steep. Alcohol prices throughout Iceland are high. I'd offer this: Viking Beer = bad. I don't often get hangovers (I don't drink much, but I can handle my alcohol when I do), but the hangover I had the following morning was the worst I had ever had. Most places seem to stock various imports.

For Americans: Some may feel a little put out on Heimaey. I was met with curiousity in the restaurant and in the bars. Some may call this "hostility," but I say the people were just curious how Americans felt about world issues (this trip wasn't even a year removed from 9/11). While bar-hopping, I ended up with a few U.S. naval officers who were on leave from the bases in Iceland. When some people found out they were in the service, their attitudes towards all of us chilled a little bit.

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