Saturday, July 18, 2015

Vestmannaeyjar to Hella

The morning started early on the island. After an epic breakfast at the hotel, we met our guide, Unpronounceable Someonesson. He is the owner and operator of Eyja Tours and was so sociable and knowledgeable. It was probably the best guided tour we took the whole trip.

It covered pretty much everything. First he showed us Sprangan, a traditionally hobby of islanders. They anchor long ropes into certain cliffs where birds nest. They learn how to control the swing of the rope, allowing them to swing along the face of the cliff and reach the nests of the birds. Historically they did this because they required the eggs for nutrition. Now it is mostly for fun and tradition. But it takes a lot of skills. Young kids and tourists who attempt it often end up in the hospital with broken bones. And speaking of bones, sometimes the eggs are fertilized, and they have small formed bones inside them. Our guide says in that case they usually just grit their teeth and swallow. Eww. But they are not just reckless egg hunters. If they come across a puffin nest, they NEVER take the egg. Puffins breed for life with the same partner, and they only lay a single egg each season. The puffin colonies are already facing population stressors, so eliminating their population growth would be very damaging. There is enough stress on them that in the last 5 years the amount of hunting days the locals have been granted by authorities has dropped from close to a week to only 3 days. Our guide suspects next year there will be no puffin hunting authorized.

Speaking of hunting, they do it on the small islands around Heimaey. There are single cabins built on these secluded islands, and the men on the island are each a member of a different cabin. It's kind of like a club. When they do go to hunt puffin, they go out there as a group and spend the days free from their wives, as he put it. He called it a giant, luxurious, and private man cave. Ha ha.

We then went to a large field snuggled in the cliffs. It is the sight of a major music festival that occurs the last week of August every year on the island. It is attended by over 15 000 people. There is not enough hotel space for that many people, so they spread tents all over the field and the surrounding golf course. Various Icelandic and European musicians play the festival, and it is basically a four day drinking binge. They do various traditional activities and there are thing for kids. At the end they light flares off the fence bordering the field. One flare for every year they've held the festival. Last year was the 150th anniversary, so they fired off 150 flares into the night sky. I imagine that's quite the sight to behold.

Next we traveled up to the windiest spot in Europe. Not for the wind, but to see the puffins. They love to nest on this cliff because they are pathetic flyers so need help from the wind to carry them aloft. They make up for it by being talented swimmers and fish catchers. The kittiwakes, kind of like seagulls, are excellent flyers but not such great swimmers. So they often wait for the puffins to catch the fish, and then fly in gracefully and snatch the fish from them. Nasty kittiwakes.

Then we visited the slopes of Eldfell, the volcano that erupted and buried part of the town in 1973. It is still recent enough that not much has grown on the lava field. In order to keep the dust down, they imported lupin seeds from Alaska. The lupins established quite well. A little too well in fact. They now spread rapaciously all over the island and the mainland (which I'm aware is also an island) and choke out native plants. Thankfully they are really pretty. But man are their stalks thick. I would hate to be the guy who has to mow those things next to the highway.

The last stop on the tour was Selheimar Aquarium. It is an aquarium and seabird rescue centre. The children on the island traditionally go around at night in late August and early September looking for hurt or lost seabird babies and bring them here to be rehabilitated, at which point they are released. If they find any during the remainder of the year, they will bring them in as well. They mostly look in August and September because that is when the puffin colonies go back out to sea to feed for the winter. When they do, some of the pufflings get lost and end up in town in backyards. If they weren't rescued they'd die from starvation or be eaten by a domestic pet. The children hunt for them and bring them to the centre, and then the folks there take them up to a high, windy cliff and throw them off to help them catch the wind. This gives them the headstart they need and they fly out to sea to join their friends.

At the aquarium we met Toti. He was rescued as a 5-day old puffling. He has lived at the aquarium for 4 years and is super tame. He lets people hold him and he follows the tourists around as they check out the aquarium. He really liked me. Not only did he follow me everywhere, but he thought my shoes were tasty and was pecking and nibbling at them. The owner said it's actually a sign that he approves of me.

Before we left, we saw an adorable book about a lost baby puffin and how he was rescued by the children of the town. It was written by the previous owner of the aquarium, the current owner's father. There were versions in many different languages, so since we got the book of troll stories in English, we bought this one in French.

We had lots of time to kill before catching the ferry so took in a delicious local bakery, and roamed the town. The most interesting thing was walking on the lava pile that resulted from the 1973 eruption. Underneath your feet, meters below, rest the homes of 1000s of people. The former streets are marked out by wooden signs, showing where they are directly below. And all throughout the town, there are black markers that mark the depth of ash that settled at that location. Just across from our hotel, the ash was 137 cm deep. It took months to clean the town and, interestingly, the first place they cleaned out was the graveyard. Go figure.

Back to the mainland we finally went and reunited with our car. We didn't have much else planned on the itinerary, so we went to a "hidden" hot pool. Turns out it is not so hidden anymore. You see, some time back, an Icelander published a book called "The Thermal Pools of Iceland" with detailed descriptions and directions to almost every thermal pool in the country. Tourists were delighted, but Icelanders were not so much. This one was a pretty old one. There sort of was a change room, but it was a rough structure and very dirty on the inside. It was not really maintained obviously as it's like 3 km off the highway and then a 15 minute walk into the mountain valley. But it was still very pleasant to sit in and we met some friendly folks there.

The conclusion to the night ended up being one of the more memorable of the trip. We arrived out our originally booked hotel, Hotel Laekur, a farm hotel. The owner, Gunnar, looked a bit concerned when we arrived. He had realized earlier that morning that he'd made an error, and he'd overbooked his hotel. We technically had no room. But all was not lost. His son owns a similar hotel down the road about 7 minutes. He arranged with his son to give us the king size suite, which usually costs much more, but they did not charge us anything extra. And he sent us on our way their with a free bottle of wine. Sweet. When we got there, boy did we hit the jackpot. The room was beautiful and spacious, the view was breathtaking, the host was friendly and helpful, and they had a hot tub free for guest use. And since it's a farm hotel, there aren't that many people there. So it was just the two of us enjoying the relaxation of the hot tub and the stunning view. Perfect.

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