Saturday, July 18, 2015

Vik to Vestmannaeyjar

Before heading to the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic) in the afternoon, we had some time to get in a few more sights on the mainland.

We started at Skogafoss, a beautiful waterfall situated not far from the road, which was a treat compared to many of the waterfalls here, which are usually a pretty good hike off the beaten path. Legend has it that a settler in Skogar, the town nearby, hid a chest of treasures behind the waterfall. One of them, a golden ring, was said to have special powers, and villagers would try all sorts of things to get at it, but they never did.

What I found most interesting about Skogafoss though was that just behind it was Fimmvorduhals, the eruption fissure that started the massive Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010. The eruption started at Fimmvorduhals and then transitioned to the larger glacial volcano. The most damaging thing about this eruption is that it was so intense that it melted such a large portion of the glacier that it created enormous floods that barreled down the mountain and completely washed out the bridge and highway that passes nearby. You can take a 25km hiking trail up Fimmvorduhals and see the craters that were created by this eruption.

We proceeded to the Skogar folk museum. This little gem (well, not really little actually) is a combination of three museums: the folk museum, the turf house and old buildings, and the museum of transport and communication. All of them were interesting in their own right, but Sarah of course was most fascinated by the turf houses. She loves them so much that she bought a book of pictures of turf houses and plans on building a turf garden shed when we return home.

It was a little tight for time, as we had to get to the Vestmannaeyjar ferry. We thought we had booked tickets for our car, just assuming that with two adult tickets the car was included. Whoops. When we got there, the lady said there was no booking for the car and there was no room left on the ferry. So we had to frantically scramble through our luggage to take what we would need for 24 hours and then boarded the ferry sans auto. We learned later that even with tickets this is not uncommon. The ferry also acts as the freight carrier for the Westman Islands. So if there is an abnormally high volume of freight for that trip, cars sometimes get bumped out. I asked why they don't just have a separate ship for freight, but no one could really tell me why.

Oh well. It's a small island and very walkable. The island itself is one of 18 that form the plural Westman Islands. The island where the town is is called Heimaey. Roughly 4500 people live there and it is a quaint, beautiful little town. The people are incredibly friendly, probably the most friendly that we encountered our entire trip. And they are fiercely proud of their heritage and their history. They're also tougher than nails. Vestmannaeyjar has the strongest average winds in Iceland and one of the hills there has the highest average recorded winds in Europe, sometimes as high as 215 kph. We experienced winds there that were easily close to 100 kph.

After checking in to our luxurious hotel, Hotel Vestmannaeyjar, we headed down to the harbour to meet our guides for Rib Safari. This unique tour takes you on a rib boat. It is a powerful motorized raft boat. The seats are raised but aren't really seats as much as they are like saddles. You straddle the cushion and hold onto the seat handles in front of you. You see, when a boat like this has a 600-hp outboard on it and it guns it on rough seas, you get some pretty insane air. And remaining seated when said boat lands on said rough sea is a terrible idea for the maintenance of intact vertebrae. Straddling like this allows you to pump your legs up and down so they absorb the impact and not your back.

We toured the small islands around Heimaey and saw the thousands of birds nesting in the cliffs, as well as the many hidden caves in the islands. Some of these islands raise straight out of the sea before plateauing a hundred feet above the sea level. Yet there were still sheep up there. It is a hobby for islanders and they basically compete to see who can raise sheep in crazier places. The sheep are originally brought there by, I kid you not, tying a rope to them and hauling them up using a pulley system. They are lowered down into the boat later when they are ready for slaughter. The best area we toured was a small bay formed by the cliffs. It was here that Keiko, the orca whale made famous by Free Willy, was released after he finished his filming. He had been born near the Westman Islands before he was purchased by Marineland in Canada. And that is to where he was returned. He swam in an open ocean pen for awhile to ensure he didn't suffer shock.

When Keiko was released, he undertook an enormous swim to Norway, where he eventually died in one of the fjords. Veterinarians believe it was pneumonia that did him in, and that he may have succumbed to it because he did not develop resistance to diseases prevalent in the wild.

Next was Eldheimar Volcano Museum. In 1973, the volcano Eldfell erupted. The eruption lasted just over five months, and when all was said and done, 400 houses were buried and 1500 people were homeless. The islanders were evacuated early, and close to 1000 did not return, reducing the population of the island. They rebuilt the town eventually, but it was forever changed, not only due to the population change, but the island itself grew in size because of the lava flow. In the 2000s, excavation started on one particular house. Eventually, the entire home was excavated, and the town decided to build an ambitious museum around the house. Thus was born the Eldheimar Museum. It is, in my opinion, a world class museum. The unique nature of building it around a preserved relic of a natural disaster combined with the multiple interactive exhibits makes it one of a kind. It is a must see for anyone visiting this beautiful little town.

Finally we visited Lyngfell stables to go horseback riding with two members of the operating family. The Icelandic horses, which are smaller than North American riding horses, were so well tempered and a breeze to ride. They are well suited to uneven terrain, which is perfect because lava rock and sand is a bugger to walk on. The 17-year old son that joined us was very intelligent and very friendly. We chatted almost the entire one hour ride about our respective nations. He unfortunately knew very little about Canada except Rob Ford. But he sure knew a ton about his home nation and, specifically, Vestmannaeyjar. He shared with me many historical stories and customs and traditions of his home. It was a special experience.

The night ended with a visit to Slippurinn, what is still the best restaurant of the dozens we visited while in Iceland. Unbelievable food and top notch service. You cannot visit the Westman Islands and not eat at this restaurant.

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