Well, it’s not as icy as the name suggests. Two of my sisters and I went to Iceland for three weeks in September. The only ice we saw was up in the mountains.
On our first day in Keflavik, the weather was cold and rainy with sleet and winds up to 35 mph. The temp was 41F. I wondered whether I had made a mistake. Would the entire three weeks be like this? I could have been toasty warm back in Texas at 100F.
I walked eight blocks to a grocery store to pick up a few items. On the way back, the sleet and winds were so bad that I hitched a ride back to the hotel. I was willing to risk getting in the car with an ax murderer rather than be swept off my feet by the gusts.
Once back inside Hotel Keflavik, I had dinner in the restaurant with my twin. We both had lobster, and we learned that fresh lobster in Iceland is better than any I have ever had elsewhere.
The next day our tour director told us the waves were so high that we would not be taking the ferry from Selfoss to Westman Island. Instead, we would fly.
Before going to the airport, we took a tour bus through Keflavik. We went to Hallgrimskirkua, the largest church in Iceland. It seats 1,000 people and has two pipe organs and one free-standing organ. At the entrance is a unique piece of art, a shallow glass bowl on the floor, filled with water and highlighted by colored lights. Tranquil music from two speakers in the ceiling and a steady drip of water from the ceiling into the bowl cause the reflections on the wall to move in circles and arrows.
We then went to the airport and boarded a 24-seater Jetstream Propjet to fly to Heimaey (Home Island). The landing was rough because of the crosswinds, but we made it down safely, minus a few fingernails, and took another bus to our hotel. The pilot drove the bus.
We hiked through the town and saw a stave church, a reproduction of the first Christian church on the island. The church was donated by Norway since the previous church was destroyed by a volcano. In 1973 the eruption of Mount Eldfell sprayed lava up from fissures in the ground and resulted in the evacuation of the town to the mainland for months.
Luckily, the entire fishing fleet was in the harbor at the time because of bad weather, and the documentaries we saw showed people, all quite calm and silent, getting on the ships, with some of the elderly being carried aboard. The lava flowed for several days. This photo is of a marker to show how high the lava rose in front of our hotel. In some areas the ash reached the top of telephone poles.
People were worried that the lava would close the harbor, which was vital for the community if the residents wished to return. The U.S. military sent huge pipes and pumps that used seawater to cool the lava flow, and the harbor was saved. One local woman spoke to us and expressed her gratitude to the American troops for saving their harbor. Eventually, about 4000 of the 5000 residents returned.
For lunch we went to a wonderful restaurant, the Vinaminni Kaffihaus, for great Mexican soup and an excellent hamburger. Later, we took a ferry ride around the island and spent some time in a natural cave which has great acoustics. One of the crew members, who had also been our pilot and bus driver, went on top of the ship and played Amazing Grace on his saxophone. It was a moving experience.
We spent some time in the Saeheimar Aquarium and Natural History Museum. Our tour guide showed us a live puffin, which was being cared for there because of its injured wing. In the past, young men would swing back and forth on a rope high up on the cliffs to catch puffins, which have been a staple of the local diet for many years. Later, harvesters used nets on long poles to snare the birds. Our guide told us not to bother to sample puffin in the restaurants. He said you had to be starving to enjoy puffin meat.
During the puffin season the fledgling birds come down and end up in the backyards of the houses because they are drawn by the lights of the town. Children go out and put the puffins in boxes to save them from the dogs and cats. The next morning they take the boxes out to the cliffs and throw the puffins up into the air to keep them safe.
Because the sea gradually washes away the cliffs, the lighthouse is on wheels so it can be relocated when the cliffs erode.
For dinner we went to the home of Arnor and Helga Jonsdottir, who own the coffeehouse where we had the wonderful meal the day before. Helga told the story of their evacuation from the island. They sang one Icelandic song and a few familiar ballads from the 1970s, such as “Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Fine House”. If you go to Iceland, be sure to go by their restaurant and bakery.
If you go on an Overseas Adventure Travel tour to Iceland, as we did, try to go on the pre-trip excursion to the Westman Islands so that you might have the opportunity to be in the group that goes to their house for the Home-Hosted meal. It was excellent.
We spent an entire day waiting in a coffeeshop to see if we would be able to leave Heimaey by either ferry or plane, but the weather was so bad that we spent another night in the hotel and left the next day. We then took the ferry to the mainland for the rest of the tour. Stop by next month to hear more of the story.
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Here is a link to the Westman Islands website in English. http://visitwestmanislands.com/english/