"" Writer's Wanderings: Port of Call - Heimaey, Iceland

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Port of Call - Heimaey, Iceland

Off the coast of Iceland is what's known as the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, a group of islands formed from volcanic action. The largest and only inhabited one is Heimaey. This was our next stop and, wonder of wonders, the weather was sunny and clear again. The Crystal Serenity anchored just outside the hook of land that reached around and protected the harbor of the town.

While the town is small, there was no lack of tourist transportation. At least a half dozen buses awaited our arrival and we boarded the one for our tour.  The morning was fresh, as our captain always liked to say. Our first sight as we exited the dock area was one of the local teens swinging from a rope secured into the top of a cliff area. He would swing across the face of the cliff from side to side. Our guide said it was one of the new sports their teens had invented.

Fantastic vistas passed by the windows of our bus. Like mainland Iceland, there were few trees outside of the small ones planted near homes as a part of the landscaping. This island especially showed off its volcanic origins--but more of that in another post. What everyone really wanted to see were those ever elusive puffins. As our ship's information said, "The Icelandic Puffin calls Heimaey home. That would be six to eight million of them." Since there had been no puffin sightings in our Reykjavik stop, it wasn't long before the question was out, "Will we see puffins today?"

In her most apologetic tone, our tour guide told us that it was highly unlikely. You see to have this wonderful weather meant we would have to abandon the hope of a puffin sighting. The puffins were known to go out into deep waters to feed when the weather was nice making the seas calm. You could feel the air of disappointment in the bus after that.

Still it was hard to be disappointed in the views we were about to see from Stórhöfði, said to be the windiest place in Iceland--except for the day we visited; which is why there were no puffins around. this was the spot where there should have been the largest colony. Instead we contented ourselves with the sheep and lambs and a few Icelandic horses we saw. The Icelandic horses are said to be unusual in that they have a special gait not found in any other breed. The gait allows for one hoof to always be on the ground giving the rider a smooth ride. The breed is fiercely protected.

Looking out toward a small island in the distance, we could see a single dwelling on the top of the cliffs that surrounded it. Our guide explained that there were several islands like that where a small house is built for the comfort of scientists studying the puffins. Or, as she suggested with a chuckle, for husbands who need to get away from home for a while.

In another direction, we could see Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano on Iceland's main island that erupted in 2010 and shut down air travel for weeks in Europe. The problem it seems was the ash. It wasn't like ash from a fire you might burn in your backyard. This ash was made up of cinders that could cause havoc with the planes as well as cut down on vision. Life goes on as normally as possible in Iceland even though they sit on several volcanoes. The most likely to erupt next is Katla which is overdue according to every Icelander who spoke with us. I believe it is also the largest and is said to be most dangerous. But then there is also Hekla which erupts about every 10 years. Snow capped Eyjafjallajokull and Katla could be seen in the distance from our vantage point high on the hill at Stórhöfði.

On our way back into town, our guide pointed to the mouse shaped island we could from the highway. It is Iceland's newest island and was formed in the 1960's by underwater volcanic action that eventually built up on the floor of the ocean to create the island. Geography is constantly changing in Iceland witnessed by our guide who as a child remembered visiting her grandmother on Heimaey before the eruption of Eldfell which added a square mile of land to the island. As we drove on the new section she said, "This land was not here when I was a child." Amazing to consider it.

The eruption on the island of Heimaey was also significant in many other ways. But more on that in my next post.

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