Vestmannæyar is an archipelago of about 15 islands, located in the south of Iceland (that take 30 minutes to get to by boat from Landeyjahöfn). These islands were formed by submarine volcanic eruptions and most recently, in 1963 the island Surtsey emerged during an eruption. Heimæy (the largest Island of 13.4 km2) is the only Vestmanæyar Island inhibited with a population of more than 4,000 people. Heimæy island lives mainly from fishing and hunting and is especially well-known for bird hunting (including puffin hunting).
With the growing tourism in Iceland, the Westman Islands have become a popular destination in the summertime. On the first weekend in August, when Iceland celebrates the shopkeepers holiday (Verslunarmannahelgi), the Westman Islands host the festival Þjóðhátið í Eyjum that welcomes between 11,000 and 13,000 people (most of the crowd are Icelanders from the mainland).
The festival was first celebrated in 1874 while the rest of the Icelandic nation celebrated the millennium of the settlement of Iceland; the bad weather did not allow residents of the Westman Islands to join the party on the mainland of Iceland, so they decided to organise their own festival. Ironically, Þjóðhátið í Eyjum is now one of the largest Icelandic festivals! The Eldheimar Volcano Museum traces the history of the Eldfell volcano on Heimæy Island, including the most recent eruption on January 23rd, 1973, when a lot of damage was done to the Island and over 360 houses were buried in lava and ash. Archaeologists have been uncovering what remained of the buildings, and the Eldheimar Volcano Museum is built around the remains of one of the homes.
You’ll be dumbfounded to see that the objects and souvenirs in the ruined houses seem to be intact despite the ash and dust. The entire population was evacuated during the eruption in 1973, that lasted six months, and a majority of people have returned to the island. Today, you can climb up the volcano Eldfell and still feel the heat from the eruption more than forty years later. The Heimaey island also has the Sagnheimar Folk Museum, and the Natural History Museum and Aquarium.
You can get around most of Heimaey on foot, or you can rent a bike. There are also organised bus tours that go around the island and boat tours also. The island is very lively, especially in the summertime, with plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops to keep you busy and many art galleries too. It is said that the highest point of the Heimey Island is the windiest place in Iceland.
If you’ve watched the movie Stormy Weather by film director Sólveig Anspach, you´ve already caught a glimpse of Heimaey Island and its beautiful atmosphere. Djúpið, by film director Baltasar Kormákur, is another movie filmed on Heimæy. This movie tells the true story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a fisherman from the Westman Islands, whose fishing boat capsized, causing him to swim for six hours in cold 5 ° C water, and he miraculously survived. A truly fascinating story!
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