Vestmannaeyjar, also known as Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) is a small group of islands located near the southern coast of Iceland. This archipelago includes 14 islands in addition to a number of rock outcropping. Only the largest island, Heimaey is populated, despite the fact that some of the outer islands have hunting cabins that are used during the summer bird hunting season.

Puffins

How It All Began

The name Vestmannaeyjar, originated at a time when Irish slaves who cultivated land in southern Iceland fled to the islands after murdering their master Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson. Hjörleifur 's stepbrother, a man named Ingólfur Arnarson, sailed to the islands to look for them to avenge the death of his brother, where he found and killed them. Several of the Vestmannaeyjar islands still bear names that are reminiscent of the event.

For the first Icelanders who immigrated to Iceland from Norway, the Irish were known as "People of the West "(Ireland is located west of Norway) and the name of the islands is derived from the term "Westerners", in commemoration of that event.

There are still a number of unanswered questions about exactly whom the first settler was in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. Apparently the first settler on the main island Heimaey, was a man named Herjólfur Bárðarson who built a farm in the valley named after him, "Valley Herjólfsdalur".

One of the reasons that this particular location was chosen is because it is one of the few places on the island where a source of fresh water can be found. According to history books, the first Icelandic settlement began around the year 900, despite archaeological evidence indicating that the area was already populated a hundred years earlier.

Major Attractions

Eldfell volcano

Puffins - the symbol of the Westman Islands. The Westman Islands are the largest nesting colonies of puffins in Iceland. The puffins arrive in early summer and stay until the end of August when their migratory season starts. Hundreds of thousands of birds nest in the islands' cliffs, and hiking trails that lead to the nesting spots where you can literally come within a few meters of the birds, who are not afraid of humans.

"Pompeii of the North" – the excavation site, located at the foot of Mount Eldfell, shows the extent of the destruction of the city and houses. Houses completely covered in ash have been excavated and you can clearly see the proximity of neighboring houses where residents live, to the destruction zone.

Sailing around the islands - sailing around Heimaey Island and nearby islands is an excellent opportunity to see thousands of birds nesting in the cliffs, unique views of the islands and Iceland's north skyline from various angles. Ttickets can either be purchased in advance or on arrival and the cruise is about an hour and a half duration.

Sailing to Surtsey Island - a volcanic island, formed in 1963. Pedestrian access to the island is prohibited but you can sail around it. During summer, there is a good chance to spot whales, during a cruise. The cruise sails around the island and returns to the main island.

Viking Church – a Norwegian Viking church, located near Heimaey port, is a gift that was given to residents, by the Norwegian government.

Westman Islands Festival

Every summer, during the first weekend of August, one of Iceland's largest and most interesting festivals takes place. 4,000 people come to participate in a local open-air music festival that takes place under the stars.

The festival is famous for its' fun atmosphere and fireworks display that takes place on the backdrop of Iceland's unique and impressive natural scenery. Definitely an Icelandic event that offers visitors an exciting cultural experience with the local residents.

Westman Islands Fishing Industry

From the very beginning, almost all the islander's needs were provided from the sea. Fishing in the area is abundant and near the coast, therefore making the port on Vestmannaeyjar Island the most profitable in the country. For centuries, the island's anglers used primitive hooks and fishing rods and the introduction of modern fishing tools during the last century, led to a drastic change in the island's population that has since grown at a significant rate. As a result of these improvements, the island's population has rapidly grown over a short space of time. In 1900 the total population was about 500 people, in 1925 the number rose to 3,200. The largest population growth was recorded in 1971 in which 5,200 residents were recorded as living on the island. In 2006 the number fell to 4,200 and is about the same rate today.

In addition to the modernization of fishing equipment, significant progress was made in the processing of fish. The most significant innovation was when the process of freezing fish replaced the old custom of salt curing. Currently there are two big fish farming factories on the island in addition to a number of smaller companies. A large part of fresh fish are shipped mainly to European markets.

Additional Island Natural Resources

For centuries, the islanders used other natural resources apart from fishing. Many species of seabirds, which nest on the cliffs surrounding the islands, are a valuable source of food. Eggs collected and the poultry meat provided a rich food source for residents. At the beginning of each spring, Gulls' eggs are collected and in summer, Puffins are hunted for food. Fish and waterfowl provided important sources of food to residents of the island, centuries ago right up until the present.

In addition to fishing and bird hunting, farming has always been a way of life in the islands. Farmers raised sheep and dairy cows that allowed self-sufficiency, without the need to import food from Iceland. After the Icelanders began to grow vegetables such as potatoes and other root vegetables, gardens have become a common sight on Heimaey Island.

In recent years, agriculture has become less common and farmers still keep small flocks of sheep for personal use and horses for riding.

How To Get There?

By Sea

The cheapest means of reaching the Westman Islands is by sea. The Herjólfur ferry leaves daily from Landeyjahöfn to the Westman Islands and the journey takes half an hour. The ferry takes passengers and cars and is equipped with toilets and also a cafeteria. For further information: Www.eimskip.com

By Air

Flights from Reykjavik: Eagle Air had two daily flights from Reykjavik. For further information: Www.eagleair.is

Flight from Bakki

A short five minutes flight that departs from Bakki. For further information: Www.eyjaflug.is

Westman Islands Map