The Westmann Islands are a small archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. One website portrays it as the 'Capri of the North.' Now, I suppose referring to its volcanic past, rocky vistas and size, some parallels could be drawn, but the Mediterranean this is not. That little argument aside, it is a fascinating place. Our entire experience there was probably a little out of the ordinary, to say the least.
We were scheduled to visit the island our first full day in Iceland. It was a miserable day, blowing wind, cold and spitting rain. We had kind of resigned ourselves to this being standard Icelandic conditions, so we were already a little less than enthusiastic about our entire vacation at this point. Our itinerary stated the flight would leave at 13:30. We arrived at the downtown airport in plenty of time. We were startled to find that the flight had left at 12:00 and we were way out of luck. The lady behind the counter was most apologetic She offered us the opportunity to take the trip when we returned a week later, or a full refund. At that point with the weather and all, a refund looked inviting.
When the actual day arrived, however, we had an improved attitude after having spent a fabulous week with wonderful weather. Things had declined somewhat, the clouds had blown in, but it was warmer and not yet raining, so we took the chance and decided to take the flight to Heimey, the largest and only one of the islands that is inhabited on a full time basis.
We boarded the flight with a number of tourists and a few very somber well dressed gentlemen wearing dark suits. When we arrived at the airport there were more somber people wearing dark suits. Our bus driver was wearing a dark suit. It was a Saturday, so they weren't going to work, and they weren't going to church. Come to find out, a very prominent businessman, the owner of the largest fishing vessel in the fleet had passed away unexpectedly and the entire town was in mourning.
In spite of the sad occasion, the tour went on. We first raided Café Kro, the coffee shop for hot chocolate and pastries. Then it was onto the bus for a trip around the island, let by Alfreð Alfreðsson . We stopped brief ely at a couple of spots close in to the town - Herjólfsdalur, where the big annual music festival is held, right across from the golf course.
Then we headed up to Stórhöfði at the south of the island. We didn't stay long on top - it was fairly cool and windy, but part way back down we passed a pen filled with sheep being sheared. It was the perfect photo opportunity. The sheep were all quite tame and it was all very photogenic. I'm guessing we were right above Höfðahellir. Approaching the edge of the cliff we found puffin burrows, and peering over the 200 foot cliff we saw actual puffins. Now it was getting exciting, but we were only stopping for 5 minutes. Then, things got weird...
A lady in our group slipped on the grass, twisted her ankle and *pop* her leg broke! Normally, this would not be a good thing. And of course, we all felt just terrible for her, but she wasn't in any real pain, and she was perfectly happy to sit there on the grass, watching the sheep, enjoying the view of the puffins and the sea, while waiting for the ambulance. Now, suddenly a whole world of possibilities opens up - sheep, puffins, sheep being sheared, more puffins, emergency equipment, paramedics, more puffins, sheep, an ambulance, more medical personnel, a television camera, more puf... WHAT!? A television camera? Yes, it turns out the 'farmer' shearing his sheep was also a remote reporter for the TV network in Reykjavik and just happened to have his camera in the car. So, now here we are, on a grassy slope on an island south of Iceland surrounded by sheep, with puffins and other sea birds circling, the ocean waves lapping against the base of the cliff far below, with the television crew, emergency equipment and medical personnel swarming all over the place. It was just ridiculous.
As a fringe benefit, I took 61 puffin pictures, 43 sheep pictures, 4 dog pictures and 15 medical rescue pictures. Now, we're about an hour behind schedule. We had to rush to finish the tour, and a choice had to be made - see the town or the volcanic region.- The town acquired a new mountain and almost 30% more land area was added to the island in 1973 when a fissure opened up and buried half the town and nearly closed the harbor. It's all well documented on the web and in your local library, so I won't go into all the marvelous details here, but it was all very fascinating. We got to climb part way up Eldfell, which, for a brand new mountain, is a fairly easy climb, at 205 meters high (600 and some odd feet or so above sea level). At one point we passed an area where the rocks are still hot and steam continues to rise. I'm a bit sorry we missed the town itself, but then, I'm not a city kind of guy anyway. I suppose somehow it would have been more to pay homage to the people choose to live in this simultaneously harsh and rich region.
OK, another boat ride. We were both a little hesitant after our camera-eating adventure on the whale tour in Húsavík. But, when the captain, Sigurmundur Gísli Einarsson, boarded the vessel wearing his black silk dress suit direct from the funeral carrying his saxophone case, we figured this would be something out of the ordinary. We were not disappointed. We passed the cliffs where a couple of hours before we had been photographing puffins, sheep and emergency equipment and personnel and Television cameramen. The views of the bird life from this vantage point are well worth the trip. I still have a lot of work to do getting used to photographing from the deck of a pitching boat. Action photography is one thing, but usually it's the subject that's moving, not the vantage point. The captain did a great job of keeping us dry and warm. The overcast skies didn't do my photography any favors, either, but in spite of the challenges I got a few keepers.
The most unexpected feature of the ride was when we pulled back into the harbor. At a couple of other places around the island we pulled into large caves hollowed out by centuries of wave action. Inside the harbor is a particularly large grotto. The captain pulled the boat in, shut off the engine, got out his saxophone and treated us to a rendition of none other than "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White"! Now, picture that scene - On an island off the south coast of iceland in a large ocean cave... He closed by playing a regional folk song - a haunting melody that was too quickly forgotten. Then, he put the sax away, started up the boat and the tour was over moments later. I should also recognize Jose M B Cervantes-Henriksen, a crew member aboard the Víkingur, for his contribution to a comfortable and enjoyable cruise. I'd love to see this place on a clear day, but we had a fantastic experience in spite of not having perfect conditions.