We arrived at Heimaey Island mid-morning on August 5. We had to anchor outside the small harbor because Prinsendam, another Holland America ship we had sailed on twice, was docked there. I was feeling well enough by now to go ashore, particularly since we had an excursion scheduled so there wouldn’t have to be too much walking. Unfortunately, the tour turned out to be probably the worst one we have ever taken. Even Holland America eventually acknowledged this, refunding 50% of the tour price.
Located just offshore in the south of Iceland, Heimaey (pronounced with 3 syllables, as hi-MAY-ee) is the largest island near Iceland. On the north side is the town of Vestmannaeyjar with some 4500 inhabitants. It has been populated for more than 1,000 years and in 1627 it was the victim of the same North African slave traders who had decimated the Djupivogur area.
We were tendered ashore for our tour in late morning. Unfortunately it turned out that the buses on the island were out on an earlier Prinsendam tour & we had to wait on the dock for more than an hour before they returned. It was chilly & windy, so this was not a good development for the many people who were somewhat ill. Worse, Mary tripped & gashed her knee walking up the steps from the dock. When the buses finally arrived there were not enough seats for everyone who had bought tickets, so a few were left behind. In retrospect we wished we had been among them, because the bus tour went nowhere important that couldn’t have been reached on foot & the tour guide was terrible. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything interesting to see. Even from the ship there were interesting views of islands or peninsulas with rock formations where puffins and other birds often nest (but not when we were there).
You will notice the characteristic landscape of rock & grass but no trees. As we passed a small planting of short trees our guide repeated a point we had heard before: What to do if you are lost in the woods in Iceland? Stand up & look around.
The fact that this town still exists here is pretty remarkable. In January, 1973, a volcano called Eldfell next to the town that had been thought extinct suddenly erupted. The eruption lasted some 4 months & increased the size of the island by about 20%. Everyone on the island was evacuated within a day and only one man (who had broken into a pharmacy to obtain drugs & was overcome by toxic gas) was killed. But about 400 houses were buried in lava & ash.
As the lava flow was overcoming the town & threatening to cut off the harbor that was essential to the fishing industry here, a professor and some townspeople decided to try to divert the flow by pumping water on it from a fire truck. This had the effect of more quickly cooling the lava wall which then impeded the flow of lava in that direction. Once it had been proven to work, the United States provided a number of boats with pumps to pour seawater on the lava flow headed for the town & the harbor. This saved both and, although the entrance to the harbor has been reduced to a little over 100 yards, the new land created by the lava flow serves as a breakwater that provides better protection from foul weather.
Our most interesting stop on this tour was on Edfell. We walked up to a viewing spot, although not all the way to the top which would be a substantial climb. The side of the volcano is still mostly bare volcanic rock, although the townspeople have planted grass around the bottom & are hoping it will eventually cover the mountain.
While on Eldfell we also saw the nearby volcanic mountain of Helgafell whose eruption some 5,000 years ago made a single island out of what had been two. It is now mostly covered by grass & as I mentioned it is hoped that will happen to Eldfell eventually as well. Our guide also pointed out Eyjafjallajökull lying across the water near the edge of the Icelandic mainland. You will probably recall that trans-Atlantic air traffic was grounded for about a week in 2010 because of an eruption in Iceland & this is where it happened. In 2010 Iceland also had a banking meltdown during which it defaulted on substantial European loans & we heard several times that the volcano showed that you shouldn’t mess with Iceland. “You asked for cash and we gave you ash” was their saying, which we also saw on a tee shirt in Reykjavik. My thought about this was that the real lesson is you shouldn’t loan money to Iceland. By the way, don’t even think about trying to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull; there were sarcastic tee shirts in Reykjavik saying something like “What part of Eyjafjallajökull can’t you pronounce?”
There were some tiny white wildflowers trying to grow in the lava on Eldfell. As for fauna, we saw a lot of sheep & also gulls in the water outside the harbor.
After leaving Eldfell we drove around the town seeing some pretty uninteresting things (“Here is the supermarket, and there is the liquor store . . .”). But did we see the new museum about the volcano that included excavated houses? Of course not. We drove past the empty site of an annual festival that had been held a few days before our arrival, and our guide helpfully explained how much fun it is to drink a lot. Speaking of drinking, it is an interesting fact that until 1989 it was illegal to produce or drink beer in Iceland. The official reason was that beer drinkers tend to drink it a lot while drinkers of wine & spirits don’t. This is obviously not true & the theory we heard while in Iceland is that beer was considered the drink of the working classes. Today Icelanders not only drink but brew beer. We also drove to an overlook outside of town from which you could see . . . grass-topped rocks in or by the sea, looking pretty much the same as the ones we had already seen.
We made one stop in town (really a bathroom break, which eat up a lot of time on these excursions). It was at the town cultural center, which wasn’t too exciting in itself. But we discovered that inside was the public library, and of course regular readers of this blog know that this is always one of our objectives. The Icelandic word for library is bókasafn (literally “book collection”), and there it was outside the building and also at the inside entrance to the library. Because of the houses buried in the volcano that turned out to be well preserved when excavated Icelanders call Vestmannaeyjar the “Pompeii of the North,” and there was a tee shirt in the library that conveyed that. There was also an interesting red rug indicating that the library had been established in 1862. I don’t know what the 1977 date signifies, but I would guess that is when it was reopened after the volcano. In front of the cultural center was an interesting abstract sculpture of a woman.
After getting off the bus we decided to head back to the ship rather than walking around the town. We were both still under the weather, pretty tired from the bus trip & Mary’s knee hurt. Too bad since the museum sounded interesting. But we were headed for Reykjavik the next day and wanted to conserve what little energy we had for that.
Those who have followed this blog may be wondering why there have been no towel animals for awhile. The answer is that in the second half of the voyage, after reaching Amsterdam, our towel animals were repeats of the ones we had on the first half of the voyage. However, during this stop in Iceland there was a competition among the room stewards in towel animal creativity. The entries were all displayed on the Lido deck near the pool. So here are a few of the entries, probably the last towel animals you will see on this journey.