Icelandic Finale: Southern Coast and Heimaey
Note: feel free to catch up on part I or part II if you missed them!
It was time to say farewell to our first home base and proceed east toward our second one. Destination: volcanic Heimaey (HEY-my), the largest and only inhabited island in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) chain. We'd be spending two nights here but only one full day, as we would arrive late, and depart early two mornings later. What a day it would be... but first, Landsmót.
What is Landsmót, you ask? Held in the rural town of Hella (roughly pronounced HET-la), it's an annual Icelandic horse competition, and it just so happened to be during our week in the country! Since Julia loves horses and it seemed like an authentic event to witness, we signed up for tickets. Astonishingly, given its importance, there was not a single sign to direct us toward it when we arrived in Hella. On the other hand, perhaps this was intentional to keep out tourists like us!
In any case, the event didn't disappoint, as we got to rub shoulders with real Icelanders and eat incredibly delicious fish and chips while reclining on a grassy knoll. The horses pranced and we were happy. The sun had been out that morning, and I had gotten in the car wearing just a t-shirt. When we arrived, though, I added three layers including my winter jacket. I wasn't too hot. It reminded me of an American county fair atmosphere, except we were thousands of miles from home.
The excitement wasn't over yet though, as we drove further east along Iceland's southern coast. Magnificent landscapes continued to envelop us.
Our destination for the evening was Vík (pronounced VEEK, not VICK), which simply means "bay" in Icelandic. It was a pipsqueak of a town, but OH what a setting. The main attraction here was a black sand beach that we would later agree was one of the most magical spots among dozens.
We parked in a gravel lot and moseyed slowly toward the icy sea. Towering cliffs rose to our right, white winged specks cruising in front of the ancient rock. I had the goosebump-inducing thought that this scene we just strolled into would have been the same 100, 1,000, or perhaps even a million years ago. Amazing.
Ignoring the impending numbness, I removed my shoes and socks and strode into the frigid North Atlantic. Julia was already a step ahead of me. Needless to say we didn't stay in there for long, but it's hard for me to see water and not at least go in up to my ankles, whether it's the Caribbean or the Arctic.
We wandered about for awhile, in an awe-induced trance. How could a site of this magnificence be nearly deserted?!
By the time we left, we were hungry for dinner but undeniably satiated in a much deeper way.
After dinner and souvenirs, we had a bit of time to kill before catching our Heimaey-bound ferry. Our waterfall circuit continued with Skógafoss, a cascade of pure power. Remarkably, it wasn't crowded either. We approached cautiously, the flowing thunder gaining strength with every step.
Then, we opted to climb hundreds of stairs to a chorus of complaints from the peanut gallery. The waterfall from above wasn't quite as impressive, but the views of surrounding countryside made the climb worthwhile.
Finally, time for the ferry. The location of the terminal was a head-scratcher: it looked as if they had built it (and the ~10-mile road leading to it) from scratch. Upon further review, I could understand why - there were simply no other towns within easy striking distance of the island, anywhere along the coast. Weather had swerved from fair to foul, but we were ensconced in a comfortable seating area and the boat remained remarkably composed on the swells. By the time we drove off and found our lodging, it had gotten quite late. We tried to rest up in advance of our one and only day on Heimaey.
We awoke to cool (low 50s), grey, drizzly conditions; your typical Icelandic weather, even in July. Then there was the wind: a forecast of 20-30 mph with gusts to 50. Yikes. Well, it sure would make things interesting, wouldn't it?
Our day started with a fascinating stop at the small but informative Beluga Whale Sanctuary. These are some of the most preposterous looking creatures you'll ever see. Enormous bodies reminiscent of about 100 marshmallows rear-ending one another with comically small fins, and a tiny, smiling visage. We loved them.
After a bit more perambulation of Vestmannaeyjabær (say that three times fast - or even one time slow), the only town on the island, it was time to learn about the volcano. Readers of a certain age may remember the day in January 1973 when the deceptively folksy-sounding volcano Eldfell (meaning hill of fire in Icelandic) blew its top.
Long story short, there was a tremendous amount of destruction given the tiny size of the island. While 400+ homes were destroyed, deaths were relatively limited given successful evacuation efforts. By the time all was said and done, the island had gotten quite a bit bigger (see below).
We visited the museum known as Eldheimar, which described in vivid detail and interactive exhibits the toll, both physical and human, that this historic eruption took. It was incredibly fascinating. One of my favorite vignettes was that of the boy who, while evacuating, ran back into the house to grab a textbook to study for an exam the next day, not realizing the colossal scale of what was happening.
Among the exhibits we were able to see the remains of an actual house, which looked as if someone had blown ash into and through it with the force of a rocket launch.
Then, it was time to climb the volcano itself. The three of us traipsed up the mountain's southwestern flank, buffeted by heavy wind and drizzle. This was not like hiking back in New Hampshire, surrounded by lush forests and the occasional squawking bird or peaceful stream. This was, quite literally, scorched earth. The ground was deathly burgundy and black, offering no protection from the weather. Both the earth and the skies were angry today, but we were heading up anyway.
When we got about halfway up, conditions went from unpleasant to borderline frightening. The wind howled in our ears and started to physically throw us off balance. Just when the thought of turning back crossed my mind, a small group passed by us, on their way down. The look in the man's eyes was one of trepidation. He matter-of-factly said "be very careful, the winds are intense up there". Intense up there? I thought... as in, worse than they are already?
We persevered a bit longer; Alyse right behind us, I literally clutched Julia to prevent her from blowing over. We staggered forward, one belabored step at a time, like zombies. The trail had gotten narrower, and was composed of loose rocks. One false step on either side would likely be the end of us.
Julia and I crouched down behind a rise of perhaps a foot, the only pitiful protection we had. Right next to her, I hollered over the wind's thunderous roar. "THE TOP IS RIGHT THERE", I bellowed, pointing perhaps 100 yards ahead. In life, I'm a big believer in not giving up and sticking things out, no matter how tough. However, with the rain intensifying and lashing us horizontally, I said to myself "this will have to be good enough".
The adrenaline was pumping and I truly wanted to make the summit, but reason won the day. Those tempestuous moments will forever be emblazoned in my mind; seeing the peak just ahead, but holding on to something far more important. I signaled to Alyse to turn around, and back down we went, one wobbly step at a time.
When we had gotten off the exposed part of the mountain, I started to process what had just happened, and how close we had been to disaster. The three of us were riding a wave of jittery excitement, the kind people must get after bungee-jumping or flying a fighter plane. Emotion got the better of me as we descended from the Martian landscape to a more inviting one of waving fronds of grass and purple flowers. How can something so risky and dangerous be so otherworldly exciting at the same time? Next week I'd be back behind a desk, answering emails and making small talk. Today I survived a windstorm while scaling a volcano. Life's funny, isn't it?
Our Icelandic adventures were coming to an end. Six days had been the perfect amount of time, especially since it was our first family vacation in over three years. Sometimes I lament not having more time in a destination, but despite the magic of the week, I was also ready to head home.
Before doing so, we had one more waterfall to see - the peerless Seljalandsfoss, which one can admire not only from the traditional angle, but also from behind. For that reason, crowds were intense here, but our experience was dampened not by the crowds but rather by the falls themselves.
A light mist quickly became a steady, log flume-esque barrage of water as we followed the many others, some of whom were surely here for bucket list checkmarks.
By the time we emerged from the other side, perhaps 20 minutes later, we were thoroughly drenched and comprehensively content.
For the umpteenth time this week, multiple realities existed simultaneously. A sensation most would consider unpleasant (remember, it was only about 50 degrees out) turned into something positive, and even memorable. The falls were powerful yet delicate. We loved every minute of our adventure, but were ready to go home. And later that night, home we went. Accepting that things are more than they seem stretched from beginning to end. It sometimes demanded looking at an event or place through a different lens, but our patience and willingness to do so was rewarded with a family experience we'd all take to the grave.
As Iceland went from larger than life to a speck behind our 737, my mind continued pondering this concept, overactive as usual. Eventually, the flow of visions ebbed, as languid lava. They had stretched my consciousness to its limit, adding new territory to the mental landscape. Not fully processed, I knew I would return to them over and over again. But now, it was time to sleep.