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Heimaey is an island which lies off the coast of Iceland and despite being only four miles in length, it’s the largest and most populous island off the country’s coast and also the largest of the 16 islands and 30 much smaller islets which make up the Westmann Islands archipelago. Visitors come to this rugged and volcanic destination chiefly to get an authentic feel for the scenery of the North Atlantic and also to experience some of its bountiful wildlife.
Tradition holds that Heimaey was first settled in 900 by the farmer Herjolfur Baroarson in the year 900, however, archaeological excavations in 1971 revealed a number of ancient ruins which proved that a settlement had been established there at least 100 years earlier. Another significant year in the history of Heimaey was 1627, when three Arabian pirate ships arrived in Iceland and raided a number of coastal towns and islands, Heimaey included. Most notable of the island’s survivors was Tyrkja Gudda, who was captured and enslaved by the invaders, but who fought her way back to Iceland through Tunisia, Italy and Denmark to marry resident poet Hallgrimur Petursson. The next devastating event in the island’s history came in 1973 and was the will of nature, not man, involving the eruption of Mount Eldfell on the island. A lava flow began to head to the harbour and an oppressive ash cloud forced the evacuation of the island’s 5,000 inhabitants. As a small island, Heimaey naturally relied on the fruits of the sea for trade, so desperate townspeople set about spraying the encroaching lava and succeeded in saving the harbour and also their livelihoods.
If you visit the island yourself, you’ll have a rare opportunity to witness one of the world’s youngest volcanically shaped destinations. So powerful was the eruption that the shape and size of the island were changed. Before the eruption, it measured 4.3 square miles across and following it, 5.19 square miles. Though it had a devastating effect on the island’s population, the eruption left a landscape of stunning natural beauty, one which makes this small island one of Iceland’s most enduring tourist destinations. The reshaped landscape is home to many different species of seabird, including large numbers of the perennial favourite, puffins, which find the steep cliffs and abundant vegetation particularly appealing. You’ll be able to see a great deal from your cruise ship as you arrive, but the best way to experience the areas natural beauty and abundant feathery fauna is by booking a boat tour around the archipelago.
On land, it’s possible to climb the lava flow and witness the markers which show where the town’s structures which were destroyed once stood. In the town itself, be sure to head to the Natural History Museum if you want to know more about the island’s fascinating story and get up close and personal with some of its inhabitants, namely puffins. The island welcomes around eight million of them a year and at the museum, it’s possible to handle a puffin yourself and learn all about the birds’ habitat and also about other species which reside on the island.
Heimaey is well-known for the production of woven goods, so it’s a great place in which to pick up souvenirs and items of that nature, particularly clothes. Most of the shops are clustered around the town centre, so you’ll be able to peruse what the island offers conveniently and easily.
The island’s home to a busy fishing port, so if you’re exploring there, you’ll have a good choice of seafood restaurants in which to sample the daily catch. Local delicacies include haddock, lobster, prawns, scallops, monk fish and kelp. You’ll also find a number of restaurants selling classic Scandinavian fayre as well as a number of international outlets.
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