The title, ‘In the shadow of COVID-19’ sounds a little ominous, don’t you think? Trust me, it’s intentional! Iceland is operating again, that’s for sure. Tourists are returning, albeit in small numbers. And people are starting to relax into everyday life. However, to say it is business as usual is simply not true. In fact, in the past few days Iceland has seen a small resurgence of cases. But, when I say small, I mean really small. Around 20 new cases or so. Even with a small overall population, that’s a tiny percentage.
The small percentage hasn’t stopped the Icelandic authorities from jumping into action and commanding the citizens wear masks whenever 2 metre social distancing isn’t possible. You are also now required to be tested a second time, after 5 days, if you intend to stay in Iceland for more than 10 days straight. This is on top of your initial border test on arrival. Some may consider this too extreme, but I ask, would you prefer the alternative outcome? A second wave?
The small irritation of having our mouths covered for half an hour [on the ferry] was greatly assuaged by the feeling of safety that it provided.
So with these, hopefully temporary, new restrictions in place I wanted to share what Iceland is like in the shadow of COVID-19, while covering a trip I ran to one of the lesser known spots in the country, the Volcanic Westman Islands. Spoiler alert, it was still an incredible trip.
A day trip to the volcanic Westman Islands
These isolated islands, formed from constant volcanic eruptions over the past 30,000 years, are as alive as they are terrifying. The volcanic system that created these islands is still very much active. In fact, the last eruption was less than 50 years ago (1973) and destroyed 300 houses with its slow moving lava flow. The eruption previous to this one ended only 7 years prior, creating a brand new island called Surtsey.
Despite this, the island is bursting with life. 3000 inhabitants, even more sheep, and the largest Atlantic Puffin colony in the world (1.4 million) call the Westman Islands home. This makes it an ideal destination in the summer months when the chilly winter winds disperse.
An early start
If you are careful with your time you can drive around 2 hours from Reykjavik, catch the 10:45am ferry to the island, see the most prominent sites on the island, and be back on the ferry by 5pm the same day. Then it’s up to you if you want to continue on your journey along the south coast or simply return to Reykjavik in time for a late dinner. As a rule, I prefer to take my time and really soak in the atmosphere of a new location. But on this tiny island you really can see the most impressive attractions in one day. If time is a factor then the Westman Islands really do pack a punch like no other. My group and I decided to do it all in one day, from and to Reykjavik.
The ferry ride
As we arrived at the port on the south coast of Iceland, after a relaxed drive, we were greeted with a full boat. Despite the lack of tourists in Iceland the Westman Islands is a popular spot for the locals when the sun is shining. And today was a glorious weather day. No wind, no rain. Just beaming sunshine.
With the large number of people I was a little hesitant to be in a confined space for the boat ride. However, to my satisfaction, the social distancing rules and mask wearing was being enforced stringently on the ferry. To be honest, I was a little relieved to see literally every traveller donning a mask. The small irritation of having our mouths covered for half an hour was greatly assuaged by the feeling of safety that it provided. I could then enjoy my day with my fellow travellers without the itching feeling that I might have caught the virus, or worse, given it to someone else unknowingly. And to be fair, in Iceland you only need to wear a mask when 2 metre distancing isn’t possible so it ended up being the only time I needed it that day.
The approach to the Westman Islands is just as important as setting foot on the island itself. As the ferry slowly cruises into the harbour, after barely a 35 minute voyage, we couldn’t help but notice, on the left side of the boat, how eerily close the now solidified lava flow from the 1973 eruption got to sealing off the harbour completely. If it had progressed any further into the sea it would have drastically changed the outcome of this little town’s fate.
On the right side of the boat, tall and weathered sea cliffs were buzzing with sea birds. I made sure to point out to my group that the intermittent caves we passed, eroded from constant wave and wind attacks, now hosted two rescue Beluga whales. These two tranquil animals were rescued from a cramped enclosure and brought here to live out their lives in the nutrient rich, crystal clear waters of Iceland. The whales’ enclosure was netted off, but still technically in the open ocean. A nice compromise for two whales that couldn’t be released into the wild after a lifetime of captivity.
The harbour itself was functional and efficient. This is not a historic fishing town by any means, but rather one that is still an integral part of Iceland’s fishing industry. The locals busied themselves with their normal day to day work, barely noticing the avid travellers who stepped, in awe, onto their well used harbour.
Hiking to the top of the 1973 volcano
After a little wander on the harbour that included a coffee and cake stop we jumped back into our car and drove east where the volcano waited for us. It was now time to stretch our legs with a hike. Staring back at us, as we stepped out of the car, was a 200 metre high cone shaped volcano, called Eldfell.
The name, translated to ‘fire mountain’, was quite fitting since the locals reported to see fire through their windows when the volcano began to erupt back in 1973. The eruption was a combination of lava flow, ash, tephra (rocks and stones) and suffocating gases. The eruption would end up lasting for months on end.
As we began our easy ascent we noticed the ground was crumbly and red beneath our feet. This is because of the oxidation effect of the iron rich volcanic rock. Effectively, the lava and rock rusted during the eruption. Getting to the top was surprisingly quick, and yet the view was outstanding. It felt like we were standing on top of the world. From this vantage point you could see the entire island. On a clear day you can even see the mainland to the north and the new island of Surtsey to the south.
I, being a bit of an amateur geologist, got very excited by all the different colours that the volcano showcased. The rusty orange and red rock. The bright white and yellow rock covered in a thick Sulphur coating. Even the dark purples and blacks were mesmerising. It genuinely felt like we were walking on Mars.
Normally you would have to time your ascent so that the big bus tour companies would not be up there at the same time. The volcano is big, but it feels pretty small when shared with 60 other people on a narrow peak. Thanks to the greatly reduced tourist numbers we had the peak practically to ourselves.
The highlight, for those who are not as excited by rocks as I am, is the fact that the volcano is in fact still warm under the ground. Considering the lava stopped flowing over 45 years ago, it is quite impressive that at the very top you practically roast marshmallows in the cracks in the ground. My group and I took pause when we discussed the fact that it was unlikely that this little volcano had finished telling its story. Especially as we peered down at the burgeoning town, barely 500 metres from where we stood.
The eruption in 1973 was unexpected and sudden. Lava flowed in every direction. The locals, numbering 4000 at the time, evacuated utilising their fishing fleet for a quick escape. By the time the eruption ended 300 households were engulfed in flames and 20% of extra land had been added to the island. Thankfully, the locals realised shortly after leaving the island that the lava flow was slow and continuous (as opposed to explosive and fast). So, instead of leaving their town to the fate of nature, they came back to the island and sprayed sea water onto the lava and managed to redirect the flow away from the remaining houses. The dousing of the lava took huge amounts of effort and weeks of continuous labour, but believe it worked. The people who took this risk are rightly hailed as heroes in the community to this day.
Lunch at GOTT Restaurant
After the incredible hike we made our way to a local restaurant for lunch. GOTT restaurant is known for its quaint small village decor, friendly staff, and locally sourced ingredients. I recently converted to vegetarianism with an eye for moving towards a full plant based diet so I was ecstatic at the vegan friendly options.Especially the Snicker cake. For the meat eaters out there, don’t worry, they are far more known for their catch of the day and lamb dishes.
In the shadow of COVID-19 this little cafe had arranged all the tables and chairs to be well over 2 metres apart. From previous visits this restaurant was very popular among locals and tourists. For good reason, yes, but a little cramped on busier days nonetheless. However, in a post COVID-19 world the restaurant had opened up the back area and spread out the seating. Now, even on a busy day, it felt very spacious. To me this was a fringe benefit of the new restrictions.
Puffin Spotting Along The Sea Cliffs
Our final major stop for the day was in the southernmost point of the island, Stórhöfði. The drive took us a grand total of 5 minutes from the volcano, but even within that small space of time the terrain changed drastically. Away from the direct effects of the recent eruption the ground appeared older and richer with vegetation. Farm land, strategically stretched to the cliff edges, housed free roaming sheep who would get dizzyingly close the edges.
At the most southern point we left our car and spent the afternoon following the trails left behind by the daredevil sheep. These frighteningly narrow tracks were the best place to get a chance to see the birdlife below us without disturbing the feeding rituals. The carefully planned walk was well worth it since the majority of the 1.4 million puffins who reside on the island were along this trail.
Thanks to the massive downturn in tourism the only thing we shared this spectacular view with was the curious sheep.
As we followed the makeshift path around the cliff we were regularly engulfed by a flurry of excited puffins swooping in and out of their burrows. Depending on how close you were willing to get to the edge you can be as little as just a few metres away from the nesting baby pufflings. Let’s just say I was happy to see them from a little further away than that.
As we walked the entire length of this rocky outcrop we were lost in thought. The sun reflected off the surprisingly calm sea at the base of the cliffs and allowed us to sit quietly with a well timed snack. The other islands in the area were easily visible in the distance from there. Never one to rest on my laurels, I eagerly tried to spot some whales off the coast while the others were distracted by yet another close flying puffin. Sadly today was not our day on the whale front. Spotting whales in summer is a regular occurrence but by no means guaranteed. We would just have to make do with active volcanoes, local cuisine, incredible views and uncountable puffins. Not a bad compromise if you ask me. As we travelled back to the harbour we made sure to pop over to Elephant rock for one last picture.
The return to the ferry
The Westman Islands, on a fair weather day, is as picturesque as you can get. It is one of the most spectacular places that I take groups to each summer. Every time I step back onto that ferry and watch this ever changing group of islands shrink into the distance I sneakily begin planning my next trip. There’s no such thing as too many times with this location in mind.
With the exception of wearing masks on the short ferry ride I honestly didn’t feel like we were in the midst of a global pandemic today. My mind had cleared entirely. A welcome respite from the past few months. As we stepped off the ferry and back onto the mainland I couldn’t help but think of all the trials the inhabitants of the Westman Islands had endured over the centuries. Volcanic eruption after volcanic eruption, lava flow, poisonous gases, super storms, the fastest recorded wind speed in Europe, foreign invaders and sub zero temperatures. It puts my own personal woes into perspective with everything that is going on. I don’t know about you but to me that is worth the trip all on its own.
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.