Day 3 in Iceland – our adventure on Heimaey

Our plan for Day 3 in Iceland in the fall of 2017 was simple enough: leave Hella and proceed east on Ring Road to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, exploring several waterfalls along the way. Well, it started out very nicely. Our first planned stop was the majestic Seljalandsfoss (Golden Falls). It’s just off the Ring Road and an easy 90-minute drive from Reykjavik if you’re just doing day trip exploring the South Coast.

(Read about our first two days here.)

As we drove there from Hella we noticed the landscape was more green and lush than it had been on Reykjanes Peninsula. A herd of sheep seemed amused by our presence as we stopped by the roadside to take their picture. Unlike their counterparts in England, they were a tad less skittish.

Peek a boo!

We arrived to the parking area for Seljalandsfoss mid morning and already found it to be quite busy. It was a bit windy and we felt a bit of spray blowing off the 200-foot waterfalls, even though we were parked maybe a quarter mile away. We noticed people putting on rain jackets and the like, so we did the same. Many carried their iPhones in waterproof cases.

The popularity of this waterfall is in large part due to the fact that you can walk behind it. Let me be clear – you WILL get wet. So be prepared. My travel pants dry quickly, but if your preference is toward jeans, consider getting a large plastic poncho that will cover most of you. We even saw a Chinese woman in her red wedding dress getting photographed by a professional photographer behind the falls. She looked positively freezing. I hope she wasn’t planning on wearing the dress again.

Seljalandsfoss from the road
behind Seljalandsfoss

After our stop at Seljalandsfoss, I had assumed we’d continue on the Ring Road east toward our final destination for the day, stopping at several waterfalls en route. However, my husband had other plans. He wanted to see if there were any ferries running to the Island of Heimaey, which is the main island of the volcanic island chain, Vestmannaeyjar, just off the southern coast and not too far from Seljalandsfoss. I was skeptical that a ferry would be running, as it was late September and the seas were already rough. While this is a popular summer attraction for visitors who want to see puffins, the ferry route typically stops running for tourists in September as the puffins are gone and there really is not too much to do other than hike. But hike is what my husband wanted to do. Luckily for him, the ferry was running. But the 35-minute ride was rough. I never get seasick, but I almost felt the sandwich I ate on board come back up.

Vestmannaeyjahöfn Harbor, Heimaey. photo credit Icelandmag.IS

The story behind Heimaey is actually quite interesting. It has a pair of twin volcanoes, Eldfell and Helgafell. The younger of the two, Eldfell, errupted in 1973. With a little luck and ingenuity, locals managed to save the town from being totally destroyed by it. Check out this short video for more details.

The twin volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell, Photo Credit: wildernesscoffee-naturalhigh.com

With a limited amount of time, as our return ferry was scheduled to leave at 4 pm, we decided to hike Eldfell. There is a well-marked trail and easy to get to from town. However, it was windy and unpleasant, with the volcanic sand blowing off the slopes. My husband proceeded to the top, but I turned back and did a little shopping. Most tourist shops were already closed for the season, but I did find one near the harbor. Around 3:30 I headed toward the ferry terminal where I met up with my husband. Others were starting to gather there as well. At around 4 we received bad news. The ferry would not be leaving as scheduled due to rough seas. They would re-evaluate conditions in an hour, but nothing changed.

In the meantime one of the employees at the terminal told a young couple she had contacted a local pilot about the situation. They, in turn, passed the info along to us and after talking with others and weighing our options, we decided to go to the airport on the other side of town where he would meet us. At this point we had no idea how large his plane was or how many trips he would make back and forth. We all began scrambling to figure out how to get to the airport as it was a good ten-minute drive or at least a half hour walk. My husband had been talking with a couple from Singapore and they had managed to contact a tour bus operator with a van that was able to carry eleven of us over to the airport.

Lucky for us, we were the first group there. The young couple who had actually told us about the pilot were the last to arrive as they decided to walk. I felt awful for them as they were the last ones in the line that was at least 40 people long.

When the pilot arrived, we all were in for a little shock. The plane was small. He could only take five of us at a time. (I think we paid about $50 a person. We did eventually get a refund from the ferry operator.) They needed one more person for the first flight, so my husband and I split up. For two reasons: in case the plane went down, one of us would still be living! And the second reason, to get the car, which was parked about two miles away from the airstrip. The whole round trip was fairly short – about 15 minutes. But it seemed an eternity.

After the second trip, the pilot announced that the third trip would be his last. You could feel the tension of the people waiting. Fortunately, I made it on the plane along with a young German man and his grandparents, as well a local that the pilot was taking back. But people started to get rude while we were getting ready to exit, saying that they deserved to leave earlier than me because they had a flight back the next day. In particular, a Boston family group of five with a young girl started to get nasty to me. I just turned my head and practiced my rusty German with the German grandparents. It was honestly a very tense situation and I felt sorry for people, but there was nothing I could do.

Elliðaey from the air. There’s actually a hunting lodge on this island

I could see why our flight was the last one once I got on the tarmac. The wind was gusty and our little plane seemed like it might blow off the runway. I was glad to be up and off that island. The flight over was short, fortunately. Seeing the rough seas below gave me the chills. I’ve never felt so happy to land.

After saying our good-byes to our fellow flight buddies and dropping the German family off at the car park, we proceeded east to our hotel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. It was nearly a 2-hour drive on a dark drizzly night. We managed to find a place to eat before checking in and crashing for the night. What a day!!

Footnote: we don’t know when the others made it back to the mainland. The ferry terminal employees were uncertain if the ferries would run the next day and I know in the morning the conditions did not look good. There were some small hotels on Heimaey, but I did see a tourist group on the ferry who looked like they planned to stay overnight, so I’m not sure how much availability there was. To some degree, I think the ferry operators were irresponsible in not warning tourists that a return trip this time of year was not a guarantee.

Lessons learned from this experience:

When traveling by ferry to an off-shore island, always take a small bag with essentials: toiletries, medications, rechargers for your phones, and maybe some extra clothing. Check to see if they have lockers at terminal so you don’t have to carry it with you.