The work
"To boldly go": on Lech Lecha and Star Trek

An afternoon on Heimaey

For #throwbackthursday: a few photos from 1998, illustrating a short essay of that same vintage. As far as I can recall, this one was never published anywhere.


Lonely Planet is my favorite series of travel guides. The guidebooks focus on exciting places. They're geared to the budget traveler. And I'm charmed by the fact that the series started out as a xeroxed handful of pages about the founders’ journey across Asia. The trick with Lonely Planet, though, is that you have to learn how to interpret their enthusiasm.

Imagine a spectrum of travelers. At one end is the tourist who prefers posh and expensive glamour-travel. At the other end is the traveler whose hiking boots have seen the world and who has the capacity to be entertained by watching fish swim by in a small stream. (No joke; that’s one of the pastimes the Faroe Islands section of our guidebook recommends.) Lonely Planet is geared toward that second archetype.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands says of the island of Heimaey, one of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands, so named after the Irish slaves who unwittingly became their first inhabitants), that visitors normally allow themselves a day or two there, but many wish they’d allowed more. "If you have fine weather (which can include light rain, fog, or overcast skies), three days will allow time to best appreciate the place," the Guide says. We read these words as we were planning a five-day stay in Iceland at the start of our honeymoon. We decided to spend two of those days on Heimaey.

We woke around 5:30 to take a small plane from the tiny domestic Reykjavik airport to the tinier Heimaey one. (Getting up early was no problem, given that the sun had never set.) As we approached the island from the air, everything on its small teardrop shape was visible: at one end, the cross-shaped single airstrip; at the other end, two volcanoes, the harbor, the colorful roofs of Heimaey town.


We shouldered our packs and walked the two kilometers from the airport to the campground on the other side of town; pitched camp; and realized that we’d already covered the length of the island. It was barely eight am. Climbing the island’s active volcano, Eldfell, could only take so long; what were we going to do with two entire days here? This is when the Lonely Planet Scale of Travelers occurred to us, and I chastised myself roundly for not remembering to filter the guidebook’s advice with a little common sense. But there was no changing things; here we were.

So we climbed Eldfell. That was, I must admit, pretty extraordinary. There’s nothing like digging your fingers into the earth's surprisingly hot gravel and having steam come out. From the top we could see the mainland, across a strait of the North Atlantic, covered with a thick icing of glacier. Then we turned around and went back down.


Since we still had time to kill, we headed across the lava fields. Eldfell erupted in 1973, and the eruption lasted for five months; the island grew another third in size from the lava it emitted. Everyone was evacuated, and miraculously the only casualty was a local drug addict who broke into the pharmacy and died of smoke inhalation. (At least, that’s what Lonely Planet says. On factual matters I trust it implicitly.)

Afraid that lava would completely engulf their town and seal off their harbor, the island’s only source of livelihood, the residents sprayed seawater on the encroaching flow. Either the lava ran out of steam, or the water trick worked, because the town and harbor were spared – and an enormous lavafield was created, which is what we were wandering aimlessly across.

My husband led us toward a steep escarpment of tiny lava pebbles and started down to the sea. “I can’t go down that!” I said nervously.

“Sure you can,” he told me. “Just sink in up to your ankles, it’ll hold you steady.” Sure enough, it worked, and after several S-curves we made it down to the shore.

The beach was all black and grey boulders, washed smooth by the sea. And it was completely deserted. On our way down the volcano we’d seen someone else climbing up the other side, but now that we were on the beach there wasn’t a soul besides us. I indulged for a moment in the idea that we were the only people left on the island, in the world.

There were a few eider ducks bobbing in the sea, and we watched them for a while. We curled up on the rocks like seals basking in the sun, and read our books, and drank from our water bottles. Sub-arctic summer isn’t exactly hot, but the boulders sheltered us from the wind, and they soaked up sun. After a while we took off our boots, shook the lava pebbles out of our socks, and rested our bare feet on sun-warm stones.

After a few hours we walked over to the water’s edge and cautiously dipped fingers and toes into the North Atlantic. It was about as cold as I expected. We went back to our stony resting place and rested and read some more.

In memory, the afternoon on the deserted volcanic beach is wrapped in a clear glass shell. It stands apart from the rest of our trip. Elsewhere in Iceland we explored, rented a car, visited museums, climbed rocks; later, in Scotland, we drove nearly a thousand miles, camped in the rain, toured castles, visited distilleries, packed a million things into ten days. On the beach on Heimaey, we were silent: we were still: we listened to the wind and the water, read our books, and watched the occasional arctic tern fly by.

Around six, although the sun hadn’t lowered appreciably in the sky, we decided to head back to town. Our earlier agitation about being trapped on Heimaey had vanished. We walked on a lava-gravel road parallelling the sea, past someone’s large balanced-stone sculptures, and wound up in town by seven. After the silence of our stony beach, even sleepy Heimaey town seemed cluttered.

We dined at the town’s one pizzeria. The menu was all in Icelandic, so we ordered a pizza more or less at random. (It turned out to be covered with tiny North Atlantic shrimp and smoked oysters, which was unexpected.) Then we walked back to our campground for the bright and windy night.