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Viðey Island

Viðey is hardly the most dramatically situated island off the Icelandic coast, but it provides a very nice afternoon escape from Reykjavík. The island has a surprisingly grand history, and is now a showcase for environmental art.

Viðey was inhabited as early as 900. From 1225 to 1539 it was the site of a prestigious Augustine monastery, which at one point owned 116 Reykjavík estates. In 1539 the Danish king appropriated the land in the name of the Protestant Reformation. Eleven years later, Iceland's last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, took the island by force, but he was beheaded a few months later. At the beginning of the 20th century, the country's first harbor for ocean-going vessels was built on Viðey's eastern coast, but it was soon outmoded by Reykjavík harbor. Viðey's population peaked in 1930 with 138 people, but by the 1950s the only inhabitants were birds enjoying the tranquillity. In 1983 Viðey became city property.

Viðey has no cars and is only 1 square mile in area. It consists of Heimæy (Home Island) and Vesturey (West Island), linked by a narrow isthmus. You can bring a bike, but several free bikes are left out for any takers; some have baby seats and all have helmets. Visitors spend most of their time strolling along the easy trails. (Pick up the free trail map in the ferry ticket office.) Thirty bird species have been counted here. The most populous is the eider, the seafaring duck harvested on farms all over Iceland for down feathers. Many birds nest in the grasses, so it's best to stick to the paths.

Visitors disembarking the Viðeyjarferju ferry (tel. 533-5055) won't miss Viðeyjarstofa (Viðey House) (tel. 660-7886; Jun-Aug daily 1-5pm), the country's first stone-and-cement structure, dating from 1755. It was originally home to Skúli Magnússon (1711-1794), who was appointed Royal Superintendent of Iceland by the Danish crown; now it's a cafe serving coffee and waffles in summer. Close by is Viðeyjarkirkja, the second-oldest church in Iceland, consecrated in 1774, with Skúli's tomb beneath the altar.

Vesturey's only man-made feature is Áfangar (Stages), a vast yet understated work, erected in 1990, by American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra (b.1959). Nine pairs of vertical basalt columns are spread across the land, their proportions determined by strict mathematical criteria. If you climb to the high point you can see all nine pairs, as well as a grand view of the surrounding mountains. Viðey also has a new "Imagine Peace Tower" designed by Yoko Ono, featuring peace prayers in 24 languages, and -- during late fall -- a shaft of light visible from the mainland.

The 7-minute ferry from the port of Sundahöfn, east of the city center has seven departures per day (mid-May to Sept; 11:15am-7:15pm; last ferry back at 8:30pm). Buses depart Reykjavík's old harbor 15 minutes before each ferry departure. Sundahöfn can be also reached by Bus 16. In July and August, a noon ferry goes directly from the old harbor to Viðey, returning at 3:30pm. Round-trip tickets, which include the bus, are 800kr ($13/£6.40) adults; 600kr ($9.60/£4.80) seniors/students; 400kr ($6.40/£3.20) children 6 to 18; and under 6 free.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.