Heimaey Town -- Heimaey is the most profitable fishing port in Iceland, bringing in 12 to 13% of the country's annual catch, or about 200,000 tons of fish. During the 1973 eruption lava threatened to cut the harbor off entirely, so Iceland's geologists proposed a novel and successful strategy: pumping seawater onto the molten rock, to create a hard outer layer and retard the flow. Ironically, the harbor ended up more sheltered than before. (The lava also took care of Heimaey's landfill shortage).
On a cliff facing the innermost harbor is a rope hanging from a cliff. This is where local kids are trained in spranga, the "national sport" of the Westmans. The sport originated with egg-collecting and involves all sorts of daredevil cliff-scaling maneuvers. Egg-collecting season is in May and June, and it's fun to watch. If you're interested in learning, ask the tourist information office; they might be able to reach an instructor for you.
A discounted joint pass (700kr/$11/£5.60) for the Folk Museum, Aquarium, and Maternity Museum is available at all three museums; an upgraded pass (900kr/$14/£7.20) includes access to the local pool, Brimhólabraut (tel. 481-1045), which contains geothermally heated seawater.
Skansinn -- Skansinn is on the east side of town, where the lava meets the harbor. A partially crushed water tank at the lava's edge is a vivid illustration of the volcano's destructive power. The English built a fortification here in the 15th century, when they were Iceland's biggest trading partners. This defense post was of little use in 1627, when Algerian pirates landed on Heimaey's southeast coast. Of the island's 500 inhabitants, about half were taken to Algiers and sold into slavery. Many others were rounded into a storehouse and burned alive. The few remaining islanders survived by hiding in caves or rappelling down cliffs. 39 of the captives were eventually ransomed and returned to Copenhagen.
Eldfell & "The New Lava"
Locals refer to the red volcanic cone created in 1973 as Eldfell (Fire Mountain), and the surrounding lava as "the new lava," or nýjahraun, to distinguish it from the "old lava" (eldhraun) around Helgafell on the south side of town. Take a rambling drive or walk through the new lava to witness how islanders are improvising on and shaping their new landscape. Some have built lava gardens, or sculptures, or memorials for homes that are buried directly underneath.
The 5m (16-ft.) wooden cross at the base of Eldfell is a good starting point for an ascent. The cone is still steaming slightly, and the ground is still warm if you scratch beneath the surface. Just southeast of the cone is Páskahellir, a lava tube that should not be entered without a strong flashlight; the easiest trail access is near the airport. See also "Tours & Activities," for tips on hiking the new lava.
Pompei of the North (www.pompeiofthenorth.com) is a work-in-progress: A street with 10 homes covered in ash will be completely excavated to become a kind of time-capsule museum. Only one original occupant objected to the project; his house will stay buried. Others have already been able to pop into their upper-story windows for the first time in over 30 years. Visitors can inspect the site anytime.
Other Walks -- A trip to the Westmans is not complete without a good walk. A thrilling, vertiginous, and somewhat dangerous hiking trail starts on a 4WD road behind the N1 gas station by the harbor; it continues along Heimaey's northeastern cliffsides, eventually connecting with equally harrowing trails that ascend from Herjólfsdalur, near the golf course. Ropes and chains guide you up and down the steep sections. A gentler trail along Ofanleitishamar on the west coast is great for puffin close-ups. The lighthouse at Stófjörði, on the southern tip of the island, is officially the windiest spot in Iceland. In the southeast, the sea cliffs of Litlihöfði are another picturesque spot for puffin-watching.
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.