Iceland: Go with the flow in the shadow of a volcano

Iceland's lava-strewn Westmann Islands, home to an abundance of seabirds, are about to get easier to reach.

Icelanders may not excel at accountancy, but they can certainly multi-task. With a population of 320,000 keeping a country of nearly 40,000 square miles running (just about), it's no surprise that juggling two or three jobs is the norm here. More impressive is the sheer diversity of skills each individual seems to master. On a recent trip, I met chefs who also designed artful furniture, philosophers who moonlighted as business start-up advisers, and film-set designers who also turned their hand to hotel management.

Winner of the award for the most unlikely blend of expertise, though, was "Captain Simmi". Sigurmundur Gisli Einarsson, to give him his real name, navigates tourists out to watch birds off the coast of the Westmann Islands, an archipelago of 11 islands six miles off the mainland's southwest coast. And this salt- and sun-weathered Icelander combines skippering with playing the saxophone.

We puttered slowly out from the harbour of Heimaey for our 90-minute tour. Heimaey is the biggest island in the Westmann group, and the only island that's inhabited. In a voice as gravely as the surrounding volcanic landscape, Simmi pointed out kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills, guillemots and the site where Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was cared for during an unsuccessful attempt to return him to the wild. The biggest attraction, however, was the islands' colony of puffins.

"There are four to six million puffins nesting on the Westmann Islands each year," Simmi told us. "That's 20-30 per cent of the global population. If you include the rest of the country, Iceland is home to 52 per cent of the world's population." As we watched the comic creatures bob in the water, manx shearwaters and great skuas ogled their feathery prey from above.

There was no time to hang around and see if dinner would be served, though. Simmi turned the boat to slip into a giant sea cave, and then suddenly pulled out his sax. "I want to show you how good the acoustics are," he said, before launching into a jazz version of Besame Mucho. From out of the sharp Icelandic light we'd been steered into a place of reverberating gloom and stillness where, just for a moment, local tales of trolls and elves didn't seem so far-fetched.

As we drifted back towards the harbour, there was chance to get up close to the island's towering sea cliffs and the coats of white guano they were wearing. "People think the birds are dirty because there's poop everywhere," chuckled Simmi, "but actually they're clever. The white poop reflects the sun, keeping the rocks cool so the birds never get too hot."

Considering he lives on the Westmann Islands, Simmi is unexpectedly carefree. Unexpectedly because – vast number of puffins aside – Heimaey's main claim to fame is its part in two of the biggest disasters in Iceland's history.

The first, in the 17th century, entailed three pirate ships from the Ottoman-controlled Barbary Coast raiding the island, killing many of those who resisted and taking half the residents to Algiers as slaves. More recently, though, the island came under attack from a more natural aggressor. In 1973, a volcanic eruption destroyed one third of the island's houses, covered another third with ash and created a new mountain, Eldfell ("Fire Mountain").

However, thanks to bad weather the previous day, almost the entire fishing fleet was in Heimaey's harbour the night the volcano erupted. This meant that evacuation of the island's population could be swift. Only one person died: a sailor who was overcome by fumes while looting a pharmacy.

As we returned to Heimaey, we could make out Eyjafjallajokull on the mainland. The volcano whose eruption caused so much recent air-travel chaos was hiccupping out occasional puffs of black steam. I suggested that it must be an uneasy sight for residents, but Simmi shrugged: "Volcanoes are not scary to us. We're used to them in Iceland."

While many Icelanders will say the same, some obviously like things a little less hot. Back in the harbour, at Café Kro (another of Captain Simmi's ventures), we watched a film about the 1973 eruption. From it we learnt how pioneering work had been done pumping eight million tons of sea water at the flow of lava to stop it reaching – and closing up – one of the biggest fishing ports in Iceland. It worked. The harbour was saved, and four out of five residents returned to the island – the first people started moving back in only eight months after the eruption. The remainder, aware that an eruption had happened just offshore 10 years previously and formed the island of Surtsey, decided they didn't want to risk living on such an obviously active fault line and left for good.

Today around 4,500 people live on Heimaey. The island's history makes it a popular tourist destination among Icelanders. However, with blowing geysers, superlative waterfalls and lava-hot nightlife to detain foreign visitors on the mainland, a relatively small number of overseas tourists make it to the Westmann Islands.

All that is set to change. On Wednesday, 21 July, a new and cheaper ferry link begins from the port of Bakki – close to Landeyjahöfn, two hours by road south-east of the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The port is directly opposite the Westmann Islands, with a voyage of just half an hour. That makes a day trip from Reykjavik feasible. And there's an added incentive as well: the publication in English of crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir's novel Ashes To Dust, which is set in Heimaey.

The book includes a wealth of detail on Westmann life (with added grisly intrigue). There's the annual August festival, for example: for one weekend, hundreds of white tents are put up on the island's golf course (built in a crater) and filled with sofas, pictures and anything else the locals bring with them to make their canvas bases more homely. There's even a passage in the book about going out on a boat trip with an eccentric skipper. But the most dramatic scenes are played out around Sudurvegur, a street lined with ash-covered houses that is dubbed locally as "the Pompeii of the North".

After the real-life eruption, many of the streets around the harbour were covered in ash. As you walk through the town today marker posts show how deep the ash was in various locations. That the ash was cleared up in record time is testament to the determination of local residents. Sudurvegur, however, was so deeply buried that the 10 or so houses here were left untouched until excavations began in 2005.

Funding issues mean that the street remains only partially excavated. But walking along Sudurvegur is an eerie enough experience to make it worth exploring.

You can scramble in half an hour from Sudurvegur to the top of the new mountain, Eldfell, and up again to the 283m-high summit of Heimaklettur, the island's highest point. From here the destruction wreaked by the 1973 eruption becomes clear. A black tongue of lava rolls out over the northeast corner of the island, ending in an ugly giant lick at the waterside.

From the top of Heimaklettur you can just make out Heimaey's cemetery. A photograph of its entrance archway became a headline image during the eruption, when its inscription "I live and you shall live" was all that poked out above the ash that had coated the graves behind it. Much easier to spot, however, is the vast swathe of reconstruction that has taken place since the eruption. Heimaey's multi-skilled inhabitants are making the most of life.

Getting there

*Rhiannon Batten travelled with Discover the World (01737 214250; ), which offers similar four-night trips from £749 per person, based on two travelling. This includes return Icelandair flights (0844 811 1190; ) from Heathrow, Manchester or Glasgow to Keflavik airport, transfer to Reykjavik, hotels, three days' car rental and return ferry crossings.

*To travel independently, Iceland Express (0118 321 8384; ) competes with Icelandair, flying from Gatwick and Stansted to Keflavik.

*The new ferry, run by Eimskip (00 354 525 7700; ), starts on 21 July, with fares from ISK2,000 (£10.50) return.

*Buses from Reykjavik to Landeyjahöfn (00 354 551 1166; ) take two hours and cost ISK6,200 (£33) return.

Staying there

*Hotel Porshamar (00 354 481 2900; ). Doubles start at ISK17, 200 (£90), including breakfast. The hotel also manages the island's youth hostel, where dorm beds cost ISK3,100 (£16).

Getting around

*The island is only five square miles so you can easily walk around it. Captain Simmi's boat trips (00 354 861 4884; ) cost ISK3,900 (£20.50).

More information

*Westmann Islands:

*Icelandic Tourist Board: 00 354 535 5500;

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