BEST PLACES YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF
Scouting Report: Westman Islands, Iceland
Eleven people lucky enough to travel for a living reveal their favorite recent discoveries—places they happened upon and still can't stop thinking about. Here are their stories.
THE TRAVELER Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, a Travel Channel series devoted to exploring local cuisines that keeps Zimmern globe trotting for about 30 weeks each year.
THE PLACE When your specialty is bizarre food, your travels take you well beyond the world's slick capitals and posh restaurants. It's the off-the-beaten-path spots that hold the most promise for Zimmern. One of his recent favorites is the Westman Islands, off the south coast of Iceland. "Most people who go to Iceland stay in Reykjavík, and if they leave, it's to do a one-day excursion somewhere north of the city," he says. So naturally, when he set out to shoot a recent TV episode, Zimmern took his crew south. "I wanted to connect with the real Iceland," he says.
When he landed on Heimaey, the only inhabited island in the wild volcanic archipelago, the first thing Zimmern noticed was the locals. "They look like they just stepped off a Norse boat!" he says. In fact, the 15 islands are named not for the Norse settlers but for the Irish they enslaved; the Norse referred to the Irish as Vestmenn, or Westmen. Heimaey's roughly 5,000 inhabitants are still mostly a mix of Norse and Celtic descendants.
The principal industry is commercial fishing, and the wharf is lined with unassuming seafood restaurants. "They're packed during lunch and dinner," Zimmern says. "I'd walk down the row and pick a different one for each meal." The just-caught fish—cold-water species like cod and halibut—are usually prepared in a traditional European style, sautéed in brown butter. "In the States, cod gets kind of a bad rap," says Zimmern. "But here, it's the most pristine, beautiful, flaky white fish."
Ever the adventurous traveler, Zimmern explored the islands by hitching rides with local fishermen. If a professional operation is more your speed, go with Viking Tours. The 90-minute ride circles Heimaey, yielding picture-perfect vistas of rugged sheer cliffs, with killer whales splashing offshore, plus a healthy population of puffins. Venture inside Klettshellur, a sea cave formed by crashing waves; a crew member will likely play a tune or two on a saxophone to demonstrate the dramatic acoustics. For a live music blowout, accompanied by bonfires, plan your visit for August's annual rollicking Westman Islands Festival.
THE DETAILS It's a 20-minute flight from Reykjavík, but weather-related cancellations are common, icelandair.is, from $80 round trip. The more reliable ferry takes about three hours. It travels through open sea, so the ride can be rough, eimskip.com, one-way ticket from $21. Viking Tours, 011-354/4-88-4884, boattours.is, $38; Hótel Mamma Guesthouse, Vestmannabraut 25, 011-354/481-2900, from $125. One caveat: the recent eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano has dropped some ash on the islands, so this may not be the year to go.
Your turn! Have you discovered a place like these while traveling? Share your stories by posting a comment at the bottom of page 1: Binn, Switzerland.