I’d hazard a guess that seeing the Northern Lights (or, for the more cultured amongst us, the Aurora Borealis) features on almost everyone’s bucket list, and few places are more famous for viewing this stunning natural phenomenon than Iceland. When I clocked that Icelandair was offering a three night ‘Northern Lights City Break Tour’ to Reykjavik I was, therefore, as excited as the next person, and booked the trip as fast as my fingers could fill out the online booking form.
Given its small size and reputation for tourism, I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by Reykjavik; if anything I thought it might be somewhat underwhelming. Having heard reports of extortionate alcohol prices we had stocked up on duty free booze before boarding the plane, and were quite prepared to give the bars a miss and have a few glasses of wine in our hotel room should the coffers fail to stretch sufficiently far.
We arrived in darkness and made our way to the fleet of buses waiting to ferry tourists like ourselves to their various destinations across Reykjavik, an hour’s drive away. After several drop offs we reached the Hotel Marina, and the second I stepped into the hotel foyer and saw the roaring fire and quirky wooden man sitting beside it I knew we had been right to choose a local three star hotel instead of the four star Hilton.
The main town was a short walk from the marina, past several quaint seafood restaurants with lights twinkling invitingly in the windows. As a special treat we had booked a table at the famous Fiskmarkadurinn (Fish Market) restaurant which, whilst far from cheap at fifty pounds per head for the tasting menu, did not disappoint. Over the course of two hours we were introduced to some delicious pan-Asian twists on classic Icelandic fare, such as herring in coconut milk and sashimi Minke whale.
For the second day of the trip we had indulged our adventurous sides and booked a scuba diving tour. It felt strange to set off at ten o’clock in the morning and not yet be in daylight, but as we drove out of Reykjavik the moon grudgingly gave way to the sun. After an hour of driving in a blizzard of snow we reached our destination: The Silfra Lagoon. Unfortunately, however, we couldn’t see much of the lagoon or its surroundings, swathed as they were in snow and ice. It was at this point, as I climbed out of the van and undressed in preparation for donning my dry suit, that I began to wonder if, on this occasion, my adventurous streak had led me down a path I no longer wished to follow.
Once kitted up we heaved our oxygen tanks onto our backs and trudged the fifty or so metres to the water’s edge. We put on our fins and gingerly broached the metal steps into the water, which was a balmy zero degrees. We conducted the final checks and sank beneath the surface of the water. The first thing I noticed was how far I could see – in the glacial waters of the lagoon visibility is an awe-inspiring 100 per cent – and the second was how incredibly blue the water was. Thirty five minutes – and one brief panic attack when I failed to work out how to inflate my dry suit at depth – later and the whole experience was over. We stood by the van clasping mugs of hot chocolate, not quite believing what we had just done.
That evening we ventured to the town centre once again, drinking in the Christmas decorations in almost every window and marvelling at the projected simulations of the thirteen Icelandic Santas on many of the buildings. We had another Icelandic feast at the unoriginally titled but wonderfully authentic Icelandic Bar, then headed back to the hotel bar for an interesting nightcap of duck fat and cognac (alcohol, as it transpired, wasn’t quite as expensive as we had been led to believe, though it was more expensive than in England, with the average price of a beer or glass of wine around seven pounds and cocktails nearer the ten pound mark).
On the second morning we rose early to prepare for the ‘Best of Iceland’ day tour we had booked, which would take us first to the famous Blue Lagoon and onto the ‘Golden Circle’ of the Pingvellir national park (where the Silfra Lagoon is located), Gulfoss waterfall and geysir area. When we arrived at the Blue Lagoon we beat the crowds and managed to get into the water before anybody else, and for a magical ten minutes we floated around in the geothermal water, watching the sun begin its slow ascent into the sky.
Two hours later we boarded the bus, refreshed and ready for the afternoon ahead. Fortunately the weather had improved and there was barely a cloud in the sky, which meant that when we reached Pingvellir we were able to see for the first time the incredible expanse of lagoon in which we had dived the previous day. If ever there was cause to describe something as awe inspiring, this place deserved the title. It quite literally took our breath away.
Next up was the magnificent Gulfoss waterfall, whose mammouth scale is hard to capture in words. Finally we drove to visit the geysir area, where sporadic spurts of steam shoot skywards, delighting tourists who stand with cameras poised for perfect pictures.
That evening, after a packed day of sightseeing, we finally had our much anticipated chance to see the Northern Lights. After several days of terrible weather the tour guides seemed optimistic, and as we climbed onto the buses we were buzzing with excitement. Three hours later, standing in the cold and staring into darkness, disappointment began to creep into our hearts. Despite the tour guides’ protestations that the mist we were witnessing was the ‘band above the Northern Lights,’ the Lights themselves failed to materialise.
We may not have seen the Aurora Borealis on this occasion, but even so our trip to Iceland far exceeded all our expectations. And you know what they say: If at first you don’t succeed…