I have dreamt of seeing the Northern Lights since I saw a TV programme about them, aged about 12. Displays of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) occur when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and on impact emit burning gases that produce different coloured lights. This kind of natural phenomenon both excites and astounds me, and at quite a young age I added it to my list of "things I would love to see in my lifetime". It took until meeting my wife that my desire to go and explore the world and find out more and more of this wonderful powerful place that we inhabit became more of a reality. We haven't done a lot of travelling in our 9 years together, but it certainly isn't through lack of desire, but money always seems to be needed elsewhere...buying a house, getting married etc. It was through pure luck that last Winter I saw a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, on Groupon. Included in this was a trip to (hopefully) see the Northern Lights. Combined with news articles proclaiming the winter of 2013/2014 to be the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights for the next 11 years it was something that I knew we just had to do. We want this year before baby making to be filled with as many exciting things as possible, so it seemed the perfect time. Knowing that fellow bloggers Laura & Sarah had also mentioned seeing Iceland and, fingers crossed, the Northern Lights, it seemed like a good idea to go as a group. So when we spent the week of my birthday in London with them, we invited them to join us on our holiday!
So fast forward to our Wedding Day. As our Wedding present my Mum, Dad & brother clubbed together to buy us, in their words, a second honeymoon. They knew that once the excitement of the wedding and honeymoon to Mexico was over, we would feel rather deflated, so wanted to give us something to look forward to. Combining this with the knowledge I have always dreamt of seeing the Northern Lights, they surprised us with a trip, in March, to Iceland...in search of the lights!! Argh. Talk about coincidence. So we now had two trips booked!!
After giving it a bit of thought Sarah and I decided to go twice. There was a chance we could cancel one, or even move it to a new date or destination, but as Sarah kept reminding me, there is never a guarantee you will see anything, as something as simple as a cloudy night prevents the lights from appearing, so we now had two chances. And two chances at exploring a place known for it's beauty. The only difficult part was I decided to keep the trip we had booked a secret from my parents, as I know they would be so upset if they knew we had already booked to go to the same place they had booked for us, for our wedding present.
So fast forward again to Friday 8th November, and after much talking about, texting, emailing, planning from afar...our alarm went off at 2:45 am and that could only mean one thing, holiday time!! One great thing about Iceland is it's close proximity to the UK, flight time is 2hours and 30 minutes, so once you are boarded, have all fallen asleep for a while and woken up again, it's time to get off!
We were all prepared for cold cold weather, after all this is ICEland but on stepping off the plane were quite surprised to find it "very chilly, but not too bad", and this was coming from Sarah, who feels the cold easily! Indeed, it is cold, but is known as the warmest place in the North, thanks to it's position in the North Atlantic Current. So temperatures in winter hover around the 0c mark.
We began our trip buy eating in a local Icelandic cafe, very popular with the locals and not so much with tourists. But it was my idea of heaven - 4 different types of homemade soup, with homemade bread, and as much as you can eat salad. Not a great choice for all of the group, and somewhere we probably would have avoided had we known, but perfect for me and Sarah as veggies - I could eat soup and bread 3 meals a day given the chance! This was followed with a walk round the (tiny) City to find out what Reykjavik has to offer; we found Hallgrimskirkja - a beautiful church with the highest point of Reykjavik, offering panoramic views of the City and it's surrounding landscape, including the most beautiful snow-capped mountains.
From there we wandered round the streets, seeing eclectic painted houses and a variety of random shops, before reaching the Sun Voyager, a beautiful, huge steel sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason which resembles a Viking ship, but is in fact a dream boat and ode to the sun. Behind it sits Mount Esja, and to it's left, the Atlantic Ocean, stretching out as far as the eye can see. It is said to be a beautiful place to watch the sun set, so we timed it to be there for late afternoon, with the intention of capturing the sunset behind it, as Laura had made a list of 'photo opportunities' she wanted to capture. However, on a cloudy day we only managed to see the faintest bit of pink! Still an impressive and beautiful piece of art, and well worth a visit.
Further along the shore line, nearly freezing as the wind off the cold Atlantic blew us along, we found Harpa - an unusual piece of architecture comprising of geometric shaped panels of different colours, the south facade of which creates kaleidoscopic reflections of the city and the striking surrounding landscape. For us it served the purpose of providing warmth, and an interesting bookstore and art gallery.
And allowed us to waste a little time before persevering back out in to the cold and make our way to TAPAS, an aptly named Tapas restaurant we had booked at for dinner, where we enjoyed a wonderful Icelandic inspired tapas meal, including a vegetarian set menu that had more courses than I ever wish to see again!! It was delicious but huge!
After an impressive night's sleep and a substantial breakfast including homemade waffles, we were minibused 24 miles from Reykjavik, to Iceland's most visited and famous attraction, the Blue Lagoon. Bathing in it's very blue, mineral rich waters and applying natural silica mud to the skin has been proven to be healing for a variety of skin ailments, or in our case, is just very relaxing! The water naturally has a temperature of 37 - 42C, and juxtaposed against the freezing Icelandic air you would expect it to be unpleasant, but it is in fact a wonderful way to spend a few hours, just relaxing in it's milky, calm waters. We somehow lost a good few hours here, and it is somewhere Sarah and I cannot wait to return to in our wedding present trip next March.
Arriving back to our hotel around 5pm, just as the sun was setting, we saw the news we had been patiently waiting for - our northern lights trip was on for that night. The tour companies are very honest, and will not take a trip out if there is no chance of you seeing anything, for example when it's raining or very cloudy, and you have the chance to re-book. Having spent all day willing the few clouds in the sky to move out of the way it seemed we were in luck, our tour was arranged for 7pm. This gave us chance to grab an early dinner - whilst the girls checked out Icelands famous hot dogs, we found a crepe cafe - tea and pancakes, pretty much our perfect place!
Back at the hotel we put on as many layers as we possibly could (2 pairs of socks, thermal leggings, jeans, Ugg boots, 3 tops including a thermal, jumper, coat, scarf, hat, and gloves!) to prepare for a long, cold night ahead in the middle of nowhere, as any artificial light will prevent you from seeing the Northern Lights.
We were 4 of 600 people who made the trip down to Southern Iceland that night, hoping to catch a glimpse of Aurora Borealis, and on the hour long journey we had a running commentary between the 4 of us about the clarity of the sky, how many stars we could see etc. Reaching our destination, a desolate church in the middle of absolute nowhere, we climbed up as far as we could and...waited. Our thermals were put to the test, to say the least, in those three hours of waiting, in the dark, just staring up in to the sky, willing and willing the lights to appear. I can safely safely say it was the coldest we have ever been! But alas, it was not meant to be, at quarter to midnight it was declared that the lights wouldn't appear if they hadn't already, so we were all to make our way back to the bus. With heavy hearts the bus started off down the deserted road, and then, as if from nowhere, a green glow appeared in the sky. So with the bus pulling over randomly on the side of the road and all of us dismounting as quickly as we possibly could to head in to a deserted field, we finally saw what we had waited so long for, the Northern Lights!
It was as magical as I had always dreamt it would be, swirling above our heads in greens and yellows, ebbing and flowing against the black sky. At one point it started 'dancing' (the technical term!) and turned a mixture of purples and pink, and put on quite a show for us. It is so hard to believe that something so beautiful is a completely natural phenomena. You do wonder who was the first to spot it, and what they thought was going on!! We managed to capture the odd swipe of green on camera, but it is very difficult without professional equipment, and professional knowledge to go with it. But it didn't matter, the important thing is we saw it, we actually saw the Northern Lights, and it was so amazing! My wife and I, and a few of the other members of the crowd even saw a shooting star fly across the lights, and made sure we made a wish.
We spent the next hour or so watching the beautiful lights come and go, and then headed back to Reykjavik for some much needed warmth, and sleep!
The following day, Sunday, was our last full day in Iceland. We had arranged to hire a car, to visit the South of the Island, and drive the famous Golden Circle Route. Hiring a car had so many advantages, mainly that we were warm, comfortable, not stuck on a massive coach full of strangers, and could go at our own pace. So after another good breakfast we set off, just as the snow started to fall...now this was the Iceland we had all imagined. Driving across rugged mountain ranges, with nothing to see for miles and miles, with snow falling all around us, it was like something out of a picture postcard. Before long we arrived at our first destination, Pingvellir National Park, a place of historic and geographic national importance. Not only the place the first Icelandic government was formed, but it also marks the crest of the mid-Atlantic ridge, with an American tectonic plate to one side, and a European to the other.
It was crazy that we physically walked through an area with such huge geographic importance, as the mid-Atlantic rift widens at a rate of 2cm per year. Furthermore it is a place of tranquillity and outstanding natural beauty, and despite the freezing temperatures and wind driven hail battering us from all angles, we spent a while just walking around and exploring such a beautiful place.
Back in to the car (and warmth!) and a little further on brought us to Geysir, literally meaning spouting hot spring. The Great Geysir has settled down in recent years, and doesn't spout very often, but it's smaller cousin Strokkur can be relied upon to shoot boiling water high up in to the air every 5-6 minutes, or nothing for 15 minutes then 3 in one go, typically, as we were all standing there trying to capture it on camera! It is an interesting natural phenomena and something I again feel very privileged to have seen.
And finally on to the last stop of the golden circle route, Gullfoss, a beautiful enormous waterfall that cascades 32m down. At arriving here the weather was truly awful; cold, hailing, windy and grey, but the sight of Gullfoss made it so very worth it.
Returning to Reykjavik via the mountain tops that snow had settled on, and witnessing the beauty of the pink sunset against the landscape was an experience I doubt any of us will forget in a while.
I feel so lucky to enjoy the experience to share the earths natural beauty. It was with a great sadness but wonderful life-lasting memories that we left Iceland, early on Monday morning. Far more than seeing the Northern Lights, Reykjavik and it's surrounding areas proved to be a beautiful, interesting and awe-inspiring trip. Iceland impressed us on so many levels, and somewhere I would whole-heartedly recommend a visit to if ever the chance arises. From the impressive knowledge of the English language that all Icelanders hold, to the cleanliness, beauty of the landscape, level of service, friendliness and efficiency, it seems that everything Iceland does it does impeccably well, it is difficult to find fault at all, and we absolutely cannot wait to return next year on our wedding present trip!
See our post on our March 2014 trip to Reykjavik here