Travel Bucket List - The Northern Lights and Iceland
Updated: Jan 10
I suspect that if you ask people to name their dream destinations/things to see before they reach 40, 50, 60, 70... that somewhere in that top 10 seeing the Northern Lights would feature. It was certainly on my travel bucket list, and this year I was determined to make it happen. The photo above is a bit of a spoiler!
Towards the end of March this year we took a short break to Iceland, and managed to pack a lot into the 4 days we were there. Given our time-limited stay we decided to stay in the south of the country where the 'Golden Circle' is situated. We stocked up with a bottle of gin from the airport duty free (top tip as imported drinks are very expensive!) and took a hire car from the airport. We navigated to our first sights taking in the beautiful scenery forged by volcanoes, glaciers, and the harsh weather. I have to admit to a squeal when I saw the first pony; did you know that these have a unique gait making them incredibly comfortable to ride?
Our first stop was to the Geysir area, which didn't disappoint, although Geysir itself now erupts pretty rarely. We were careful not to stand down-wind of Strokkur , as that boiling water soon becomes icing cold. It's one of those phenomena that I'd seen on TV many times, but it's hard to describe how exciting this is when that plume of water erupts and shoots 30 metres upwards.
The roar of water from the spectacular double waterfall called Gulfloss was amazing, you can see in the photo how the spray freezes instantly. It was bright and beautiful, but oh so cold!
We then drove to our hotel for the first night. I was astounded by the size of the taxidermy polar bear which welcomed us to the hotel, and was very glad not to meet a live one. Rather more welcoming than the bear was the complimentary glass of wine, and a cream bun which form part of Icelandic Lent traditions. (It was 2 days before Ash Wednesday).
Some of the decor at the hotel is rather quirky, the owner told us that he'd had these stools imported from Italy. They were certainly a talking point. We enjoyed a fabulous meal in the hotel that evening, even trying puffin for the first time. I'd pre-booked dinner, knowing that there really would be nothing else close by. Expect to pay about £75 a head for an evening meal.
Situated in a dark skies part of Iceland, the hotel has it's own telescopes and an astronomer to enhance the guests experience. You can even sit in a hot tub looking at the stars or hoping to see the Northern Lights. The hotel also has an alert service for when they start, you can request to be waken up. Alas, we got a great nights sleep, but didn't see those elusive lights.
After breakfast we got on the road again, this time to visit Seljalandfoss waterfall. Our aim was to walk behind it (if you look carefully at the photo, you can see some brave souls doing just that), but when we saw that everyone was descending on their backsides we decided to walk up above it instead. The colours and the landscape here reminded me a little of Skye.
Looking at these traditional buildings with their grass insulated roofs, it's not hard to imagine how hard life must have been before electricity and the harnessing of the geothermal powers.
Dodging the Instagram princesses on the black beach, we managed to enjoy a stroll at our next stop. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you'll probably recognise this location. The sea here is very treacherous, and there are warning notices asking tourists not to turn their back to it as people have been swept away. We were duly cautious. If you can, get to this location early to avoid the masses. It's stunning, and well worth a visit.
We then drove to Reykjavík for the next 2 nights where we stayed in a modern hotel a short stroll from the Penis museum (it had to be done!) . We did get more cultured and visited the cathedral, and the archaeological museum too.
Having heard a few friends say that they'd been taken on coaches to car parks full of other coaches to see the Northern Lights, we knew that wasn't how we wanted to experience them. Instead we booked a jeep safari which picked us up from our hotel. We joined about 4 other jeeps and almost immediately the light show started. It's difficult to describe, and not really as the photos show, they are softer and more subtle, and you gradually realise that they are moving and changing. Your own camera won't capture them in all likelihood, so we were pleased that part of the service included as many photos as you could stand to have taken. We were kept warm with hot chocolate with a vodka shot.
The following day we continued to explore the city, taking in the harbour and happy hours in a couple of bars. We had a fabulous evening meal, and were 'gifted' some fermented shark by another table. I'm not suprised that they gave it away!
Our final stop on the way back to the airport was to the Blue Lagoon. We swam, we drank wine in lagoon, we mudpacked our faces - but there is no evidence of this!
We loved this trip, and now want to return to visit the north of Iceland which is renowned for whale watching. We are usually independent travellers, but this time used the services of an agent who listened to our wants, took note of the budget, and came up with several options for us. It would have been more expensive for us to have put it together ourselves. If you fancied doing the same, we recommend Caroline from Not Just Travel.