Those Elusive Northern Lights
I have always wanted to see the natural wonder that is the famous Northern Lights, otherwise known as the “Aurora Borealis”. So, when deciding where our February break was going to be, Iceland came up as the best option – as well as being amongst the easiest to get to from our home base in Frankfurt.
To my surprise, there’s a lot more to Iceland than just those Northern lights, which, as it turned out, was a good thing, but more on that later.
So, on a cold February morning we headed for Frankfurt airport to catch our WOW! Air flight to Iceland – where we arrived to a cold Icelandic afternoon!
We had wanted to experience the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa on our way in to Reykjavik but, unfortunately, by the time my trip research revealed this was possible, there were no booking spaces available that coincided with our arrival time. So, we boarded our bus & headed straight to our AirBnB accommodation which, as it turned out, was really well located at the end of the main shopping area of the city.
After a quick introduction to our hosts (lovely twin sisters, born & bred in Iceland) & a hot cup of tea, we headed out to explore our immediate surroundings. By this time it was late in the afternoon & dusk was fast approaching, it was also pretty cold but we were expecting that & dressed accordingly. Our weather this week was not looking promising at all – temperatures hovering around zero centigrade & heavy cloud cover with rain/snow at intervals. Certainly not the sort of February break we have been used to, having been to Las Vegas & Egypt our previous two years!
We keep reminding ourselves that we aren’t here for the weather!
After exploring the main shopping street & identifying a few bars & restaurants we headed back to our apartment, having decided to grab dinner at a bistro that was only a hundred metres from our front door.
Monday, & today will be a busy one. We have pre-booked an Iceland sightseeing tour which covers the main attractions here – all of which are natural. We have to meet the mini bus at 8am & it is still dark outside as we head to the bus stop which is 150 metres from our apartment. The mini bus will take us to the main coach station where our tour bus & guide await!
Then we are off for the natural attractions along what is referred to as the “Golden Circle” route – first stop, Gullfoss, Iceland’s largest waterfall & (according to our guide) it’s most photographed attraction. It’s certainly spectacular & we did more than our fair share of picture taking!
From there we headed to Thingvellir – a natural rock formation situated directly between two continental tectonic plates. The landscape is spectacular & called for quite a few photos, including some cheesy selfies! The landscape is quite dramatic – aided by the snow cover, which is all around. This would have been a harsh country to tame in an age where modern energy & technology was not available.
The highlight of the day though was our next stop – Snowmobiling on Langjökull Glacier! It takes 90 minutes to get there & we have to transfer to a 4WD mini bus that boasts gigantic all terrain tyres – which were definitely need for the terrain we had to drive over – narrow snow covered roads that we wide enough only for one vehicle & with turrets deep enough to lose a small child in! We got there in one piece thanks to the skilful driving of our guide. On arrival we were ushered into one of the outbuildings to get a safety briefing & to have a light lunch – including some very welcome hot drinks! Then we were ushered into the gear gut where we were outfitted in a one piece snow suit & fitted for our compulsory safety helmets. I felt more like a NASA astronaut than a tourist by the end of it!
From there it was back outside to claim our snow mobile. Iris & I were sharing ours & Iris opted to be the passenger – which meant I was going to drive on the famous Langjökull Glacier (Iceland’s second largest). After a short briefing on how to drive these machines our group (there were about 20 of us) started our engines & slowly pulled out of the base camp area behind the expert driver that was to be the lead for this one hour adventure.
It was a real buzz to skim along the surface of the glacier, although handling the snow mobile did take a little getting used to. Thankfully, the weather had cleared a little for us & our visibility was quite good once we got away from the base camp area & onto the glacier proper.
In what seemed like just a few minutes our hour was up & we were heading back to base camp. What an experience – & one that neither of us will forget in a hurry!
After parking our snow mobile we headed back into the gear hut to remove helmets & snow suits. Then it was back into the outbuildings for some biscuits & hot chocolate before heading back to our 4WD mini bus for the trek back down the mountain to reunite with our original coach & tour guide.
Once there we headed for our last stop of the day, the Geysir hot springs – a geothermal national park with “Eruptions” every 10 minutes or so. Very interesting & quite a spectacular show! After watching a couple of eruptions Iris & I retired to the tourist information building which also housed a cafeteria, so that we could get something to eat. We decide on a couple of mugs of hot soup & a bread roll. I was floored when I was told that it was going to cost €30 in total – for two mugs of soup & some bread! Mind you, food & drink prices in Iceland are notoriously expensive – two drinks (a wine & a beer) the night before had set us back €22.
After the soup it was time to board the coach for the return journey to Reykjavic. A big day but so worthwhile. Tonight we were supposed to do a Northern lights tour but I had received a text from the tour operator advising it had been cancelled due to bad weather (too cloudy) so, we will have to rebook.
So, here it is Tuesday & the only thing we have booked is a Northern Lights tour – which was rebooked as a result of last night’s cancellation. Today we are going to explore a little more of Reykjavic.
Mornings are quite slow here – it’s dark until after 9.30am so we take the opportunity to start the day slowly. Getting up late & having a leisurely breakfast before heading out. Our AirBnB hosts had told us about a nearby supermarket where we had picked up some basic provisions. With food & drink the price it is here, eating out every day is not a sensible option – unless you want to be spending upwards of €100 per day on restaurant food!
We explored the harbour area a little more & went up to the Hallgrímskirkja church, Iceland’s tallest building & a huge tourist attraction. We also discovered a really interesting museum (there are plenty of them here) which is built around a more than 1,000 year old dwelling that has been partly excavated, with the museum exhibits featured around & inside. A great insight into the history of this incredible island.
For lunch, we discovered a great fish and chip restaurant (yes it was expensive by our standards but not by Iceland’s) & had some of the best fish and chips we have ever tasted – definitely a place to head back to!
Once again, late in the afternoon, we received a text message that our Northern lights trip had been cancelled due to the cloud cover – arrrgh!
Wednesday, & we have rebooked our Northern Lights tour for tomorrow evening as tonight we have booked an evening session at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa – more on that later.
First, though, we are off on a “Hop on Hop off” tour – we were surprised that Reykjavic had one but pleasantly so! The tour around Reykjavik, incorporates the main commercial area & the harbour and features interesting background to things we have already seen, as well as showing us some sights we would not have known anything about without taking the tour – such as the parliament building.
For lunch we found a small “Hole in the wall” style eatery, located on a small pier in the harbour area. It’s famous for its seafood chowder, so we naturally had to have some – & it was delicious! The seating comprised benches & long tables which were shared by all who ate there. We shared our table with a couple from Northern Germany who were most interested to discover that we were from Australia (although living in Frankfurt presently).
We were back at the apartment by 3pm to rest up a little in readiness for our Blue Lagoon experience. Our booking was the last timeslot of the day – 9pm. We were picked up at the nearby bus stop for our transfer to the Blue Lagoon, which is situated on the way to the airport, about 20 minutes from the city centre.
What a well organised place it is – & they need to be. Each timeslot is of one hour’s duration with twelve timelslots per day – all of them fully booked (most of the time) & I would estimate at least 100 per slot! It’s a modern resort which also features a hotel & restaurant. Once you check in you are given an electronic access bracelet which identifies what sort of spa package you have & grants you entry to thse areas only.
So, off you go to the change rooms to prepare yourself by way of a shower first. Then you head down to the geothermal pool area. The whole place is very modern – plenty of spruce timber everywhere & the pool area is massive & features walk up bars in several spots. The whole water area is a little over a metre deep, with a few deeper spots here & there & it is all geothermally heated.
Mind you, getting to the pool requires a bit of courage because it is sub zero air temperature & you have only a swimsuit on – once you leave the comfort of the resort building you have about 30 metres to go in the cold air before you hit the warm water! Brrrr!
Worth it though – it’s a great feeling to hit that geothermally heated water! Iris & I also qualified for a mineral mud mask which we wasted no time in getting. It was quite a sight to be wading in a thermal pool, at night, under the (cloudy) sky and surrounded by people who looked like aliens with their grey or green mud masks on!
Once we had our masks applied we headed to the bar for our alcoholic drink (included in our package) & just casually wandered about, trying to find the where the warmest currents were & doing our best to keep our shoulders submerged & thus avoid to much contact with the cold night air.
Alas, our hour was up with the ring of a bell and, as it was the last session of the night, the pool area lights were dimmed to encourage everyone out. After having another shower Iris & I met in the cafeteria & had a hot drink before finding our bus to return to the city & our apartment.
Thursday, and after another leisurely breakfast we headed out a bit after eleven. We visited the local shopping centre before making our way back to our favourite fish and chip shop for a late lunch & to see if our experience earlier in the week was a fluke or the norm. Turns out it must be the norm because te fish and chips were just as delicious second time around! From there we went to the Saga museum & learned a little more about Iceland’s history & the story of settlement before a brisk walk back to our lodgings for a rest until our Northern Lights tour.
Turns out we needn’t have bothered as, once again, the tour was cancelled due to cloud cover & with only one more night remaining we are now concerned that maybe we won’t get to see them at all!
Friday, we spent exploring museums & we also decided to visit Aurora Reykjavic – dedicated to all things Northern Lights, including an interactive/immersive recreation of what they look like – just in case we do not manage to see the real thing.
Well, you guessed it – our Northern Lights tour was once again cancelled due to the weather conditions!
Saturday we rebooked for one last chance to see the Northern Lights in the flesh but we were to again be let down by the weather &, as Sunday was our day to return to Frankfurt we ended up not seeing the real thing.
Whilst we were disappointed about that we still had a fabulous time & learned so much about the proud Icelandic history, as well as notching up some really amazing experiences – that snow mobile trip on the glacier being top of that list.
I doubt that we will see Iceland again any time soon but it’s certainly a place I would heartily recommend experiencing at least once (hopefully when the cloud cover is gone!).