Licqourice minty shock of an Opal vodkashot. Vast whiteness in the middle of the night. Cold so intense my toes didn’t feel like they were attached anymore. Tiny high street. Dipping our toes in silica mush. The lagoon that smelled like boiled eggs. The ubiquitous Bonus grocery store with a logo that looked like a stoned pig. Boulders shaped like an elephant’s head. Waterfalls and rocks hewn in the Ice Age–their old-ness made me feel very very small. An all-natural lightshow unlike any we’ve ever seen. Best trip ever.
The Fiancé and I went to Reykjavik, Iceland earlier this year. I wrote the paragraph above on our way back to London, fresh and hung over from our Nordic experience.
I remember noticing the Iceland Air Northern Lights package ads in the tube stations. Seeing the “most spectacular light show on Earth” had always been one of my bucket list things-to-do, so we booked a package as soon as we confirmed leaves.
Reykjavik is a small city. We arrived in the dead of the night and were driven to Hotel Cabin, which was included in the Iceland Air package. The room was tiny and grubby-looking (the tiniest yet, of all the cities we’ve been to), but since we didn’t plan on staying in it much it was fine. Hotel Cabin also had its own bus stop, which was convenient.
Looking out at night I couldn’t get over the feeling that Reykjavik was so empty. I thought it had something to do with the fact that the country was almost sold back in 2008. Contrary to the name, when we arrived there was hardly any snow at all, but there was a lot of dirty ice piled at the sides of the road–it looked kind of like the shaved ice you get in the fridge freezer.
In the morning, we went to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal hot spa that was formed out of excess water from the nearby geothermal power plant (haha). You’re near the lagoon when the smell of boiled eggs becomes unmistakable. Don’t forget to put plenty of conditioner on your hair before entering the pool, or else it will feel like straw for days.
We got used to the feeling of squishy silica on our toes and made our way to the middle of the lagoon. Don’t make the mistake of putting the silica on the lagoon floor on your face–there are special buckets at the sides filled with clean silica which you can scoop up and make a mud mask with.
We brought a waterproof camera with us and had plenty of mud mask photos, which was pretty cool. Apart from photo-taking and mud mask-making, there was plenty to do: enjoy the delicious blend of cold on your face + heat surrounding your body, people-watch, nap, or just chill. Of course, one doesn’t forget the drinks.
We were scheduled to have our ‘Northern Lights’ tour that night, but were greeted with a terrific snowstorm after our afternoon nap. Lesson learnt here: there are no guarantees when it comes to aurora borealis-watching. They are a beautiful, if unpredictable, natural phenomenon after all. If you really want to see the lights, make sure to plan ahead. Pick the best and most likely months you’re likely to see them. Our tour operator, Reykjavik Excursions, offers a second night free in case something unfortunate happens on your scheduled night (which is what happened to us).
Since the Northern Lights tour was canceled for the night, we decided to just find a good place for dinner-which was easier said than done. We eventually found Hamborgarakabrikkan (The Hamburger Factory–how lovely the Nordic language is, that just rolled right off the tongue!), which served excellent gourmet burgers and fries.
A funny thing happened while in the restaurant: we saw the board below on the restaurant wall.
We thought they were counting the people served, and asked the waiter what it was. He told us it was the population of Iceland. Woah. Coming from a country with 92 million people, that was am-AH-zing.
The next day, we had the Golden Circle tour scheduled, which is a popular tourist route running from Reykjavik to Þingvellir National Park, Gullfloss waterfall, and the active geysers Geysir and Strokkur.
The snow was falling heavily that morning, which dashed all my hopes of a Northern Lights sighting for our second night. I just decided to enjoy the day as much I could.
Our van was fitted for navigating through the icy roads, but my heart still did a teeny-weeny jump whenever we skidded a little. Looking out the van window it was just so white–absolute white with no borders or horizon lines or anything. How could the driver possibly see where he was going? I recall randomly thinking what it would feel like getting lost in the middle of all that snow with nothing but what I had on me that moment. I took a peek in my bag: wallet with debit cards, my North Face gloves, a thin woolly cap, my pink iPod, a book, a map of Reykjavik, and a pack of gum. Errrm. I wouldn’t last an hour.
It was my first time to see snow-capped mountains, and oh, how inexplicably happy and peaceful they made me feel.
Gullfloss is the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen. It was breathtakingly majestic in the midst of all the snow. I didn’t have time to drink the whole sight in. I kept thinking that the water had been raging downward long before I was born and long after I’d die… and I felt extremely small and inconsequential in the long, long history of this planet.
Bit dramatic, but really, that’s what the sight does to you.
There was a small cafeteria opposite the geyser park. We went and visited the active geysers first. Strokkur, the more active of the two, erupts every 10-15 minutes or so. It was hilarious watching people caught unaware whenever it did. The Fiancé and I were both wearing plastic rain coats the tour bus operators gave away for free, and hence were well-prepared.
We made a bonus stop at a small crater lake.
We decided to kill some time that afternoon since we were fairly certain that the Northern Lights tour would be cancelled again. This time, we strolled the city center and sniffed out the popular hotdog place where Bill Clinton ate. It was pretty good, even if you ate just the bun.
We returned to the hotel from our city walk ready for dinner and bed. Lo and behold! A crowd of guests at the ground floor and no sign of tour cancellations at the desk. It was still on! Despite the clouds and snow earlier in the day, the tour was going to push through; the operators had decided to give the Northern Lights “hunt” a good old college try.
Why “hunt,” you ask? Well, because it really is a hunt, more than anything else. What happens is this: you go out with a huge bunch of people in a convoy of large buses. The bus driver switches off the lights and you all drive around in pitch-black darkness while the tour guide talks about the phenomenon, how/why it happens, its history, etc etc. The guide also asks all passengers to keep their eyes peeled out for any signs of the lights. They can be green, or red, it all depends on the conditions.
And like I said, there is no guarantee you’d see them. Aurora Borealis (or the Northern Lights) can be seen around November to early April. Best conditions to see the lights are clear, cloudless, but cold night skies far away from city lights–because it had been snowing earlier that day the guide tried to manage our expectations lower. He even told us stories of disgruntled tour passengers asking for their money back because of an unsuccessful trip. (Of course, that’s not possible. No soli bayad.)
We finally stopped at what the guide/driver thought to be a good spot and disembarked. Everyone had their cameras and tripods at the ready. It was butt-freezing cold outside… the first and only time since then that the cold was such that my toes felt disconnected from my feet. I kept jumping from foot to foot, thinking of frozen North Pole explorers and hypothermia (overactive imagination thanks to Discovery Channel and NatGeo). We stayed outside for close to two hours–at one point even resignedly climbing back into the bus–waiting, waiting.
So imagine the pure pleasure we all had seeing this.
I remember the huge elephant boulder-sized rocks whizzing by on our way back to the hotel, my head against the cold glass of the bus window, and an awestruck WOW feeling that stayed with me for days afterward.