Tag Archive: Iceland

The Northern Lights – Solo Travel Starlog, Part 4

I saw the Northern Lights. It was my fifth try when they really danced.

The first three tries were duds:

  1. I sat on a freezing bus for two hours with no bathroom. Received a free coupon to try again but obviously didn’t use it.
  2. I took a boat tour from Reykjavik Harbor dressed in a black-and-yellow thermal suit. No lights, but this was a great trip, and the boat had bathrooms. When we didn’t see the lights, a crewman named Sven started reading Northern Lights poetry over the loudspeaker. Highly recommended. Received a free voucher to try again.
  3. I took a SuperJeep into a not-really-so-impassable-after-all part of Thingvellir National Park, searching for a gap in the clouds. We found a gap with the moon and stars shining down on snow and silence. No lights and no bathrooms, but the tour guides served hot chocolate with vodka. Received a free voucher to try again.

Preliminary Success

On the fourth try, I used my SuperJeep voucher. This time the lights forecast was great, and before we’d even left Reykjavik city limits, our guide was talking with other guides on the phone about where to find the lights. We drove a short distance to a forest and got out with the Northern Lights stretching green across the sky. I’d heard they would look smoky-white to the naked eye, but they were whitish-green and beautiful, like a cloud or smoke but a little different.

We watched for a while and then drove farther out, to a snow-covered open area where the lights stretched up across the sky and then shrunk back. It was beautiful. Mission accomplished, I thought.

A couple of weeks later I was wandering around the old harbor in Reykjavik when I saw a booth for the boat tour company and decided I should use their voucher before I left Iceland. I stopped by to ask the man there which night would be best.

He insisted that I needed to go that night. I had no plans so agreed to board the ship.

A Light Show for a Lifetime

For the first hour we saw nothing, just drifting on the water in the cold. Then I saw a small white cloud on the northern horizon.

Shortly afterward, the cloud stretched across the sky. It was a Northern Light. A long period of nothing — maybe an hour — and then a bigger streak of light arced up to the top of the sky, shimmered, and split sideways into dancing lines.

The lines broke into three huge green swirls that spun around, with red shimmering through their cores. Then other lines streaked up, shimmering and marching like souls into heaven, and a huge green cloud drifted like a green smoke dragon across the sky.

The tour operator was yelling and could not contain herself. I was laughing and looking up and sharing the moment with 200 other people on this boat in the middle of winter, imagining what people used to think of the Northern Lights before we understood them, back when they were just a mysterious phenomenon.

We came back to Reykjavik Harbor with the lights as our companion, shimmering and dancing, covering almost half the sky.

I have no photos because iPhones take terrible night photos. The photos I have can’t do it justice, and I won’t post them. The memories I have will never leave my mind. It was an incredible gift from nature, and I feel so lucky.

I am so going back.

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One Month in Iceland – Solo Travel Starlog, Part 2

The Iceland weather forecast is like a Bible that changes from minute to minute. If you read something yesterday, or half an hour ago, that thing is gone now. A storm has replaced it, or a gale wind, or a shining sunny moment where once a squall lived.

In other words: Don’t trust it. And don’t make plans more than a day ahead, if you can avoid it.

The country is also beautiful. Yesterday, while walking around the city of Reykjavik in a snow shower when there was 0% chance of precipitation, I was captivated by its charm. I mean this not sarcastically at all: The city was gorgeous, lit softly by sun behind clouds and providing perfect photo opportunities for murals, churches and buildings.

Mural in Reykjavik Garden

Afterward, the best hot dog I ever ate was a terrific lunch. It’s called a pylsur and includes lamb as well as pork and beef — plus onions, fried onions, mustard, ketchup and remoulade. For pronunciation aficionados, the stand is named Bæjerins Beztu Pylsur.

I don’t eat hot dogs at home (because U.S. food is generally awful), but I’m glad I ate this one!

Walking in Reykjavik

I’ve now taken two walking tours in Reykjavik accompanied by snow. The first tour brought just a shower, but the second, the Icelandic Financial Miracle tour, took place during a full-blown snowfall; we finished the tour in a quiet garden behind the Parliament building, standing in four inches of fresh-fallen snow. It was beautiful, not to mention super-educational.

In fact, this tour was one of the highlights of my trip so far. At only 25 euros, it’s a fantastic deal. (Two other people no-showed, bringing our tour below the minimum number of participants, so I broke the Icelandic no-tip rule and gave our wonderful guide a giant tip.)

The guide, Magnus, is an economist and university professor who tells a captivating tale of the people, places and events behind Iceland’s financial crisis. I learned so much about the history of this country, including its rapid rise in the 20th and early 21st centuries from subsistence farming to finance and tourism center, its “corporate Viking” pride and ambitions, and the adjustment to post-crisis reality and recovery (including imprisonment of several high-level bankers). In fact, I liked it so much, I’ll write a more complete review of the tour later. It was like the best college class ever — in the snow! Plus, we walked past beautiful places like this cemetery:

Snow-covered cemetery in Reykjavik

Afterward, I was freezing because I wore cotton socks instead of wool socks (Iceland newbie mistake!), so I retreated to a cafe with another person from the tour and we shared our own stories of life and travel.

Hunting the Northern Lights

On the way home I stocked up on more beet juice (seriously, it’s everywhere!) and then went out to see the Northern Lights. This time I abandoned the large bus tour concept and went straight for the goods: a SuperJeep tour. My thought process was that SuperJeeps could chase the gaps in the clouds and find the Northern Lights.

Disappointment: We were locked out of the SuperJeep at the first stop. This was sort of funny and sort of not, since we were in the middle of nowhere at Thingvellir National Park. Fortunately, there was a fleet of SuperJeeps on the tour, and several drivers together jumped on the vehicle and removed the window so we could continue our tour. I was impressed and astonished that a SuperJeep window was so detachable and our guides were so awesome. I don’t have a photo of this moment, but I wish I did.

We went into an “impassable” area beyond the national park and finally found a break in the clouds. The moon was full and it was absolutely beautiful, so despite the absence of Northern Lights, I enjoyed the trip.

After a couple of hours of waiting and watching the moon and stars through the hole in the clouds, our guides gave up and served us hot chocolate and vodka. Definitely better than the bus tour.

Iceland’s Lottery Tickets

At last, we returned to Reykjavik and I finally got to pee after five hours. (The biggest downside of these trips is not actually the unpredictability of the Northern Lights. It’s the complete absence of toilet facilities on the buses and SuperJeeps. I saw one lady wandering into the wilds of Thingvellir, telling her husband that they had to find a place where no one could watch her go. To their credit, the boat tour operators use a boat that has restrooms.)

The nice thing about all of the Northern Lights tours — bus, boat and SuperJeep — is that if they don’t cancel the tour and you still don’t see the lights, you get a voucher for another free trip. This is an awesome policy that makes the tour price worthwhile. I’ve now collected three vouchers. Hopefully one will be the Golden Ticket.

I went to bed at 3am, internal body clock spinning and totally in love with this weird place called Iceland.

One Month in Iceland – Solo Travel Starlog, Part 1

I have no idea what time it is. I arrived in Iceland in early morning pitch blackness Thursday, then fell asleep at 10 as the sun was coming up. I wore clean jeans and a shirt to bed, since they were the first clean clothes I found in my bag.

Woke up at 2 p.m. as the sun was descending and headed out into the coldest day of the year to shop for food. Armed with bread, cheese, muesli and beet juice, I returned to the apartment to warm up before my Northern Lights tour.

Later that night, after a long and pointless hunt for the Northern Lights on a freezing tour bus, I stayed up till nearly 3 a.m., wired and on East Coast time.

Blur and Sunlight

Passed out and woke up at 9:30 a.m. with dawn on the horizon. Spent a cloudy day amid snow showers relaxing and wandering around downtown Reykjavik, with a stop in a warm and welcoming cafe. My worst fears have not come to pass. I imagined Icelandic winter days as a tableau of faint sun streaming through dark night-clouds, like in those old medieval illustrations of the world ending during eclipses.

The reality is more like extended sunrises and sunsets with a few hours of normal daylight in between. Less apocalypse and more soft, warm light. After a pleasant meal at the cafe, I head back to the apartment in early dusk. Another wired evening, in bed this time by 1:45 a.m. It’s hard to tell one day from another.

Hibernation and the Loss of Time

Mountains near ReykjavikToday I wake up at 7:30 with the alarm and instantly decide, no way. I feel like a hibernating bear. It’s dark and cold, and the bed is warm and soft and surrounded by wood ceiling and walls. I feel like I’m on a ship at sea, tossing softly on waves. The lights on the trees outside my window glimmer in the darkness.

Back to sleep. 9:30 a.m. I get up with the light and amble downstairs to make breakfast, which I decide will be a chocolate bar. Then I sit around watching the sky get light for three hours, clouds over distant mountains visible from the kitchen window.

When I finally take a shower, the hot water smells like sulfur. It’s clean and pure and everyone smells like this so it’s fine, I embrace it.

Liquorice Butter vs. Hakarl

Dressed and showered, I meander to the concert hall downtown and attend an artisan food exhibition. I buy food I never imagined like butter with liquorice and sea salt, jam made of berries heretofore unknown, and concentrated blueberry essence.

At one stall, I am offered hakarl, Iceland’s signature rotted shark delicacy, but I decline. I’m not ready yet.

At home I scarf down bread with the liquorice butter, which is surprisingly delicious. I feel like drinking, which is strange because I almost never drink at home. I imagine getting drunk on wine and watching the Northern lights while I eat the entire jar of liquorice butter.

The Hunt Continues

Pink sky near sunsetTonight I will go out hunting the Northern Lights again. The sky has been clear all day, but fog is descending and the sunset has a pink glow that’s gorgeous in its own right. The aurora forecast is low, and I don’t expect to see lights, but I’m here for a month so I’m not worried.

I settle into the beautiful apartment in this strange and wonderful country at the edge of the world, waiting for nightfall.

Amazing Airbnb Number 2 – Reykjavik, Iceland

Today’s Amazing Airbnb is definitely on my someday list. I love Iceland, though I haven’t been to Reykjavik since 2006. Many apartments in Reykjavik are relatively expensive, but this one is affordable and atmospheric. It reminds me of a wooden ship near the ocean.

Cozy 101 Reykjavík apartment in Reykjavik

A cozy little apartment with an ocean veiw. Located on Reykjavíks main shopping and nightclub street in the heart of town. All the main bars and restaurants are within a walking distance from the apartment. There is a supermarket, swimmingpool, tourist information and bus terminal within a 5 minute walking radius. View all listings in Reykjavik

As a quick note, here are the criteria for an Amazing Airbnb:

  1. Relatively affordable for the area (typically $70 or less per night) or monthly rate less than $1700 USD;
  2. Beautiful and/or particularly atmospheric or interesting;
  3. Great reviews of the place and the host.