The Northern Lights are a sight to behold. I had always seen mysterious and colorful pictures on social media, travel websites, and magazines of this illusive event. I never thought that one day I would be so lucky as to see it firsthand. Then on a whim, I booked a trip to Iceland and this transcendent land full of fairies and Vikings would forever change my life.
In the cold of January, I took a six-hour flight from New York to Reykjavik. Stepping off the plane, it was still dark and I was starving. I stopped at a café in the airport and had my first experience trying Icelandic skyr, which is a high protein, yogurt-like product that was served with granola and fruit. I was never that partial to yogurt but skyr certainly converted me. Even since I’ve been back in the states, I consistently buy the Siggi’s brand of skyr because I can’t get enough! After fulfilling my empty stomach, I jumped on a bus to the Blue Lagoon that I had booked before leaving. It is a short ride from the airport and is a must-do when travelling to Iceland.
The sun was rising as I was lounging in the volcano-heated hot springs of the Blue Lagoon. It is a marvelous way to bring in the day. In the wintertime, the days are shorter and the sun never gets fully bright but the twilight-like lighting gave the misty spa even more of a mystical feeling. In Iceland the locals believe in fairies, which sounded like a joke to me until I was there and saw their countryside. There is something fantastical about the landscape of Iceland that definitely seems to bring supernatural beings to life. I could see the mountains in the background as the steam rose from the warm water and it seemed that I was on another planet. The juxtaposition of the hot water and the cold temperature was surreal. It didn’t seem possible to be in a bathing suit in the middle of January in a country named after ice but there I was!
After the zen day at the spa, I headed into the town of Reykjavik. It was already dark by the time I settled in at the hotel and got back out to explore. I was still not used to these shortened days but this city has serious character and even in the nighttime I was able to see the charm. It felt warm and bright despite the lack of light. The restaurants, shops, and bars were all inviting. I tried their coffee, pastries, fish, lamb, puffin, whale, and even fermented shark. If I were ever to go back, I would skip the shark. Over the next few days, I would see all the highlights of this city such as visiting and climbing to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral. The cathedral itself is breathtaking from the outside but the view from the top is unbeatable. I could see the far reaches of Reykjavik and all the mountains in the distance. It seemed endless. I also visited the Harpa, the concert hall, which is completely glass and modern in style. While walking around inside, I couldn’t stop looking up because the windows were mesmerizing and the building gave off a heavenly glow with the sun falling through the glass. Just wandering around the town, I stumbled upon a medley of street art, which truly made the town feel unique. The town clearly encourages and supports local art and I could feel the creativity radiating from every corner.
Iceland is much more than just Reykjavik so I felt it was necessary to venture out for some day trips. One such tour that is always recommended is the Golden Circle Tour, which includes the Geyser geothermal area, Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park. It is definitely easy to see why it is so popular. Each stop offers something unique. Thingvellir offers amazing views and interesting geological formations. The Geyser area offers exciting explosions of steam and water from an extremely large geyser. Finally, Gullfoss waterfall offers views of truly one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. Its magnitude and steadiness was awe-inspiring. It happened to be sunset by the time I arrived so the orange and yellow lights dancing on the water was definitely a sight to behold. Additionally, I ventured out to Solheimajokull glacier and did a glacier hike. It was one of my favorite activities of the entire trip. The group was given ice picks and crampons to help grip the ice and allow for easier walking. We saw ice caves, small rivers from the melting ice, and mountains of ice. The feeling of ice crunching under the crampons as I hiked was so satisfying as it is always exhilarating to conquer a new challenge. Making it to the top was dreamlike. It was like I was on top of the world looking out into the seemingly infinite valley.
One particularly noteworthy day, I took the rental car out to west Iceland. This is an area that isn’t quite as popular as southern Iceland. Truthfully, however, this road trip felt like the most authentic part of Iceland. It was truly deserted at times. I was the only person on the road for miles. It seemed like I had stepped back in time to before humans had inhabited the country. It had just snowed the night before so everything was a glowing white and I felt secluded with mountains and glaciers surrounding me on both sides. I stopped along my drive at the Eldborg Caldera, Gerduberg Basalt Columns, and to play with friendly horses on the side of the road. When I finally made it to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, I had seeming entered a new world. In the small seaside town of Arnarstapi, the only people I saw were the employees at the welcome center! Some of the house’s roofs were even covered in grass that called to mind again the idea that fairies do exist. There was a giant rock statue of a fisherman that overlooked both the town and the coastline. The town rests on a cliff that overlooks the ocean and the Langjokull glacier in the distance in the other direction. When I saw the wild waves crashing against the large, jagged black stones of the shore, I felt as if I had been the first to discover this land. I didn’t think this could be topped but then I stopped at Djupalonssandur Beach and Iceland out did itself. It is a black “sand” beach in which the rocks are said to have healing powers. I hiked around this area to truly take in the magical views. I could see the black and rocky shoreline expanding before me and I never wanted to leave.
On the way back home, I decided I was in a secluded enough area with little light pollution so now would be the best chance to see the northern lights. It was especially promising because it was the first real clear night the entire trip. Therefore, I stopped at a random spot with clear views to sit and wait for the lights. I sat and I waited. And I waited some more. I hung out of the window so I could fully see the sky and I waited some more. I knew it was difficult to find the lights and it took patience so I kept that in mind even when I started to lose hope. Finally after what felt like hours or so of waiting, I saw something forming in the distance. It was a green light that almost looked like a wisp of cloud. Then it grew and waved through the sky. It got dimmer and brighter. It literally felt like a dream. The lights were glowing and fluttering right before my eyes and I felt at peace in that moment. The show didn’t last that long but I didn’t care. That minute or so was truly an experience like no other. Iceland is an enchanting land on it’s own without the lights but that was truly the icing on the cake. It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip. I find myself still dreaming about the trip and hoping to return soon to the home of the elves and sprites.