EYJA-OG MIKLAHOLTSHREPPUR — A steady 50-mile-per-hour wind blew the heavy snow vertically into a visually impenetrable curtain as I attempted to drive to the western tip of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The only thing clear at that moment was that I would not be seeing the northern lights this particular evening. Also clear: Driving in Iceland during a blizzard was not one of my smarter ideas.
Blizzard or no, I was thrilled to be in Iceland. Pardon me while I squeal like a giggly middle school student clutching a notebook covered in Hello Kitty stickers, but Iceland is one of my favorite countries — at least the limited parts of Iceland I had seen. During my handful of visits I followed the standard tourist routes. Anyone who has been here can probably relate. I spent time in the capital, Reykjavik, and took bus tours of the Golden Circle to see the Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur, Geysir, and Skalholt Church. There was always a stop at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa before departure.
At the same time I knew there was an Iceland beyond hot dogs (oh, those impossibly wonderful hot dogs) that I had yet to explore. My mission on this visit was to see the northern lights. I assumed it would be more challenging than sharing a vanilla Coke with Big Foot or finding a decent cashmere sweater at Barneys for under $200. But I was determined. I stuffed every piece of winter clothing I owned into a suitcase and prepared myself for Iceland in winter.
It started with a blissful pair of days in Reykjavik. Because my fiance, Alex, had never been to Iceland, I had an excuse to stay in the petite city and try a new boutique hotel called Kvosin, along with chic eateries such as Restaurant Kol. A word of warning: If you’re planning an Iceland trip, make restaurant reservations before you leave. The only reservation we could get at Kol, with interiors by British luxury furniture designer Tom Dixon, was 6 p.m. Some restaurants — such as Dill — require reservations weeks in advance.
The best way to see the lights is away from the brightness of Reykjavik. My goal was to avoid tour buses. I contemplated snowmobile expeditions on glaciers, but was worried that I might not have enough fingers remaining after the hours-long adventure to type my story. The option that sounded more plausible — and exciting — was seeing the lights by sea.
Our boat was docked in Reykjavik and we arrived at 9 p.m. ready to take in the aurora borealis from the vantage point of the Atlantic. Seasickness be damned, I would see the northern lights.
It was a clear, windless night and the water seemed calm. But when we arrived at the ticket window, we were told the trip was canceled because seas were rough from a recent storm. We would be looking for the northern lights from a tour bus. My shoulders sank under four layers of sweaters and thermal underwear.
I grumbled about being stuck on a bus as we drove 45 minutes south to a town called Eyrarbakki. It’s home to the largest prison in Iceland, and if it was a crime to pout, I would have been put away for life. The bus parked in front of the Hafid Blaa restaurant, and when I stepped off I was immediately disappointed. Never having seen the northern lights, I assumed the sky would simply be a glowing green.
This is why I got a C-minus in science class. The lights are not turned on by a magic switch for the delight of grumpy tourists like me. Storms on the sun send gusts of charged solar particles across space. If Earth is in the path of the particle stream, our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere react. Those particles hit Earth’s atoms and the glow begins. I suspect my science teacher just read this paragraph and gave me another C-minus for that description.
I stood in the snow, staring at the sky, wondering when the show would begin. Nothing. At this point I was ready to cut my losses and head back to Reykjavik for hot dogs.
There were murmurs in the group as something that looked like a green funnel cloud formed on the horizon. I didn’t quite understand what was going on until the funnel cloud spread across the sky and became brighter. It grew in intensity and became an emerald swirl over our heads. Cameras carefully set on tripods clicked, while those with camera phones tried with little success to capture the moment.
A quick note to you aspiring shutterbugs hoping to snap the northern lights on your smartphones: Don’t. I tried, as did those around me. The only thing I ended up with was a batch of grainy, dark pictures and very cold hands. The best way to photograph the lights is with an SLR camera set to a very slow shutter speed. If you go this route, a tripod is a necessity. What I would recommend is to simply enjoy the experience. I watched the hazy green light show fade in and fade out.
Seeing the lights on our first attempt seemed too good to be true, and we still had two more opportunities. From Reykjavik, we drove northwest, through the blizzard, to a town called Budir to stay at the Hotel Budir. You can opt for a northern lights wake-up call if the lights shine at any point during the night, but there was no knock at the door. I was having flashbacks to my bachelor days when I was also often waiting for knocks on the door with no success. Only this time I was getting stood up by a natural phenomenon.
The hotel is located on the edge of Snaefellsjokull National Park, in a lava field on the westernmost tip of the peninsula. The hotel and national park are so remote that at times I felt as if I were on another planet. We drove along the jagged coast, stopping at vertigo-inducing cliffs and walking around in icy, sharp winds. The sea beat against the rocks in Thufubjarg as a soundtrack of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” played in a loop in my head. It’s worth the many detours and stops to explore these areas, particularly in the winter when visitors are few and far between.
For our third attempt at seeing the lights, we drove 3½ hours south of Budir — once again through snow — to Hotel Ranga in Hella. The town is also home to Helka, one of Iceland’s most active volcanos. Ranga is another hotel that offers a northern lights wake-up call, and I was feeling optimistic because the snow appeared to have stopped when we arrived.
We entered as the hotel’s boisterous Christmas buffet was in full swing. Reindeer pate, anyone? Upstairs from the large dining hall there was a very sad karaoke night taking place in the lounge. But, again, no northern lights, and I was beginning to feel that we had trekked all this distance for reindeer pate, a lot of snow, and not much else.
As that realization washed over us like a sulfur-scented Icelandic shower, a woman stopped us near the bar and said, “Kol?” I had no idea what she was saying. “Kol?” she asked again. We realized she was our server in Reykjavik at the stylish Restaurant Kol a few nights previous. Her entourage looked familiar, and she introduced the sharply dressed crew as her co-workers who were at our hotel for their holiday party. These affable kids were not about to let us return to our room, and we were soon making bets with them at the pool table.
Cut to an hour later, and after easily beating them, they were buying us shots at the bar. I’m stereotyping a bit when I say it, but in my experience, Icelanders like their liquor. This group was no exception as they ordered shots that were set on fire, sniffed, and then quickly swallowed. I could feel the burn in a very un-Fonda way.
They invited us back to their room for beer pong. This was a sign that perhaps this group might be a bit too young and rambunctious for my cantankerous ways. The second sign came when one of the women told me that I was the same age as her mother.
I collected Alex and we went to bed hoping for a northern lights wake up call. And though it never came, our night had been a success. We were fortunate enough to experience another Icelandic phenomenon: Fun-loving locals.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.