When I tell people that I went to Iceland in January, I get one of two reactions: “For God’s sake, why?” or “How cool!”
So why did I seek out one of the northern-most countries at the height of winter? The Aurora Borealis, that’s why. Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, electrically charged particles from the sun that are most visible in the sky in the winter. (Other great viewing sites include Alaska, northern Canada, Norway, Finland, Russia—and Australia, although those lights are called the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis.) In addition, as a Scandinavian country founded by the Vikings and their Irish slaves, the country is part of my family’s heritage. That does NOT mean that my sister, Linda, and I found the Scandinavian palate favoring pickled herring to our liking. Luckily, there’s plenty of food variety to be had in Iceland, including (cue the disdain!) American chains such as Subway, and hearty breakfasts that typically come with a hotel room.
So why Iceland, why now? Like many people, our appetite had been whetted by the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was partially filmed in some of the more remote areas of Iceland. That movie was shot in the warmer months, featuring lava fields, mountains, volcanos, waterfalls, rolling hills and roads and other spectacular sights. (Thor, Oblivion, Prometheus and Game of Thrones have also filmed in Iceland.)
Iceland did not disappoint—especially since we got a great Groupon deal with Gate1 Travel for $799 per person that included the round-trip airfare from JFK in New York, three nights’ hotel accommodation and breakfast, and one Northern Lights tour. The weather was nippy, but no colder or windier than the American Northeast in January. The one big difference: There were only six hours of daylight, lasting from about 10:30AM to 4:30PM.
The Northern Lights
Although we had to venture out three nights in a row, on the third night we were rewarded with the amazing sight of dancing, shimmering, spiraling, swirling green lights across the sky. The show lasted an hour. The first night we saw nothing but clouds in the black sky, and the second night faint green and pink bands around 1AM. (The tour company tried to convince us we’d had a 6.5 experience on a scale of 1-10, but that was only if you had a SLR camera through whose viewfinder the colors were saturated. To the naked eye, the lights were far more subdued in color.) We only had to pay for the tour twice, though: all of the companies offer free repeat trips if you don’t see the lights on a given night. Which brings us to the surety of seeing the lights: While they are always present in the sky, they are not always visible on earth. And they display in a million different ways: Sometimes for a few minutes, other times for a few hours. Sometimes they’re green (the most common color), and other times they range to blue, purple, yellow, white and pink. Sometimes they are stagnant and hazy and other times they are active. I once saw the Northern Lights in Alaska (it was July, no less) and they were so active that it was like watching a movie for two hours!
Blue Lagoon is an amazing steaming geothermal spring south of Reykjavik. The water is heated to 98 to 102 degrees F. We got into the lagoon inside the building, since the outside temperature was in the 30s. It was very amusing to see the lifeguards all bundled up in yellow vests, overcoats and boots while the guests were swimming in bathing suits! I had an in-water massage that was heavenly. They put me in a float and covered me with a wet towel and proceeded to massage my legs and head. Every few minutes, the massage therapist would dip the float to warm me up with new water. While I was receiving the massage, it began to snow lightly. It was the complete package! They also had a sauna and steam room at Blue Lagoon, a waterfall and silica mud bins from which you could scoop up some mud to apply to your face as a mask.
The Golden Circle
One of the most well-known tours in Iceland is the Golden Circle featuring the Gullfoss waterfall, a geyser and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—the place where the European and North American continents meet.
Linda and I did the Golden Circle on the third day of our trip with Gray Line Iceland. It was an amazing feeling to be so close to the earth’s core, crossing from the Eurasian tectonic plate through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to the slightly higher North American plate. We then got out of the bus and walked along the North American plate. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and a lovely 20-minute walk looking over the Mid-Atlantic ridge, a valley of hardened lava.
The Streets of Reykjavik
Icelanders are inordinately proud of the fact that they have been able to harness their country’s ample supply of geothermal water and steam to heat most homes and businesses. They are also proud of the fact that they’ve run plastic piping under the streets and sidewalks of Reykjavik to melt snow so they don’t have to shovel or plow. Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t really work that well, as there was ice everywhere, making walking treacherous. The Icelanders—friendly, sturdy, practical types—seemed oblivious to the dangers. Perhaps someone should tell them?!
A Top-10 Vacation
Iceland ranks up there as one of the best vacations of my life, and I’d love to go again in the summer, when daylight lasts 24 hours and we can venture up to the other territories. (The capitol city of Reykjavik is in the southwestern tip of the island; two-thirds of Iceland’s 330,000 inhabitants live around Reykjavik, and our visit was mostly confined to that area.)
Next time, I might even go near the volcanos! Can you say Eyjafyallajokull?*
*This is the volcano that erupted in 2010, blowing ash all over the place and disrupting air travel.