London Diary – Aurora Borealis Remains a Mystery!

Nov 16 – 20, 2016 Iceland

I set my heart on the Northern Lights and we put in an intense effort searching for it, out every night for four consecutive nights and up to 2am in grueling chill each night, a broken wide-angle-lens to boot. At the end, it remains elusive.

In spite of that, Iceland is definitely worth the trip. At first glance, Iceland’s landscape appears familiar, snowcapped mountains and more snow everywhere, like that of Alaska or Norway. But that is probably where the similarity stops. Iceland seems to be covered in rocks everywhere, earthy soil surface is almost nowhere to be seen, and all grounds are not only rocky but rough and jagged. As a result, there are few trees or vegetation around, what is there is mostly brown this time of the year. In spite of that, its surrounding at large is far from gaunt or bleak. The dramatic backdrop of the mountains and the glowing snow have done the magic.

Although its temperature dips no more than several degrees below freezing, constant wind makes it a harsh environment. Our Whale Watching Tour booked with Special Tours was cancelled twice due to strong wind and at the end we never got to do it since we were out of time for rescheduling. As one tour guide put it, the wind is too much for even wind turbines.

But those who live here have somehow made it work. Around 350,000 people call Iceland home, in towns along the coast since the hinter lands are too difficult to populate, and 2/3 live in and near capital Reykjavik.


Reykjavik, meaning smoky bay in Icelandic, is a scenic and vibrant city. The short day, cold and windy weather however made it difficult to be out for long and we were not able to visit as much as we’d like to.

We did make it to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church in the shape of a space shuttle, which I’d highly recommend. It is architecturally intriguing and its tower offers the best panoramic views in town. The day we went up the tower, the wind was so intense, a loud howling of the wind whirled back and forth in the observation area. Not an environment to take your time and cruise around; I lasted maybe 10 minutes before having to retreat into the covered landing.

We stayed at Alda Hotel on Laugavegur, an excellently central and convenient location, right next to many shops and restaurants. It is a few blocks to Hallgrimskirkja and not far from other attractions. It makes a difference if it means you do not have to walk far to get to the restaurants in that harsh wind and chill.

Here are some restaurants we tried. Old Iceland is pricy but serves top notch food, 73 Restaurant is good overall, both good choices for dinner and right across from one aother. Svartar Kaffid touts itself as the best soup in town, and they are right on. Noodle Station is delicious too. Both offer simple menu and reasonable price.

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Secret Lagoon

What Iceland does have in abundance are its thermal energy sources.

If I had not been that interested beforehand, after a couple of days in Iceland in all that coldness, nothing seemed more tantalizing than a natural thermal bath. Several people and internet had recommended Blue Lagoon, so we called, alas, it was fully booked. Luckily we found Secret Lagoon with Sterna Travel, which we had not heard of before.

Secret Lagoon is 1.25 hours east of Reykjavik. Our first time out of Reykjavik in day time and with the sun shining, it was a nice ride through some great scenery. Secret Lagoon might be a newer, smaller and lesser known location, its natural bath was as refreshing and restoring as I’d expect of any, a peaceful and scenic surrounding to boot. Colorful sunset for the journey back completed the half day outing beautifully.

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Golden Circle

The day for Golden Circle Tour came, we were picked up at our hotel, dropped off at Gray Line’s Bus Terminal, and a whole bus load of us set off. The weather beautiful and the sites stunning, it was a day of great experience including stops at Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir geothermal area, and Icelandic horse park, Fakasel.

Thingvellir National Park, 40km northeast of Reykjavik, is a valley surrounded by amazing panoramic views. Moreover, it’s geologically important as the boundary between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the historic place where the national parliament of Iceland was established in 930AD, and number one tourist attraction in Iceland.

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Gullfoss Waterfall, located in the canyon of the river Hvita, is quite breathtaking; it roars and pushes on with tremendous force, its mist so wide and thick, it appears as if there is another waterfall on opposite side.

Recommended by our guide, we tried the lamb soup at the café for lunch. It is a hearty soup with lots vegies and chunks of tender lamb, great with bread and butter. Better yet, you can go back for more, no extra charge. One bowl was plenty for me though. The café is connected with a large shop with lots goodies and souvenirs.

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Geysir geothermal area includes multiple hot springs of varying sizes. In the center is the largest that also erupts quite often, about every 10 minutes.

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The stop at Fakasel was short. At around 6:30pm it was already dark, only a few horses remained outside in the paddocks, some did get to pat on the horses. I realized that we had been to this spot twice before on previous Northern Lights tours, when we had visited the restaurant and shop on site but had had no idea they were part of a horse park. The park is obviously a location used by the many Northern Lights tours.

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More on Northern Lights

The week before we arrived, there had been bad storms and “no one had come out for Northern Lights” according to one of our guides. Much better weather the week we were there and the tour resumed. But it was obviously not good enough, and no sighting of Northern Lights on our first night in Iceland. Luckily, Gary Line allows rescheduling of tours if there is no sighting of Northern Lights, for up to two years.

We rescheduled not once, not twice, but thrice, 4 tours all together. Every time, a mini bus picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off at Gray Line’s sales office near Harpa, where we were issued tickets before going to board a bus nearby. Every night’s routine was similar but the locations varied. The company monitors the weather condition and communicates the info to their drivers and guides. The last two nights we fortuitously ended up with the same driver and guide duo, Dory and Darren. Darren is a great guide, knowledgeable, funny and speaks perfect English with an American accent.

One night, we were taken to a spot where there is a church – its name I forgot, the riches church in Iceland according to our guide. And the guide from a different bus put up a little concert at the church playing some instrument solo.

Every night, our guide talked about the science behind the phenomenon of Northern Lights. Amount of solar activity and visibility of the sky are the keys to witnessing it, while humans are so much better in monitoring and predicting the conditions, alas, none of it is in the control of human’s hands. And the condition can change fast in Iceland too. We’d arrive at a location with clear sky, but it’d cloud up soon afterwards, and we’d have to move on to a different location.

The guides all gave tips for taking photos of Northern Lights. So I put their tips and advice I found on internet beforehand into practice and as long as I could stand the freezing outdoor, had fun with my camera, trying and getting a hang of shooting the night sky with manually programmed ISO, shutter speed, aperture and time exposure techniques, something I had never bothered with before.

Camera lenses are more sensitive than human eyes indeed. Later when going through my photos, I noticed on one photo what seemed to be Northern Lights, albeit a tiny spot!

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A few practical tips

Dress warmly. Pack heavy duty warm jacket and gloves, hat, scarf and/or ski mask to cover your face too. Layer appropriately so you can be comfortable inside and out. While it is freezing outside, the indoors can be hot. As you go about, in and out of places and between activities, there will be lots bundling up and stripping off layers, again and again.

Take into consideration that Iceland has become more expensive. Some said price has almost doubled in a year’s time.

Good luck if you are out hunting for Northern Light!

2 Responses

  1. I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and although Iceland clearly is a beautiful landscape, I have to admit my sole purpose to consider a holiday there is the lights! It is very expensive though isn’t it. Beautiful pictures, I can only imagine how cold it was. Hope you enjoyed your trip there.

    • My thoughts exactly and that was why I planned the trip for Iceland in Nov, which falls into the best window of opportunity of the year. But Iceland turned out worth of a trip with or without the sighting of Norther Lights! Thanks for your comment. Travel on! I look forward to following your journey.

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