The Great European Adventure

The best thing I did in Iceland

If you have $640 in your savings account, spend 600 on a round trip flight to Reykjavik and 40 on a Northern Lights tour. I’ll wait while you go and book it.

I am only half joking.

I looked up the price of a flight out of Boston this weekend, and it’s significantly more than $600 to take a jaunt to Iceland on such short notice. However, if you book a month or two in advance as people normally book their vacations, $600 should be enough.

Grace and I booked the Northern Lights Mystery tour with Iceland Excursions in association with Gray Line, a company that runs tours in many countries. We booked the tour through Viator so that we could book in USD, but that’s really personal preference and your bank’s conversion fee policies–the difference in price between the websites is negligible.

The point of booking a tour is so that someone with experience spotting the Northern Lights can drive you away from the city lights and find a good viewing spot. I think it was good to have a guide for two reasons.

The first is because Grace and I actually took this tour twice. There is no guarantee you will see the Lights on the tour, but Iceland Excursions lets you go out subsequent nights until you see them (for no extra charge). We purposely booked our tour for Saturday night knowing that we could go out again Sunday if we needed to.

We needed to.

The second reason I’m glad we booked a tour is because the Lights are harder to spot than you might think. If Grace and I had simply rented a car and driven away from Reykjavik I don’t think we would have seen them. Here’s why…

Our guide the second night said confidently before we boarded the tour bus that the conditions were perfect and we’d definitely see the lights.

I thought for sure he had jinxed us.

After driving away from Reykjavik for an hour, (and making a pit stop to buy snacks) we arrived at the appointed viewing location–a little hill overlooking the road we had been driving on, and we piled out of the bus. It was bitterly cold and I was glad to have read reviews of the tour online, which recommended a hat, a scarf, and gloves. We proceeded to stand around and look a the stars. Our guide told us it was still too early. We got back on the bus where it was warm.

However, we weren’t on the bus for long when someone called out that they were visible and we darted off again. I caught a glimpse of some faint dancing shapes on the horizon. Our guide even commented that they were very faint, and then a car began approaching on the road directly below the Northern Lights, and all we could see were headlights. The dancing had stopped by the time the car had driven off. The whole thing lasted less than a minute.

Is that it? I wondered.

Our guides started pointing to something else and people began the elaborate process of attempting to photograph the Northern Lights. All I could see though were milky white streaks barely distinguishable from the clouds. I would never have thought to pull over a rental car, jump out and look at that.

In my head, I began drafting the post I would write about not getting one’s hopes up for the Northern Lights. The vivid green we’re familiar with from photographs just isn’t visible to the naked eye. I would recommend this tour if you’re a photographer with sophisticated equipment (ISO 1600 or better and able to take an exposure of 2 to 3 minutes) and interested in capturing your own photo of the lights. If you’re just hoping to see them for yourself, you should know that they won’t look like you’d expect… etc.

And then everything changed.

The Lights became stronger until they were clearly tinted green, and they formed a ribbon across the sky so long that when I looked directly at the middle, I could just barely see the ends in my peripheral vision. They moved such that sometimes there were two ribbons, and sometimes they curved back on themselves, but you never really saw the movement happen, only registered that the sky looked different every minute or so.

It was breathtaking.

I’ll admit it, I was tearing up. (Of course, I’ll also admit that it doesn’t take much to make me cry.) We watched them for about half an hour as they arced across the sky, and they were even visible on the bus ride back to Reykjavik. Our guide had been right, the conditions were perfect.

Words don’t do it justice. I would argue that photos don’t do it justice either. The Northern Lights truly are a phenomenon and are worth the trip to Iceland in and of themselves. They’re certainly worth your next tax return.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.

No Comments

Leave a Reply