Iceland and the Northern Lights

I loved Iceland so much the first time when my friend and I found another amazing deal from Icelandair to go back and see the Northern Lights we jumped at it. Just a quick four day trip which included our flights, hotel and an evening tour of the Northern Lights after a stop at Fontana spa. The downside of going to Iceland when the Northern Lights are visible is you have to go in winter. Fortunately the Gulf Stream moves past Iceland and keeps the temperatures fairly mild, even in winter.

The plan was to spend the first day in Reykjavik visiting museums, in particular the settlement museum, the church and wandering downtown, and then we organized tours around Iceland for the next couple days. Our first day in Reykjavik was lovely, although a bit treacherous with the ice everywhere. We learned that Iceland uses its vast stores of thermal heat to warm the roads and sidewalks by running hot water pipes underneath the downtown area. As a result, they rarely shovel snow and instead rely on the hot water pipes to melt the snow. Normally it works very well, but the day we arrived a cold night froze the melting snow making it quite icy on the majority of the sidewalks. In spite of this, Reykjavik was as beautiful as I remember it and the people just as friendly, although it much snowier this time which in some ways made it even more lovely.  Seeing the city draped in snow with Christmas lights everywhere made it almost magical. Daylight only lasts from 10:30am to about 3:30pm which takes some getting used to! Very strange to be heading for breakfast at 9am and its still pitch black out. But it did add to that magical quality.


On our second day, we started with a tour with Sterna Travel of Rekjanes (the smoky peninsula), the region around Reykjavik, where we drove through the volcanic lava fields and visited the thermal mud pots. The whole tour was a photographer’s dream; every place we stopped was gorgeous. I toured the lava fields last time but with all of the snow everything looked completely different.



Salted fish

We stopped at Lake Kleifarvatn, one of the deepest lakes in Iceland with black sand beaches.  One of the most beautiful places I have ever been.



The tour continued on to the Seltun hot springs/mud pots to watch the bubbling springs and walk through the area. We stopped for lunch in the pretty town of Grindavik then continued on to the largest hot mud spring in Iceland, it has a crater that is 20 meters round.


We also stopped for a view of the coast, black volcanic rocks pushing out of the sea as water crashed on the volcanic rock and sand. Our final planned stop was to stand on a bridge that spanned the divide of the American and European continents.


That night was our Northern Lights tour. After a stop at the Fontana spa we started the drive to find the Northern Lights. Lucky for us they were out in full force that night. We only had to drive about 15 minutes when we saw them and we spent the rest of the night taking pictures with our tripods and watching the lights dance in the sky. Below are my favourites of the many many pictures I took.


It was amazing! Good thing I was bundled up as I was out there about 2 hours taking photos. It wasn’t too cold considering it was Iceland at the end of November, but I still needed my warm layers and even then after 2 hours my hands were cold and my camera was starting to freeze, that was the sign it was time to leave. What an amazing night.

At the time we didn’t know how lucky we were but that night a huge storm blew in with 25 cm or more of snow that started in the morning and lasted all day. Needless to say all tours were cancelled including ours to the Golden Circle. Instead we spent another day wandering Reykjavik in the storm, it was really beautiful with the snow falling and it wasn’t too cold, just under zero. We went to the fabulous National Museum of Iceland. What a great place to spend a stormy day. The exhibits were interesting and the museum is huge, to fully look at everything it would take at least an entire day. Icelandic history from the first settlers until modern day life is covered in full detail with a mix of written information, artifacts and audio exhibits where you can listen to stories about what life was like at various phases of Icelandic history.


On our final day we took a transfer to the airport that stopped at the Blue Lagoon so we spent a relaxing few hours having facials and relaxing in the hot springs. Fabulous end to an amazing trip back to Iceland.



Iceland – Glaciers, Geysirs, Horses, Coasts and Lava Rock

I recently spent 6 days in Iceland, what a beautiful country. Weather in Iceland is unpredictable, at least at this time of year. Within an hour I experienced snow, sun, rain, snow, sun and more rain. Bring layers and definitely a rain coat/windbreaker. The wind can be brutal, on the South coast it was so strong I could barely walk when it was gusting. It is also quite chilly with the wind but without the wind it was 7-10 degrees and warm in the sun. The landscape is unique, like nothing I have seen before. The entire island was created by volcanic eruptions and is covered in lava. Moss then grows on the lava and eventually breaks it down into rocks and eventually soil. Many areas of the country appear desolate with just lava rocks and moss, often surrounded by hills and mountains. It is strangely beautiful. The lava also has led to the creation of black sand beaches, black cliffs and lava formations which rise out of the ocean. Many of the volcanoes on the island are still active and new eruptions are expected to occur. Fortunately none occurred while we were there!

Lava Rocks Iceland

The rest of the landscape is made up of mountains, hills, volcanoes, glaciers, cliffs, ocean and a scattering of small towns, fishing villages and farms.

Iceland Town

Reykjavik is the main city and approximately 200,000 people live there. The entire population of Iceland is only about 320,000 people who are scattered throughout the rest of the country. Reykjavik is a lovely city although much newer than I expected. As Iceland was so isolated for so many years, the city did not develop until much later than the rest of Europe. There are many colourful buildings everywhere, many made of corrugated metal which is unique in Iceland. Great views can be found at the top of the Hallfrimskirkja church and the 871 +/- 2 museum (yes, that is what the museum is actually called as Iceland was settled in 871, plus or minus 2 years) has a really interesting overview about the original settlement of Iceland by the Norwegian Vikings. It is a great walking city with lots of cafes (there is a fabulous cafe culture there) and great restaurants. One of my favourites was Tapas where you can enjoy an Icelandic feast of traditional foods, including puffin, fish and even whale.

View of Reykjavik

Lake in Reykjavik

There is so much to see and do, I barely scratched the surface. On the first day I arrived I went on a horseback ride on the famous Icelandic horse with Islenski Hesturrin tour company. The horse is unique to Iceland and has certain special features not found in other horses. Most notably is that the Icelandic horse has 5 gaits where most other horses only have 3 gaits. The most famous of the 5 gaits is the Tolt which is a smooth gait that feels like you are rocking instead of bouncing like a standard trot. The fifth gait is the Pace which is smooth and fast. These horses are also smaller, more the size of a pony, have shaggier hair and a friendly disposition. The Icelandic horses in Iceland are protected from exposure to other horses as once a horse leaves Iceland it is never allowed to return.

Icelandic Horse

Next sight-seeing adventure was a tour of the Golden Circle which includes a visit to Geysir, the Gullfoss waterfalls, Fontana hot springs, one of the places where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America meet in Iceland and Thingvellir. Geysir is one of the most famous sites in Iceland. The original Geysir was blocked by tourists throwing rocks into it but there is a current Geysir that blows every few minutes high into the air. All around the area are other bubbling steaming hot pools amongst the lava formations.


The Gullfoss waterfalls are gorgeous. There is a walkway to the bottom down a set of stairs where you can walk close to the falls. You can also walk across the top to look over the falls.


Thingvellir is an old site where the assembly was held, the Law Council convened and laws of old Iceland were recited starting during the Viking age. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


When we stopped at Fontana hot spring and spa, prior to entering the pools, there was a demonstration of how bread was traditionally made in the area using the natural heat created by the hot springs under the sand. The bread mixture was put into a pot, covered by sand and left to cook. Our tour group sampled the bread cooked the day before and it was hot and delicious. At the Fontana hot pools you can go into the hot springs or saunas all heated by the natural hot spring under the site. One of the pools is still natural and algae even grows in the pool. The other pools are man-made but still fed by the natural springs. One word of warning, before entering the pools you have to shower naked, without your bathing suit, in an open area (although men and women are in separate change rooms) to fully wash yourself. Not something we are used to in North America!


The continental tectonic plates of North America and Europe meet in Iceland. They are separating by approximately 2 cm per year and there are places in Iceland you can see where they have hit and separated. It also means you can find many places where you are in two continents at once, a unique experience in the world.

Tectonic plates

The next tour I went on was the Snaefellsnes peninsula with Iceland Horizon. What an amazing tour! The tour guide David is from the UK but has lived in Iceland for a number of years and was very knowledgeable. Snaefellsnes is stunning, we drove along the coast and stopped at multiple beaches, towns and coastal walks. Below are some pictures of what we saw.

Black sand beach Snaefellsnes

Church at Snaefellsnes

The final tour was of the South coast. As mentioned above the wind on the South coast is strong and gusts so hard that walking becomes more difficult and driving, especially if it is icy, is tough if not impossible. But it is definitely worth visiting as there is so much to see and as with the rest of Iceland, it is beautiful. We stopped at Vik where we also visited Reynisdrangur beach with tall sea rocks rising out of the ocean, then continued on to another beaches with numerous caves, then on to waterfalls (Skogafoss) where you can climb to the top of the waterfall up 492 steps, fed horses from a local farm, and Seljalandsfoss waterfall where you can walk behind the waterfall (you get a bit wet).

Farm by Eyjafjallajokull

Farm by Eyjafjallajokull volcano

Solheimajokull glacier

Solheimajokull glacier

Skogafoss Waterfall

Skogafoss waterfall

The final famous spot I visited was the Blue Lagoon. It is on the way to the airport so I stopped there before catching my flight back to Canada. There is an airport transfer bus that stops there and the lagoon has a luggage storage area located at the entrance. I recommend spending at least 2 hours there. It is a picturesque area and the colour of the water is amazing. Although it is a man-made pool it is still fed by the local hot springs. As with Fontana, you do need to shower without your bathing suit on before entering the pools. When you buy your ticket you are given a wristband which has a chip inserted and is used to lock your locker and pay for any drinks you purchase at the bar in the pool. You can also use the saunas or get a massage. Around the pool are containers of the white or black mineral mud to use to give yourself a facial. The mud can then be washed off in the pool as it is the same minerals already in the lagoon. It is a nice relaxing stop before the long flight home.