Iceland: more than the northern lights
It’s dark and bitingly cold. Usually, you’d be snuggled up somewhere warm. But tonight, you’re outside in the Icelandic night, hoping to see the famous aurora borealis: the northern lights. Craning your neck backwards, you wait for the magical display. And wait. And wait…
Heather Richardson is the editor of The Explorer magazine and an award-winning travel writer. She has recently relocated to sunny Cape Town after five years in London, and can usually be found trail running around Table Mountain or being decidedly less healthy in the Cape Winelands
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One of the big risks of booking your winter holiday to any northerly land solely to see the aurora is that there’s no guarantee the lights will be on show. It might be cloudy, the display might not be strong enough to see, or you might just miss it – the aurora often only shows for a few minutes at a time.
The solution? Don’t make the northern lights the only focus of your trip to Iceland. If you see it, that’s a big bonus, but there is so much more to do in this starkly beautiful country during the winter months.
Jump straight into Reykjavík
You’ll begin your trip by flying into Reykjavík, the capital. This coastal city is home to most of the country’s population and is the jumping-off point for many attractions. Despite its size, there is an ever-increasing amount of cool bars to check out, such as cocktail bar Slippbarinn, or MicroBar for an array of beers, from local brews to international brands. There are museums and galleries to explore, including the National Museum of Iceland and the Einar Jónsson Museum, and the Aurora Reykjavík is a multimedia centre dedicated to the northern lights – a fantastic alternative to seeing the real thing.
If you got a bit chilly walking around Reykjavík, make your next stop the nearby thermal pools and one of Iceland’s most popular attractions, the Blue Lagoon. Don’t let the sulphur smell put you off: you get used to it very quickly and these naturally heated pools, brimming with minerals, are perfect for a cleansing, detoxifying soak. The white silica mud on the bottom of the pools makes a great (free) facemask.
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Be at one with nature
Outside the capital, Iceland’s wild scenery rolls out in mountain peaks, glaciers and black-sand beaches, all inviting exploration. The Ring Road or Route 1 loops the island, providing a one-track route for road trips. Adventurous types can employ the use of a super jeep to take you to the highlands. In this wintry wilderness, you can stay in remote lodges, such as Midgard Hut, passing the days by scooting through the landscape on snowmobiles, trying your hand at ice fishing or even being taught basic wilderness survival courses.
The Golden Circle is the most well-trodden route in Iceland, connecting Þingvellir (the open-air site of the ancient parliament), Geysir (an erupting hot spring) and Gullfoss (a huge, picturesque waterfall). It’s easy to access from Reykjavík and neatly showcases Iceland’s history, landscapes and the geological features that have earned it the moniker, ‘the land of fire and ice’.
Further along the south coast, you can discover rugged shores where glittering icebergs adorn the black lava sand. Drive to Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, which is located just off the Ring Road, about four-and-a-half hours’ drive from Reykjavík. Here, the beautiful lagoon is backed by mountainous views and is home to a colony of seals who frolic in the icy water or laze on floating icebergs.
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Discover Iceland’s unique stories and Viking horses
One of Iceland’s many quirky features is its folklore. For tales of fairies and trolls, journey to the Westfjords, in the north-west of the country. Not only is this part of Iceland scenically beautiful and a great hiking destination, it also has a rich culture of mythology and stories. The Westfjords are attached to Iceland by a narrow strip of land; the tale goes that three female trolls tried to separate the fjords from the rest of Iceland, but were turned to stone by the rising sun before they could complete the job. You can find the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft here, which includes pre-1900 books and photographs.
Another of Iceland’s distinguishing features are its horses, known for their unique gaits: the speedy tölt, where the horses always have one hoof on the ground, creating a ride without bounce, and skeið, where the horse’s two same-side hooves will touch the ground at the same time. Icelandic horses are one of the purest breeds of horse in the world, brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th century. There are lots of horse riding experiences open to visitors throughout Iceland, such as the Wilderness Center in remote East Iceland.
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With all this to discover, it’s easy to plan a trip to Iceland without relying on the northern lights. You’ll see that for a small country, there’s an awful lot to do – and an aurora no-show always provides a great excuse to go back.