Sometimes it can start with just a faint, green glow hanging over the horizon and within a few seconds it has powered up and fills the whole sky.”
We’re standing in the snow somewhere in the frozen north of Iceland at a little after 1am and our guide Hordur is describing one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights. We are nearing the end of a Northern Lights coach tour and the driver has pulled over before we reach the light pollution of Akureyri, because there is a large “window” in the cloud cover overhead. We wrap our scarves tightly around our necks as we step out into the bitterly cold air and gaze upwards, searching the heavens for any hint of colour. It’s perfectly silent, and most of us are whispering for fear of somehow scaring off the seemingly magical phenomenon. Occasionally a car passes, and it occurs to me that, anywhere else, the sight of 30 people staring up at the sky in the dead of night would probably make the driver stop the car, get out and try to catch a glimpse at whatever could be the subject of such curiosity. But then for Icelanders the Aurora Borealis – and the tourists it attracts – is just a part of life.
For us, though, the Northern Lights are destined to remain the stuff of travel brochures. Despite our best efforts, and the clear patch of sky, tonight is not our night. As Hordur explains, you can consult the weather forecasts and monitor the solar activity in detail, but there is no such thing as a 100 per cent guarantee. Any disappointment we feel – and this is our second attempt after an unsuccessful trip the previous night – is offset by the hot chocolate that’s handed out, the piercing stars overhead and Hordur’s amusing and insightful tales of Icelandic history and folklore. As compensation for the no-show, we take a detour back in the town of Akureyri so Hordur can show us an “alternative to the Aurora”. It turns out to be the rather extravagant Christmas lights outside his friend’s house.
This dry humour seems to be a national trait. Where else in the world would the public elect a TV comedian as mayor of their capital city, for example? Jón Gnarr helped set up the Best Party, which was intended as a satirical stunt but ended up being embraced by voters frustrated with the old political class in the wake of the financial collapse. Despite some unusual pledges (refusing to form a coalition with anyone who had not seen all five seasons of The Wire, for instance), Gnarr has generally been seen as a success. It says something about the Icelandic spirit that, just four years since their banks collapsed, taking millions of British pounds with them, the country has turned around its fortunes remarkably. True, government debt and the chastened krona are symptoms of the lingering hangover, but Iceland’s economic growth is now outstripping the eurozone, and a sense of dynamism and optimism is returning after a dark period that even Eyjafjallajökull’s ash clouds failed to overshadow.
In Iceland the sun barely makes an appearance in early December, and when we set off for a trip to Lake Mývatn at 9am the next day, it still feels like the dead of night. Quite a novelty in itself, but it does mean that our first stop – the Goðafoss waterfall – is more of an aural experience, until someone has the ingenious idea of pointing their car lights in the direction of the plunging waters. As we reach the area of Mývatn, a gloomy twilight reveals a landscape that’s pristinely white as far as the eye can see. The name “Mývatn” translates as “lake of midges” but luckily we’re here at a time of year when it’s so cold that not only are there no flies, but the frozen lake itself is almost indiscernible from the surrounding land.
What makes this place interesting, though, is what’s happening under the ground. A quick scan of the horizon reveals that this is no ordinary tundra landscape. Beneath the thick snow the earth is boiling, and the volcanic fissure bubbles up to the surface sporadically, from humid caves, puffing vents, gurgling mud pools and geothermal waters. Our driver stops to let us see how the locals bake their bread. Who needs an oven when you can bury your dough in a pan under ground and come back a day later to collect the loaf? After a walk around the impressive, deformed lava pillars of Dimmuborgir, we warm up with a coffee and try some of this dark, dense rye bread. By this point it’s nearing the middle of the day and the sun has broken through the cloud cover. It’s still hanging low in the sky, but the barren, pock-marked hills and craters are now bathed in gold light as we head for lunch at the Cowshed Cafe, which lives up to its name. Several languid cows eye us through a window while we eat hearty soup and sample the local beer.
Before the sun disappears completely in late afternoon there’s just enough time to visit the Mývatn Nature Baths. The thought of outdoor swimming in Iceland in December is a little daunting at first, but the second you plunge into the warm, geothermal pool you don’t want to come out. It’s an utterly relaxing experience, made all the more memorable if a little snow starts to fall amid the rising steam.
The next day, after a belt-loosening buffet in our hotel the previous night, we hop on a short flight down to Reykjavik to see what the south of Iceland has to offer. A bus takes us out of the city past a lava field that resembles a lunar landscape and we are back in the kind of country that could have inspired Jules Verne. Here we see the Great Geysir, the spring which gave its name to the spectacular phenomenon wherever it occurs in the world.
There’s enough light left in the day for a quick glimpse of the immense Gullfoss waterfall and another dip at the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal pool before we’re whisked back to the capital. Our hotel sits directly on the harbour and the quirky design tells you something of the mix of tradition and urban style that makes Reykjavik the city it is. As we sit down for a long, lazy evening meal, the bar fills up with a lively crowd. It reaffirms Iceland’s unique charm and makes us all a little more reluctant to leave. Missing the Northern Lights was unlucky, but it was only ever going to be the icing on the cake.
THE FACTS Return flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik cost from £233,