Strokkur geysir on the volcanic island of Iceland

Iceland’s Northern Lights

The end of September brings back memories of my trip last autumn to Iceland. My mission: to see the Northern Lights.

“You’re going at the wrong time of year,” I was told by my Icelandic friends. “It’s too early.”

Any later than September and the average temperature falls to single digits in centigrade. Far too cold, especially given that I had decided that horse-back was the best way to experience the wilds of Iceland. Landing at Reykjavik airport was like landing on Mars: desolate, no trees, wide expanses, dark, volcanic soil and rock.

My three nights were split into two days’ riding  – I would highly recommend Ishestar –  in the wind & the rain and the occasional sunny spell, and one day in Reykjavik, exploring the food scene.

I fell in love with my horse (Icelandic pride means that their native ponies are called horses), and also the evening lamb stews in the farmhouse where we stayed; they were made with the most delicious vegetables, all grown on the island using geothermal energy.

Kjóastaðir Farm near Gullfoss Waterfall

Kjóastaðir Farm near Gullfoss Waterfall

As for the Northern Lights. I had imagined bumping around in a 4×4 to the top of a desolate hill to peer up to the sky. But no, after a hearty supper, we sauntered out to the  yard to find a stellar (unspeeded-up, as on YouTube) spectacle in the sky. In Reykjavik, I uncovered a super hipster town with a relaxed, young population, who seem to laugh a lot and have lots of babies (must be the long winter nights). Iceland has Europe’s highest percentage of its population under 30. It is also the second happiest country in the world.

The country has a strong foraging scene, especially for bilberries and crowberries, wild herbs,  moss and birch, seagulls’ eggs and mushrooms. And Icelandic people like to laugh. Despite the cold weather, the people are warm and the vibe is cosy.

5 Other Great Things About Iceland:

  • Feeling the strength of the Atlantic elements: the wind & the rain, & the night skies.
  • Dinner at Fish Market, run by Hrefna Rósa Sætran – one of Iceland’s best chefs & who lives in the same nearby neighbourhood as the singer Björk, the country’s best-known celebrity. The restaurant is right in the centre of town – as are most things – and serves the best of Icelandic ingredients with an Asian twist.
  • Lunch at Icelandic Fish & Chips, down by the harbour, with the best organic chips, tossed with sea salt & rosemary, ever.
  • A soak in the Blue Lagoon: a unique experience, even thought I don’t like crowds or tourist attractions.
  • Discovering that more than half of Icelanders believe in elves.

The Surprises:

  • There are no trees on the island, apart from one very small man-created forest.
  • Icelanders number a mere 320,000, most of whom live Reykjavik.
  • It’s a stop-over point between Europe and North America.
  • I was warned about the wind but nothing can prepare you for it (apart from good windproof clothing).
  • The blackness of the volcanic rock & soil, and that Icelanders are carrying on their daily lives knowing that a volcano might explode at any moment; in all there are 30 active volcanic systems.

What to buy:

  • Omnom sea-salted almond chocolate.
  • Nordur sea salt.
  • Einstok white ale infused with coriander & orange peel – some prefer beer from Borg Brewery.
  • Thorverk organic seaweed.
  • An authentic, hand-knitted Icelandic wool sweater – the wool is coarse, but nothing will keep you warmer in winter.

 

What I would do next time:

  • Visit the far north of the island, home to Einstok (beer), Nordur (salt) and Thorverk (seaweed).
  • Go in September rather than October, when the weather is warmer.
  • Attend a performance at the Harpa opera & concert hall – opened in 2010, designed by a Danish-Icelandic duo to resemble an iceberg that crashed into the shore. Most locals see it as a folly, but I loved it.

1509Iceland_Opera_540x540

  • Stay a night at Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel, in the wilderness, near the south-west town of Selfoss.
  • Knock back a shot of Brennivín – a 80° proof aquavit with no added sugar.
  • Eat at Dill Restaurant (Reykjavik) for a further Icelandic dining experience.
  • Roll up at one of the island’s many festivals, many of which feature music.

The Film to see:

Of Horses & Men

The Book to read:

Independent People by Halldor Kiljan Laxness; 101 Reykjavik by Hallgrímur Helgason.

Did you know?

Iceland is home to more Miss World’s than any other nation.

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