Strokkur geysir on the volcanic island of Iceland

The Northern Lights in Iceland

The end of September brings back memories of my four-day trip last autumn to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.

“You’re going at the wrong time of year. It’s too early for the Northern Light,” my Icelandic friends said.

After September, the average temperature falls to single digits; far too cold, especially when I had decided to experience the wilds of Iceland on horse-back.

Riding at Ishestar

Coming down to land at Reykjavik airport was like landing on Mars: desolate, no trees, wide expanses, dark, volcanic soil and rock.

I went riding for three days with Ishestar, exploring the southeastern part of the island.  I fell in love with my horse (Icelandic pride means that their native ponies are called horses), and the evening lamb stews in the farmhouse where we stayed, made with the most delicious vegetables, all grown on the island using geothermal energy.

Kjóastaðir Farm near Gullfoss Waterfall, where we stayed with Ishestar, together with our horses.

The Northern Lights in Iceland

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.

I spent the last day and night in Reykjavik, exploring the food scene. I uncovered a super hipster town with a relaxed, young population. The high birthrate must be down to the long winter nights.

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 cheery and the vibe is cosy, as befits the second happiest country in the world, after Norway.

Other great things about Iceland

  • Feeling the strength of the Atlantic elements – the wind & the rain – and seeing the stars in the clear night skies.
  • Dinner at Fish Market, run by Hrefna Rósa Sætran – one of Iceland’s best chefs, and 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.

Surprises

  • There are no trees on the island, apart from one very small human-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.
  • Iceland has the youngest population in Europe – you can feel it in the streets of Reykjavik.
  • They love music – this is the home ground of Björk.

What to buy

  • Omnom sea-salted almond chocolate.
  • 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).
  • Stay a night at Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel, in the wilderness, near the south-west town of Selfoss.
  • Eat at Dill Restaurant (Reykjavik) for a further Icelandic dining experience.
  • Knock back a shot of Brennivín – a 80° proof aquavit with no added sugar.
  • Roll up at one of the island’s many festivals, many of which feature music.
  • Attend a performance at the Harpa opera & concert hall (below) – opened in 2010 & designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen. Most locals see it as a folly, but I loved it.

Films to watch

  • Woman at War (2018) and Of Horses & Men (2013), both by Benedikt Erlingsson. Unique! A window into the humour, the way of life and the landscape of Iceland.
Harpa opera & concert hall: designed to resemble an iceberg that crashed into the shore.
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