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The Sight - Northern Lights


This is one that often tops list of the best natural wonders to see in the world, although it was never really top of mine.  The technical name is "aurora borealis" and is caused by solar wind activity meeting different gases in our atmosphere and which can be seen in the night skies.


When we went; March 2012, and the next couple of years are predicted to be the best in a hundred years for seeing them.  If you've seen any of the incredible photos of multi-coloured displays you can see why people travel miles and brave freezing temperatures for these displays, but at the end of the day no matter how much you plan seeing the lights is a matter of luck.  So it’s a good idea to plan your trip to also include some more reliable sights like the Arctic Horses or the Blue Lagoon.  We were lucky enough to see the lights on two of our four nights in Iceland (I still believe I saw lights from the plane as we were coming in our first night even if Orla and Marion don't!)


You can get ever so technical about the Northern Lights and, if you want a really good scientific guide I recommend the Bradt Northern Lights guide; a very small book but filled with great tips on how to experience them.  It dispels some of the popular mistakes about the lights that I've even read in top travel magazines and guides, so definitely worth it if you're planning a trip.  One of the most important is that the Northern Lights are affected by the moon (they're not), and the Northern Lights can still be spotted when there's a full moon – the displays are often not as visible due to the moonlight, but can be even more stunning with the moon joining in, so to speak.


We booked one of the best guides to take us out to hunt the Northern Lights down on our first night.  Apparently he had great luck in finding them and by going out in a small group we could go further and change our plans to make the most of our night.  He cancelled on us.  Apparently the forecasts were not good.  So we jumped on a massive bus tour run by Reykjavik Excursions and headed out (after being picked up at our hotel then shuttled to the main bus terminal, then sitting on the bus for ages with crying babies, drunk people…)  It certainly wasn't the way that we had imagined it, but as soon as we left the terminal our guide started talking.  Even in this scenario she cast a magical spell, telling us stories of the "hidden folk", the lights and she had us firmly in the palm of her hand by the time the bus stopped somewhere between the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik and we all jumped off to stand in the cold and wait.


This is the thing, even if you are in the right place at roughly the right time, seeing the Northern Lights takes patience as the phenomena can crackle into life and disappear just as fast.  At this point the fact that many of our fellow travellers decided to try and use their camera flashes to illuminate the lights was a little trying (really, the flash is going to work on something that far away?)  Anyhoo watching lines of green appear in the night sky, first so subtle we weren't sure if we were imagining it, then growing stronger had us jumping with excitement.  The lights danced all over the sky, appearing in one spot and then another, before finally a line started to waver and spread before dancing like slow motion fireworks… and then disappearing as suddenly as they'd appeared.


At this point we were very happy and jumped back on the coach ready to head back to bed… and waited… and waited.  The thing is, here everyone has paid good money to come out into the middle of nowhere, so you will wait (patiently or not) until everyone is ready to go home.  By the time we took off our feet were frozen (too cold to even doze on the bus) and fantasies of a hot bath and a hot toddy replaced those of the Northern Lights.


Our second chance to see the Northern Lights was when we were staying at The Northern Light Inn (not The Northern LightS Inn – take note).  There are many more remote hotels where seeing the lights is more likely, and instead of chasing down the lights you can just relax in a cosy hotel (often with an outdoor hot tub) and wait for the person designated to watch for the lights to call you with a Northern Light wake up call (much more civilised).  We put in our request for a wake up call, but were told it was very unlikely.  Exhausted and recovering from another day on a minibus we collapsed into our comfy beds and went straight to sleep.  When the phone rang it took us all of about 30 seconds to throw on our coats and shoes and run out into the car park with everyone else staring up at the lights.  These were much slighter than the night before, so after a few minutes (and realising that pyjama trousers were really not a good idea in sub zero temperatures) we headed back to bed, with just a quick stop in the 360 degree viewpoint to check we weren't missing anything.


Like whale watching, another popular activity in Iceland, results are never guaranteed, so if you are determined to experience one of these natural phenomena try to give yourself several days and maybe head out to the best spots.  We were lucky with the lights, and sometimes people do even see them in Reykjavik where the city lights can reduce visibility, but unlucky with the whale watching as the day we planned to head out the weather was so bad the trip was cancelled – but the day before they had their best trip of the year, seeing every kind of whale and sea life.  There's a lot of magic in Iceland, so stay on the right side of the hidden folk and you just might see something amazing.



5,400 ISK (approx £29) for a night bus tour with Reykjavik Excursions


Or free from the Northern Light Inn.


Information correct as at March 2012

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