Catch Mother Nature’s Light Show: A Northern Lights Weekend Escape in IcelandBy Kathleen Rellihan
A land of otherworldly wonders and extreme landscapes — Game of Thrones-esque lava rock formations, geothermal hot springs and 10,000-plus waterfalls — Iceland lures droves of nature lovers and outdoor adventurers to its black-sand shores.
Its location just beneath the Arctic Circle also means Iceland is one of the best places in the world to witness the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
But can you see Iceland in a weekend? With only a 5.5-hour plane ride from New York, as well as Icelandair’s free stopover promotions, this small island country is a perfect weekend escape. Every step you take here you’re bound to stumble upon a mouth-gaping natural wonder, and maybe, if you’re lucky, that will include Mother Nature’s spectacular light show.
Welcome to the land of fire and ice. There’s no better way to explore this sparsely populated country than by car — this way you’ll have the freedom to pull over on its traffic-free stretches to gaze upon and photograph troll-like rock formations and the emo long-haired ponies.
Pick up your rental car — a 4×4 is your best bet for the dirt or icy roads — at the airport and make your first stop at the Bridge Between Continents, where you can walk between North America and Europe in a few steps.
Only a 20-minute drive from the airport and in the midst of vast lava fields on Reykjanes Peninsula, you’ll find Midlina, a 50-foot-long footbridge that spans a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Snap a photo as you straddle the two continents for evidence of your seemingly impossible feat.
Make your way to your adventure base for the weekend, ION Adventure Hotel, Nesjavellir, a Member of Design Hotels, a modern-design hotel jutting out dramatically from the side of a mountain and surrounded by untouched landscapes. This secluded retreat in rural Selfoss is still convenient to many parts of the country — an ideal base outside of the city to hunt for the northern lights.
Get a taste of “New Nordic” cuisine, a slow-cooked Arctic char and Icelandic Skyr brulee perhaps, at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant Silfra, followed by a nightcap and maybe even a sneak peek of the aurora from the hotel’s glass-enclosed Northern Lights Bar or geothermal pool.
Ever dreamed of going inside a volcano? Now is your chance, as Iceland is the only place in the world where you can experience this. Thrihnukagigur Volcano in west Iceland is a dormant volcano, and you’ll be equipped with a helmet and harness as you descend into a magma chamber that’s so vast — 699 feet deep — the Statue of Liberty could fit inside.
Or, if you visit Iceland between November and March, you’ll have a chance to explore a natural blue glacier cave. You’ll need a guide to show you Iceland’s ice caves, but most likely they’ll take you to Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe.
After a day of adventure, refuel with local fare at Prir Frakkar, a traditional seafood restaurant in downtown Reykjavik, if you’re up for trying the local delicacies, puffin and fermented shark. For something a dash more contemporary, head to Dill, the country’s first Michelin-starred restaurant.
After dinner, get ready for the big show — Mother’s Nature’s show, that is. Most northern lights tours are three to four hours long, and they start to pick up guests around 8 or 9 p.m. to drive them out to remote areas free of light pollution. The best time of year to see the northern lights is from September to April on clear nights with dark skies and no cloud cover — a fuller moon will dim the aurora.
Mother Nature plays by her own rules, so there’s no guarantee you’ll witness the flashes of green bands in the night sky. Even on dark, clear nights in winter, you might not spot them, but the hunt is the real adventure. You’ll need patience and, yes, luck on your side to witness the natural phenomenon.
To see the northern lights you will also need solar activity, but you can check the aurora forecast, which measures the aurora on a scale of 0–9. Anything above a 2 is a promising sign.
Opt for a Super Jeep tour rather than a bus tour for an intimate experience. The less light pollution the better, so getting out of Reykjavik is your best bet.
You can still spot the aurora near the capital; past the city lights, one popular spot is the Grótta Lighthouse. The Grótta nature preserve on the tip of the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula has little light pollution. While you wait, keep your feet warm in the geothermally heated pool. The hunt for the northern lights is just as memorable as catching the seemingly supernatural show, but fingers crossed, you’ll see a flash of green at least.
After you have spent a long night peering into the sky for ephemeral green lights, you might need a few extra hours of sleep in the morning.
Check out and make your way back to the airport, stopping in Reykjavik on the way for a little exploring. On Reykjavik Harbor, marvel at the architectural wonder and cultural landmark, Harpa, a striking, glass-block concert hall that changes color and was designed as a nod to the country’s iconic basalt rocks dotting the landscape. Also in town, check out Hallgrímskirkja, the modern cathedral that stands guard over the capital.
On the way to the airport, you’ll undoubtedly be sad to leave this magical little country. Good news: There’s still time for one last adventure.
Yes, you can’t leave Iceland without a dip in its famed Blue Lagoon, which is open until 9 or 10 p.m. every night except for Christmas Eve. While you’ll be sharing this steamy geothermal pool with crowds of selfie-loving tourists, there’s nothing like the healing powers of a sulphur and silica restorative soak to revive you after a long night of hunting down the aurora. And it will be one last treat before you are sandwiched into a plane seat for hours.
Make sure you nab the window seat — you might get lucky and spot the northern lights from the plane.