By Explorer Becky Wicks –
“So, it’s basically salmon covered in sheep poo?” I asked my friend as we peered at the pink-packaged fish in a store called ‘Bónus’, which was ironically very expensive.
“It’s not covered in poo. It’s just smoked in it,” he answered, tutting. “Good for the flavour.”
We were in a tiny fishing town called Dalvík, having flown north for 50 minutes from Reykjavík to Akureyri through air resembling whacks from giant baseball bats, and driven for half an hour. There for the annual fish festival (Fiskidagurinn Mikli), during which a town of 1400 packs in 30,000 people, I was equally enthralled and alarmed by the things I was seeing. But where were the Northern Lights?
Pretty lupine flowers turn most scenery purple. Here in Varmahlíð they look great against the sunset | Jón Óskar Hauksson
“It’s 2015. Why would you eat that?” I asked, still worried about the poo.
“You ate the whale, and the fermented shark, and you drank the duck-fat-washed cognac.”
“So it’s proof we have some very good sh*t here,” he replied.
Fair enough. At the end of the day I was more than excited to be getting a local’s tour of Iceland. We were staying in the happy homes of friends and family, and just the night before, the duck-fat-washed cognac was sloshing in its jar behind the bar, tempting many – including me after a few wines – although I’m not quite sure duck fat blends too well with sauv blanc. “It’ll keep you warm when you’re awake at 3am watching the Northern Lights,” I was told, and my ears pricked up.
The Northern Lights were pretty much the only thing I really wanted to experience in Iceland. But as we watched the cotton-candy clouds turn pink in the midnight sun from a cliff top outside of town, it became pretty evident I’d have to enjoy the sheep-poo salmon for now and come back later in the year. The best time for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is from September to mid-April. Unpredictable and elusive however, they can hide for weeks on end.
“If you’re coming back in winter, plan a week or more,” I was told. “That way you have several chances of spotting them.”
Reykjanes has lots of stunning spots to see the Northern Lights | Jón Óskar Hauksson
Tip 1: Get out of the city
Reykjavík gets the Northern Lights every now and then but usually it’s too bright in the city for those ethereal shows to truly shine.
Thingvellir in the southwest is one of the most popular sites in Iceland for the Northern Lights, but if you’re based in Reykjavík there are lots of tours you can join that will get you out for the night.
Oh, you’ll need to embark on some tax-free shopping before you go; buy some warm woolly jumpers for a start. The Reykjavik Tax-Free shopping app will help you plan which stores to hit.
Gullfoss is gorgeous in all weather, all year round | Jón Óskar Hauksson
Tip 2: Hire a Car and Drive
If you don’t want to join a tour, hire a car and head out to where it’s so dark you’ll lose even yourself. The funky Travelers Map of Iceland will help. The popular Golden Circle is a good place to start – Gullfoss waterfall is stunning by day; even more so under the Northern Lights.
I met Jón Óskar Hauksson, a photographer who’s been chasing the Northern Lights all his life and some of his best shots are from this waterfall. He told me Vík and Höfn – both in the south of Iceland – are good spots, so charge up that camera.
Tip 3: Spend some time in Reykjanes
Not only was this volcanic and geothermal hot-spot voted one of the best under-the-radar romantic destinations by USA Today recently, Reykjanes is the only place in the world we can see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge above sea level. Cool or what?
The peninsula is easy to reach, there are some great hotels nearby and the Northern Lights can put on a spectacular dance in the winter darkness.
Thingvellir is probably the most popular Auroral tourist site in Iceland | Jón Óskar Hauksson
Tip 4: “Winter is Coming”- Game of Thrones Locations
Fans of Game of Thrones might want to combine their Northern Lights quest with a ramble through some of the sights from the popular TV series.
Winter is always coming around Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland, but I stood where Jon Snow fell for Ygritte amongst lava rocks and bubbling mud-pits, and nothing mattered. We ate lunch in a converted barn called Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe, where the waitress told me: “The Northern Lights are so bright here in winter, it’s scary.” Sounds awesome to me.
Game of Thrones tours start in nearby Akureyri.
You can also visit GOT filming locations in Thjorsárdalur, Iceland with this tour, where you get to “See the stomping ground of the White Walkers at the dramatic gorges of Thingvellir and stroll on the same trail savage Wildings walked when they crossed to the North of the Wall. Admire spectacular panoramas and natural formations, and also visit the point where the American and European tectonic plates meet.”
Tip 5: Spot the lights on horseback, or heli-ski
There are several companies offering horse-riding activities in Iceland, specifically in Skagafjörður – Iceland’s self-proclaimed adventure capital. Here’s where to come if you want your Northern Lights with a side of adrenaline. In the winter, heli-skiing is big here and I’m told Skíðadalur, home of the all-new Arctic Heli Skiing Iceland and the area surrounding it, is one of the best places in the north to see the Lights. Don’t be so dazzled you fall off. In fact, perhaps stay away from the duck-fat cognac first?
I’ll be sure to report back once I’ve seen the aurora borealis dancing for myself, unless the exact locations are too amazing to share, of course. Until then, we can all share the sheep-poo salmon. Who’s in?
Until then, we can all share the sheep-poo salmon. Who’s in?
Images by Jón Óskar Hauksso under Creative Commons 2.0 License