Hunting for the Famed Northern Lights in Iceland

04 June 2015

I've never been the type to have a bucket list. Frankly, there isn't much in this world that I don't want to do or see! But one thing on my shortlist was to try and catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. So, naturally, I was ecstatic when our 5-day Icelandic adventure booked through IcelandAir included a tour to see this beauty by boat! 

We were scheduled to go with Special Tours, and this was really a nice touch to the trip package, especially since we went during March when historically the northern lights are most likely to be seen. Special Tours takes you out by boat because light pollution from Reykjavik can affect your ability to see them, so we were scheduled to meet at the Old Harbour dock at around 10 P.M. 

Source: Stefan Birgir Stefans
Of course, with my luck, our trip fell on an unfortunately cloudy week, so our original tour was cancelled due to low predictions of visibility. But Special Tours is incredibly accommodating and allows you to rebook as many times as needed to see the lights, so we set out on our quest the following night. 

Before heading out, I bundled up: base layers, thick leggings, a sweater, fleece jacket, wool socks, winter boots, down coat, knit hat and mittens. Whew! It was still quite overcast and windy, so at the dock, we were informed we would be taking the tour by bus instead of boat. It took about three full coach buses to transport everyone scheduled for the tour. I was pretty shocked how many people were waiting at the dock when we arrived, but I assumed it was likely due to the cancelled tour the day prior. Hopefully the amount of people wouldn't hinder our ability to see the lights and enjoy our trip.

We traveled for about 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik to avoid light pollution. Unlike my trips with Sterna Tours, our guide didn't engage us with stories or information. But she did mention that the northern lights activity can be measured by seismograph since it's actual electric activity occurring in the sky! Much to my dismay, she reported that her tracker was predicting 0% visibility for the night. Still, I tried to keep my hopes stable. 
Source: Petur Gauti Valgeirsson
As the bus started to slow, I excitedly peered out the window to catch a glimpse of our destination, and my heart immediately sank. For miles around us, there was a sea of coach buses, each about the same size as ours. Did every single tour from Reykjavik head to the exact same lookout point? We drove around in circles for a solid 15 minutes just trying to find a place to park!

After we finally settled, I shuffled off the bus with the rest of the group and found a place to post up. It was pitch black -- the perfect conditions to try and see the lights -- but the scene was reminiscent of a million penguins packed wing-to-wing on an iceberg. There were so many people! We waited in this massive crowd for about 30 minutes, all with our eyes lifted toward the sky. I couldn't help but feel like I was suddenly part of some cult gathering, anxiously awaiting signs from some spiritual being above. 

Honestly, I ended up freezing so much on-land despite my layers that I can't even imagine what it would be like at sea! So, we decided to trek through the mob up to the small, candle-lit restaurant at the top of the hill to warm oursleves. It was a treacherous path, given the hilly terrain, and all I could think of was a quick pit stop at the bathroom and then embracing a mug of steamy, hot chocolate. But again, I was met with more disappointment. People were literally spilling out the doors of the restaurant, the lines for the tiny bathrooms were impossible, and prices for a drink of any kind were astronomical.  
Source: Petur Gauti Valgeirsson
After a few hours of waiting in the cold, the lights never showed their colors, so we boarded the bus back to Reykjavik. After braving yet another blizzard on winding roads, we were dropped off at the Old Harbour at about 2 A.M. I assumed we would be reorganizing ourselves by bus for hotel drop-offs -- after all, the tour company had our hotel information -- but apparently that cost extra, and we were required to book in advance! This certainly would have been nice to know beforehand.

My experience with Special Tours was quite disappointing. Of course, the northern lights are a natural phenomenon that the company can't control, but it wasn't missing them that sparked my distaste for the experience. Had this not been included in our trip package, we would have paid $85 a person, which is steep considering that we really just paid for a bus ride. If you plan to give this a try during your trip, I highly suggest you look into other tour companies.

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