The dashboard digital clock on our rental Volkswagen Polo showed 12:05 a.m. as we exited the mountain-pass tunnel in rural Iceland. The stars lit up the midnight-blue sky and the snowcapped mountain peaks loomed off to the west, our left. We were looking for the Northern Lights and had already been driving around for the past several hours, so far to no avail.
Then we saw it. A green arc extended from one horizon to the other, not unlike a rainbow, but a single color and too faint to be picked up on our camera against the night sky. We continued towards it on the open highway and within five minutes it was gone. Was that it? we wondered. Several minutes of dark were then interrupted by an enormous red cloud peeking out from behind a mountain on our right. We followed the road around the mountain until the red cloud was directly overhead, like some sort of massive alien blimp.
Jude was chilled out in the backseat at this late hour (after a monster afternoon nap) and asked at semi-regular intervals, “Where’d Northern Lights go?” Still, we could hardly keep on our responsible parents’ hats if we kept our two-year-old out chasing the Aurora Borealis until dawn. We were also pretty tired ourselves, so we headed back, speeding first through the countryside and then through Reykjavik’s empty streets, before arriving back at our rental apartment. (Note for other visitors: the best lights don’t usually come on until after midnight, though apparently our night’s show was a mild one by Icelandic standards, so we didn’t miss much by cutting out early. Some Icelandic tourism posters show dramatic sky-covering greens and blues, and we didn’t see anything like that. There’s always next time.)
The Northern Lights provide a major draw for tourists to visit Iceland in January, but they are certainly not the only reason to come at this time of year. For one thing, Iceland gets a bum rap—I think because of its name—and people often think that it’s colder than it is. In fact, Iceland is roughly the same temperature as New York City or Toronto during the winter months, its relatively mild climate owing to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. (Source: my inflight Icelandair magazine, January 2012.) OK, so it’s hardly Honolulu, but what do you want?
Second, some of the Icelandic scenery is truly breathtaking, and its beauty is only heightened during the winter months. On our first full day in Iceland, we set off at sunrise (not that impressive since sunrise starts at about 10:30 a.m. in January) to complete the Golden Circle, featuring the dramatic Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir hot springs (fiercer and more regular than Old Faithful in Yellowstone). The two major sights were certainly impressive, but what I will remember the most from that day is the drive—the mountains; the Icelandic horses; the pinks and blues of the sky; the snow extending for miles in every direction; and the green-blue water of Lake Thingvellir.
At one point, a flock of sheep hopped out from a snow-covered field and onto the road directly in front of our car, flouncing happily down the two-lane highway, and skidding a little in the snow. It was almost too much: like a parody of some sort of winter utopia, Narnia without the menace of the White Witch and her army.
Third, Icelanders know how to party and the party seems to go all winter. (You probably don’t feel the need to be all that productive when you only get about five hours of daylight.) The Christmas season starts on the night of December 12th, when the thirteen Christmas Trolls (“Yule Lads”) show up and place small presents in good children’s shoes; bad children get potatoes. The Christmas season was still going strong when we visited in early January, and came to its dramatic conclusion with a massive fireworks show on our last night in the country, on January 6th. Fireworks were let off every night that we were in Iceland—and we use “night” loosely, since pitch-black is achieved by 4:00 p.m. or so. In fact, Icelanders let off more than six tons of fireworks on New Year’s Eve alone, fairly impressive for a country with a population of 300,000.
While Americans have the three-day weekend commemorating Dr. King’s birthday to look forward to in late January, Icelanders have the Feast of Thorrablot: a four-week affair, extending into February, traditionally celebrated with copious amounts of Icelandic schnapps—the schnapps presumably helps them forget about the traditional food they are expected to consume: rotten shark, ram’s testicles, sour whale, and sheep heads (believe me, I couldn’t make this stuff up).
Walking around Reykjavik is also a treat. The wood-paneled houses line up neatly in rows extending off the main commercial drags—Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur—each with narrow chimneys puffing smoke into the frigid, and usually dark, air. There is also a vibrant café and art scene, with many kaffihús and art galleries in the downtown area. The harbor area is charming, and active; not surprising since fishing continues to be a major part of the Icelandic economy.
Though prices are lower now than they were during the banking bubble (I visited once before, close to the peak, in July 2006), food is still expensive, especially as many ingredients have to be imported, and we ate at home all nights but one. For our one dinner out, we ate at the unoriginally-named “Tapas,” a tapas bar featuring Spanish-Icelandic fusion. We would highly recommend it: Bliss raved about her puffin-with-blueberry tapa as well as her whale-steak-with-cranberry-malt-sauce tapa. Jude danced in his seat to the loud-ish salsa music, and kept busy working on his potato omelet. If you’re so inclined to drink any sangria, keep in mind the 25.5% liquor tax. We understand that Iceland is still trying to dig itself out of the hole created by its cavalier early-twenty-first-century bankers, but that tax exceeds all levels of decency.
Some notes for prospective visitors:
-Get a rental car if you can. Prices, at least in January, were cheaper than in the States. Although Reykjavik is great, and it’s possible to see it all on foot, there’s just not that much of it to see. For us, one of the major highlights of our trip was driving around the countryside, and I would have hated to have been beholden to a tour company and its scheduling (especially when traveling with a kid).
-Of course, don’t miss the Blue Lagoon. Because it is close to the airport, we decided to stop there en route to catch our flight. How can you not love soaking in milky blue water in the middle of a lava field with snow banks on either side, and steam coming out of several small geysers? Jude loved it, and enjoyed painting his face (and ours) with the silica lining the thermal pool. It is somewhat disconcerting to see a geo-thermal power plant immediately adjacent, but inspiring when considered that Iceland derives the majority of its heating and hot-water from its hot springs and much of its electricity as well—the lack of dirty power plants and any real industry helps explains the pristine air quality.
-Also check out Arbaer. This is a locals’ thermal bath in the suburbs, and the price is right: about $2 a head. We got to soak in outdoor pools of various temperatures, from the lukewarm to the very hot, surrounded by Icelanders of different girths and many with serious ink. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Jude twice bravely descended a small (but quick) elephant-shaped slide into the coolest pool of water we tried—he would have gone for thirds (and probably more) but his parents preferred to spend their time in warmer pools. Mom and dad also took a couple trips down a more grown-up water slide; the walk up the steps, about 30 feet through the slush and snow, was fairly treacherous, but well worth it for the adrenaline rush it yielded.
-I would skip the Saga Museum located at “Perlan,” basically a glass dome on a hill just to the south-east of downtown. It’s recommended in the guidebooks and online, but I’m not sure why. I’ve long been interested in the Icelandic sagas (OK, since the last time I visited in 2006, and haven’t really thought about them that much since) but this museum doesn’t provide much in terms of substantive information—it’s basically a Madame Tussauds for the early Viking settlers, showing them in various poses, often bloody, around a maybe 3,000-square-foot exhibit. More than that, it scared the bejesus out of Jude, who covered his eyes and blocked out the scary plaster Vikings, and we hurried through to the how-the-plaster-people-were-made video at the end of the exhibit. This possibly confused Jude, as he seemed to then think that real people lived inside in the plaster models. (It should be noted that the views from Perlan are fantastic, and that alone is well worth the short drive out of town.)
ALL PICTURES FROM ICELAND: here