Iceland – the home of the Northern Lights, the Blue Lagoon, the best hot dogs in town, and so much more…

Iceland first entered my ‘Essential Things To Do’ list in brackets, almost as an afterthought. Like this: See the Northern Lights (Iceland). And that’s why I went, with the express intention of seeing nature’s most famous and most elusive lightshow. Everything else, like Iceland itself, was an afterthought; I didn’t mind seeing it all, but I wasn’t too fussed.

I arrived in Reykjavik on Thursday for a long weekend with two friends. We’d booked almost all our excursions in advance, so that we could plan our short time there most efficiently, and first up was the fabled Blue Lagoon. Heavenly in the pictures, it looked like a tranquil paradise, with milky-blue waters that radiated warmth provided by underground thermal vents. We decided to visit in the evening, in the hope that we’d spend the time floating on our backs, warmed by the raw power of the earth itself, gazing up at a sky full of stars and maybe – just maybe – catch a glimpse of the Lights. What could be more perfect?

Unfortunately, it was January, and as we stepped off the coach into a blizzard, we began to doubt the wisdom of our plan. By day the lagoon is calm and millpond-esque; the epitome of serenity. The night we visited, the driving rain whipped the waves up into a choppy frenzy, and we spent our time looking for the warmest water, our faces numb from sleet. The most horrifying moment was stepping out of the pool and making a dash for the sauna, a few metres away – soaking wet, in a swimming costume, in Iceland, in January. Not only did I doubt our wisdom, I doubted our sanity.

And yet… it was wonderful. In the moments where the scudding clouds cleared and the stars peeped through, it was heaven; a very chilly heaven, but heaven none-the-less. As the heat from the vents seeped into our cold bones I felt as though Mother Nature was trying to make amends for the terrible weather up above. We left there glowing, both from the minerals in the water that do wonders for your skin, and from the incredible experience. Where else can you swim outdoors in the middle of the night in the middle of winter? I have to admit, when I go back – and I will – I’ll visit the Blue Lagoon in the daytime, to see the tranquil paradise it’s supposed to be, but I wouldn’t swap our night-time adventure for anything.

After arriving back quite late to our hotel, we were up early the next day for another Icelandic must – a whale and dolphin watching trip. We dutifully pulled on our layers, gloves, hats and boots, made a packed lunch and meandered down to the harbour to join our boat. The weather, whilst not quite the raging torrent of the night before, was still a bit rainy, so we made ourselves comfortable on deck under the awning and settled back with our eyes peeled for telltale signs of marine activity.

Well, that was the plan. The long flight and the late night coupled with the early morning and the gentle rocking of the boat meant that I had difficulty keeping my eyes open. I ended up napping for most of the trip, awakened every now and then by the occasional exclamation of “There! Look! … oh, no. Just a wave. Sorry…” from one of my companions. We gave up after a while and grumpily made our way below deck for a hot chocolate; then, just as we started sipping, an excited cry from above sent us running back to our vantage point. On the horizon a pod of leaping dolphins was making its way towards the boat, and within moments we were surrounded. Words can’t really do justice to how it feels; to be despondently sipping hot chocolate one moment and watching dolphins skim through the waves almost within arm’s reach the next. The hot chocolates were quickly forgotten as we fumbled with gloved fingers for our cameras, to get photos that never quite captured the wild beauty of the scene unfolding before us.

Back on dry land we sought out ‘Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’ for some traditional Icelandic cuisine… hot dogs. Whilst this delicacy isn’t one that you might immediately associate with Iceland, it’s one that you really shouldn’t miss. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur translates as the best hot dogs in town, and you can enjoy one for the rough equivalent of £2. With raw onions, fried onions, ketchup, mayonnaise and some other condiments I couldn’t even identify, these hot dogs will be the ones you judge all others by. The first one I had with the works, but for our second outing (Reykjavik is an expensive place; £2 hotdogs is a good option) I left out the raw onions and considered my meal all the better for it.

And so, suitably fortified and ready for an evening of eyes to the skies, we enthusiastically boarded a coach to the backend of nowhere, for a chance to get a glimpse of the great Aurora Borealis. You have to be far away from any kind of light pollution to get the best sightings and we wound up by the sea, sitting on rocks that were proud to have discovered a whole new dimension of cold. After an hour of sitting and waiting, the bus driver gave up, rounded us all up and popped us back on the coach to try somewhere else. This time we spent an hour in a field, wondering if it was all a big con, a joke to play on gullible tourists. It was with some relief that we allowed him to herd us back on to the coach to return to Reykjavik, with the promise that we’d get another try the next night. It was with slightly less enthusiasm that we rejoined him on board for a second go at sitting and freezing our mitts off, but we trooped along anyway. Once again he drove for miles in an unspecified direction, dropping us off at a car park and small café, where once again we stood in a field and waited, to no avail. With heavy hearts we decided to give up, and went in for a hot chocolate, only to hear excited shouts outside. In an echo of the day before we raced outside, hoping that we hadn’t missed it… and there they were. Directly overhead, the Northern Lights curled in the sky, lines of the brightest green with tinges of purple that spilled over and up towards the stars. There for only a few seconds before fading away to nothing, the image of them swirling gracefully across the darkness is indelibly etched onto my brain. Even now I feel choked with emotion, simply remembering how I felt at that moment, standing in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, gazing up with tears in my eyes. It was more beautiful that I had imagined, more immediate, more incredible than anything I could compare it to. The sheer unreliability of them makes their eventual appearance all the more significant, all the more fulfilling. We went back to our hotel that night exhausted, but with a deep contentment that took a long time to dissipate. It wasn’t just a tick on a list; it meant so much more.

So, to finish off, here are a few words of advice:

If you go to the Blue Lagoon, and you don’t like the idea of the open showers that the Icelanders are so au fait with, don’t worry – there are enclosed shower cubicles for the more private Brits. I would also recommend a leave in conditioner for your hair, and tying it up tightly if it’s long – the minerals that do wonders for your skin aren’t so kind to your locks. And make sure you go during the day!

For whale and dolphin watching, don’t give up; whilst whales are an unusual sighting, the captain is pretty handy at finding the dolphins, wherever they are, so it’s unlikely that you’ll come back disappointed.

For the Northern Lights – go on the first night of your trip, so you can keep trying if they don’t appear straight away. And dress as warmly as possible, then add an extra pair of socks; you haven’t known cold until you’re standing in a field in Iceland at night-time.

And finally – if Iceland is on your ‘Essential Things To Do’ list, as well it should be, consider bumping it up to the top. You won’t regret it. Just remember to bring me back a hotdog and a hot chocolate.

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