THE BLOG
01/30/2015 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Break the Bucket List: See the Greatest Light Show on Earth

Flying into Keflavik airport is probably an un-nerving experience for a monophobe visiting the isolated Nordic nation of Iceland during winter...

The sun comes up late, but spectacularly, in wintertime Iceland

Gazing out of the plane on the approach and spying the first indication of dry land for hours below revealed little more than a craggy, frozen coastline and an apparently inhospitable, snow-covered hinterland.

Some faint tell-tale traces of civilization glimmered; an ice-covered outline of a road here, a couple of remote farmhouses there. I resisted the urge to shout 'Helllooo!?' as loudly as I could, like the dazed cyclist in 28 Days Later when he wakes up to find he's the only person in the city.

But plenty of people are down there, somewhere... 300,000 Icelanders in fact; over two thirds of whom live in the capital. You just wouldn't know it from the air. Its diminutive national population gives rise to some playful statistics...

The Independent newspaper says one per cent of the entire population can be found at international football matches from time-to-time, while the BBC proclaims Iceland to be a nation of such ardent literature lovers that 1-in-10 nationals will publish a book.

They're numbers the taxi driver laughs at as I stumble for suitably Icelandic things to ask him about during our 50 km transit from airport to city. But it turned out that was pretty much all I had, leading me to search for anything else I knew about the place...

It has the Northern Lights - hence this trip; there was a rather well-publicized volcanic eruption that brought European airspace to its knees in 2010, and it used to be unbelievably expensive for tourists, but is comparably affordable now 'thanks' to the recession.

Iceland also offers some unique musical exports, like Bjork and Sigur Rós. And a bunch of huge sci-fi movies have been filmed there, including Prometheus, Oblivion and Interstellar... meaning you're proportionately more likely to bump into an A-lister there than you are in Cannes during the film festival (I made that last fact up).

But the craziest numbers involving Iceland concern its tourism sector.

In 2000, the annual number of visitors to Iceland exceeded the total resident population for the first time. That would be crazy enough, for most countries... but the last published figures showed there were 672,000 visitors in 2012. A number expected to balloon to 900,000 - or three times the population - by 2016.

Cold Capital

It was a head-numbing -10c when we reach the Óðinsvé hotel in the country's capital, Reykjavík, where it quickly became apparent most of us were not dressed for arctic conditions.

The best views of Reykjavík are from Hallgrímskirkja church steeple

The wind chill whipped the ambient temperature down further still as we claimed our bags, and I heard an American voice behind me lamenting... "Christ, between this and Aruba, I chose this?"

After regrouping in my room, I vowed not to leave it again without Victorian-swimming-style long johns tucked into each other, thermal everything on top and every jumper I'd brought with me layered over like a woolen matryoshka doll.

Heading into the center for something to eat, I hit the first outdoor clothing shop I saw and bought a tightly-fitted collar scarf, gloves and a deerstalker, to stop my ears frosting off.

Less worried about my personal well-being after kitting myself out, I could now relax and take in Reykjavík's colorful pedestrianized streets. They were densely-packed thoroughfares with a regular run of city center shops, bars and restaurants but with an extra helping of craft art galleries and many, many book shops... maybe the BBC was right.

Settling on the most authentic-looking Icelandic eatery I could find, I sat down in a pine-walled room at Lækjarbrekka with a bowl of air-dried fish 'crisps', a pint of micro-brewery beer and a very Icelandic menu.

Foreigners who know what they like in Iceland can almost always opt for lamb, pork or salmon. But visitors with a taste for the exotic can push the boat out, literally. Anyone for Grilled Minke Whale with Brennivin Sauce, Fermented Shark or maybe a Horse Tenderloin with Bacon Pomme Anne, served on Icelandic birch?

I stuck with the (non-endangered) fish, opting for the arctic char: a relative of the salmon and brown trout. Served with potato pavé, pickled fennel and hollandaise sauce, it was superb, and I pledged to trek over to Billingsgate fish market once I was back in London, to impress a guest with it.

The Ancients

The next day, I wandered back into town to ascend the towering steeple of the overbearing Hallgrímskirkja church, whose shadow uptown Reykjavik sits in.

The thousand year-old Eyrarland Statue, unearthed at a farm in 1815

Having taken the elevator, and walked the stairs to reach the summit of its dizzying 73-meter concrete belfry (designed in homage to the Iceland's lava-spewing peaks), I was rewarded with a stunning panoramic of multi-colored rooftops in the city below; and a wild, volcanic landscape beyond.

It was a great taster for what was to come, particularly as this trip is designed to remove you from everyday surroundings, and transport you into an ancient, alien world of lava pools and creeping glaciers.

Before we left the city in search of adventure, I hurried across the city's frozen Reykjavíkurtjörn lake where a Saturday football match was in full swing, for a whistle-stop tour of the National Museum.

Its must-see 'Making of a Nation' exhibition offered an all-encompassing tour of Icelandic life, from the Settlement Age to the present, commencing with a replica of the ship the first medieval settlers arrived in.

The stand-out item from a vast collection of artifacts spanning more than a millennium was, for me, a tiny bronze human figurine from around 1,000 AD.

Whether it's the Norse god Thor holding a hammer or Christ clutching a cross is contested but it was overwhelming standing in front of it, like Tutankhamen's death mask or the Great Star of Africa.

It was a sensation I would get used to in Iceland once we'd headed away from civilization that night.

Into the Wild

The tour bus that picked us up was as impressive as it was unique, like a stretched monster-truck that made kids snap us with their phones wherever we rolled up.

The Great Geyser puts on a steamy show every 10 minutes

We'd appreciate our behemoth bus all the more in the coming days as we sailed past snow-bound coaches, ditched at the roadside with their passengers jumping about outside trying to keep warm, as emergency rescue vehicles came to collect them.

Our first rural expedition took us to the plateau of a frozen valley as the sun rose, casting a deep red and golden glow across the lakes below and turning the snow and ice around us a bright pink. Later on, we'd navigate an ice road to the Great Geyser, comically waddling towards it on foot over ultra-slippery ice while it jetted white hot water and steam 30 meters up into the air.

Before our two days in this region were out, we'd see a beautiful black sand beach with cliffs made up of polygonal columns of layered basalt (like the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland); a towering glacier inching year-by-year further inland and a couple of spectacular waterfalls. We also took time out to relax in the Blue Lagoon, an epic outdoor thermal bath heated by lava pools, thankfully out of sight, far below.

Don't forget to pack your spikes if you want to walk on the glaciers!

The Ranga hotel we stayed at in Southern Iceland's Hella region is designated by tour operators as being set back far enough from any light pollution to offer unspoiled views of the aurora borealis... should it decide to put in an appearance.

This really is key for those, like myself, whose hearts are set on seeing the phenomenon, which occurs when electrically-charged particles from the sun collide as they enter the Earth's atmosphere at the poles.

Lights, Camera... Settings

When we arrived, Ranga was all 'knotty pine' and deer antler lights, like a giant ski chalet without the slopes... or out-of-control après-ski parties.

The Vík í Mýrdal black sand beach is stunning

Having unpacked and chilled in the whirlpool bath for a while, I headed to the restaurant for dinner with the other guests making sure to sign a list at reception which gets you woken up at any hour if the lights suddenly appear outside.

The 'aurora' forecast had given our first night only a 2/9 chance of appearing, and 3/9 change of seeing them the next night, so we sat, chatting and eating in cautious anticipation.

It seemed the Nordic gods were smiling on us as we ate our puffin starters, because very unexpectedly a waiter announced to the room that 'There are some lights, if anyone wants to see them'... The room instantly became a frenzied free-for-all.

Incumbent guests knew the drill, bee-lining for the freezer suits hanging up in the lobby, while the rest of us just grabbed our cameras and ran into the -20c night.

There were lights alright, but they were very faint. Like green luminous clouds of dry ice at a music festival.

Under the Ice

Displays appear in many colors, though pale green and pink are the most common. Red, yellow, green, blue, and violet are considered a real treat for those who see them every day.

A few minutes of playing with the camera settings later...

Whether they appeared as patches or scattered clouds of light, streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays, it was all the same to me in this perfect moment. I was really watching the Northern Lights... but my pictures weren't coming out at all!

In a panic I would miss the moment, I approached someone with impressive-looking gear on a tripod and asked them for help.

Following his advice and playing with my camera settings with my now completely numb fingers, I set the camera down in the snow and pointed the lens upwards, leaving it on a 2-second shutter delay. I checked the screen to see what I'd got...

Wow! What I was looking at above me was beautiful, but with some trial and error, the pictures I was getting of it were stunning. But it was short-lived... almost before they'd arrived, they were gone again.

As we sat back down in the dining room, we were all content we had seen one of the greatest natural wonders of the world.

The next night, they would come back much stronger, with deep green hues of light dancing on the horizon for twice as long, swirling and plunging in a giant arc.

This was what I had wanted to see my whole life, and I could finally tick the aurora off my bucket list ... but I had come to realize that Iceland is more than this; with its mystical aura of ice, fire and magic...

I thought about the curious figure in the national museum who had bewitched me, embodying everything this other-worldly land is about... feeling a call to return again when the ice melts, to discover some more of its secrets.

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A four-night Northern Lights trip from London costs from £1,814/ $2,735 pp with The Aurora Zone, bookable until the end of March (summer trips thereafter via Artisan Travel).

Richard Powell is a freelance journalist who also works for the Media Contacts Database and Press Release Distribution firm Presswire, but does not work with or for any of the parties mentioned in this article.