Review: Northern Lights, Iceland

Grayline Tours £45

Saturday Night

We were picked up by a van on time and driven across town to a central bus station. There we joined an enormous crowd of tourists from all over Reykjavik who were divvied up and apportioned across a dozen 60-seater buses. To tell the truth it was quite chaotic. We had to queue to show our ticket and then there was a mad rush to get on to a bus.

Eventually we headed out and drove away from the city. Beyond the light pollution the sky was overcast and the commentary from the guide was that we were looking unlikely to see the lights tonight. We parked up with a bunch of the other buses in what seemed like the car park for a public conveniences and stared forlornly at the sky. Most people ended up getting back on the bus and dozing off – the blustery wind didn’t seem to be strong enough to get rid of the cloud cover and all it did do was make it uncomfortable to be outside. Eventually after an hour or so the drivers decided to try a different spot and we headed off.

The new spot was darker but no less overcast and we waited there for a while longer and still no lights. so we drove desultorily back to Reykjavik. The only consolation being that if we had any other time available we could go back out for free. I was very glad we had booked this tour so early in our trip – although Sunday night was taken up with dinner at the Blue Lagoon, we’d still have Monday night to try again.

Monday Night

So having been through the disappointment of an exhausting night, we were prepared for the same on the last night in Iceland. Overall we’d had a good experience which meant that should we not see the Northern Lights with the last throw of the dice then it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Nice to say that we’d seen them, but not the critical event of the trip.

It was slightly less overcast, with less wind and a little colder than the Saturday night and so we were hopeful that if there was activity that we would be able to see it. The first stop was to the north of the city and some people mistook the white lights on the horizon with the Northern Lights. After the guide had explained that they were taking photos of Reykjavik and not the Aurora Borealis, they stopped but occasionally I would see a flash go off as someone decided it was worth a shot.

We got word over the radio that there was activity at a different spot so we all leaped aboard the bus and joined a small convoy of buses heading along the back roads. Anticipation built as we reached an elevation sufficient for snow to be on the ground, and I assumed that meant we’d have better views – less atmosphere in the way.

My travelling companion isn’t the most organised of people. I like to be ready for opportunities which may only present themselves momentarily, so in this case I figure if we only see the Lights for a short period of time which ends as we’re getting off the bus, it would be best to be one of the first off so that you take the opportunity when it arises.

So I’m not in the blocks like an Olympic sprinter, but I am revelling in my seat choice directly opposite the bus’ back door. Once the bus stops I’m maybe third off – I take a few steps to the left to let the others past and then turn my face upwards.

I’ve seen photos of rippling greens across the crystal clear sky – I’ve seen video of the same. Vibrant greens contrasting crisply with the darkness of space. The fact that what we saw that night was a less vivid display doesn’t detract from the magic of the display. I’m standing there watching them for ten minutes before sticking my head back in the bus and asking if my travelling companion is going to come out and join me.

I spend another fifteen minutes trying to get a decent shot of them and fail – the shot below is the closest I come to capturing the Lights. My companion joins me for maybe ten of those minutes. And then the cloud rolls back in. We wait there for maybe another 90 minutes but Mother Nature has shown us all she’s going to show us and head back.

Was It Worth It?

Oh that is the million dollar question! It’s a weather based attraction – you pay your money and take your chances. I’ve read mixed reviews on TripAdvisor – the only legitimate shortcoming I can see is the notification when they cancel the trips due to bad weather. I would suggest that you try the trip as early in your visit as possible, to allow for nights when they cancel or can’t see the lights. I would also suggest having backup plans in case they need to cancel. If I go to any countries in the “Northern Lights zone”, I will definitely try to see them again. If for no other reasons than to try and take some better photos!