Mention that you’re going to Reykjavik to anyone, and they’ll invariably ask if you’re going to see the Northern Lights. It’s the Reykjavik equivalent to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Buckingham Palace in London, or Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. If you don’t see them and – in the case of me and many other diligent instagrammers – upload a picture of those bright green waves dancing across the night sky, you might as well not have been.
Alas, I am one of the poor unfortunate souls who came to learn that going to Reykjavik does not guarantee a glimpse of those lights. But while that dazzling display that so many have told me is a must-see eluded me, I had a different experience that was quite unforgettable, if not equally as magnificent, that I thought you might find entertaining in lieu of a bunch of photos of green squiggly lights streaking across the night sky.
It started when I boarded a boat at 9pm in the evening. I was on a trip to Reykjavik with a bunch of journalists and a couple of PRs to celebrate the relaunch and rebranding of Elegant Touch, and all of us were freezing cold and a little squiffy (lots of wine was imbibed at Kopar right before embarking on our trip). The first hour spent chugging slowly out into the dark night was fun. I was huddled on a bench at the stern next to the very witty George Driver, and we giggled at the strange, quasi-religious fervour in the air among our fellow passengers as the land retreated from sight and it was just us and Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Light memorial shining into the foggy sky and the invisible hope of that otherworldly light show.
Then we got cold. Not a little cold. Very cold. So cold that we started to contemplate going into the rocking deck, tossing up feeling sick and potentially freezing to death (so intense is my emetophobia that I chose the latter). The tour guide was trying to keep everyone’s spirits up by recounting us with tales of how little children used to try to conjure the lights up by whistling and encouraged us to do the same, after which a few puny whistles took flight and were promptly swallowed by the deep, dark night air.
I need to pause on that moment. I had never experienced a cold or a dark quite like it. Mobile phone lights were banned and the sky was mostly overcast so we could really see very little bar the few tiny lights at the bow and stern of the ship. Mostly, I could hear things. The little tinkling of the ropes hitting the metal hull, the slapping of the sea against the belly of the ship, and then, in a moment that was impossibly comical, a man took to the tannoy and started singing sea shanties from the ’50s.
It was at this point that George and I realised that we would not see the lights, and that the possibility of freezing out at sea to the sound of a quite inebriated Norwegian was a distinct possibility.
Three hours later, I stood under a steaming hot shower, watching my skin turn from slightly blue to really rather red indeed, and the whole evening did that odd thing of melting away into the hinterland of my brain as all those very extreme physical experiences tend to. I can’t remember the cold now. Not really. Nor the dark, though I know it was very dark indeed. To write the above, I had to peel apart each sense to get the whole picture.
Lights or no, I’d recommend doing it. Bring someone who’ll keep you entertained, pack a shedload of schnapps or rum or something with a decent whack of alcohol in it to keep you warm, and prepare to be entertained – either by the lights, or by the delirium that sets in on the boat thanks to the absence of them.
Here are some other things we did in Reykjavik I’d recommend //
(The below video isn’t strictly about my trip but day two takes place there so watch if you’d like a glimpse of Iceland)
Blue Lagoon / Almost as well known as the Northern Lights, and very much worth a visit – but avoid the pockets of men on stag dos if you want to feel like you’re getting a good sense of Icelandic culture. I’d recommend eating in the Lava restaurant next door, where Icelandic folk sit in their dressing gowns chomping on salads while waiting to hop back in the milky blue waters for more sulphur-y goodness.
Kopar / God the food here is incredible – but not cheap (this is a running theme in Iceland!). As a veggie, I tried a limited number of things but can tell you that the salad with chopped nuts was amazing and that all my carnivore companions made yummy noises with each course on the tasting menu.
DILL / Even more spendy, but it’s a Michelin affair so that’s to be expected. I ate some weird things like ‘crumbled soil’, which I gather was some sort of vegetable affair, but it was all thoroughly delicious even if not immediately identifiable as food.
The Sand Hotel / This is where we stayed and it’s a bloody good egg – right on the main high street (as far as I could tell there is but one main road in Reykjavik, so you really want to be near it if you intend on wandering anywhere as it is mighty chilly). The rooms are minimalist but well thought-out – think Scandi chic – and inexplicably smelled of aftershave every time I entered, which I didn’t mind in the slightest, but I couldn’t find the source of the lovely masculine scent and was baffled. If anyone from the Sand Hotel is reading, please pass on your secrets so my house can smell like sexy men, too.
Laundromat Cafe / Aside from the delicious milkshakes and really quite special pancakes, you must visit here for the impressive colour-coded bookshelf. It will make you long for the kind of order such a colour scheme can impart.