I’m not particularly superstitious but it was definitely third time lucky for me on my quest to see the elusive Northern Lights. I’ve previously tried (and failed) to see them in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik (click here for my post on the Blue Lagoon and Lake Myvatn’s hidden gems). I also tried a second time in Swedish Lapland. But on both occasions the Northern Lights managed to elude me. I’d been told that the place to see the Northern Lights is out of the city, as there’s less light pollution. And 2012/2013 has been touted as the best time to see the Northern Lights in their current cycle. So, to maximise my chances, this time round I headed up North to the more remote Lake Myvtan area, courtesy of Explorers Astronomy Tours.
Being on an Explorers Astronomy Tour meant we had access to our very own astronomy expert. A massive bonus as he was able to advise us on Iceland hidden gems, ie the best places to go near our hotel to try and see the Northern Lights. He also gave us an idea of weather conditions and timings. It’s practically impossible to predict whether you’ll be able to see the Northern Lights (there are so many varying factors). But knowing which direction they may be likely to occur in, or what time the cloud looks likely to lift, all helps. Evening lectures on the science behind the Northern Lights were also included as part of the trip. I have to admit I found the prospect of sitting listening to someone chat about astronomy a little daunting. Surprising as it may sound, the talks were genuinely interesting. And you don’t have to be a science boffin to understand them. I learned, for instance, that the Northern Lights depend on solar activity. Sunspots occur in 11-year cycles, which is why now is the best time to go if you’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights.
Our base for our four-day Northern Lights stake out was the homely Sel Hotel Myvatn, a family-run hidden gem located near Lake Myvatn. Despite being situated, well pretty much in the middle of nowhere, the food at the Sel Hotel is surprisingly good. On one of the nights we tried geysir bread, a local speciality of the Lake Myvatn region. The bread is baked for 24-hours under the ground. The Sel Hotel actually has its own blow hole where its bread is baked. This was topped with trout smoked from the fish smokers (a little shed) five minutes down the road. Portions were huge. My main of salted cod on potato salad and Sharps’ lamb chops with baked potato set us up for the night’s watch ahead.
What also makes the Sel Hotel one of Iceland’s hidden gems, apart from the incredible views from our room of pseudo craters, was that nothing was too much trouble for the staff. In fact, they had even been so considerate as to build a special indoor viewing area to see the Northern Lights. Be warned, trying to see the Northern Lights involves a lot of patience. There’s no guarantee, when, or if, they will appear. It can get a bit cold to say the least when you’re hanging around for hours on end trying to catch the faintest whiff of them.
At the Sel Hotel’s viewing area you can grab yourself a hot drink – much welcome relief – and warm up, while keeping an eye on the sky. You may need to make a mad dash back out again if things start to kick off from above if you want to photograph the Northern Lights. There’s no way of knowing how long a burst will last, it could be five minutes or fifty, as the activity can vary drastically and every aurora is different.
But as you can see from Sharps’s pictures the reward is well worth the wait. We were treated to incredible displays, as tongues of aurora burst across the sky, creating a curtain affect across the horizon leaving us mesmerised. And to avoid any disappointment it’s worth pointing out that to the naked eye the Northern Lights aren’t the bright green and red that they appear to be when they’re captured on camera. You may be lucky enough, as we were, to see tinges of red and green but they are more of a milky white colour. It’s still equally as impressive nevertheless so don’t let this put you off.
Initially, when planning my Icelandic adventure, I was going to go to the South of Iceland and I was gutted to find that all of the accommodation was booked up. Clearly I lucked out. The North East of Iceland is in itself a hidden gem in that it’s less touristy (I’d never heard of Myvatn till I went there). And I’d say Lake Myvatn is possibly the best place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. We saw them four nights in a row. Now of only I could find myself a four-leaf clover…
Although this year’s Iceland Northern Lights Astronomy Tour is only running in south Iceland I’d still recommend it as with an expert guide you’re far more likely to spot them. Alternatively, you could head up to the North East of the country independently and stay at the Sel Hotel Myvatn as the hotel also organises excursions as well as providing a great backdrop to see the Northern Lights.
Disclaimer: We were guests of Explorers but as you can see it was a truly incredible experience.