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A lukewarm reception for Iceland’s famous northern sights

Sitting in Bakarí Sandholt on Laugavegur, I didn’t feel particularly lucky. Yes, I was supping the tastiest Icelandic kaffi – after bitter cups in Café Paris and Mokka – while people-watching on Reykjavik’s trendiest thoroughfare. But I’d been told by two tour guides in two days how ‘lucky’ I was: lucky to have witnessed the Northern Lights and lucky to have gained admission to the Blue Lagoon. And yet, apart from the luck of my health having not ran out, I didn’t feel especially fortunate. Indeed, the moderate temperatures in mid-March made me feel rather unlucky – unlucky that paid-for excess baggage containing gloves and Gore-Tex parkas in preparation for bone-chilling winds was surplus to requirements in the world’s northernmost capital. Thanks Gulf Stream!

Like the PR people working for tourist boards in places as diverse as Dublin and Dubai, those in Reykjavik are guilty of setting unrealistic visitor expectations. Those privileged enough to have witnessed the Northern Lights will agree that what their eyes see and iPhones capture does not marry up. The omission of this fact in picture-postcard promotional material leads that infinitesimal few who prefer to see sights through the former (eyes) as opposed to the latter (iPhones) ultimately crestfallen. This is regretful since seeing any form of celestial show is jaw-dropping given that the cosmic dance is often elusive, hidden due to cloud cover or an unimpressive performance by the Sun, whose electrically-charged particles collide with gaseous counterparts in the Earth’s atmosphere at its weak polar regions to create the aurora.

Northern lights, Iceland

The shot snapped by my sister, where I stand in front of a vivid green pyrotechnic-like display, for instance, bore little resemblance to reality. Our guide Jóhann, however – a twenty-four-year-old who kept a coach-load of sleep-deprived aurora-chasers entertained during the forty-five-minute journey to Þingvellir National Park – made the grand claim that we were ‘lucky’ to have seen what we did since he hadn’t witnessed anything like it before! While this might well be the case, guides’ fixation on adjusting tourists’ camera settings propels a distorted view and deprives us from truly appreciating a natural phenomenon. (My opinion seems to be in the minority, however, given the majority of my fellow passengers spent the entirety of the drive back to the dinky Lego-look capital of unpronounceable one-way streets uploading pics to social media sites.)

The Blue Lagoon is anything but natural, despite some false advertising, and its overselling (as ‘One of the 25 Wonders of the World’) will leave spa-lovers feeling cheated. I wasn’t looking forward to this manmade spring, if truth be told, though appended it to our Golden Circle tour for K’s birthday. Valti, a fifty-something bespectacled comedian with a warm smile, was more our chauffeur than guide between Alþingi, Geysir, Gulfoss and Kerið, and he did admirably to cover the stunning sites – spanning 150-odd miles – in nine hours. His darting along corrugated iron-like roads and through lava landscapes appeared to have been in vain, though, given our late arrival didn’t impress the rotund, wannabe-headmistress assistant who duly educated us around the rules of time-allocated tickets. While the prospect of missing out on standing in lukewarm water, wearing a facemask and holding a £9 pint heightened my spirits, K’s heart sank, yet she remained optimistic and reminded me of our ‘luck’ the night before – on St. Patrick’s Day – getting into a rammed Drunk Rabbit (where I elected to inhale second-hand smoke upstairs rather than listen to a third-rate band). ‘You’re lucky, another party’s failed to arrive’ was like Irish music to my ears and, after washing naked with boisterous American frat boys keen to tick this off their bucket list, was standing in lukewarm water, wearing a facemask and holding a £9 pint – lucky me.

The Blue Lagoon isn’t nearly as impressive in real life as it’s depicted in photos (without the neighbouring power plant whose discharge creates the glowing blue waters), which is something that cannot be said for seeing a humpback whale and white-beaked dolphins up close and personal in their natural habitat. I was reminded of this while the sweet smell of freshly baked, artery-clogging bread wafted around Sandholt just prior to closing my emails and paying the credit card-bending bill. Sara, from Elding, had attached photos from our trip that caused me to muse over the concluding lines in The Beach: ‘[P]aradise’, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Richard says as he downloads an image, isn’t ‘some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something.’ It was only now that I realised how lucky I was since then, out in Faxaflói Bay among the snow-covered peaks of Mount Esja, I lived in the present as opposed to the past for the first time in fourteen, grief-stricken months.

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