Northern Lights in Iceland

This item appears on page 50 of the August 2010 issue.

For our winter getaway, my husband, Jerry, suggested we go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights. Although Iceland sounds so cold, the average temperatures in February aren’t worse than New York City’s, and when I read up about the lights, I was hooked.

Emerald-green Northern Lights in sky outside Reykjavik. Photo: Jerry Vetowich

We decided to spend three nights in the countryside and three in Reykjavik. Our car rental from Budget through AAA cost $650 for the week.

Jerry found the perfect countryside inn, the warm and welcoming Hotel Rangá (851 Hella; phone +354 487 5700), 100 kilometers east of Reykjavik and close to all the major tourist sites along the southern shore. Our prebooked reservations cost about $260 per night, though a last-minute reservation for a fourth night cost $160. A lavish breakfast was included.

Although meals were expensive (dinner entrées at the hotel cost $25-$30), tipping is not customary in Iceland. The food was excellent and the service impeccable.

Seeing the Northern Lights is like seeing lions on a safari or whales on a whale-watching expedition: you might or you might not; it depends on many factors. At Hotel Rangá, the staff calls the guests (upon request) whenever the activity starts up.

On our first night, the skies were totally overcast, but the next night was clear after a day of rain. Woken up at 1 a.m., we watched an amazing show of light for an hour. The next night’s activity started at 11:30 and was more intense.

Standing in cold, windy conditions for one to two hours will not be fun unless you are dressed for it, so take lots of layers.

The next morning we drove to Reykjavik and the Radisson SAS 1919 (Posthusstraeti 2; phone +354 599 1000). With a prepaid reservation, it cost $370 for three nights, breakfast not included. It’s in the heart of Old Town, with stores nearby, and very convenient for a walk around Lake Tjörnin.

For our first night there we booked the “Northern Lights Tour” from Reykjavik Excursions (BSI Bus Terminal, 101 Reykjavik; phone +354 580 5400) for ISK4,900 (near $38) each. Scheduled nightly from 9 p.m. to midnight, the tour is canceled if there’s no chance to see the lights. We were lucky and had a great show.

Nili and Jerry at Seljalandsfoss.

The next day, despite our prepaid room, we decided that we really wanted to go back to Hotel Rangá for one more night. Luckily, they had a room. Walking into the inn, it felt like home. (We spent our final night back at the Radisson, having left our bags in our room.)

During the day, we toured the principal sights: Seljalandsfoss falls, the geysers and the Blue Lagoon hot springs, which were heavenly.

I highly recommend the Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur, about a five-minute drive from Rangá. This museum describes the Njal legend and the history of Norse exploration. In Skógafoss, the Folk Museum was fun, but if you have to choose, the Saga Centre is more interesting.

During off-season in Iceland, there are fewer tourists and lower prices, but many of the restaurants are closed or have curtailed hours. In Reykjavik, our favorite restaurant was Jómfrúin, serving delicious, open-face sandwiches. Meals ran $10-$12 each.

The Northern Lights activity varies from year to year; 2011 is supposed to be the best in a decade.


New York, NY