In December 2014 after four years in New York my wife and I were returning to my native London. Taking an Icelandair flight with a generous luggage allowance let us shift enough possessions to get us through an English winter, and stop over in Reykjavik with a chance of seeing the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). Technically we saw them but……
Extreme weather had delayed our flight for several hours and all aurora viewing cruises were cancelled. As an alternative we took a coach trip, which took us beyond the outskirts of Reykjavik to a small church. The next couple of hours saw us hanging around, alternatively sitting on the coach to stave off hypothermia and venturing outside peering at the sky for the aurora. During that time the best light show was provided by the crosses in the churchyard!As the coach started heading homewards some wispy cloud appeared in the sky. There were no visible colours but we piled off the coach for a closer look as our guide snapped it with a fancy camera. Et voilà, her image showed the wisp glowing green. So we had seen the aurora but the overall memory was of a cold and underwhelming experience. That’s the luck of the draw when trying to experience natural phenomena.
Despite the disappointing light show our stay in Reykjavik worked out really well. Our hotel choice, the Icelandair Hotel, Reykjavik Marina, was excellent. It’s a renovated landmark building with well-designed rooms, bright common areas bedecked with colorful wallpaper, antiques and fanciful odds and ends, including some very quirky sculptures. It was several steps up from the accommodation (a bivvy bag, village halls, and university halls of residence) I used backpacking in Iceland in 1990, when I mostly subsisted on hotdogs and hot chocolate!
The hotel’s location by a slipway in the old downtown harbour district offers great views across the bay and is an easy walk away from the capital’s attractions. There’s a number of restaurants and market in the area and a short walk takes you to Old Harbour Village where you can book Whalewatching Tours and visit Cinema No. 2. (www.thecinema.is)
The self-styled Cinema of Fire, Ice and Northern Lights, is housed in a loft that used to be a work and dwelling place for fishermen. It’s a cozy space with assorted furniture, a relaxed informal atmosphere, a rock collection and books to browse.
We visited it to prepare for our aurora watching. The films included one on watching and photographing the aurora – much, much more spectacular than our live display – and a film on the then-active Bárdarbunga-Holuhraun eruption. We also grabbed some refreshments and chatted with the friendly staff.
Walking around the city was interesting. We visited Tjörnin (The Pond), a small lake in the centre of the city where we saw a young Whooper Swan essentially run right across the Pond’s surface to get to some bread thrown by a family from the shore; bird feeding on its shore is so popular that the Pond is referred to as ‘the biggest bread soup in the world’. For any birders out there I also saw Black Guillemots and Eider Duck close-up in the harbour near the hotel.
Another highlight was the amazing reflections of the city and the surrounding landscape in the glass façades of the Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre.
We also visited Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavík’s main landmark. Its prominent tower can be seen from most parts of the city. The church’s facade mirrors the shapes formed as lava cools into basalt rock, which can be found around the country. The image below is adapted from the www.icelandunlimited.is website. Check it out.
The most notable feature of the church’s interior is a large pipe organ standing 15m and weighing 25 tons. We were lucky enough to get to listen to the organist rehearsing and experience the organ’s power and range of tones.
The main memory I took from the trip was how friendly the locals were. I had the same experience when backpacking, when I took advantage of kind offers of lifts. Of course for those, like myself, with limited foreign language skills things are made easier because many Icelanders speak fantastic English. I’ll be looking out for cheap London-Reykjavik travel deals so that I can have another go at tracking down those elusive aurora.