Iceland – December 2014

Iceland Northern Lights

We were fortunate enough to be able to fly through Iceland on the way home, to the USA, from Sweden when we moved away. Icelandair has this great incentive program whereby you can extend your layover in Reykjavik for up to 7 days at no additional cost, so we took advantage of that and spent 3 awesome winter days seeing some sights!

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We booked an apartment hotel, right in the downtown area, and it proved to be a great decision. There was room for the toddler to run around, parking across the street for our rental car, and an added bonus: Volcano House/Icelandic Fish & Chips was across the street for the nights we were too lazy to figure out dinner (every night).

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We had zero plans because who has a scheduled itinerary when they go to another country? Ha! As you might realize by now…not us. We have ideas of what we want to see or do, and then we wing it; especially traveling with a baby and especially after moving out of a foreign country. That being said, we rented a car for the ease and freedom to travel when and how we could. The first full day after arriving, just before the sun actually rose around 11AM,  we set out to walk around Reykjavik —> a little loop through downtown, up to Hallgrímskirkja, down to the water and the sun voyager statue, and back up by the opera house. Very, very cold and snowy, but very beautiful! We decided last minute, in the early afternoon, to make the drive to Gulfoss (golden falls) – Europe’s largest waterfall, a huge attraction, and one of the main sights on the Golden Circle.

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I will never not be impressed by our Baby Jogger, who handled all kinds of snow like a champ, while our kid napped!

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It’s a bit daunting to drive through Iceland in the winter. Everywhere looks surreal under a thick blanket of white snow. Gorgeous, other-wordly, and a bit uncomfortable when you think about anything possibly going wrong. The last place I want to be stranded might be in rural, snowy, Iceland in the quickly approaching darkness (sunset was around 4pm). I was not feeling particularly adventurous whilst driving through the country toward Gulfoss, and despite my trying to convince Matt that we should really be more responsible parents and not drive during snowstorms with our little toddler in the backseat while darkness quickly approaches, he tuned me out. Funny how men work that way.

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It was all worth it though! Gulfoss was quite the sight. There is a gift shop and cafe, with stairs leading down toward the waterfall, and then another parking area below that,with a trail going alongside the waterfall. Matt got some great pictures following the trail all the way, despite it sort of being “closed” for the season. People were still braving the weather to get down there. We took turns going to view it because it was so cold and windy, and we actually were trying to keep Porter healthy and safe in a warm car.

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After our relatively quick gawking at the waterfall, the dark came and we set off for home. We knew there was a chance for the Northern Lights to show up that night, but didn’t actually know how likely it would be to see them. On the drive home it was pitch black and a clear night, so I had my face plastered to the window, staring at the sky, looking for a glimmer of this sight that I would actually kill to see. I did see a very faint white “rainbow” type of line across the sky that I was sure were them. I thought, Welp, this is it! You got to see the Northern Lights, but not really, but kind of, so cool, but bummer. I mean, it was still exciting, but more exciting was the moonrise on the drive home, though, because the moon was HUGE, like a rising sun; however, I could not get a good picture of this.

When we got home and after we ate, we debated going out again to chase the northern lights, thinking going back later towards the waterfall to Þingvellir National Park would be best to try to view the lights since it was so dark out there. This might be our chance! We said. Would it be wise to do with a baby? Is it really worth it? Would we have to be out way too late? Etc. But, we went out on the back porch of the hotel, right in downtown Reykjavik, and lo and behold, a faint green line in the sky. IT’S ON, LET’S DO THIS NORTHERN LIGHTS.

Matt quickly bathed the baby and dressed him the most comfy of fleece footy pajamas to prepare him to fall asleep in the car, while I googled “Northern Lights Reykjavik” and “How to Photograph the Northern Lights”. I read the first entry or so of each of the results. South of the city, there is a peninsula that people suggested to go to, to try to view the lights so we headed there. I also tried to memorize what I was reading about camera settings and set some stuff up on the camera on the 15 minute drive south, but still had no idea what I was doing or what would turn out. As usual.

Baby quickly fell asleep in his carseat as we drove (!!!), and we managed to find the end of road on the peninsula, where there was a turnaround of sorts and looked like it could definitely be a place to do exactly what we were doing – view the lights. As soon as we got there, a beautiful skinny green streak came into view. I literally held the camera up to the sky, saw nothing because DARK, took a picture and up popped a pretty damn clear shot of our first viewing of the Northern Lights.

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We took turns getting out of the car to view them, partly because it was cold, and partly because we were trying to be good parents and sit with our sleeping baby. Being alone, even next to the car, outside while staring at this waving green light in the sky is insane and surreal and actually scared me a little. Chills up the spine. The world is so amazing and so big and beautiful and here I was witnessing something magical.

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After a few shots trying to get a clear, good picture (note: bring a travel tripod! I needed one) we decided to drive around some more in the hopes of finding a better spot. As we drove we saw a few other people out to view and/or photograph the lights. The green streaks kept getting progressively stronger, bigger, and they’d move more as time went on. It was all incredible. We graduated to both standing outside the car at the same time in some places to see the lights dance straight above us.

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After a few spots and a bit of time, we found a pull-over spot off a dirt road that felt like it was hanging off the end of the peninsula. There was a barn ahead of us with its lights on, and waves lapping right next to us, and right then the lights multiplied all over the sky. It was SO gorgeous. We sat and watched and exclaimed how incredible this was, and how totally random it was to even see them, and holy cow this is so amazing! Then the barn turned off its lights and it was dark and all of a sudden the lights just went crazy, shooting across the sky, rippling toward distant city lights, swirling and waving, and changing in color from green to pink and white, and as I remember it I feel like I can hear them…but I’m not sure that I did.

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How lucky we were. I can’t even believe it.

The next day, on our high from the previous night’s sights, we decided to set off to see Skogafoss, a huge waterfall that I really wanted to see. There was another snow storm coming toward the south, where we were headed, so we followed a bright white snow-covered road toward a pitch black sky along the ring road. Again I questioned our sanity, reasoning, and ability to be good parents, and again Matt ignored my worries and drove on.

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This waterfall is on the southern edge of the island, and it does feel a bit like the end of the Earth driving there. On the way, we also passed and checked out Seljafoss and Eyjafjallajökull, that volcano that erupted a few years ago and disrupted world travel for weeks.

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Seljafoss is really cool. There are a couple falls there, and trails to walk around and behind them. Super gorgeous!

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The baby wouldn’t keep his gloves on so we improvised with his P.O.P. booties. Worked like a charm!

We viewed two enormous waterfalls, and both were stunning in magnitude. Ice formed along the rock walls around each waterfall, but the water still thundered down. Absolutely incredible, and powerful and intimidating.

To celebrate our good fortune of getting back to the hotel safely, we had an Icelandic beer tasting that night 🙂

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The third day we left in the evening so we spent the morning packing up before the sun rose (at 11am) and then leisurely walked around downtown getting coffee and souvenirs, and lunch at The Laundromat Cafe – where the basement is a play area for small children and parents can sit and eat (and drink beer!) down there – also known for being a breastfeeding-friendly establishment (“We like both BABIES and BOOBS”). Porter got to play and get some energy out before the long flight back to the States, we got some good food and a beer, win/win.

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Iceland is incredible and so worth the visit. That sentence is an understatement and I also cannot emphasize it enough. Go there exclusively, or stop for a few days on your way to Europe/the States. I promise you wont regret it. So much to do, see, and eat! Icelandair was also a very comfortable long haul flight, with wonderful flight attendants who gave Porter a children’s flight pack and consistently made sure we were doing OK as a family. So lovely.

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Go. Go go go! We went in the dead of winter, with a baby, during snow storms and still drove around, saw the sights, and randomly got to witness the Northern Lights! It wasn’t on the level of Beyonce and Jay-Z (who were there at the same time but we can’t all tour the country by private helicopter) and it was still awesome! Such a fantastic way to end our time living in Scandinavia.

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