Stuart Forster heads to Grundarfjörður with the aim of viewing the northern lights in Iceland.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland is renowned as a leading destination for viewing the northern lights, the natural phenomenon also known as Aurora Borealis.
I’ve headed north with a friend, intent on coming home with a spectacular set of photographs of the lights dancing colourfully in the night sky behind Kirkjufell mountain and, with a bit of luck, water flowing from the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall.
Our pre-trip research was, we still maintain, flawless. We’ve travelled to the peninsula when it’s cold and the solar activity high; factors that help maximise chances of sighting the polar lights.
We didn’t predict cloud cover
Unfortunately, we couldn’t have predicted – when booking our trip six months in advance – that the weather conditions would not be ideal. Clouds cover the night sky and, consequently, with visibility limited, we are unable to spot the aurora borealis. Maybe the lights are indeed dancing up above, but if they are we have no way of knowing for sure.
Naturally, I’m disappointed, but, ultimately, it’s the unpredictability of the natural world that make outdoor activities such as spotting weather-related phenomena, wild animals and the northern lights so rewarding.
Back at our base, the Hotel Framnes in the small harbour settlement of Grundarfjörður, I can’t help but pop my head out of the back door one last time – just to check if there might be a break in the clouds – before admitting defeat.
What the locals say
In the lobby, I begin chatting with the hotel proprietors, Gísli Ólafsson and Shelagh Smith, and learn that a lot of people come here in order to view the aurora borealis.
“In winter, from October to April, it’s probably about 70 to 80 per cent. Especially in January, February and March because then we have groups coming from England and they come here specifically to see the northern lights and killer whales. We have lots of killer whales here so people stay here four nights and look for killer whales during the day and for the northern lights at night,” says Gísli.
Northern Lights in Iceland
“If they are just normal – light in the sky and not moving or doing much – then we look up, okay, they are. We keep our eyes open for them but we don’t go outside to look or anything. But if the activity is high and they are moving we can standouts for hours. On nights when they are moving a lot – dancing – then we locals stand outside too. We are amazed each time; it is special,” he says when I ask how locals regard the lights.
“I think it’s difficult not to be enamoured by the northern lights. If you’re blasé about them then you don’t deserve to see them. They’re special every time. It’s a very special feeling being outside in the freezing cold, looking up and just seeing this spectacle going on in the sky. It’s amazing. It really warms up the winter, especially the dark hours here; this is what we look forward to in Iceland,” says Shelagh who is originally from South Africa.
Memories of the first time
I’m intrigued as to whether she regards the lights differently to Gísli, having grown up in a different part of the world. So how did she regard the lights, the very first time?
“You really want to know?” she asks, laughing. “The first time I saw the Northern Lights I wasn’t impressed at all. It wasn’t a very good show. My sister was here, she was getting all excited, knowing what was to come. We were walking down the street and she said ‘Look, the Northern Lights,” and it looked like clouds to me. I was like ‘oh, well.’ I was expecting disco lights in the sky!”
“As we watched them they grew stronger and stronger. It is awe-inspiring. It is a very humbling sensation actually. It’s not a circus, it’s a spectacle.”
I’m interested to know how the lights look here, above Iceland.
All kinds of colours
“We get all colours. Green in the main colour but I still remember when I saw the best northern lights of my life. I was eight years old. It was 1968. That winter there must have been a hell of a lot of action in the sun because the northern lights were every night for a long time and they were always red and pink. I remember that very clearly. It was in January; night after night it was beautiful northern lights,” recalls Gísli.
“Mainly now we get them green, blues and white of course. They turn pink when they are moving a lot,” he adds and tells me even his teenage son enjoys watching them.
Sheila has also seen all the colours and at different strengths. “To see red and blue and orange just all fading into each other, rippling, it’s amazing; the skies are alive,” she says.
Light pollution diminishes the effect of the lights and Gísli suggests people take a drive out of town to watch the northern lights. Nearby Kirkjufell is a popular location. The neighbouring fjord, which is uninhabited, has an old bridge and a lava field is also a good spot.
I’ll bear those in mind for next time. I may not have seen them on this trip but the dramatic Icelandic landscapes are providing compensation and proving rewarding to photograph.
The Hotel Framnes (Nesvegi 6, 350 Grundarfjörður; tel. +354 438 6893) has a total of 37 single to family-sized guestrooms, with en suite bathrooms, a 60-seat dining room and a sauna. Twenty-nine of the rooms are in the hotel and eight are in new premises 50 metres away. See the hotel website for room rates and availability.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a popular destination for activities such as horse riding, bird and whale watching plus hiking and glacier visits.
Find out more about the island’s tourist attractions on the Inspired by Iceland website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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