The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) form as a result of collision with atoms and molecules particles in our atmosphere when charged particles emitted from the sun during a solar flare penetrate the earth's magnetic shield.
This beautiful phenomenon with dancing illuminated colorful lights is by far the most amazing view I have ever seen, absolutely magical! This experience was in my bucket list and this trip had totally ticked it with unforgettable memories. Yes - Once in a life time experience!
How to take photo to capture Aurora Borealis/ Northern Light?
1. Make sure you set the camera with Manual Mode
2. Exposure Time: 20 Sec
3. Aperture: 3.5 or lower
4. ISO: 800
You can always adjust the setting accordingly when you are there.
Tips of taking good photos:
1. Bring your Tripod
Tripod provides the stability especially when the Aurora light is "dancing" - or constantly moving around. Despite all the advice from internet research, there are still tourists underestimated the importance of bringing a tripod to take awesome photos.
2. Remote Control
Places that we manage to find northern light are usually in the field that are dark hence the surface may not be as stable as we wanted it to be. In addition, it was so cold at night that our fingers were in the gloves to keep warm most of the time. It would be so much more convenient if you have a remote to control the camera. Without a remote control? Just set the timer to your desired time as an alternative.
3. Flash Light
Flash light is the key to take photos with Aurora Borealis. Without flash light, you are guaranteed to have a photo with shadows instead of yourself in it. The above photo is an example of the stone in front of the northern light. First, you get your camera ready with Tripod. Then use a flash light (it can be your phone's torch function) to flash at the human/ object for a second, and you are ready to press the shuttle function.
Tips: There are many tourists standing at different location to capture this amazing moment when you travel with groups or even in a popular country hotel, so make sure you find your perfect spot when you are there.
Do you not have the luck to look for the Northern Light or You are looking at the wrong direction?
We were tempted to visit Finland for the Glass Igloo to wait for the northern light but it is a very expensive accommodation with no guarantee of seeing the Northern Light. There are quite a few groups of my friends went but came back with NO northern light experience, they said "we didn't have the luck". Well, I thought I might as well spend the money to join a tour for the expert to "Chase it" rather than feel disappointed after spending so much money on the accommodation. Nothing is guaranteed but at least I wouldn't want to sit still for the "Luck" to decide on my experience.
Another group of friends came back from a 7 nights trip from Iceland and they chose to "Chase the Northern Light", yet came back with disappointment. WHY!? They said they rented a car and drove around Iceland with maps.... Alright, below are the possible reasons:
1. The Right Time
You will have to visit the destination with the right time - for example, to visit Iceland from Sep - Mar stands a stronger chance for the strong solar wind - the solar particles colliding in the atmosphere are the main cause of the northern lights.
2. Weather Condition
Cloudless, clear sky is the main requirement with the outside temperature being cold and dry. It is hard to get the weather forecast if you book your trip months before departure, so this will be luck!
3. Artificial Light
It means you need a dark sky to see the Aurora Borealis as clear as possible. It is relatively harder to have a clear Northern light view when you stay in Reykjavik town, there are building lights/ lights from houses/ commercial buildings/ street lights. You can choose to travel away from Reykjavik or stay overnight in a country hotel.
4. The Right Direction
There are apps or websites showing the chances and the visibility level of the Northern Light of the night, you can always download it. When we chased the northern light, the experienced tour guide had a radio walkie talkie to communicate with their expert colleagues. They drove towards the direction that detected strong sign of Aurora Borealis and we managed to witness those moments before it disappeared. Mind you that it could be just a few minutes for the moment and you have to wait for it to reappear. Chasing light with the right direction is an important factor - imagine if we drove to the opposite direction?
Stay overnight in a country hotel
I stayed in Reykjavik hotel throughout the trip but took a 2 days 1 night tour for the experience, it was one of the best decision for such a short trip. We stayed overnight in a country hotel after a long drive, the driver/guide was so tired that she couldn't take us to chase Northern Light that night - I was glad I chose joining a tour instead of self drive. We were told we might be able to find the aurora light without chasing it if we were lucky. I have to mention that was not a 3 - 5 stars hotels but Northern Light was what we after.
We didn't wait for too long, the stunning lights appeared and were dancing in the whole dark sky around the mountain! Oh my - we were all screaming with excitement and couldn't help but taking as many photos as possible. It was a cold night in Winter but many of us sat on the grass field and enjoyed the magical moment with such magnificent view.
What if you have tried everything but still have no luck?
If you really really really had tried your best to visit at the right time, right place and had done everything you could but still ... had no luck?
You still have an option - visit the Northern Lights Center in Reykjavik - Aurora Reykjavik.
I visited the Northern Lights Center on the first day, it was worth it with all the information you need and to enjoyed the video/ photos etc. I even bought a DVD with the record of amazing Northern Light videos as I do not have the skill to record such amazing phenomenon.
You may find a world map for the visitor to leave your pin to indicate which country do you come from, have you marked yours?
Eyjafjallajökull,Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Skógafoss Waterfall, Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, The Black sand beach Reynisfjara & Skaftafell nature reserve
Visiting Iceland, it is hard not to visit the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajökull that shut down Europe's air space for a days in 2010. It is very difficult for me to pronounce it just like Ben Stiller couldn't pronounce it in his film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Traveling around Iceland was indeed a relaxing trip, almost every corner of Iceland could make into a postcard.
As I previously mentioned, this trip consists of a few day trips. This particular 2 days 1 night tour's highlights are:
2. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
3. Skógafoss Waterfall
4. Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon
5. The Black sand beach Reynisfjara
6. Skaftafell nature reserve
7. Ice Cave Exploration
8. Aurora Borealis/ Northern Light Chasing
You can take this itinerary for your reference, it is my personal favorite trip in Iceland. The only regret that I had for this trip was the Cancellation of Ice Cave Exploration due to the ice melting too fast and hence it became dangerous for this activity.
You can take the thrilling photos from the front and the back of the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. This waterfall is at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, needless to say - it was freezing cold but amazing view! For some reason, I couldn't find the photo so will upload the photo once I have it.
This plunges from the cliffs of the former coastline with 18 stories high and considered to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Besides feeling breathtaking, it was really freezing cold that I had to use two heat packs in my jacket while wrapping my head/ face/ hands/ neck etc like a mummy! I doubt any of my friends recognize me from my photos.
So guys, remember to make sure you have sufficient/ appropriate attires if you are visiting during winter. Check out my travel check list for your reference if you do not have a list already. I strongly reckon to invest in hiking shoes, it is very useful when it's wet/ walking on snow/ sands/ rocks etc.
Tips: We bought some chocolate and whiskey for the trip, these really did warm us up when we needed it. Of course, for those above the legal age for whiskey and no excessive consumption.
Reynisfjara, the black sand beach
Reynisfjara is a black pebble beach and features an amazing cliff of regular basalt columns resembling a rocky step pyramid, which is called Gardar. This is one of the stunning black sand beach in the world, I would strongly recommend to visit this beach if you are in Iceland.
Just be extra careful of the strong wind with massive waives from the Atlantic Ocean break on the shore, you will find some warning sign for a particularly strong undertow.
Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is a large glacial lake in southeast Iceland, on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. It's a really deep lagoon with approx 75 stories below the surface. Literally "the tip of the iceberg". The lagoon is particularly beautiful wherever you are looking at it, we spent 30-60mins at this location admiring every unique iceberg/ glacier.
You may find some serious photographers sitting there with huge lenses taking photo of the Iceberg, Glacier, Water dripping and even the unique design of the color pattern of the ice.
Skaftafell Nature Reserve
This Nature Reserve is located in the National Park of Vatnajökull. We had the opportunity to have the view of the stunning glacier outlets of the Vatnajökull Ice Cap. We were told the Iceland’s highest peak, which is 2110 m is in this area.
It was great to walk along the area with our guide, the view was absolutely overwhelming. I can understand why so many movie makers found Iceland an ideal location for filming movies scenes such as Batman Begins, Interstellar, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Thor - The Dark World, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Oblivion, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Noah, Star Wars: The Forces Awaken, Captain America - Civil War, Prometheus, Fast and Furious 8 and of course my favorite Games of Thrones!
So now, when is your next trip to Iceland?
Iceland is a breathtaking beautiful Nordic Island country with amazing natural wilderness. With it's population of 332,529 (2016, Wikipedia) 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), this is absolutely one of the most relaxing country to travel to.
Since there was an opportunity to travel to London in March 2016, I had decided to check out the Northern Light for this once in a life time trip. It was a tough decision on which country to chase the Northern Light: Norway, Finland, Sweden, Scotland, Iceland etc, but I chose Iceland since a few of my friends came back with Aurora Light experience every night during their holiday.
Airport and transfer
There were two Airport Shuttle Bus companies in Keflavik International Airport (Reykjavic, Iceland): Grayline & Flybus. The price difference was just ISK100 per person, I just chose Flybus simply for the shorter queue since the bus was leaving soon and I didn't want to wait for 30 mins for the next available bus. You can order online to pre-book it, alternatively just buy the ticket on arrival like me.
For convenience purpose, I purchased the return ticket with the door to door service - dropped me off right in front of the hotel. The shuttle bus provides drop off at hotel, hostels, apartments and guesthouses or bus stop if that's closer to your holiday rental location.
The shuttle bus companies stated that there was wifi services on the bus, unfortunately the service was so poor that I couldn't log on at all.
Renting a car or going with Tours?
This is a very popular question that many travelers raised and yet some prefer renting a car while some prefer tours. Ultimately, it depends on your driving experience and also your knowledge towards the local destination.
If I were to visit Iceland during summer and Aurora Light was not my priority, I would definitely rent a car for this trip. Below were my reasons of going with some individual tours (i.e. Aurora Chasing Night Tour, Golden Circle Day tour and over night tours).
1. Winter & Weather Condition
It was snowing during our visit and it wasn't easy to drive in snow with it's slippery road and strong snow condition. Even with the experienced local driver, she was driving very carefully while snowing with strong wind condition.
2. Get tired
It is definitely okay to drive for the whole day to anywhere you want to go/ take turn to drive but it is tiring to drive for long hours. Don't get me wrong, road trip was fun too but given a short holiday - it wasn't a bad idea to let the expert drive while we could rest warmly in the vehicle. We had a whole day visiting many places and yet all the travelers in the bus was taking naps along the way and still looked tired. Imagine if you have a jet lag?
Our priority was Aurora Borealis/ Northern light, what is the best way to chase the light? Let the expert do the job, they had the walkie talkie radio frequencies to communicate with each other in order to find the clearer spot for Aurora Light. We have friends who rented a car and drove around for 7 nights to chase the Northern Light by themselves, they ended up with no luck for the trip (could have driven the wrong direction). For us, the driver took photo of every travelers with the amazing northern light! We had time to enjoy the magnificent view with plenty of time to take photos, learn photography skill with the local and even made some new friends from different countries.
4. Possible Car Break Down
We saw some cars broke down along the road during our tours, it was such a pity. Once the car breakdown, it takes time to call for the assistance/ file paperwork/ car replacement etc.
5. Save time
During the tour, our drivers explained the destination information throughout the day so that we understand the culture and history to enjoy the maximum experience. Sometimes they dropped us off in one location and picked us up from the other end of the walk, parking was never an issue to us. Given limited time frame, we were quite happy to save time on these to enjoy the convenience.
Having said that, I'm sure those experienced and knowledgeable drivers would love to travel by cars.
Iceland has small population hence walking in the town was fun, like you will never bump into someone. It was absolutely relaxing to breath in icy fresh air, drinking Icelandic water while overlooking those snow mountains right in front of me.
Icelandic Seafood & Lamb
From my research, the famous exotic Icelandic food are:
- Kæstur hákarl: Treated Shark which has been prepared by a fermentation process (buried underground for 6-12 weeks) and then hung to dry for 4-5 months.
- Svið: smoked sheep's head
- Sheep's head jelly
- Puffin: Friendly Seabird
- Skyr: Icelandic Yogurt
Well, I am happy with just Icelandic Plokkfiskur - Fish Stew! It is a dish with boiled fresh cod mashed with potatoes and roux-based white sauce served with Icelandic rye bread slices and butter. Oh my, normal seafood just right for me..... I really couldn't bring myself to trying the sheep's head, not a chance!
How much things cost
You may wonder how much do things generally cost in Iceland, below are just some personal rough indication:
Entre/ Appetizer/ Soup/ Dessert/ Beer: Start from ISK 800 +
Main Course/ Hot Meal: Start from 1,800 +
Taxi: Approx 10mins or 6km ~ ISK 2,650 - ISK 3,450
These are just indication, for example my favourate Fish Stew costed ISK 2,200 and Pizza could cost ISK 2,000 - ISK 3,000 so this is just for reference.
Credit Card/ Cash
Iceland is a place where credit cards work most of the time, we only carried small amount of cash during the trip and used credit card to pay for most items. You may want to check with your credit card company for the transaction fees if they are not in favor of foreign transaction.
Icelandic Horse (Nordic Horse)
When I saw those cute little Icelandic horse during my road trip, I sent those photos to family and friends but they all had the same question: "Oh, the donkeys were so adorable!"
Hm... They were Icelandic horses ~ Gentle, short and hairy... Most importantly, they were friendly!
Back to thousand years ago, the Vikings arrived in Iceland with their small Nordic horses. Until today, the breed remains pure due to the breed isolation. According to the Icelandic law, horses are not allowed to import into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return.
Wanna keep yourself warm? Bring along some heat packs!
Since I chose to visit during Winter, there was no doubt that my fingers were in pain when I took my gloves off to take photos. How cold was that? Well, my fully-charged mobile phone's battery went down to zero after I took it out for a few minutes to take some photos! So yup, it was BLOODY COLD!
I was glad to have found those disposable heat pack online and bought dozen of those before my departure, it kept me warm (warmed up to 50 degree and last for 8 - 14 hours each pack) throughout that trip. Those heat pack were from Korean or Japan and were sold like around $1 each.
The Golden Circle Itinerary
I can almost relate Golden Circle Tour = Iceland! At least those are the reading material from the internet research anyway.
The classic tour, the Golden Circle depicts the traditional three main attractions of the island - All you need is one day to visit all locations.
Thingvellir National Park
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is part of the Games of Thrones (GOT) filming sites, for the GOT fans - can you guess which scenes is that?
It was in the North of Westeros with Arya’s storyline and as the setting of the battle of the Hound and Brienne. How interesting to walk around the National Park with the scene in mind? Okay, I am GOT big fan!
Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also the place where the Eurasian and North American plate boundaries which run through Iceland are clearly visible - the plates are moving apart here and the land between them is subsiding.
The tour guide explained the history and Viking's stories of this historical national park, it was breathtaking standing at the top looking down with such a spectacular view.
The water was crystal clear that I could see those coins at the bottom of the river. There was signs showing graphic message [Do not throw coins into the water] but seems like either some tourists didn't care or they were simply too desperate for their wishes to come true to pollute the water.
For those who are reading this article, please do not throw coins into the water when you visit this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Geysir Geothermal Area
Our guide drove along the mountains to Laugarvatn village, Icelanders' summer residence for decades, and further on towards the world renowned geothermal hot spring area around Geysir, the hot spring.
It is known that the original Great Geysir is not active at the moment but its neighbour, Strokkur, erupts every 5-7 minutes. It was hot but interesting to see it slowly burst out from the little hole and transformed into steam every now and then. The floor was wet so watch out for the slippery floor.
Gullfoss (the Golden waterfall) was huge and beautiful especially when the air was so fresh. Walking closer to the edge of the waterfall, I could feel the spray of the glacial water on my face. It would be even better if there was a cafe built just overlooking this amazing waterfall or even just a picnic spot.
It's a nicely shaped pseudo volcanic crater formed some 5,000 years ago located at the Grimsnes, with a rather deep lake in the bottom. You are required to pay for the entrance fee to walk around the crater's rim, they even accept credit card if you are out of cash. This place is pretty much just walking around the rim with the same view, we only took some photos and enjoyed some moment before moving on to the next location. Great view, perhaps spend approx 15 - 30mins was sufficient for the journey.
Iceland, a beautiful Nordic Island Nation that shows the Ice world with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava field and a popular location for Aurora Borealis / Northern Light.