If you are lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in Iceland on a clear evening, it’s probably one of the most spectacular sights on earth.
If you are going to Iceland for the first time, like me, it’s well worth allowing Icelandair introduce you to this spectacle. They have just launched the Hekla Aurora, a northern lights themed plane (the iconic lights are painted onto the exterior), whilst delivering the ethereal and elusive magic of the Aurora Borealis to it passengers.
The Hekla Aurora plane flies trans-atlantically from London to destination cities in the US and Canada via a stopover of up to seven days (at no additional airfare) in Iceland, to take in the nature, culture and cuisine of the country.
I was on board for the new plane’s inaugural celebratory flight from Reykjavik International to the domestic airport, where we arrived to a fanfare welcome and light illumination of the city’s Hallgrímskirkja Church, as a prelude to the city’s annual Winter Lights Festival. It seemed that the whole country of over 320,000 had turned out to meet us.
Birta Líf Kristinsdóttir, a renowned Icelandic meteorologist and former Icelandair pilot, brought the science of Aurora Borealis alive by providing us with a talk on this natural phenomenon.
As part of our experience in Iceland, we took a private dip in the Secret Lagoon, a natural hot spring pool located about 800 metres from Icelandair Hotel Fludir. The temperature of the pool is 38°- 40° all year round and is surrounded by several geothermal spots, which erupt spontaneously at regular intervals. Apparently during wintertime, the Northern Lights can be seen above the secret lagoon, which makes it an even greater experience to sit in the hot pool and enjoy the colours dancing above. Sadly, it was too cloudy for us to see anything but a hot dip under the sky was quite surreal and certainly won’t be forgotten.
The following day, we headed to Gullfoss (or Golden Waterfall), which proved a spectacular example of the force and beauty of nature. Gullfoss is part of the Golden Circle, located in South Iceland on the Hvítá River, which is fed by Iceland´s second biggest glacier, the Langjökull. The water plummets down 32 metres into a rugged canyon, the walls of which reach up to 70 metres in height. I’m told that if the sun’s out, shimmering rainbows can be seen over the falls.
However, one of the greatest natural attractions of Iceland, and part of the famous Golden Circle route, is The Great Geysir – although it has been dormant since 1916 when it suddenly ceased to spout. It has come to life only once, in 1935, and as quickly went back to sleep. No sudden eruptions on our visit, though! The Great Geysir was once among the most notable geysers in the world, such as those in Yellowstone Park and New Zealand. Though The Great Geysir itself is now inactive, the area surrounding it is geothermically very active with many smaller hot springs. The attraction of the area is now Strokkur (The Churn), another geyser 100 metres south of The Great Geysir, which erupts at regular intervals every 10 minutes or so, and its white column of boiling water can reach as high as 30 metres.
A real highlight of the trip for me was lunch in the surreal surroundings of a greenhouse! Iceland is dark and cold for much of the year, but tomatoes grow merrily under artificial light at Friðheimar. The environmentally-friendly greenhouses yield about one ton of produce per day. Upon entering the greenhouse, you are hit with the fragrance of tomato plants, before you sit down to a feast of famous Friðheimar tomato soup with fresh-baked bread – and tomato plants all around. Don’t forget to try Bjork, a liqueur made from birch trees – delicious!
Later that day, we got to experience Iceland’s only horse park, Fákasel, home to the country’s unique breed of horse. The Icelandic horse is a hardy breed developed in Iceland. The breed is still used for traditional farm work in Iceland, as well as for leisure, showing, and racing. Fákasel Horse Park is Iceland’s leading tourist attraction for all things “Icelandic horse” and is one of the country’s best equine competition facilities. I found it all a little bizarre watching elves jump out from behind rocks and young, blonde maidens lying down to sleep beside their ponies. This, I was later to learn, was based on Icelandic folklore and some still believe the Huldufólk (the elves) really exist. Apparently, local building projects are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live. According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the Huldufólk.
All this is hungry work, and I was looking forward to dinner at the widely-acclaimed brasserie style Kopar restaurant, which certainly didn’t disappoint. The food was absolutely delicious. The menu is full of local and sustainable Icelandic produce, and prides itself on being the only place in Reykjavik to serve Icelandic Rock Crab from the Hvalfjörður fjord. The Kopar Restaurant also offers delicious salmon, redfish and blue ling. I went for the full crab experience, and had crab cake, rock crab soup and snow crab salad all on one platter! My guests had the Icelandic fillet of lamb with crispy fat with mushrooms, port and lot of garlic, potato and bearnaise. The perfect end to a great trip to Iceland, before I headed off across the Atlantic to New York as part of my stopover on Icelandair. I will definitely be back and next time perhaps in the summer to experience the ‘‘midnight sun,’’ which effectively keeps shining for 24 hours a day!
Iceland Gourmet Specialities
• Skyr (a smooth and creamy kind of yoghurt)
• Hangikjot (smoked lamb)
• Harðfiskur (dried fish)
• A delicacy not for the squeamish is Hákarl (putrefied shark), usually washed down with a shot of Brennivin
• Pylsur (hot dog) is every Icelanders’ favourite fast food
Icelandair has encouraged passengers since the 1960s to enjoy an Icelandair Stopover, and now offers the service from 25 European destinations to 14 North American and 4 Canadian cities. Icelandair offers flights to and from Iceland to the following destinations:
Canada: Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver
Europe: Reykjavik, Akureyri, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beren, Billund, Birmingham, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Geneva, Gothenburg, Hamburg, Helsinki, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Oslo, Paris, Stavanger, Stockholm, Trondheim and Zürich
USA: Anchorage, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, Portland, Seattle and Washington D.C
Icelandair now flies out of Heathrow’s newly developed Terminal 2, The Queen’s Terminal and there is also a new Icelandair service from Keflavik to Aberdeen, giving a third destination option for a connecting flight over from the US into the North East region. Additionally, Montreal is being added, so a further departure point to come to Scotland.
Icelandair has also launched their new “Stopover Buddy” service, which aims to defeat holiday-maker overspend (Brits overspend by £17.21 billion per year whilst on holiday due to lack of local knowledge) and fully immerse visitors in local Icelandic culture. On a transatlantic stopover, members of the airline team (including stewardesses, pilots and even the CEO of Icelandair) will be up for grabs upon landing, as personal guides offering a rare glimpse into the “real” Iceland.