Tales of Iceland: The Snaefellsnes Peninsula under the Northern Lights
Tales of Iceland: The Snaefellsnes Peninsula under the Northern Lights.
“I dream with my eyes open!”
The Snaefellsnes peninsula still seems to have more media coverage than the rest of Iceland. In fact, as early as 1864, when Jules Verne wrote Voyage to the Center of the Earth, Snaefellsnes was the travelers’ dream location.
The protagonist of the book exclaimed: “I dream with my eyes open!” as he roamed the shores of this volcanic peninsula. It’s a quote I often recite to my clients when I’m in a particularly old-fashioned mood. More recently, Snaefellsnes has also become the setting for Game of Thrones and the secret life of Walter Mitty. It seems that this small rocky outcrop on the west side of Iceland still has a lot of inspiration to give.
So this month’s more personal publication will revolve around what some people call Little Iceland – the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. An easily accessible part of Iceland that seems to include everything the rest of the country has, but close by. It could be a dormant volcano, a moving glacier, moss-covered lava fields, broken cliffs, sleepy fishing villages, or black sand beaches.
Coincidentally, I will also share with you the story of the best northern lights I have ever seen!
Snaefellsnes under the northern lights
This story begins in the middle of an Icelandic winter. Long nights and snow-capped mountains create the setting. We had planned a two-day excursion to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. With large open spaces and no artificial light to speak of, it was the perfect place to hunt the Northern Lights at night.
It really felt like the sky was on fire!
The weather was perfect that day! Cold, but dry. Snowy, but not frozen. And not a cloud in the sky! A rare occurrence in an Icelandic winter. I was taking a group of friends who were visiting this less crowded part of Iceland for the weekend. Two days, one night only. Just enough time to get into everything I wanted to show them.
We left Reykjavik before dawn, an easy task in the limited winter daylight hours, and traveled north. As we got closer to the peninsula, I delighted my friends with stories of the early Viking settlers and how some of Iceland’s oldest colonies were in this region. By the time we reached the peninsula, an 80 km long land mass that juts out from the mainland, the sun was starting to rise.
Fortunately, in an Icelandic winter, the sun barely reaches much higher than the horizon itself, allowing the normally fleeting golden hour to last all day. Winter in Iceland is the dream of a photographer and the playground of an adventurer.
Our progress around the snow-capped cliffs and lava fields of Snaefellsnes has been slow, but intentionally. The winding roads, the pyramid-shaped mountain peaks and the glacier-marked valleys meant that the road was as breathtaking as any stop we would make. If we were still living in the days of camera reels, we would surely have run out in the first hour. The thoughts of Jules Verne and his research in this empty landscape, 200 years ago, often came to my mind as we drove on well-maintained roads, in purpose-built vehicles. Our two-day tour would probably have been weeks if not more. Lots of time to be inspired to say the least.
Throughout the day we took our time to walk along the black sand beach of Djúpalónssandur, go around the base of the Snæfellsjökull volcano, take a look in the volcanic crater of Saxhóll, carefully inspect the centuries-old jagged lava fields , stagger along the broken sea cliffs at Arnarstapi, and finally watch the famous arrow-shaped mountain of Kirkjufell. Mix in the golden light of a low sun with the freshly fallen snow and it was as close as possible to a perfect day. My friends and I did not care in the world. The peaceful landscape allows us to fill our minds with peace and express the fantasies of retiring here one day. As the sun escaped us, we headed for our accommodation for the night.
Under the northern lights sky
That night we moved into a small, cozy guesthouse on the north side of the peninsula, in a sleepy fishing village called Stykkishólmur. After eating the catch of the day at the quaint little restaurant, Narfeyrastofa, we walked to the nearby lighthouse along the shore. There we just waited. It was cold, but manageable. Especially with my secret vial of emergency hot chocolate and our multiple soft layers to save us.
The distraction of the piercing stars, free from artificial light, kept us busy while our eyes adjusted to the dark. Certainly, I added a few “fun facts” to keep morale up too. For example, did you know that it takes more than 2 days for solar winds to reach the Earth’s atmosphere from the Sun. This is what makes Northern Lights possible.
But before knowing it, the sky started to change.
At first glance, all we saw was a faint greenish white canopy in the sky. He disappeared in a few seconds, which led some members of the group to exclaim “was that it?”. Unfortunately, this is sometimes the best you can hope for when hunting for the northern lights, but NOT that night! Not for us. Luck was on our side. Personally, I already knew that the sun had sent fast-flowing particles to Earth in the past 2 days, so I was hopeful that we would see more.
So we continued to wait.
A few sips of our hot chocolate gave us the stamina to continue a little longer outside in the cold. Then, without warning, the whole sky started to change again. But this time, instead of a weak sequence, we were treated to a dance! A dance made of colors. The best way to describe it is to imagine a set of curtains blown in time by an open window in the summer breeze. I hope this will help you understand what we saw that night.
The darkness of the night had temporarily disappeared. We were hypnotized! The greens, pinks, reds, yellows, and purples raced from the horizon above our heads, making us stumble as we tried to follow the movement in the sky. Just as we lacked balance, the whole process started again on the horizon. Wave after wave of color shone before us.
The group finally met in a common embrace. Partly to avoid the cold, but especially as a feeling of appreciation in this shared experience. Gasps remained audible as the minutes turned into hours. Children’s wonder invaded our sensibilities as part of the group jumped up and down on the spot. Each bounce seemed to time each new color as the dawn flowed from one wavelength to the next.
We had to stay outside for hours that night. I could have slept there for all the care I had for the cold or the impending dawn. I have never seen such beauty since that night. Part of me really doesn’t want! We slowly returned to our accommodation in silence. We were tired, but mostly just thoughtful. As you can imagine, we fell asleep easily that night and only dreamed of one thing.
It seems that Jules Verne has nailed it. We were dreaming with our eyes open that night.
The next day, we woke up late for a rich breakfast and strong coffee. None of us were in a hurry to leave this magical place. As we quietly left the guest house, we decided to skip some of the more adventurous views. We had done so much the day before that we could afford to relax today.
So instead of a few hikes in the cracked volcanic mountains, we visited a horse farm and a natural hot pool. We spent hours in the golden light bathing at the outdoor Krauma hot spring. Similar to the Blue Lagoon, but without the crowds. This second day was certainly a lazy day, but after a night spent discovering the true beauty of nature, it was well deserved. We made sure to try the geothermally baked bread after petting the local Icelandic horses at the nearby Sturlureykir horse farm. It was home time then.
Shared images and shared feelings filled the car on the way home. A few hours later, we returned to town. Going back to Reykjavik was almost surreal that night. At the start of the vacation for my friends, they said that Reykjavik looked like a small village. But after discovering the loneliness of the past 2 days, it somehow looked like a booming metropolis.
Sure, the days of debate were fun, but our conversations inevitably returned to our night on the Snaefellsnes peninsula under the northern lights. A friend, during a moment of silence, chirped with, “it really felt like the sky was on fire that night!”
To say that we have changed irreversibly after these 2 days together can be difficult to prove. What can be definitely agreed, however, is that each of us will remember this night for the rest of our lives.