Seeing the Northern Lights had always been on my bucket-list, but I'd always been deterred by the gamble involved with Iceland: an expensive place with a lot of cloud cover. You could easily spend a fair amount of money on a stay there without seeing anything.

But I decided it didn't matter. I'd enjoy the time there with Steph, we'd see the lights or not – and have a good time either way.

One downside of the freelance life is no holiday pay, so my trips tend to be short, and this was no exception: a long weekend from Wednesday night to Sunday afternoon. The weather forecast suggested that Saturday would be our one shot at the lights.

We booked flights with Icelandair, and an apartment close to City Hall. The way Northern Lights tours work is you book and they let you know in the early evening whether or not it will go ahead, based on the weather. If it's cancelled, they rebook you for the following day. On that basis, we booked it for the Thursday even though there seemed little chance of it happening that night.

I'm not normally a tour kind of guy, but with everything some distance from Reykjevik, it seemed to make sense. We looked at a bunch, but as there seemed a huge variety of tours to choose from, we decided to get local advice from the tourist office – which turned out to be a good call.

It was an evening flight, so late by the time we got to the apartment. We had a leisurely breakfast then went off for a wander round the town. It was a very grey day


The town mostly comprises low buildings (though a few higher ones are being built), so the Hallgrímskirkja church at 74.5m high dominates the town skyline, and is one of the tallest buildings in the whole country.

It's a pleasant, airy space with lots of natural light.

You can also go up the tower, but it was too murky to bother with photos bar the first one below.

The rest of the town is colourful, but doesn't have much to tempt skyscraper fans ...

The waterfront area is a bit more industrial.

Though it does have a rather fine concert hall to commend it. This looked even better with the sun out, but sadly we only saw that from the bus, so no opportunity then for any photos.

The shorefront is ... basic ... and the mountains across the bay were shrouded in cloud.

Early settlers used cairns to mark routes across the landscape, and the habit of building them seems to be intact today.

We then hopped a bus to the Perlan Museum. This offers better views of the town, and it was from there I took the above photos. It's a pretty funky building.

We were rather short on time to visit an ice-cave, all of which were a full day's drive, but the museum has helpfully created an artificial one. Artificial, not fake – it's a real ice cave, but constructed in a building rather than naturally-occurring in a glacier. It's surprisingly impressive.

It's -10 inside, so warm clothing is recommended.

I couldn't resist a few abstract shots.

Seeing a video of a natural one on the flight home, it didn't seem that the experience was very different given they lay the same flooring, fit the same lights and so on.

We booked a Golden Circle/Snowmobiling combo for the following day. The one we'd found cost an eye-watering £335 per person. The tourist office booked one costing £210 each - still very expensive, but at least an improvement.


I hate bus tours, not least because you're on someone else's schedule, and because they try to cram in all the sights to the least amount of time, but it did mean we'd get to visit the three 'must see' sights in one day.

The first is the land that's opened up as the American and European tectonic plates split and moved ever further apart. What started as a rift in the rock is now a plain up to 20km apart in places.

Looking across one of the wider stretches, where the ground between the plates has sunk.

The weather was grey and rainy, and sadly this was still the case when we reached Geysir, a series of hot pools with one active geyser that reliably spouts every 3-8 minutes.

Grey water against grey sky isn't very photogenic, but a 360-degree video gives a really good sense of what it's like to be there. You can click-and-drag to look around (look behind me too!). On a mobile device, click the YouTube icon to view there and you can then look around simply by moving your phone or tablet.

Here's a couple of hot pool photos to show why photography was pointless ...

The stop at the Gullfoss waterfall was really disappointing. The tour was behind schedule, so we only had 25 minutes there, which wasn't anything like enough time to get close to the falls, so we only saw them from a viewing platform. I'd hoped to get drone footage, but No Drone signs are everywhere in Iceland, here included

The photos sum up the underwhelming nature of seeing the falls from a distance.

I'm sure they are really impressive close-up.

There was, at least, a reason for haste: the snowmobiling trip was booked for a fixed time, so we needed to be there on time.

For the section from the falls to the glacier, we were transferred to a monster truck.

The reason for this soon became apparent.

We followed a snow-plough in for the final section.

The weather still wasn't looking promising.

But it had improved notably by the time we were togged-up.

I was wearing shirt and jeans, a double-thickness Rab fleece and a thickly-padded down mountain jacket - all of which was supplemented by a Michelin-man ski-suit supplied by the snowmobile company. I looked like a Sumo wrestler and was too warm, but better that than too cold.

I used to ride motorcycles, and have done wetbiking a few times, so I quickly adjusted to our new form of transport. You had to go single-file, so I went at the back so I could hold back to create room to play, then accelerate to catch up. Hit 60mph, and the machine had more to give, but I felt that the management in the pillion seat behind me was likely to object.

It was about a 30-minute run to a stop higher up the glacier, then the same again back. It was about the right length of time.

The weather was perfect by the halfway point.

I took off my hat and gloves and was perfectly comfortable. Steph had a thinner jacket, so coupled to a slender build, looked less Michelin woman-like, but still about twice her actual size.

Steph wasn't convinced about my idea of shooting handheld video while on the snowmobile, but I'd obviously managed not too scare her too much, as she was happy to do a bit of videoing with the 360 cam as we headed back. As before, click-and-drag to look around.

The camera really impressed with me. The app needs some work, but viewing the video really does make you feel like you're there again.

Some of the snowmobiles at the station looked like they hadn't moved for a while, though I guess up there that could happen in a day.

Then it was time for our monster truck ride back down the glacier.

The deal with the Northern Lights tour was pickup at 8.45pm, and if they hadn't emailed to cancel by 7pm, it was on.

We experienced every type of weather on the bus ride home, from sun to blizzard, but the forecast for the Reykjavik area seemed pretty good. Sure enough, 7pm came and went and no email.

We'd read quite a few reviews in booking our lights tour, and chosen a company called Time Tours as they used a minibus and went to different locations to the big buses. The reviews said the big bus tours all tended to gather at the same places, so you could get 20 buses with hundreds of people. I was really grateful we researched it, as our guy was fantastic!

Ronnie was clearly extremely knowledgeable, and had checked a number of different websites for both solar and weather forecasts. En-route, we saw a bunch of big buses turning off the highway to head to a location Ronnie said would be too overcast. We later learned he was right, as we met one of the big buses on our way back and they'd seen nothing.

Ronnie said that the first stop at around 10pm would be quiet, and the skies were clear, so we'd probably see something, but the best displays usually weren't until midnight or 1am. Ronnie explained how to interpret the solar forecast, and told us what we were likely to see.

At the bottom level, you'd see a glow on the horizon; at the top level, you'd have a display that not only went overhead, but reached into the southern half of the sky to compete with the moon. What we should expect, all being well, was toward the lower end of this range, but still well worth seeing: a clearly visible curtain about 15-20 degrees above the northern horizon.

He did, however, explain that the actual displays were unpredictable. He'd taken one group out at solar maximum during a period of intense activity, and they saw nothing at all. Conversely, you could go out when you weren't expecting to see much and see a spectacular display.

Boy was he right about this – and in the best possible way! Almost immediately we reached our first location, we saw this – which was what we'd been told we should expect:

But within literally minutes, we were seeing a much brighter and bigger version:

After that, it just got more and more spectacular.

It was soon reaching 40 degrees above the horizon – meaning it was travelling much further south than expected. And then it came overhead!

It continued, and soon we were seeing it to the south; this is something you normally only see much further north than Iceland. This is the moon shining through the aurora.

Much of the time, it was all around us and it was hard to know which direction to look. All the following shots are looking south.

It was a truly awe-inspiring experience that just went on and on. All plans to go anywhere else were abandoned as there was no point – we had an incredible display right where we were.

There were a few idiots using camera flashes, visible in some of the photos, but I was too blown away to even care. These weren't going to be postcard shots – for those you want spectacular scenery, which we didn't have. Ironically, you also want a level 2-3 display, as those remain in one place long enough to give a more clearly-defined image. Here there was so much activity that the whole sky was filled, so it would have blotted out the scenery in any case.

It was bitterly cold in a biting wind, so we retreated to the minibus when the display quitened down.

The aurora is caused by solar particles hitting the Earth's magnetic field, making it visible. But you also get particles hitting the atmosphere without getting caught in the field, and those appear as really fast pin-pricks. Those happened just as we were getting ready to leave, so I got out to look at them. They don't show up in photos, but were fun to see.

By the time that was over, it was about 1am, we were all frozen and we'd seen an amazing display, so we headed home. Donny explained the 9-point visual scale for the lights, ranging from 1 (faint glow on the horizon) to 9 (a once-in-200-years display bright enough to read a book). The numbers are based on the specific phenomenon that can be seen, and how far south the lights go.

He said that in many years of guiding, going out almost every night the lights were visible, the highest level he'd ever seen was a 7. Tonight, he said, was a 5, borderline 6. You could tell he was really excited by it himself, and I couldn't believe our luck in getting that display in a 3-day trip!

We made one brief stop on the way back when the lights appeared again for a few minutes, but it didn't rival what we'd already seen.


We'd arrived home at 2am and had to be up at 7am for horse-riding. We also hadn't had much sleep the night before. 7am was, it has to be said, a somewhat painful experience.

Steph is an experienced rider; I'd never ridden a horse in my life, tending to the view that vehicles shouldn't have minds of their own. But while a horse ride was never on my bucket list, I do collect experiences, and felt it ought to be done once. And if you're going to do it, the spectacular scenery of Iceland isn't a bad choice.

There were two other advantages to a first ride in Iceland. First, the local breed of horses are noted for their calmness. Second, they have a unique gait found only in this breed, so I'd get to experience something that can't be found anywhere else.

We were picked up in a minibus for the one-hour drive to the farm. This wasn't the closest one, but the tourist info guy recommended it as they go out in smaller groups, and split them up by ability level. We were slightly regretting this choice en-route, as our minibus driver was one of the worst drivers I've ever had the misfortune to encounter – and that's saying something given that I've been to India, Cambodia, South Africa et al. He would race up to a junction then slam on the brakes, so I think we were all feeling pretty queezy by the time we got there.

The people at the farm were great, though. Mindful of having been too warm on the snowmobile, I declined their offer of an oversuit and figured I'd be fine with my fleece and mountain jacket – as indeed I was.

Steph went out in the experienced group, and I went out in the beginner one. We met up in the middle.

I was distinctly unsure about this horse-riding business. Getting on was ok, but once seated I felt like I was balanced precariously on the top, likely to fall off one way or the other at any moment. This feeling wasn't notably better by the time we'd walked around the paddock a few times and the guides declared us ready to go.

Just to add to the fun, there was a river crossing in the first few minutes, the water up to the horses' knees. We were, though, assured the horses knew what they were doing and we should just let them get on with it. Mine slipped once, but remained upright and I remained on board. Hmm.

We were then told we'd go a bit faster, into the special Icelandic gait known as tölt. I wasn't remotely convinced about going any faster than the nice gentle walk, thank you very much, but our guide assured me that I looked comfortable on the horse. She was entirely wrong.

However, she was right that it would be fine. My horse responded instantly to squeezing my knees to speed up, and to pulling gently on the reins to slow down, so I at least felt that my vehicle was controllable.

The tölt was actually really stable and comfortable. I wouldn't say I was actively enjoying it, but I was no longer wondering whether my travel insurance card was readily to hand for the air ambulance.

Then I was told we'd be speeding up again, into a trot. I gave my guide a sceptical look. "You're a natural," she said – the phrase used by all instructors all over the world for all activities to all tourists, and I wasn't falling for it for a second

But I tried it. It was horrendously uncomfortable, but I didn't fall off, and we only did it for a few minutes before slowing back to a walk. I reckoned that a few sessions with a chiropracter might be sufficient provided we didn't ever do that again.

We did do it again. Several times. Then we met up with the experienced group for a photo-opp, and Steph gave me the piece of advice that transformed the experience. Putting some of my weight on the stirrups and bouncing up and down with the horse meant that it no longer felt like the horse was trying to cripple me or throw me off or both.

By the return leg I was feeling sufficiently comfortable to ride one-handed, even while trotting (glossing over the fact that we'd been told not to do that). I decided to try some 360-degree video.

You're supposed to use a selfie-stick, which I wasn't able to take on the horse, but hand-holding it above my head worked ok apart from the weird giant split hand in the shot.

Our guide quickly came over to very politely tell me off, and to suggest it would be better if she held the camera, so we swapped.

The ride lasted about 90 minutes. I wouldn't say that I actively enjoyed the experience, or could get the appeal, but I did feel comfortable by the end. Given how much Steph likes riding, it's something I'd do again with her on another holiday.

We got our last look at the whiter parts of the landscape on the minibus ride back.

All that remained to complete the trip was some local cuisine. Given the crazy prices, we'd mainly been self-catering, but went out to dinner for the final evening. I searched for a tasting menu and found one with the two key dishes I wanted to try: puffin and whale.

Rather bizarrely, it was a Spanish-run restaurant, and could probably describe itself as Icelandic-Spanish fusion, but we decided not to teach them the phrase as that would probably double the already pricy meal. It was delicious! And in larger portions than the 'tasting menu' label would usually imply.

To start, an Icelandic shot that was kind of Ouzo-like.

Followed by smoked puffin with a blueberry sauce – very nice!

Arctic charr with salsa.

Lobster tails baked in garlic.

Whale – which was the highlight. Very beef-like. Served with cranberry sauce, a combination which worked very well.

Lamb with beer & butterscotch sauce. The lamb was lovely. The beer worked better than the butterscotch.

Blue ling with lobster sauce, served with asparagus – also very nice.

Finally, white chocolate mousse with passion-coutis – wonderful.

Then a very early night before our return home. We got upgraded to premium economy, which rather suprisingly includes access to Icelandair's business class lounge.

Steph seemed to find it comfy.

A pleasant flight home, and the end of a most excellent adventure.