“I’m dreaming with my eyes open!”
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula always seems to enjoy more media coverage than the rest of Iceland. In fact, as far back as 1864 when Jules Verne wrote Journey to The Centre of the Earth, Snaefellsnes has been a traveller’s dream spot.
The protagonist in the book exclaimed, “I’m dreaming with my eyes open!” as he travelled the shores of this volcanic peninsula. This is a quote I often recite to my customers when I’m in a particularly cheesy mood. More recently, Snaefellsnes also became the setting for Game of Thrones and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It would seem that this small rocky outcrop on the western side of Iceland has plenty of inspiration left to give.
So, this month’s more personal post will revolve around what some refer to as Little Iceland – the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. An easily accessible part of Iceland that seems to include everything the rest of the country has, but in close proximity. That could be a dormant volcano, a moving glacier, moss covered lava fields, broken sea cliffs, sleepy fishing villages or black sand beaches.
Coincidentally, I’m also going to share with you the story of the best northern lights I’ve ever seen!
Snaefellsnes Under the Northern Lights
This story begins in the middle of an Icelandic winter. Long nights and snowy mountains create the setting. We had planned a two day excursion to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. With wide open spaces and no unnatural light to speak of it was the perfect place to hunt for the Northern Lights overnight.
It really did feel like the sky was on fire!
This particular day had perfect weather! Cold, but dry. Snowy, but not icy. And not a cloud in the sky! A rare occurrence in an Icelandic winter. I was taking a group of friends who were visiting around this lesser travelled part of Iceland for the weekend. Two days, one night only. Just enough time to fit in everything I wanted to show them.
We left Reykjavik before dawn, an easy task in the limited daylight hours of winter, and travelled north. As we got closer to the peninsula I regaled my friends with stories of the original viking settlers and how some of the oldest settlements in Iceland were around this area. By the time we reached the peninsula, a 50 mile long landmass that juts out from the mainland, the sun was beginning to rise.
Luckily, in an Icelandic winter, the sun barely reaches much higher than the horizon itself, allowing the normally fleeting golden hour to last the entire day. Winter in Iceland is a photographer’s dream and an adventurer’s playground.
Our progress around the sea cliffs and the snow covered lava fields in Snaefellsnes was admittedly slow, but intentionally so. The winding roads, pyramid shaped mountain tops, and glacier scarred valleys meant the drive was as breathtaking as any stop we would make. If we still lived in the times of camera spools we would have surely run out in the first hour. Thoughts of Jules Verne and his research in this empty landscape, 200 years prior, often popped into my head as we drove on well maintained roads, in built-for-purpose vehicles. Our two day tour would have undoubtedly lasted weeks for him, if not longer. Plenty of time to be inspired at the very least.
Throughout the day we took our time to walk along the black sand beach of Djúpalónssandur, drive around the base of the Snæfellsjökull volcano, peer into the Saxhóll volcanic crater, carefully inspect the centuries-old jagged lava fields, stagger along the broken sea cliffs at Arnarstapi, and eventually gaze up at the famous arrow shaped mountain of Kirkjufell. Mix in the golden light of a low-lying sun with the freshly fallen snow and this was as close as you could get to a perfect day. My friends and I didn’t have a care in the world. The peaceful landscape let us fill our minds with peace, and voice fantasies of retiring here one day. As the sun escaped us, we made our way to our accommodation for the night.
Under the Northern Lights sky
That night, we based ourselves in a cosy little guest house on the northern 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 towards the nearby lighthouse along the shore. There, we simply waited. It was cold, but manageable. Especially with my secret flask of emergency hot chocolate and our multiple fluffy layers to rescue us.
The distraction of the piercing stars, unencumbered by any unnatural light, kept us occupied as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Admittedly, I threw in some ‘fun facts’ to keep spirits high too. For example, did you know that it takes over 2 days for solar winds to reach Earth’s atmosphere from the Sun. This is the stuff that makes Northern Lights possible.
But before we knew it, the sky began to change.
At first glance all we saw was a faint greenish white arch in the sky. It was gone in a matter of seconds causing some in the group to exclaim, “was that it?”. Sadly, sometimes that’s the best you can hope for on your Northern Lights hunt, but NOT that night! Not for us. Lady luck was on our side. I personally already knew that the sun had been sending fast flowing particles towards the earth for the past 2 days so I was very hopeful 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 entire sky began to change again. But this time, instead of a faint streak, we were treated to a dance! A dance made of colour. The best way to describe it is if you try to imagine a set of curtains being blown rhythmically by an open window in the summer breeze. Hopefully, that will give you an understanding of what we saw that night.
The darkness of the night had temporarily disappeared. We were mesmerised! The greens, pinks, reds, yellows and purples raced from the horizon over our heads, causing us to stumble as we tried to track the movement in the sky. Just as our balance failed us, the whole process began back on the horizon. Wave after wave of colour shone bright in front of us.
The group eventually joined together in a joint embrace. Partially to stave off the cold, but mainly as a sense of appreciation in this shared experience. Gasps remained audible throughout as the minutes turned into hours. Childlike wonderment took over our sensibilities as some of the group playfully jumped up and down on the spot. Each bounce seemed to time each new colour as the aurora flowed from one wavelength to the next.
We must have stayed outside for hours that night. I could have slept there for all the care I had for the cold or the impending dawn. I’ve never seen such beauty since that night. Part of me really doesn’t want to! We walked slowly back to our accommodation in silence. We were tired, but mostly just reflective. As you can imagine, we fell asleep easy that night and dreamt of one thing only.
It would seem that Jules Verne nailed it. We were dreaming with our eyes open that night.
The following day, we woke late to a hearty breakfast and strong coffee. None of us were in any rush to leave this magical place. As we sleepily rolled out of the guest house We decided to skip some of the more adventurous sights. We’d 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 whiled away the hours in the golden light while bathing at the Krauma hot spring in the open air. Similar to the Blue Lagoon, but without the crowds. This second day was admittedly a lazy day, but after a night outside discovering nature’s true beauty, it was well deserved. We made sure to try the geothermally baked bread after petting the local Icelandic horses in the nearby Sturlureykir horse farm. It was then home time.
Shared pictures and shared feelings filled the car on the drive home. A few hours later we returned to the city. Re-entering Reykjavik almost felt surreal that night. At the start of the holiday for my friends they said Reykjavik felt like a small village. But, after discovering the solitude of the last 2 days it somehow felt like a burgeoning metropolis.
The proceedings days were great fun of course, but our conversations inevitably always dragged back to our night in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula under the Northern Lights. One friend, during a moment of silence chirped in with, “it really felt like the sky was on fire that night!”
To say we were irreversibly changed after those 2 days together may be hard to prove. What can definitely be agreed on though, is that every single one of us will remember that night for the rest of our lives.
Thank you, see you next month!
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.