After two lengthy delays, including an unscheduled stop in Newfoundland, our red-eye flight arrived at Keflavík Airport hours later than expected. We untangled our fatigued bodies from the back of a budget airline, but our journey was far from over. We were still three hours away from our hotel on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
On our drive to the hotel, we decided to stop in Reykjavík for lunch. Iceland’s capital city is known for some unusual food, including horse meat, whale meat, and rotten shark, none of which sounded appetizing. Instead, we found a highly-rated food truck and ordered fish and chips, thinking it was the safest of bets. Boy, were we wrong. The fish was putrid – it tasted as bad as rotten shark sounds.
Needless to say, our four-day trip to Iceland was off to a rough start. We were tired, hungry, and cold, and we wondered – to ourselves, if not out loud – how we got to this remote island in the North Atlantic. Luckily, our fortunes were about to improve.
Cliffs, Waterfalls, and Black Sand Beaches
After a three-hour drive from the airport, we arrived in Arnarstapi – a small fishing village on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The town sits at the base of Snæfellsjökull, one of Iceland’s many glacier-capped stratovolcanoes, and its dramatic cliffs create endless opportunities for landscape photographers. At the end of a long day of travel, I desperately wanted to go to sleep, but I decided that I should put on my winter coat – in August – and take a few photos instead.
By the time I returned from the cliffs, it was after 9pm, and two of the town’s three restaurants had closed for the evening. This left us with one rather ironic choice for dinner: fish and chips. Despite our internal protestations – fueled by our experience at lunch – the fish was pretty good. In fact, it was not only palatable, but half-way decent. There was hope for Iceland’s food scene, after all.
The next day we drove to Vik, a town on Iceland’s southern coast. Along the four and a half hour drive, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, one of the country’s most-famous – and most-photographed – waterfalls. Next, we visited the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey. The natural contrast between the black sand and the white water were ideal for photography and resulted in “Bird Watching.”
As an aside, South Iceland has a bit of a bird problem in August and September. Northern Fulmar “chicks,” which are the size of adult gulls, have difficulty flying since their feathers aren’t fully developed. In a futile attempt to get to the sea, many of these birds mistake the roads in South Iceland for rivers. Sadly, this creates one gruesome seen after another, as the confused birds are unable to fly away from oncoming traffic. In some stretches of highway, we probably saw one dead bird every kilometer or so.
Chasing the Aurora
On our drive to Höfn the next day, we received an unexpected surprise. Forecasters were predicting high geomagnetic activity for the next two days. In addition, the lingering clouds were expected to clear around midnight, creating ideal conditions to view – and hopefully photograph – the aurora. As a result, we reconfigured our day around the aurora. We hiked up to the Svartifoss waterfall, and we spent some time at Diamond Beach, but we decided to head to our hotel early.
Prior to the aurora show, we went out to dinner in Höfn, the langoustine capital of Iceland. Though I was still skeptical about Icelandic seafood, I ordered a plate full of locally-caught langoustines smothered in a cream sauce. This meal – more than any other – permanently changed my view of Icelandic cuisine. The langoustines were delicious. (The next day we had lunch in Höfn, which was probably our best meal of the trip. I ordered a piece of rainbow trout that was so big that it looked like a salmon filet. In other words, if you’re hungry in Iceland, drive to Höfn.)
When we got back to the hotel, I sat in the lobby to catch up on the day’s news. About 30 minutes later, I saw a photographer dart through the lobby with his camera. I knew why he was running: he had seen the aurora. Following suit, I sprinted back to my hotel room to grab my camera and my car keys.
We hopped in our rental car and drove around Southeast Iceland, searching for interesting compositions. First, we stopped at an eerie meadow that presented more challenges than opportunities, particularly with a new moon in the sky. Next, we drove to Vestrahorn, one of Iceland’s most-photographed mountains. The conditions at Vestrahorn were nearly perfect, apart from the fact that the aurora seemed to be everywhere but over the mountain. Nevertheless, it was an amazing night and by far the best aurora display I’ve ever seen.
On the fourth and final day of our trip, we started to make our way back to Reykjavík. There was still so much that we wanted to see and do before we left, including a trip to a geothermal spa and a meal at a gas station. But we knew when we arrived that it would be impossible to see an entire country in four days. Rather than try to do it all, we structured our day around another aurora show.
Based on my experience the previous night, I came up with a totally original plan, or so I thought: we’d head to Skógafoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, at midnight to shoot the aurora. When we arrived, the conditions were perfect. But, as I walked up to the waterfall, I noticed that we weren’t alone. There were probably 30 other photographers shooting the waterfall. So much for my original idea! I chuckled out loud, in large part because we probably hadn’t seen 30 other people the rest of the day. As I watched the aurora dance above the waterfall, I slowly forgot that anyone else was there.
In a way, it’s part of what makes Iceland so special. You can go hours without seeing anyone and then find yourself in a throng of tourists. You can have one of the worst meals of your life and then days later have an absolutely unforgettable meal. And, you can feel like you are in the middle of nowhere one moment and forget that anywhere else exists the next.