By Tony Tedeschi
Note to Self: When planning to check off a Bucket List entry, vulnerable to weather conditions, have a backup plan.
Case in Point: Aurora Borealis in Iceland, midwinter.
“The ice caves look really dramatic,” Candy offers. “Let’s plan on seeing those, too.”
More often than not, my wife has the best suggestions.
We’d made a two-day stopover in Iceland during the summer, coming back from Europe. We toured waterfalls, a glacier lagoon, black-sand beaches. We had a late dinner, the night before our return flight, left the restaurant near midnight and wandered out into sunshine, where people were sitting at tables, having after-dinner drinks . . . or was it before-dinner cocktails? Impossible to tell.
There was a uniqueness to just about all we’d seen those two days. We loved all of it. We were determined to return. The flipside of Iceland’s geographical positioning, many hours in midwinter darkness, seemed like a natural for the aurora.
Having flown Icelandair’s Saga Class on that European trip, for considerably less then we would have paid for business class on other carriers, we did likewise this time. The experience was exemplary – spanking clean aircraft, courteous ground staff, on-time departures, top service from flight attendants wearing variations of those classic uniforms of yore, even delicious meal service. (Imagine that!) Icelandair is now our preferred carrier anywhere the airline flies, even with connections in the capital of Reykjavik versus a nonstop on another airline.
Iceland’s Temperatures Warmer than Home
For a week before leaving, we checked the weather in Iceland and were surprised by temperatures consistently 5-10 degrees warmer than our home on Long Island. It was also consistently wetter, therefore not promising for aurora sightings.
When we landed at Keflavík Airport, a little after 6 a.m., the weather wasn’t looking any more promising, although difficult to tell in the morning blackness. As our driver headed east for the two-hour trip to the Hotel Rangá, I was beginning to wonder what, if anything, of our outdoor adventures would be possible. Things began to look up, however, with the sunrise: the sun, hanging low on the horizon, presenting an array of colors from blood red, through every shade of orange, to a deep rich yellow.
“We have really beautiful sunrises in winter,” our driver said, when I marveled at what I was seeing.
Accommodations at the Rangá were worthy of the hotel’s four-star rating, our room, nicely appointed with a beautiful view of the East Rangá River. There are sitting rooms on both the hotel’s two levels, the upper with wonderful views. The bar offered wines by the glass and a wide selection of spirits.
The real attraction, however is the restaurant. Whether seafood such as pan-fried arctic char with langoustine, fennel, celery root purée and apple demi-glace; or pan-fried fillet of lamb with mustard potato cake, carrot purée, kale, spring onion and brown cheese demi-glace; you’ll have trouble remembering when you’d had either entrée prepared better.
Fermented Shark and Schnapps
Enjoying an after-dinner drink at the bar, we were joined by one of the talented chefs corps, when I remarked about trying the Icelandic version of schnapps: Brennivín. The chef informed me that you drink Brennivín with a small bite of shark, cured with a fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months. That removes the poisons he said, and would I like to try it?
Once you’ve been challenged like this, you can’t weenie out. Suffice to say, a rubbery cube of ultra-fishy seafood, with an ammonia finish shooting up your nostrils, demands the shot of Brennivín as a conclusion.
The Night Does Not Oblige
The hotel offers a wakeup service in the event the aurora appears. Alas, the night did not oblige.
In the darkness of a rainy, windswept morning, we headed for the front desk expecting to hear our ice cave trip had been canceled. Instead, there stood Bessi Theodórsson of Katlatrack Tours insisting that we make the attempt.
So off we went to the town of Vik, where he exchanged his van for a “super jeep” that looked like it could make it through a war zone. After an hour along a highway east toward the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, Bessi left the main road and headed across an expansive flatland, covered in snow and slush.
A dozen times, the bulbous tires of the super jeep pushed enough snow before it to force backing up then plowing through. Once, Bessi had to get out and shovel. Each obstacle seemed to increase his determination to get us to an ice cave he said would be amazing. Each time we had to stop, I got out and gloried in the brightening sky, its shafts of sunlight, illuminating the whiteness all around us, nature’s version of Photoshop.
I Would Have Given Two Of My Toes To Be Here
When we could drive no further, Bessi pointed out the entrance to the cave across two streams and ponding water. “We are going to get wet,” he explained. “You guys up for it?”
You don’t come this far and turn back. Wet we got: slushy, ice-cold water, up to the knees, into my boots, soaking three layers of clothing. Twice Bessi carried Candy on his back across deeper streams. At the cave entrance, he said there was solid ground inside. He carried Candy through mid-thigh water. I followed cautiously. This better be worth it, I thought.
Flat light filtered through the thin clouds above this dome-less cathedral, shimmering off the ice-covered walls, creating a not-of-this-world majesty. I would have given two of my frozen toes to be here. After decades of writing and photographing travel, I can’t think of anything I’ve experienced that topped this.
As for the walk back: been there, knew I could do this. The ride to the highway was easy along the path we’d plowed on the way in.
Back at the Rangá, Bessi approached to say good-bye, I palmed a healthy tip into my handshake. He looked at the wad of bills and said, “No, sir, you don’t need to do this.”
“You carried my wife across icy streams,” I replied. “You single-handedly created one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. Yes, sir, I do need to do this.”
I’ve been to countries where they inform that tipping is optional, yet you sense those who wait on you expect it. Time and again in Iceland I heard “It’s not necessary.” They meant it. That made all the more reason I was happy to do it.
Drying out at lunch back in Vik, our attention became riveted through the window on the play of orange light in the fading day, over the craggy outcroppings just beyond the breakers rolling toward the black sands at Reynisfjara Beach. You just can’t put down your camera in this country.
On the flight home, we were already planning our return. There are many more ice caves to see. Maybe there’ll just be a succession of unsuccessful attempts at the aurora. I’m O.K. with that.
IF YOU GO:
Icelandair (800) 223-5500 www.icelandair.us
Katlatrack Adventure Tours (354) 849-4404 www.katlatrack.is
Hotel Rangá (354) 487-5700 www.hotelranga.is