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Iceland

Iceland's Nothern Lights

The evenings are drawing in, the heating’s switched to ‘Max’ and our thoughts are turning to hibernation. But before you close the curtains on another UK winter, make a dash for the light by checking out nature’s very own spectacular illuminations – the northern lights.

This pyrotechnic display in the sky is caused by high-energy electrons colliding with oxygen atoms and nitrogen molecules in the thermosphere and is at its most intense around the Earth’s magnetic poles. Otherwise known as the aurora borealis (from Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek name for the north wind), it has its counterpart in the southern hemisphere, the aurora australis. The colours of the auras are caused by different chemical reactions and atmospheric conditions, with green the most common, through combinations of pink, red and yellow to pure blue. The Inuits believe the lights are the spirits of the dead, while polar explorers through the ages have feared them as bad omens or a sign of God’s anger. Even now, scientists cannot fully explain the process that causes the spectacular swirling movement known as the auroral substorm.

The northern lights are visible from countries as far afield as Canada and Greenland, but there’s no need to travel to such extremities to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary natural phenomenon. Nature can be fickle, though, and whether or not you get to see the show depends largely on luck. You might have to wait a very long time to witness a rare display in Scotland’s remote highlands and islands, but northern Scandinavia has a high probability of a display on most cloud-free nights between October and March. The lights are currently in the middle of the liveliest phase of their 11-year cycle, so it’s a good time to take your chances.

Iceland is the perfect destination to combine light watching with a refreshing short break in the lead-up to Christmas, with a great choice of cheap flights to Reykjavik from the UK. For the best viewing opportunities, head out into the countryside around a half-hour’s drive from the capital, where a number of boutique hotels offer special light-watching facilities including naturally heated geothermal pools, luxurious hot tubs and a wake-up service, so you won’t miss any of the action. Alternatively, if you prefer to stay in Reykjavik, you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the lights from Thingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament was founded over 1000 years ago.

As well as light-chasing, make time to explore Reykjavik – one of the cleanest, greenest capitals in the world, where the living is easy, the shopping is to die for and culture oozes from every brick. Be sure not to miss the legendary Friday night runtur – Icelandic for ‘massive pub crawl’ – and stave off your hangover with a mustard and ketchup-laden hot dog, Iceland’s favourite snack, from Baejarins Betzu van near the harbour, which numbers Bill Clinton among its famous fans!

 

 

 

 

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