Trip Tips: Iceland's Lights require patience, warm clothes

REYKJAVIK - It is nearly midnight in late November and an anorak-clad crowd several hundred strong is stamping its feet in a field of tussocky grass in the north of Iceland, scanning the horizon and hoping for a break in the cloud.

A chance of seeing the Northern Lights has drawn busloads of increasingly cold onlookers to this remote spot, but the heavenly illuminations are so far living up to their elusive reputation, even when the clouds briefly part to reveal a starry display.

Our guide, though, is getting increasingly animated, gesturing northwards and insisting that almost imperceptibly faint glows are manifestations of our quarry.

The visitors seem unconvinced. "Are you sure that's not the moon reflecting off a cloud?" asks one. "I want some of what she's on," whispers another.

Suddenly, however, the sky clears and it's unmistakable - a glow, dancing left to right, then a streak, quickly fading to be replaced by more activity, glowing brighter then being replaced by more celestial splodges and lines.

As a spectacle this display of the Aurora Borealis is less dramatic than photographs would suggest is common, and less colourful. But it's still intriguing, all the more so because of its ephemeral quality. Certainly the crowd's mood has changed.

"That's really cool", says an American voice nearby.

Our evening had started several hours before, the tour company having decided that two days of cloudy conditions had cleared enough to be worth a try to view the Lights.

The appeal of the escapade, billed as a mystery tour in an admission of its unpredictable outcome, is clear from the number of buses making up our convoy motoring deep into the Icelandic night.

A HIGHLIGHT

Iceland offers plenty other attractions, from the geothermally heated Blue Lagoon to the Strokkur geyser reliably spitting a plume of steam several metres (yards) into the air every few minutes.

Good hotels are plentiful, from international chains to more boutique establishments like the Holt a few minutes' walk from the city centre. There's lots of choice in restaurants, too.

Offshore, whales can be seen.

But the appeal of the Lights probably outranks them all.

Our guide admits seeing them requires patience, describing their origin in the interaction of solar emissions and the earth's gravitational field, as well as reciting folklore about dead souls and the like.

As we watch the evening's first display lose impetus we drift back to the bus, but our guide becomes insistent again, ordering us back out to watch a more impressive exhibition, culminating in a series of streaks reaching from the horizon to just above our heads.

Our guide is making sure we all saw, perhaps because our pricey tickets remain valid for as long as we haven't been sufficiently entertained by what she designates a "legal" display.

Another lull prompts a return to the bus and the two-hour drive back to Reykjavik. As we leave I glance back and can just make out the Lights, performing on without us.

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