Solo explorations in the land of fire and ice, chasing the Northern Lights, and finding something unexpected.
“Why would you want to go to Iceland?”
Friends and family members asked me this question again and again as I started planning my next vacation. It was December. Who leaves cold, dark, winter in Cleveland, Ohio to go to an even colder, darker, wintery-er place? It was a fair question.
But Iceland had captured my attention. It was the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights that first attracted me to this frozen island. Darkness blankets the country for nearly 20 hours a day in the winter - prime viewing conditions for a spectacular nighttime light show. Once I started thinking about Iceland, I couldn’t stop. It’s unlike anywhere else on Earth, covered in snow-topped volcanoes and mountains, peppered with icy waterfalls and black sand beaches. Who wouldn’t want to go there? I was beginning to dream about this beautiful place.
By the end of December, I booked my trip. Because everyone thought I was crazy to visit Iceland during the winter, I planned to take the trip by myself. It had been quite a while since I traveled solo, but I was okay with it, maybe even looking forward to it. I would swim in the rejuvenating hot springs, ride an Icelandic horse across snow-covered valleys, and finally witness the magic of the Northern Lights.
There was a flicker of fear on my mind as I arrived in Reykjavík. A fear of the unknown, of the all alone. But it was an exciting fear. I was motivated by curiosity and eager to explore. I had fuzzy memories of learning basic Icelandic phrases on YouTube, a vague idea of the seven-to-one exchange rate, and an offline map on my iPhone. I waved a temporary farewell to my comfort zone.
I set off to explore and quickly found myself doing things I wouldn’t normally do at home. I took leisurely walks and made unplanned stops when something caught my eye. I learned the history of the ground I stood on. I watched the locals scurrying around town. They live in this fascinating snow-globe world every day. They smile & laugh. They don’t seem much different than me.
Reykjavík is a charmingly beautiful city, perhaps even more so in winter. The sun rises in the late-morning hours, reflecting a kaleidoscope of colors in the mirrored windows of the city’s music hall, Harpa. It never fully comes up during those short winter days, but instead casts a rosy hue across the sky as late morning fades into early afternoon. This provides the perfect opportunity for a stroll around the town’s main street, Laugavegur, while popping into quirky coffee houses, local galleries, and curious antique shops. Early afternoon is the ideal time to take in the storybook scene of colorful rooftops dotting the snow-capped Esja mountain backdrop and forever ocean from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church belltower. By mid-afternoon, the sun slinks down through candy-colored, dreamy skies for another long night’s sleep.
On my second night in Reykjavík, I decided to venture downtown to a bar that had caught my eye. KEX is THE place to be on Tuesday nights. They host live jazz music and the locals love it. So I layered up, hopped on the bus, and watched the snowy scenery pass by. My stop should have been coming up soon, except it didn’t. (It’s quite possible I misread the route. The Icelandic language is complex with unique letters and long names for streets that can look very similar to each other. Or at least that’s my excuse.) After a few stops, it became clear we were moving farther and farther away from town. I had two options – ride out the entire route until it circled back around or get off the bus as soon as possible. I chose the second option.
Once off the bus, I realized I was close to the National Museum of Iceland that I tried to visit the previous day. It took me longer than I care to admit to figure out how to operate the seamless glass door to the main entrance, only to find out it was closed on Mondays. (Avoiding embarrassment in front of friends and family is a huge perk of solo travel.) But my misfortune at the museum wasn’t completely fruitless since it gave me my bearings that night. I knew I had to head north, towards the harbor, so I pulled up my compass app and let it guide the way. Soon, the tiny shops and restaurants started to look familiar as I made my way into town.
After about 30 minutes of determined walking, I arrived at KEX. However, I couldn’t seem to find the door. I was standing at what appeared to be the front of the bar, but there wasn’t a handle on what looked like the front door. Why can’t I seem to operate doors in Iceland? I decided to walk around the block to see if there was another entrance. If not, I was ready to call it a night after so much trial and (mostly) error in finding this place. Finally, a stroke of luck - I found a small patio with a few people hanging out by the door. There wasn’t a name on the door, but I knew this had to be it. I could feel the energy of a crowd inside.
The bar was packed. I walked around looking for an empty seat, weaving through the crowds. I noticed one lone seat at the bar, but there was a half-empty glass in front of it and a guy at the next seat with an equally half-empty glass. I figured his girlfriend must’ve gone to the bathroom and would be back soon. I did another lap around the bar, checker-boarding my way through jolly drunkards and happy people and, again, I came back around to that same empty barstool. I was surprised to see it was still vacant. The band had already begun to play. I asked the guy at the bar if the seat was taken. Turns out, it was available after all.
I sat down, wiggled out of my coat, and settled in for my first night out at an Icelandic bar. I was excited to relax with a beer and check out the Icelandic music scene. I looked around for a menu and saw two choices - the Icelandic menu in front of me or the English menu on the other side of the guy sitting next to me. Once again, I had to bug the poor guy for a favor. Shouting over the band, I asked him to please pass me the menu.
“No problem, of course,” he replied in perfect English with a smile and a thick Icelandic accent.
“Thanks again. I wasn’t gonna get very far with this one." I smiled back, pointing at the Icelandic menu.
I took a quick look and spotted my drink of choice - a Viking beer. This was Iceland, after all. I placed my order and the bartender brought over a strange handheld payment contraption. The guy next to me smiled at my bewilderment and told me that in Iceland, the customer never has to hand over their credit card as he showed me how to operate the device. We started chatting. He asked where I was from. He told me his name was Thor. I figured I must not have heard him correctly over the loud music. But he confirmed that yes, his name was indeed Thor.
We talked for hours. It’s odd how talking to someone from another place can seem so strange, yet so familiar. We covered the usual topics – work, home, family - but it was different this time. It was interesting, refreshing. We made each other laugh. He told me how he loves running and we compared Christmas traditions. We talked about music and traveling, Iceland and America. I told him about my bus troubles and how I almost didn’t find the bar that night. He laughed. He nudged my arm and smiled when the next Icelandic song came on and said jokingly, “this one’s your favorite, right?” We laughed some more.
Eventually it was getting late and I told him I would have to catch the last bus back to my hotel soon. Without hesitation, he said, “I’ll drive you to your hotel."
I thanked him kindly but I would be taking the bus. There was no way I was getting in a car with someone I just met at a bar. We chatted a bit longer and, again, he offered to drive me back to my hotel.
“How do I know you’re not a serial killer?” I asked.
He assured me, “this is Iceland, there are no serial killers here."
He had a point. Iceland was, and is, the safest country in the world. I decided, eh, what’s the worst that could happen? My new friend Thor seemed trustworthy. He was also nice, charming, attractive…
So off we went. Right through the mysterious front door that I couldn’t seem to operate earlier. I told him about my door troubles and he laughed at my never-ending confusion about everyday things in Iceland. We jumped into his red Toyota sedan and drove along the waterfront, past all the beautiful places I’d visited earlier. Before I knew it, we were in front of my hotel, no serial killing to speak of.
We had a fun night together and he seemed like a wonderful guy, a one-in-a-million kinda guy. Sure, it would’ve been nice to see him again, but I figured I was only in Iceland for a few more days, how would that work? Plus, he couldn’t possibly be interested in seeing the girl-who-couldn’t-figure-out-how-to-open-Icelandic-doors again. So that was it. I thanked him for the lift, said goodnight, and hopped out of the car.
A few days went by. I toured the Golden Circle where I stood in awe at the massive, ice-covered Gullfoss waterfall, witnessed the power of the erupting Geysir, and walked across the tectonic plates where Europe meets North America in Þingvellir National Park. I rode an Icelandic horse across snowy lava fields, and swam in the warm, silky waters of the Blue Lagoon. I spent my remaining nights chasing the Northern Lights. With great disappointment, I did not catch them. I even slept with my curtains wide open just in case they decided to show themselves while I drifted off to sleep.
Even without a nighttime light show, Iceland had captivated me. I was falling in love with this frozen wonderland.
Through all of those amazing experiences, in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but think of Thor and wonder, what if?
What if I had asked him if he'd like to meet again? What if he had said yes? What if?...
It was my last night in Iceland. I had to be up at 5 AM for my flight home, but I couldn’t sleep. Midnight came and went. I started thinking, what if I could find him? The internet can be quite helpful in these situations. Maybe he’s on Tinder. I was curious to check out Tinder in another country anyhow. I fired up the app. Large bearded man holding a fish - swipe left, tall skinny man holding a fish - swipe left. Left, left, LEFT. Wait. Hold on. What’s this? It looked like him - tall, athletic, nice smile - but there wasn’t enough information in his profile to know for sure. I figured, eh, what the heck, and swiped right - just in case. Finally, drowsiness set in after all of that exhausting swiping.
The morning came and went quickly as the journey home passed by in a dreamy blur. Returning home always feels a little sad to me, like traveler’s withdrawal. So much excitement only days before, but inevitably, the time always comes to say goodbye. As it so often goes, it felt like I had only just arrived.
It was still morning when I landed at JFK for a quick layover. I shook off the post-flight haze, shuffled through the crowds, and switched my phone off airplane mode. Ding, ding, ding. My sleepy little iPhone sprung to life, alerting me with notifications from Tinder, Facebook, Messenger - all the ways people connect in today’s world. He had found me. “I wanted to see you again,” his message read, “but you ran off so fast. How are you?”
He told me how he called the hotel to find me the day after we met, hoping we could meet again over coffee. He couldn’t remember my name, due to the loud music playing in the background that made it hard for him to hear my name in the first place, so he described me to the hotel receptionist. He drove down the main streets of Reykjavík looking for me. He considered waiting for me in the hotel lobby, but decided that would be one step too far. It wasn’t until he saw me on Tinder that he finally had my name. He called the hotel once more and, this time, asked for me by name. They told him I had just left for the airport.
His story was surreal. I couldn’t believe he was searching for me, and with such persistence. It felt like a plot from a rom-com, too ridiculous to ever happen in real life. In the movie version, he would jump on an Icelandic horse, race across the countryside, and arrive at the airport mere moments before my flight left. He would run towards the security checkpoint, calling out my name. I would be at the front of the line, fumbling around for my passport, when I would look up and see him rushing towards me. I would run past everyone in line as they watched the drama unfold and finally meet him again face-to-face where we would, at last, have a magical first kiss.
Of course, real life is not a romantic comedy.
The physical distance between us was 2,600 miles. But in that moment, I was back in Iceland. Back in the place I already had a heavy heart for. I may not have found the magic of the Northern Lights in Iceland, but I found something much better. We chatted all the way through JFK, on the shuttle bus, across the jet way, onto the plane, up until the inevitable announcement that all devices must be turned to airplane mode. But we would chat again. Often. We would have that cup of coffee. Many cups of coffee. We would travel together. And I would return to Iceland for more adventures.
Iceland planning resources:
Check out my favorite planning resource: Lonely Planet Iceland.
Another great source for everything-Iceland: The Official Gateway to Iceland.
Scope out the Reykjavík Grapevine for local events and stories.
It's not a bad idea to have this Northern Lights guide and tracker bookmarked.
Of course, I recommend grabbing a beer at KEX hostel & bar.
Until next time, happy travels!
Author’s note: I originally wrote this story in 2016 when flying from Cleveland to Iceland required a layover. Today, flights can be booked direct from most major U.S. cities, including Cleveland, to Iceland’s main airport, Keflavík via multiple carriers.