Iceland: Northern Lights and other highlights from the land of fire and ice

Buoyed by a delicious seafood buffet – imagine steamed salmon and satay-coated cod, Atlantic blue mussels and octopus ceviche – our group meanders to the quaint old fishing harbour of Reykjavik for what promises to be an illuminating evening. It's the first night of our Magical Northern Lights tour with Collette and we're hoping to see the aurora borealis doing a merry dance through the starry Icelandic skies.

To boost our chances, we'll leave the bright lights of the capital city for the serene, dark waters of Faxa Bay, an inlet of the North Atlantic Ocean that's speckled with little islands and criss-crossed by squawking seabirds. It's toasty inside our three-tiered sightseeing vessel, especially by the coffee-scented bar area, but out on the gently-rocking top deck, where we'll get the best views, it's about -1C, about par for a January evening in Reykjavik.

Clad in red Nordic-style coastguard overalls that the crew has lent us, we're a bundle of nervous energy as we buzz out to sea, twiddling thumbs, rubbing hands together, checking camera settings, bobbing up and down to thwart the chill and eagerly scanning the sky for glimmers of aurora activity. For now, it's the star constellations that catch the eye, with Orion's Belt particularly twinkly. This boat is also used for whale-watching expeditions, so is accustomed to waiting games (and frustrated and impatient passengers), and after a fruitless, frigid first hour of aurora-hunting, I overhear one crew member telling an American tourist that if he could flick a switch so that the lights would appear, he would happily do so. Alas, it's not that simple. Even if you visit Iceland – or other Arctic-hugging countries such as Russia or Finland, Norway or Canada – in the peak aurora viewing season (September-March), there are no guarantees.

While the ancient Vikings who settled Iceland associated the aurora with war and childbirth, the lights in fact only occur when electrically charged particles released from the sun enter the earth's atmosphere and collide with gases like oxygen and nitrogen. Aurora viewing depends on all sorts of variables, from the clarity of the sky (no clouds are a must) to the intensity of the solar winds. But essentially, you just have to be lucky. With our noses threatening to fall off from the cold, the boat's commentator-guide, who's been trying to keep spirits up via the audio speakers, tells us to look up – in the direction of 11 o'clock. Peeking above a mountainous, snow-dappled promontory is a wispy layer of what appears to be greyish cloud. "That's the aurora borealis," she says, sparking a frenzy of squinting eyes and jockeying for photo-taking positions.

The lights are very faint, and glancing at some of my fellow travellers' camera screens, I glimpse a mix of blank images and others sporting a surreal lick of aurora green. Some shots are extremely Insta-worthy and although they bear little resemblance to what we're actually seeing, I'm sure they'll attract plenty of 'likes' online. Camera sensors often pick things up that the naked eye doesn't, and the Northern Lights, we're told, are a prime example of this visual quirk.

The lights gradually become more luminous, morphing into a slightly more prominent arch, but they are, in truth, underwhelming tonight, and I go to bed hopeful that they'll return, more wow-inducing, as we continue our Icelandic travels. Yet I'm also glad that I haven't just come here on the off-chance of catching them. The beauty of this tour is seeing Iceland – a country blessed with extraordinary volcanic landscapes – transformed into a Narnia-esque winter wonderland.

About 11am the following morning, as we venture east of Reykjavik by coach, the sun rises, casting a fuzzy red glow over the snow-carpeted lava fields, ice-clawed mountains, jagged basalt cliffs and majestic frozen lake of Thingvellir National Park. Not just breath-takingly picturesque – you may have seen it in Game of Thrones – this UNESCO World Heritage-listed park offers a glimpse into Iceland's unique geology and cultural heritage. Dubbed the "Land of Ice and Fire", Iceland sits on a geological hot-spot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart – about two centimetres per year – leading to sporadic waves of mind-blowing natural phenomena, from earthquakes to exploding volcanoes.

Thingvellir occupies a rift valley between the plates and was the original location of the Althing, said to be the world's first parliament, founded here in AD930. There's no sign of it now – parliament moved to Reykjavik more than 200 years ago – but there are some charming historic sights to peruse against a backdrop of frosty meadows, including a cute medieval wooden church (rebuilt in the mid-19th century), and the summer residence of Iceland's prime minister; also the office of the park ranger/local pastor. Thingvellir is our first stop on the Golden Circle, a 300km loop that also has thrilling pit stops by explosive geysers, stinky sulphurous mudpools and Gulfoss, a mighty double waterfall that's dripping with giant icicles as we gawp down at it from a slippery boardwalk.

While most tourists "do" the Golden Circle on side trips from Reykjavik, we drive on to the Ring Road, a 1332km route that runs around Iceland, and just after sunset (4pm), we arrive in Vik, a tiny south-coast village. Our home for the next three nights is Hotel Katla Hofdabrekka, a family-run farm-cum-countryside hideaway with a Nordic-chic new annex that could have been plucked out of an IKEA catalogue. As well as serving us Icelandic delicacies, such as herb-infused lamb and hakarl (fermented shark meat), the hotel provides cosy refuge from a few treacherous blizzards and when the weather calms down, it's a springboard for some memorable day trips.

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We shuffle within splashing distance of two more spectacular half-frozen waterfalls, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss; we gaze at the ice-drenched Eyjafjallajökull (which famously blew its top in 2010, causing a monster ash cloud, but looks incredibly calm right now), and we wander on the eerie black sands of Reynisfjara, an Atlantic-lashed beach that belongs in a sci-fi movie. Beside its cave-riddled cliffs are towering hexagonal basalt columns that were formed by cooling lava and are similar to those at Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway.

Another tour highlight is the Skogar Museum, which traces Iceland's evolution from poor, remote Viking outpost to affluent Nordic island nation. The brainchild of Thordur Tomasson, who curated the museum from its inception in 1949 until his retirement in 2013, it displays hundreds of exhibits, including an antique timber fishing boat, folksy costumes, high-tech snowmobiles and rustic turf houses (grass-topped farmhouses that used to house many Icelandic families).

On our journeys, tour manager Chuck Tracy keeps us entertained with engaging stories, from tales of Huldufólk (mischievous elves that half the Icelandic population are said to believe in) to the latest political shenanigans. Led by female prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Iceland recently became the first country in the world to vote for mandatory equal pay between the sexes.

Despite his endeavour, there's one thing Chuck can't conjure for us: the Northern Lights. Iceland's meteorological office provides aurora forecasts on a scale of possibility that ranges from zero to nine. Unfortunately for us, most nights, the ranking is zero, the skies stubbornly overcast. The closest slice of celestial magic we witness is a stunning rainbow as we bathe in the 40C waters of the Blue Lagoon – a fancy outdoor geothermal spa that sits amid mossy lava fields, a 40-minute drive from Reykjavik.

Although our dreams of seeing the Northern Lights for real have faded, before we leave Iceland, we console ourselves with a visit to Aurora Reykjavik. Situated near the old harbour, it's one of the capital's most enchanting indoor attractions, exploring the mythology and science of the Northern Lights and showcasing photographs and video footage of the aurora captured over Iceland's most dramatic scenery. Huddled together in a snug little cinema, watching the green lights flicker over iceberg-dotted lagoons and snow-cloaked peaks, to a soundtrack of soothing instrumental music, I feel contrasting emotions: disappointment and envy that we didn't experience this "in the flesh"; awe at Iceland's beauty, and a strange optimism that, on our next trip, we'll win the aurora lottery – (half-frozen) fingers crossed, anyway.

Steve McKenna travelled as a guest of Collette.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/iceland

inspiredbyiceland.com

FLY

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Keflavik (near Reykjavik) via Singapore and London.

TOUR

Collette runs Iceland tours throughout the year, with its seven-day Magical Northern Lights adventure available on several dates between September and March, priced from $2259. See gocollette.com/en-AU

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