travel

Hunting for the Northern Lights

I have seen some photos of the Northern Lights float on the internet, but the photos usually look super professional. Most people gasp in disbelieve after I showed them my Northern Lights photo from our Iceland Trip, some even said they didn't think it was real. 

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For those of you who didn't read my previous post (its right here), we visited Iceland in February 14 - 19. Yes, yes, I know...this post is super late. But better late than never? 

If you want to photograph the Northern lights, you will need to set your camera to Manual, f/2.8 aperture, start with 1600 ISO then adjust towards lower numbers, anything pass 1600 ISO would start to look grainy, and shutter speed at 30 seconds. Make sure you test out the camera setting before the Northern Lights appear to get the optimal camera setting for your situation, so you don't waste time testing your camera when the lights appear. Northern Lights may disappear quickly, especially if it is windy and/or there are clouds around. You will also need a tripod and a remote for your camera to make sure your photo don't come out blurry. I can't expect myself to hold the camera for 30 seconds and not move at all. Since even 1-2 seconds of movement will blur your image. 

I won't be able to catch the Northern Lights with the lenses I had at the time, and I was debating if I should get a new lens just for the Northern Lights. Sen convinced me to and I am so happy I listened to him! The Northern Lights were amazing, and it would really bum me out if we are not able to catch it on camera. 

I decided on purchasing the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC Ultra Wide Angle Fixed Lens w/Built-in AE Chip for Nikon.  The main reason why is because of the price, $329.00, comparing with the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14 - 24mm f/2.8G ED at $1,897.00. I am currently using a Nikon D3300 Digital SLR I also purchased a water proof camera case to protect my gear from Iceland's unpredictable weather. 

There are a lot of Northern Light Tours in Iceland, but many bloggers recommended to not book a tour and hunt for it yourself, and so we did. The visibility of the Northern Lights varies based on it's activity level, how dark and clear the sky is during the time as well as how much light pollution is around you. I used both of these websites to help with the forecast:

1. Aurora Forecast  - this shows the aurora activity at current time

2. Aurora forecast for Iceland - I used this to tell the cloud activity although it also tells aurora level

Light pollution is strong in Reykjavik, with some exceptions and Grotta Lighthouse is one of them.  The wind was strong when we were there, so visibility was not great, we still went out and waited at the Grotta Lighthouse for two nights for the sky to clear up, in the process, we saw a very faint hint of Northern Lights, but because the activity level was so low, we can't say we actually saw the lights. 

I really didn't want to leave the country without seeing the lights with my own eyes, and the 3-day tour of Southern/South East part of Iceland was our last chance to see them. We stayed at the Selfoss Hostel during the first night and went out once it got dark. We walked over to the end of a street, close to what looked like a lake (it was too dark to tell) and waited. When the activities seemed strong enough according to the forecast sites I mentioned above, we looked everywhere and was not able to see anything. 

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Then I started to play around with my camera and that is when I saw some green on the camera screen, hiding behind the faint clouds. When we looked up again, there it is! Green glowing light in the sky. What we have learned is that it will take your eyes 30 minutes to 1 hour to adjust, and with all the street lights around, faint Northern Light is really hard to spot with un-experienced eyes. We left after the lights faded, went to the supermarket nearby and got some food to snack on. 

The second night, we stayed at a very cute hostel that was owned by the tour company, Nice Travel.  Very remote and is situated right in front of a small waterfall, very cute and beautiful. We didn't plan to get out to see the lights that night because the wind was very strong. However, our neighbors/tour mates came knocking on our door around midnight. "NORTHERN LIGHTS" they screamed. We all went out to see and it was AMAZING! As you can see in the photo, we couldn't help ourselves but to go out and take a photo with the lights. It was so windy that I slipped and fell on the ice (the road was all covered in ice) while being blown away by the wind while I was on all fours. Yes, you can say I risked my life haha! But it was worth it. There was a point the lights started to change color! I saw them in purple! 

I know my photos are not like any of the photos you see online, since they are a little blurry. But I am still very happy that I am able to get it on camera and sharing with you right now. 

For those of you who have not seen it yet, GO! See it for yourself! I know I will want to see them again, at a different destination perhaps. How wonderful this world is, how much more to explore and see is beyond my imagination, and I intend to find out. 

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Our Favorite Things To Do in Reykjavik

Eat and Drink - 

First thing we did in Reykjavik was look for food. I didn't do any research on which restaurants to go since Sen and I love to restaurant and bar hop when we are in a new city, this trip was no exception. Food experience is part of our adventure. However, I asked you for some recommendations on one of my IG posts and you delivered! Thanks to @ix2392, Sen and I tried Puffin, Whale, Horse, and Shark. Thanks to @gradytatefitness we tried Hardfiskur (no photo though). My favorites were Shark, Reindeer and Hardfiskur. 

I must agree that food and drinks in Iceland is pretty expensive. 

Two hacks for alcoholic drinks:

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1. Purchase them at the duty-free store at the airport, it is located on the same floor as the baggage claim. The alcohol there are way cheaper than what you will get anywhere else in the country. 2. go out during Happy Hours where drinks are at 50% off, every restaurants' Happy Hour are a little different, but it almost always surrounds 5PM - 9PM. 

The most economic but tasty item we had during our trip is the Icelandic Hot Dog. We tried a total of 3 hot dog stands and our favorite one is The Hot Dog Stand. It's super cute, the hot dog was really good, and the staff had a great sense of humor. When you order the hot dog, make sure to order it with everything in them. The hot dog had a layer of crispy onion on the bottom, very crunchy and tasty.  

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I also really liked the Lamb Soup. 

For the rest of the days, we went and got groceries from a discount supermarket called Bónus. We compared its price with another supermarket in the city and the price at Bónus is definitely a lot lower. Tip: check out the operating hours to the Bonus store closest to you, since it opens late and closes early. 

Explore - 

Here are a list of places we visited in Reykjavik: 

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon is one of the must visits for this trip. I know this is a "tourist trap", that it is pricey, and there are many other geothermal pools in Iceland that are cheaper or even free, but this was still a must visit for us. 

TIP: **You must pre-book the tickets before your visit and the tickets goes fast** 

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Blue Lagoon is very close to the airport, so many people make their visit after they land or before heading to the airport. However, due to our arrival and departure times, we paid it a visit on our second day in Iceland. The drive from Reykjavik to Blue Lagoon is around 40 minutes, follow the GPS until you are close to the lagoon and can see directional signs, then FOLLOW the signs, the GPS will take you to a factory instead. 

The water is around 98-104°F (37-40°C), and is self-cleansing, it renews itself every 40 hours or so.  

TIP: apply lots of hair conditioner to your hair and tie it up before you get in the pool, to prevent them from drying out by the water. 

TIP: remove all of your jewelry to avoid being damaged by the water.  

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We got the package that provides a bath robe, slippers, towel, a drink, Silica and Algae masks. Before we went, I was a little concerned about not being able to find the robe after we get out of the pool, but the racks that were provided had numbers on them, so they were easy to identify. We were there for a good 3 hours, it was very worth the hype. 

Hallgrímskirkja:

This church was a must visit for me since seeing something like this in a photo is one thing, but seeing it in person, was a totally different feeling.  I didn't know this building was just finished in 1986 and thought it was much older due to the design. Totally was imagining the Vikings using this church way back when, GoT style!

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There is no cost to go inside the church, but there is a small fee to go on top to the observation deck. There was a huge line for the observation deck when we were there, so we decided to skip it. However, definitely go in the church, have a seat, and feel the energy. 

Harpa Concert Hall

This was one of the top recommended places to visit on multiple sites, so we went. It is located next to the ocean, so it was a really nice walk. The front of the Harpa Concert Hall has a very small bridge with geothermal river running beneath it and I was pretty fascinated. 

Inside the concert hall was very cool as well, there are gift shops, a bar, restaurant, the "walls" and "ceilings" of the place are all of these giant windows, as you can see in my photo. The windows would constantly change color from blue to pink to purple, very mesmerizing. We were there for quite a while trying to capture the colors in our photos but end up thinking this outdoor photo looks better.  

Solfar Sun Voyager

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I feel like the main point on seeing this sculpture is the walk along the ocean. We did it at night and the view was amazing! The weather in Iceland changes often, and when we got to the Sun Voyager, it was snowing, which made the experience so much better. There were plenty of parking lots across the street from the ocean, so you can park there and use that as a starting point. 

Walk Around & Discover:

There were so many places to explore in the city, whether its to window shop, cute cafes, or simply walk around the streets and take silly photos. 

Hope this post was helpful to your trip planning and let me know if you have any questions!

Top 3 Tips before your trip to the Beautiful Iceland

Sen and I visited Iceland during it's winter season for 9 days and I wanted to share some tips with you before you go:

Airline - 

After flight fare searching from Google Flights, I found a great deal on WOW Air. The flights were about $400 each person, round-trip from LA to Reykjavik, including all the luggage (we had one checked bag and two carry on) and seat assignments. That's still almost 50% off from all the other airlines!

I do have to mention though, you will have to pay for carry-on luggage, check bags, seat assignments (which were all included in the cost I mentioned above), as well as in flight food and any entertainment on top of the airfare. Yes! That means no movies, so make sure you bring something to watch or read. Other than that, I'd say go for WOW Air and save your traveling budget for the rest of your trip. 

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Transportation

The flight between Los Angeles International Airport and Keflavik International Airport is about 9 hours and there is another 40 minutes’ drive to ReykjavikIceland's capital and largest city. We landed at around 4:30AM on February 14, picked up the rental car from Thrifty Car Rental, and drove to the hotel. I would highly recommend for you to rent a GPS from the car rental company, as it helped us tremendously. The car rental cost was about $100 a day including the GPS, additional driver and an additional drop off location fee. Parking in Reykjavik varies at $2-$4 for the first hour, then $0.50 to $1.50 for the additional hours. We rented a car for the first three days of our trip to "hunt" for the Northern lights, if that is not part of your plan, then I would suggest skipping the rental car and take a taxi instead. Taxi rides between our hotel and the City Center of Reykjavik was just about $20 each way. All the other attractions in Reykjavik are all within walking distance. 

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Hotel

We stayed at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, and booked completely using points that we earned from Chase Sapphire Reserve. One downside though, is that Chase books the hotel through Expedia, not through their own negotiated account. This prompted the hotel to not recognize my gold status, hence no complimentary breakfast, one of the reason why I booked the property. Now, most of you know that hotels won't let you check in at 6AM in the morning if you booked for the same day, since most check in times are at either 3PM or 4PM. So, I booked the hotel for the night before on February 13th and E-mailed the hotel (very important for them to keep your room, since their day "turns over" around 2AM and you will be considered a "no-show" and risk losing your reservation) and informed them that I will be checking in early morning on the 14th. 

Post on tips after arriving in Reykjavik coming soon! Feel free to comment below and let me know of any questions you have about our booking process!