I knew before arriving in Iceland earlier this month that the country sits near the Arctic Circle, and that in the far north the sun never sets. I realized that I was visiting in July, when the days are the longest. And I understood that there would be long days.
But despite knowing all that, I wasn’t prepared for the strange phenomenon of 24 hours of sunlight.
Laura and I arrived in Reykjavik early on a Monday morning. We rented a car, picked up a SIM card for our iPad so we could use Google Maps, then headed out into the countryside. After several jet-lagged hours of driving around the Golden Circle we headed to our hotel to take a nap. A few hours later, we woke up and kept exploring.
It was during this time, while watching the geyser known as Stokkur repeatedly blast water into the air, that I first really became aware of the time. It was sunset, but when I looked at a clock I was surprised to discover that it was actually midnight.
That discovery alone was bizarre, but it got even weirder when the sunset lasted for about an hour. It was a particularly colorful sunset, and when we arrived at Stokkur I frantically took pictures and videos, trying to capture the colors before they faded. Soon, however, I realized that it wasn’t really fading much at all.
Case in point: the video below of Gullfoss waterfall was shot at least an hour after the video above of the geyser, but it’s basically still sunset.
We stayed at Gullfoss until well after 2 a.m. and it never really got much darker than a typical California twilight. During that time someone operating a backhoe started doing construction work at a nearby building. I guess when it’s light all night, 2 a.m. is as good a time as any to start the day.
By the time we got back to our hotel around 3 a.m., it was already beginning to get lighter.
At first, and overall, this daylight was amazing and wonderful. It made it feel like we had twice as much time for the trip as we might in a country with shorter days. I don’t think we ever turned in before 2 a.m., and even then we really had to force ourselves to call it a day.
A few days in, though, the endless days did get exhausting. For one thing, it was hard to sleep. Though most homes had heavy blackout curtains, our hotels and guesthouses did not. And when I woke up, it was hard to tell if I’d slept enough. The result was a weird kind of exhaustion, maybe closer to biological confusion than sleep deprivation.
It was also hard to know when to eat. As the sun got lower in the sky I noticed that I’d feel like eating dinner, but then I’d see that it was actually 2 a.m.
These are traveler’s challenges, of course, and not a knock against Iceland, where the locals are well adapted to the long days and nights. Frankly the exhaustion was so unusual that it was kind of a pleasure in itself. And the wonders of hour-long sunsets and 2 a.m. visits to waterfalls far outweighed the weirdness of never knowing when to sleep. Iceland is glorious country, made all the more beautiful by hours of golden sunlight.
Still, I was surprised at how strange the endless days felt. Intellectually I was aware that the summer sun doesn’t set in some places, but nothing really could have prepared me for the actual, physical experience on the ground.
— Jim Dalrymple II