Happiness in a Bubble: Chasing Aurora One Starry Night in Iceland

1:34 a.m., the hotel phone rang. We had just drifted to sleep. We could hear voices and footsteps of other hotel guests scrambling through the hallways as we leapt from our bed to pull on our boots, hats, gloves and coats over long underwear we had strategically laid out like firefighter bunker gear, anticipating the wake-up call.

The front desk receptionist at our hotel in the small town known as Skaftafell in south-eastern Iceland was tracking the forecast of aurora as we had been days before our trip to the Nordic island nation. The sky was clear, and the sun was rumored to be waking up after a quiet slumber of little activity the past few weeks.

Grabbing our cell phones, we raced upstairs, joining other guests out onto the rooftop who were huddled, shivering but poised with their cameras toward a darkened sky, opposite a snow-topped ice cap that appeared bluish under the moonlight.

A green smudge of light materialized in the distance but quickly faded as did our excitement. Our phone cameras weren’t equipped to capture the faintly green-lit sky. Small-town street lights and lights from nearby buildings, bouncing off freshly fallen snow also stole any real opportunity to witness the spectacular light show created by the interaction of electrically charged particles in our atmosphere.

Standing outdoors—bleary-eyed, cold and bored between moments of fading possibilities—we gave up, shuffling back to our beds, surrendering to Mother Nature.

Scott was hoping to see the northern lights on this trip. It would be his first time to see them on Earth.

“Poor thing. ‘I’ve only seen the aurora from space,’” I said, teasingly mocking him.

He laughed.

“I guess I didn’t even think how ridiculous that sounds until you played it back for me,” he said.

He has sincere gratitude for his experiences in space, so I knew it wasn’t a humble brag. But if it was, it would be the most excusable humble brag.

“I’m teasing you, babe,” I said.

I’ve long wanted to see the northern lights myself, but now I wanted to see them through his eyes more.

Since Scott has returned to Earth after his yearlong space mission, I’ve enjoyed watching him explore our planet with a renewed sense of appreciation for it.

I recall when I first learned about the aurora borealis. I was around 7 years old. My brother Ian, who is five years older than me was so fascinated in them that he, with the help of our dad, designed a science project to recreate Earth’s northern lights.

I don’t remember if he was successful or not. I only can remember a wooden-framed clear, acrylic box that was filled with soda cans and Ian’s copious enthusiasm.

I texted my brother as we were standing out in the cold getting our first glimpse of aurora. He isn’t easily excited, but I immediately thought of him and knew if anything could enliven him, it would be the northern lights even if he experienced them vicariously through his little sister.

“Awesome!” he replied. “One of my life’s goals to see.”

It made me smile to see an exclamation mark at the end of his first response. It reminded me of all the things my brother showed me about our natural world. Maybe he inspired my curiosity and passion for nature.

Of his six sisters, I was his shadow growing up. We spent most of our days when at home outdoors in the woods, camping, fishing, hiking, building forts – sometimes working, tending to our gardens or gathering leaf mulch to compost — but always talking about phenomenons like the northern lights. Also UFOs.

The next morning, Scott and I, and his daughter Charlotte, 14, who was spending her spring break with us in Iceland, awoke for a road trip along the southern coast to our next destination. Charlotte was less impressed than we were with our light show the night before. She had retreated to her bed the moment the first hint of green faded to black.

I suppose when her father has photographed auroras from space that seem to swallow the sky in a vibrant colorful dance of lights, a faint dull jade spot in the sky barely visible through squinted eyes for three seconds isn’t as awe-inspiring.

I agreed.

We were excited for our next destination, however. And our hope for an aurora sighting hadn’t dimmed completely. This time, we would not have to get out of bed to see the dancing lights should the perfect storm and collision of sun particles and Earth’s atoms ignite them.

We had booked a stay in a unique hotel I stumbled upon when planning our trip. The hotel was a bubble in the woodlands of Iceland that purported a view of the night sky – a five-million star hotel.

Scott was frustrated the night before trying to capture the glimmer of glow in the night sky by only his phone camera with minimal assistance of an app that allowed a smidge more manual control of lighting and depth of field. It wasn’t the same as photographing aurora from space.

So, we drove to Reykjavik to purchase a professional camera – not the same he used in space – but a good quality Nikon, an SD card, a battery and a lightweight, portable tripod. We arrived at our bubble hotel about an hour later and were greeted by the owner and caretaker of the bubbles.

There was a community service house onsite with shower-equipped bathrooms, a kitchen and communal table for guests. The hotel was more like a glampsite that offered luxury amenities like a queen-sized bed and fitted sheets, only in the outdoors.

The air outside had warmed up to just above freezing. It was quiet in the remote outdoors with the exception of intermittent crunching beneath our footsteps as we walked through patches of snow to one of the bubbles encircled by hardy evergreens.

The caretaker showed us into the first bubble. It was exactly as described on the website. Clear but providing protection from the outdoor elements.

“Hey, it’s even got an airlock,” Scott said, excitedly.

Upon entering the bubble, we walked through a small passageway between two parallel wood-framed, plastic doorways.

“You should close this outer door first before opening the next door,” the caretaker instructed.

“Like the space station,” Scott said.

We collectively laughed as we doffed our shoes in the airlock portion of the bubble. Closing the exterior door, we entered a furnished transparent inflated sphere.

Inside was minimal décor as there weren’t walls for hangings, but we didn’t come to view pretty walls. There was a queen-sized bed, a linen hamper with towels and electric-heated blankets, carpeted flooring, a lamp, a multi-plug power outlet and a blower heater pumping warm air into the clear bubble.

The luxurious amenity was the view. I threw myself onto the bed, lying on my back looking up at a full view of sky. We were eager for what was to come at night.

Five million stars or so. Maybe aurora.

Sunset would come later, so once we were settled, we set out to have dinner at the only open restaurant nearby. I picked up an aurora forecast brochure at the camera store, so we examined it over dinner excited for the prospect of a sighting but didn’t feel we’d be disappointed if aurora didn’t arrive.

We had a feeling, we would be happy with whatever scene the night sky brought us.

We purchased a bottle of red wine to bring back to our bubbles. We had arranged for us to stay in two bubbles, but we made plans for us to stay in one bubble in case Charlotte wasn’t up for staying alone in the woods.

Our bubbles were mere steps away but each yielded privacy from the other. Charlotte visited our bubble for a while. Scott was busy tinkering with his new camera, adjusting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. He was happy. I could see it in his eyes.

Charlotte was too. She carried the same look in her eyes.

She’s reserved in her emotional expressions much like her father, but she was uncommonly energetic. We sat cross-legged in the middle of our bed as Scott snapped photos outside, adjusting his settings accordingly. We goofed around, chatted excitedly and snapped fun selfie boomerang videos together.

Scott joined us, and I left the two of them to share father-daughter time as I explored the surrounding area. I took a photo of the bubble and texted it to my brother.

We would be sleeping under the stars, and it reminded me of my earliest years camping with Ian. We never used a tent. Ian took me camping for my first time when I was five years old. He was 10. We lived in the country, so camping under the stars wasn’t hard to come by.

Since it was my first time camping, we didn’t go into the woods. Instead, we carried our sleeping bags to a clearing on a patch of land between our home and our longtime next-door neighbors’, the Rogers. I was talkative then as I am today. Maybe more then.

Ian always helped me settle at night, usually by patting my back until I went to sleep. He looked up at the sky with his arms folded behind his neck.

“Look at the clouds through the moonlight. You see the different shapes they make?” he asked. “Tell me what you see.”

I don’t recall what shapes he was seeing but he likely named an animal like an elephant on a tricycle. I only recall being able to see through the Rogers’ home. We were facing their bedroom, and a lamp was lit.

“I see Mr. Rogers getting naked,” I exclaimed.

Mr. Rogers was an elderly man who always gave us apples, oranges or an occasional Snickers candy bar when we popped by to visit him and his wife Clarice. He wasn’t naked but appeared to be getting ready for bed. The idea of camping near our house was in case I became homesick or scared.

Ian quickly put his hand over my eyes and chuckled.

“Just go to sleep,” he said.

I must have passed the camping test as we never camped in our backyard again, venturing further away from home each time.

I never imagined I’d ever find myself camping as far away from home as Iceland.

Wandering along the path that connected the two bubbles we would stay in for the night, I returned to our bubble when my hands turned numb from the dropping temperature outdoors. Inside it was cozy, and the sun was beginning to settle.

Contented to sleep on her own, Charlotte announced she was going to her bubble.

“Goodnight, Charlotte,” we chimed in unison.

As the sun slipped further below the horizon, Scott decided to take a bathroom break and check on Charlotte. He returned smiling wide beneath his head lamp, reporting Charlotte was lying on her bed reading a book under the sky.

Charlotte is always reading a book. But her reading a book in a bubble in the woods of southern Iceland, somehow made everything in the world feel right.

As dusk went dark, the seams of the plastic bubble vanished. It was as if we were lying in the open air under the stars with the exception we were comfortably warm in a bed, no bugs and no news headlines.

The level of solar activity had bumped up a number since the previous night, registering a number four on the space weather scale, so we hoped the likelihood of seeing aurora surround our dome was also higher. Lying on our backs, we looked up into the stars until our eyes grew heavy.

I caught myself nodding off and wiggled under the covers to help stay awake. I could feel Scott was drifting to sleep too as his arm felt more weighted and limp across my abdomen. In the distance I saw a dark green smudge emerge, I shook Scott’s arm.

“Aurora is back. Do you see it?” I asked.

Seconds after I announced the arrival of the now familiar deep glow, it faded to black. Scott stared bleakly into the spot of blackness I pointed to after my startling him.

“I see nothing” he said.

Soon after, I felt his arm fall limp across me again.

“There it is again. I can see the aurora,” I announced, shaking his arm.

As quickly as the glow appeared, it seemed to duck behind the night’s black curtains as if it were playing a game of hide-and-seek.

Scott still could see nothing but dark sky and the stars he fell asleep under. After a few more dull, brief appearances of aurora teasing me, I decided to let go of the possibility of seeing its full glory.

While I had hoped to see the northern lights, the faultless sky of stars was a sanctuary of wellness and bliss.

The next morning we set off to explore the Golden Circle, a popular driving tour that is part of your stay at the bubble, stopping first at the Secret Lagoon for a morning soak in the natural geothermal pool’s soothing, warm water.

We trekked around the incredible Gulfoss waterfall and spent a few moments at Iceland’s Great Geysir, a periodically spouting hot spring.

Watching the power of Mother Nature gushing boiling water to about 65 feet in the air every five to six minutes seemed to punctuate the end of our trip with an exclamation point.

Book a tour, and sleep under the stars at the 5 Million Star Hotel in Iceland. Come aurora or not, you’ll enjoy a dreamy experience from the warm hospitality to speechless scenery of the cozy bubble life.


  1. Loved this blog entry. Your blog is great. I hope you will post more articles on your recent travel adventures. I love to travel, and it is fun to read about interesting places you have gone. Found the Iceland story about sleeping in the bubble under the stars especially enjoyable!

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