With their eerie swirls and curtains of coloured light dancing across the night sky, it’s no wonder the Northern Lights are a magnet for travellers. Fortunately the number of cruises to the Arctic, where they are most visible, is increasing. But the aurora is the tip of the iceberg. Here’s your ultimate guide to Arctic fun.
A is for… Aurora (Borealis)
…the scientific name for the Northern Lights. It is created when particles from the sun are carried to the earth on a solar “wind” and collide with atoms in our atmosphere. The release of energy is seen as light. The aurora can only be viewed around the Arctic Circle, and against a dark sky, which is why trips take place from late autumn to early spring.
B is for… book now
There’s a limited number of cruises that “hunt” for the Northern Lights, so book early as they tend to sell out. If your choice for this winter has already gone, look ahead to 2019/20.
C is for… cruise lines
Arguably the best way to see the Northern Lights. Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Saga, Viking, Fred Olsen, P&O Cruises, Marella and Cunard all offer sailings, with a number of itineraries starting and finishing in the UK. Hurtigruten has daily departures from Bergen in Norway. For more specialist voyages, try the Small Cruise Ship Collection and Wildfoot.
D is for… destinations
The most popular place to see the aurora is northern Norway, where the number and intensity of displays is high. Several cruise itineraries visit Iceland and expedition cruises also sail to Greenland, northern Canada and Spitsbergen in the autumn, when the skies are dark enough to see the phenomenon.
E is for… experts
Look for cruise departures that provide a guest expert on board – usually a noted astronomer. Their presence is not essential but can add valuable insight to the experience. Dr John Mason will be sailing his 11th season on Hurtigruten’s Astronomy Voyage this winter.
F is for… fjords
These spectacular bodies of water are an added bonus for those cruising in Norway (and to some extent Iceland and Greenland). They create an awe-inspiring landscape and you will be able to admire plenty on your way north to the aurora “prime zone”.
G is for… green
The colours that you identify in the Northern Lights depend on the particles that are interacting and also on your eyes. Some people may see mainly white or a milky green. Others will witness a stronger green. Red, purple and blue are more rare. Modern cameras intensify the colours, which can lead to disappointment when you see the real thing!
H is for… huskies
Some of the best fun to be had on cold-climate holidays is “mushing” on a husky sled. You take control of the reins while the dogs pull you across a frozen lake, snowfield or forest. There is always time before the ride to pet the lovable, frisky dogs.
I is for… ice hotel
Visiting or staying in a hotel built from ice and snow is a fabulous (one night only) experience. Most ice hotels also have “warm room” options for the less brave. If your cruise does not offer an overnight stay, there may still be a chance for a visit. Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel in Alta is on many cruise routes (it has an outdoor Jacuzzi) and the Snowhotel Kirkenes is renowned for its whimsical ice bedrooms and ice chapel.
J is for… journey time
If you travel from the UK, remember that Arctic Norway and Iceland are a long way north, so expect a total journey time of 10 to 14 days. Hurtigruten has shorter fly-cruises of four to six days.
K is for… king crabs
Who could refuse a giant crab claw freshly caught through a hole in the ice? Half the fun is in watching an expert carve a hole before pulling up the traps. Afterwards, you retire to a cosy log cabin where the claws are cooked and served with fresh lemons and bread.
L is for… Lavvu
The nomadic Samí people of Scandinavia live in tents called lavvus. You can take a trip to these dwellings and listen to Samí songs and stories while watching the sky for the aurora.
M is for… myths and legends
For many centuries the dancing lights have inspired and terrified mortals in equal measure. Vikings considered them to be reflections from the armour of Valkyrie warriors. Some Samí people still believe the lights are the souls of the dead – as did the Inuit in Greenland. In Iceland, the aurora is said to relieve the pain of childbirth.
N is for… North Cape
A few cruise ships make their way to Honningsvåg, the gateway to the North Cape, the northernmost part of mainland Europe. As well as a visitor centre and monument, who could resist the opportunity to consume hot waffles atop the 3,000ft-high cliffs?
O is for… overnight
Most cruises include overnight stays in Tromsø and/or Alta in Norway, or Reykjavik for Iceland voyages. Take advantage of this by visiting quirky museums, tucking into a seafood meal, embracing outdoor activities and going to an aurora viewpoint in the evening.
P is for… packing
Reckon on temperatures anywhere between 10C and minus 20C in the far north. Pack a down jacket made specifically for these temperatures as well as a quality fleece, hat, insulated gloves and lined boots. Still cold? Shop for a pure-wool jumper, available in most towns in Norway and Iceland (expect to pay more than £80).
Q is for… QUIRKY
On a Northern Lights cruise, be prepared for all sorts of strange encounters. “King Neptune” (usually the captain) may pour icy water down your back during a crossing-the-Arctic-Circle ceremony. You may be invited to chew on dried fish – or, in Iceland, putrefied shark. Swimming in the freezing sea is another rite of passage. My tip? Get in and out and head for the jacuzzi.
R is for… reindeer
Look away, vegetarians. Samí people care for reindeer herds and these gentle animals can be visited on their reserves – but Rudolph is also a popular menu item. Go with it.
S is for… snow
Unless you plan to emigrate to Canada you may never see this much pure untrodden snow. The winter landscapes of northern Scandinavia provide a backdrop to your cruise and invite activities such as snowmobiling, ice fishing and snowshoeing.
T is for… Tromsø
Most Norway winter cruises call at Tromsø, which is home to a striking modern cathedral and plenty of cosy cafés. For an insight into the city’s polar seafaring traditions, don’t miss the Polar Museum.
U is for… Ulriken
The handsome city of Bergen is a frequent port of call on the way north. Visit the Unesco-listed Bryggen, with its historic Hanseatic wharf and buildings, and ride the cable car up Mount Ulriken for unforgettable views of snowy peaks encircling the bay.
V is for… vikings
Embrace Viking history with a meal in a recreated chieftain’s house in the Lofoten Islands or trace one of their early voyages at the Archaeological Museum in Stavanger.
W is for… wilderness
All of the Arctic regions are spectacularly scenic, with fir trees and mountain peaks draped in snow. But keep your eyes peeled for Arctic foxes, sea eagles and whales, including orcas (depending on the time of year).
X is for… X Factor
When they appear in all their magnificence, the Northern Lights have this in spades.
Y is for… years
The sun goes through a cycle of activity (solar cycle) that lasts about 11 years. Although we are now at a lower point in the cycle, there has been little effect on the brilliance of the displays seen in the past two winters.
Z is for… ZOOM
To photograph the aurora you’ll need a camera that zooms to a wide angle, along with the ability to set a shutter speed of several seconds.