Published 02 December 2011
Text by Nick Walton
It’s one of the most stunning, and mesmerising natural phenomena known to man; the aurora borealis. Also known as the northern lights, these natural and spectacular colourful light displays only take place in the polar regions and like many unique experiences, Northern lights tourism is on the increase as intrepid travellers march north on a variety of specialized cruises, ice treks and light spotting tours.
Expeditionary cruise company Hurtigruten offers annual “Hunting the Lights” cruises from mid-November to mid-March in northern Norway. Itineraries read like an adventure book of Arctic exploration. Search the night time sky during dog sledding treks across the frozen landscape, or from your suite at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel, brave the waters of the iceberg-dotted Barents Seas, reach untouched coastlines by zodiac, enjoy an evening concert in Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral, or celebrate your new finds with a “polar baptism” – an ice cube shower – hosted by King Neptune himself.
In the north of Manitoba, in Canada, Churchill Wild offers exciting itineraries that not only include the northern lights, but also the chance to encounter polar bears up close, take a front row seat at the region’s most famous dog sled race, the Hudson Bay Quest, and to stay the night in your own igloo. ‘Fire & Ice’ allows guests the chance to participate in traditional Inuit customs and to truly experience the rugged beauty of Canada’s arctic circle.
To the west, Alaska is also a popular destination for those looking to experience the aurora. Go Alaska Tours offer stunning views while you travel down the famous Dalton Highway across the Arctic Circle and into the Brooks Range. This five-day itinerary also takes in the Alaskan Pipeline, the mighty Yukon River and miles of untouched Alaskan wilderness. Travel from Fairbanks, one of the best spots on the ‘auroral oval’ to see the blue, green and yellow light-show each evening, stay in remote villages deep within in the Arctic Circle, and cross the Atigun Pass, the northernmost pass in the world that is kept open year-round.
World Expeditions offer unique orca cruises in October and November, which track both the lights and the Lofoten orca pods which frequent northern Norway. This is a wonderful introduction to coastal Norway and the beautiful fjords, islands and wildlife in this region. The cruise follows pods of orca hunting for herring, as well as shore excursions to view stone age petroglyphs, sea eagles and historical villages such as Kabelvaag and Henningsvaer. Restricted to just 20 guests travelling on the schooner Noorderlicht, passengers have the opportunity to participate in the sailing of the vessel, which departs on the eight day itinerary from Lodingen, in Norway’s northwest.
“Try Sleeping in an igloo over night, being kept warm with reindeer skin blankets and padded sleeping bags. ”
In the far north of Finland, in a region known as Lapland (reputed to be the home of the “Snow Queen” as well as Santa Claus), the best time to see the northern lights is during the polar night, a time when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, sometimes for as long as 50 days. Northern Lights Holidays specialize in arctic adventures and offer an amazing Lapland itinerary that takes in all the best aspects of the far north. Stay in the Lapland Igloo Village, which is perfectly situated to see the aurora each night, and spend your days driving trains of huskies, riding on reindeer sleighs, learning about the indigenous Lapp people, cross country skiing and even ice fishing. You’ll even have a chance to rough it in an igloo over night, kept warm with reindeer skin blankets and padded sleeping bags.
Finally, Greenland remains the hardest location to reach when searching for the aurora borealis, but can be the most rewarding. Here the indigenous Inuit believe the lights to be the dancing souls of children which died at birth. From their base in Kulusuk, Greenland Holidays take tours to see the lights from August until April, and offer three unique tours; East Greenland & Iceland Adventure takes in some of the world’s most remote locales, including glaciers, ancient fishing villages where tradition remains unscathed by modernity, and of course the northern lights, across six days. The Aurora & Polar Circle Adventure includes visits to Kangerlussuaq, on Greenland’s remote west coast, one of the best places on earth to view nature’s light show. You’ll also take 4×4 tours to the Inland Icecap, and try your skills on a snow scooter. The Aurora & Icebergs tour is also along the west coast of Greenland, with viewings of the lights at Ilulissat, home to some of the world’s largest icebergs and the famed Ilulissat Icefjord, a Unesco world heritage listed site.