Jack Pitts goes in search of the elusive Northern lights – a truly amazing natural phenomenon that is on most people’s bucket list. Here, discover where, and when, to go…
Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland © Jorma Luhta
One thing’s for sure: if you want to see the Aurora Borealis, you’re going to have to head north. Farmers in Scotland occasionally glimpse the elusive lights in high winter, while some lucky travellers have been privy to a personal display on the red eye to New York; but for you or I, catching 30 return flights or packing it all in to rear sheep in the Cairngorms isn’t possible, and that means one thing – we have to make our way to the Earth’s snowy crown – into the Arctic.
The further north you go the more likely you are to see the Aurora Borealis, named after the Roman goddess of dawn, though they are famously unpredictable and no company will guarantee that you’ll see them. The world’s greatest light show is caused by billions of charged particles hitting our atmosphere and, according to NASA, an 11-year cycle is about to reach its peak.
Your best chance to see the lights is to visit February when the nights are long (expect only around 4 hours of sunlight a day!) and the air clear. Keep checking the sky from 5pm until late; sometimes they appear for a few minutes in one spot and then disappear, only to reappear hours later in another part of the sky – sometimes they won’t appear at all.
A great location can increase the likelihood of seeing the wonderful spectacle, and, if worst comes to worst, can make up for the disappointment of an empty sky. Read on for a round-up of the top places to see the Northern Lights.
Ice hotel in Sweden
Built anew every winter, the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, a small village in northern Sweden with just 1,000 inhabitants, attracts around 50,000 visitors every year. From here you can watch the lights with all the trappings of a beach holiday in Barbados. It may look cold but the walls of compacted snow and frozen water insulate the place, keeping the temperature around the 0 mark – pretty toasty once you’re snuggled under thick winter bedding.
Urho National Park
Where better to see the Northern Lights than in Lapland, in the furthest corner of Finland. Here, peace and quiet is ubiquitous, as are secluded cabins, outposts of tranquillity among miles and miles of flawless snow. There are miles of cross-country skiing and snowmobiling tracks around, too, but for most visitors it’s happiness enough to simply pour a generous drink, light the fire, and wait for nature to switch its magical lights on.
This wonderful mini-city is a bustling Arctic metropolis at the top of Norway. Here, in the second largest urban area in the Arctic Circle, you can find the best of the North without braving the wilderness. Somehow this city has created a vibrant life for itself, replete with a respected university, thriving businesses and a scene that parties all night – and this far north, all night really means something! There’s no need to worry about travelling for hours though because Tromsø has its very own airport, famed for flying in almost any condition.
From a boats deck
Cruises from northern and eastern Norway (including Tromsø) are becoming increasingly popular for hunters of the Aurora Borealis and nature lovers alike. Set sail into the freezing waters for unrivalled encounters with whales, seals and all kinds of birdlife.
There are not many places you can see the world’s most famous light show from a hot tub – but Reykjavik is certainly one of them. Here, in a modern European city thousands of miles out to sea, you’ll find the best of bright lights, comfort, and convenience. Containing a third of Iceland’s 300,000 inhabitants, Reykjavik is a famous launching pad for the geological bonanza that can be found in the centre of the island. There is no place more accessible to see the lights: the only drawback is that in can be very busy – and therefore expensive – at popular times of year.
A beautiful Arctic resort, Kakslauttanen situated in the heart of Finish Lapland is something truly special. Here, among the frozen forest, lies rows of glass-roofed igloos, specially built for viewing the northern lights without compromising on comfort. Even if the lights don’t make an appearance, other activities such as reindeer and huskie rides, snowmobile tours and ice fishing will keep you more than busy.
For a forecast of the northern lights, click here.