The Northern Lights are one of nature’s most spectacular sights. The great swathes of yellow, green, red, blue and violet can provide as much light as the moon at its brightest. The hardest part is finding them. Notoriously elusive, there is never any guarantee as to where and when they will appear: sometimes all night, sometimes only part of the night,sometimes not at all.
Chasing the Northern Lights is becoming one of the most popular winter holiday activities, attracting visitors to locations as far afield as northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Lapland, Norway and Russia. There have been occasional glimpses of the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis as they are also known) off the Norfolk coast,but this is extremely rare;and in the depths of winter they may be seen in the far reaches of Scotland.
To see them at their best, however, you do have to travel into the Arctic Circle. So what exactly are the Northern Lights? They are caused by a combination of solar winds and gases along the Earth’s magnetic field creating a brilliantly coloured display. It is totally weather dependent, but whenever it is visible you are guaranteed an incredible, natural light show. Wherever you are lucky enough to see them, the Northern Lights are stunning –exceptionally so whenset against a backdrop of snow blanketed forests, lakes, ice and sea.
Lapland –an area crossing northern Norway, Sweden and Finland –is often described as ‘the land of the midnight sun’, signifying the frequency of the Northern Lights in this area. The best time to see them is between September/October and February/March. The best way is to take a winter safari, gliding through miles of snow covered forests and ice covered lakes. Ranua Wildlife Safaris in Rovaniemi offer guided excursions to see the lights by snowmobile or on a sleigh ride pulled by Finn horses. Expeditions can take up to four days, travelling through the wilderness, seeing the wildlife (including polar bears)and staying overnight in log cabins. Throughout the winter period, the Finnish Aurora Service Tours take groups on long distance trips to find breaks in the clouds, in order to spot the Northern Lights. The tour guides use the most up to date technology to identify locations,which results in a 99% success rate.
Visitors can combine hunting for the Northern Lights with a stay in a remote wilderness site offering a range of day time activities,such as snowshoeing along a hiking track, driving a snowmobile through snow covered forests and across frozen lakes,or even travelling in a sleigh pulled by huskies. Alternatively, visitors can opt for a location closer to one of the Lapland towns and discover the unique, indigenous Sami culture.
Many people, including astronomers, head for the quiet town of Kiruna in Swedish Lapland. The nearby Abisko National Park houses a special Aurora Sky Station where you can board a chair lift which takes you to an observation tower. The station is famed for its views of the clear skies and its pitch black mountain setting. Once there, you can stay as long as you like to watch the sky, or take refuge from time to time beside the station’s log fire enjoying some delicious food and drink.
Perhaps you prefer a more leisurely cruise to see the lights? Hurtigruten offer a regular programme of twelve day Norwegian coastal cruises travelling up into the Arctic Circle. Operating between October and March, Hurtigruten promise that if the Northern Lights do not make an appearance during the voyage, they will provide another voyage for free.
This is definitely a very relaxing way to see nature’s lightshow, whilst enjoying the opportunity to visit some fascinating places. The ships cruise along majestic fjords, visit coastal cities like Trondheim and provide snowmobile excursions: Discover the Sami culture, visit the Lofoten heritage site and watch the sea eagles. There are also Polar History walks to find out about explorers and Arctic hunters. Experts on astronomy accompany some cruises,providing talks about the stars and the Northern Lights. Cruise & Maritime Voyages also run a series of Northern Lights cruises departing from UK ports such asLiverpool, Hull, Bristol and London Tilbury. These operate between September and April. Some of the cruises include Iceland and the Faroes;others focus on the Norwegian coast.
A variety of excursions are available to historic sites such as Lerwick, Skara Brae, the Troll Wall or the vintage steam Rauma Railway. A trip to the dramatic 307 metre high cliff at North Cape is intensely memorable as you look out over the endless sea towards the North Pole. Anyone wanting a more adventurous experience can always try a glacier discovery by snow truckIceland, the land of Fire and Ice,offers brilliant contrasts of wintry landscapes, steaming hot volcanic geysers and brilliant displays of colour provided by the Northern Lights. Cruises around the coast or driving into the far north of Iceland provide the best views.
Don’t miss the stunning crescent shaped Godafoss waterfall or the lunar like craters at Skutastadir,before trying out a nature bath in one of the many spas. Over in Greenland, Tasermuit offer holidays of glacier trekking and kayaking, exploring the polar ice cap and discovering the Arctic fauna. whilst there you stay in camps and hostels regularly used by astronomers to observe the Northern Lights.
This is definitely an adventurous opportunity, where you need to be reasonably fit and willing to learn new skills as you navigate through icebergs or clamber across the ice. There are plenty of opportunities to chase the Northern Lights,as they can be seen almost every day from late summer onwards, whenever the sky is clear.
Churchill, Nunavik and Whitehorse in Manitoba, northern Canada are also worth considering:Set amid a vast wilderness where grizzly bears and Polar bears roam, while Beluga whales swim in the icy seas.
Churchill is actually sited right beneath the Northern Lights auroral oval, a huge ring circling the magnetic North Pole,and is regarded as one of the best places from which to see the Northern Lights.Anyone preferring pure luxury and comfort as a means of seeing the Northern Lights can opt for a trip on the Golden Eagle Luxury Train Arctic Explorer –Quest for the Northern Lights which travels deep into the Russian Arctic Circle. Leaving St Petersburg, you snuggle comfortably into luxurious cabins, enjoying high class food in the dining car or chatting to other passengers in the lounge. The wide windows offer superb views of the countryside, and during the long nights the Northern Lights often illuminate the skies. A guest astronomer provides talks and information;you can also learn some of the Russian language as well as enjoying a range of cultural activities en route.
Stop off at Kirkenes and take a break in the Snow Hotel, just across the Norwegian border, and try fishing for crabs through snow holes, or take sledge rides pulled by Huskies.
Visit Murmansk, a city halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, Lake Onega (the second largest lake in Europe) and/or the historic city of Vladimir before ending the journey in Moscow. Whatever your choice, there can be no doubt that chasing the Northern Lights is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.
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