How and where to see the Northern Lights

by Nigel.Tisdall

Every winter the Arctic night skies put on a mesmerising light show: the aurora borealis. There are lots of ways, and places to see it. Here are suggestions in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland

Do you nurse a lifelong dream of seeing the Northern Lights? It can be an astonishing experience - well worth enduring a long journey and sub-zero temperatures. But to find them, it's important to know what you're looking for.

The spectacular phenomenon is formed because fast-moving, electrically-charged particles emanating from the sun are driven towards the poles by the Earth's magnetic field. All those bright, swirling hues we see are caused by the various different gases in the upper atmosphere - green for oxygen, blue for nitrogen, and so on. Up in the Arctic this forms a dazzling halo known as the aurora borealis. It has its counterpart in the southern hemisphere, the aurora australis - but that's virtually a private screening for the sole benefit of penguins.

So, anyone who yearns to see these nocturnal rainbows must head north to the Arctic in the darkness of winter. You could jet off to the snowy wilds of Canada or Alaska, which are prime viewing spots, but for most of us it's more affordable and convenient to fly to Iceland or northern Scandinavia, also commonly known as Lapland. Particularly good months for spotting the aurora are September-October and February-March. Try to pick dates that avoid a full moon (a rival light source) and go to locations distant from the light pollution caused by big settlements.

Good weather - which means clear skies - is another essential, but that's hard to predict. Local conditions can vary wildly, with superb sightings at one spot but thick clouds just a few miles away. One way to counter this is to go for as many nights as you can spare, and to visit more than one place, so increasing the chances of a successful sighting.

Far more important than all this, though, is to not get fixated with this single goal. With its serene white landscapes, glistening ice hotels, romantic husky-sled rides and engaging encounters with Sami (Lappish) culture - not to mention that jovial old Santa chap - the Arctic is a wonderful place for a winter adventure whatever your age. And should the Northern Lights suddenly explode above your head like an almighty lava lamp - well, you will know immediately that you've been a very lucky, and privileged, traveller.

Now are we all wrapped up? Then here are the best ways to go aurora-chasing...

From a ship in Norway

Voyaging up and down the coast of Norway, the fleet of cruise-style cargo ships collectively known as Hurtigruten (020 8846 2666, www.visitnorthernlights.co.uk) offers excellent aurora-viewing opportunities while at sea. A full round-trip sailing between Bergen and Kirkenes, on the Russian border, takes 12 days. Shorter trips are also available flying into Tromsø, including a sailing with an on-board astronomy expert and another that coincides with the city's Northern Lights Festival (www.nordlysfestivalen.no) at the end of January.

From an ice hotel in Sweden

Countless visitors have been awed by displays of the Northern Lights while staying at Sweden's famous Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi. Open from mid-December to late March, the hotel is close to Kiruna and offers guests the chance to spend the night in a magical ice room sculpted by artists - or there are conventional heated rooms, some with windows so you can lie in bed beneath the aurora. Among the many optional activities, from ice-carving classes to fishing, one of the most popular is a guided Northern Lights snowmobile tour where you roam about on a frozen lake on skidoos then break for a warming meal at a wilderness camp. Discover the World (01737 218800, www.discoverlapland.co.uk) offers packages that include convenient direct flights from London Heathrow to Kiruna.

From a husky-sled in Finland

Swishing through the snow on a sled covered with reindeer skins, as an eager team of husky dogs pants and pulls, feels like a true winter adventure. It's also a memorable way to sample the lifestyle of the indigenous Sami people, who have many cherished stories about the aurora and its significance. Transun (01865 265200, www.transun.co.uk) offers a three-day husky expedition in northern Finland that includes a night in a wilderness cabin, as well as other trips where you can visit a reindeer camp and spend the night in an igloo.

From a superjeep in Iceland

Easy to reach and good for a party, Iceland is the smart option for a fun weekend break - with the added bonus that you might see the Northern Lights. Following last year's banking crisis, visiting this famously expensive country has never been better value - for a keenly-priced deal try Icelandair (0870 787 4044, www.icelandair.co.uk). Scantours (020 7554 3530, www.scantours.co.uk) has packages to Reykjavik that include optional excursions travelling out of the city to look for the aurora in a mighty 4x4 superjeep with massive wheels - which means you can get right out into the wilds while also enjoying an exhilarating ride.

 

 

 

Nigel.Tisdall

My globetrotting career began one wet Monday morning in 1985 when I went to London's Liverpool Street station and caught a train to Hong Kong. Since then I've travelled all over the world on assignments for numerous publications, in particular the Daily Telegraph newspaper and British Marie Claire.

My London

Where I always grab a coffee: At home, which is close to the Angel Underground station in Islington, north London, where there are so many travel writers living I used to hold a regular party every year - but of course, many of them were away... My other favourite coffee haunt is Bar Italia in Soho (22 Frith St), usually at about 3am when it's packed with lots of entertaining people who don't want their wild night to stop - myself included.

My favourite stroll: A walk across any London bridge is always rewarding and rich with historic associations. Head to Westminster Bridge and it's hard not to think of the poet Wordsworth celebrating its uplifting city views in his sonnet 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802', while London Bridge often brings to mind TS Eliot pondering its rush hour commuters in 'The Waste Land' (1922).

Fiction for inspiration: Salaam Brick Lane: A Year in the New East End, by Tarquin Hall, is an enjoyable and spirited introduction to the great jumble of human stories that is modern life in London. For more books about the capital, make a beeline for the Edwardian calm of Daunt Books in Marylebone High St (www.dauntbooks.co.uk) where you can happily browse for hours.

Where to be seen: Drinking vintage Louis Roederer Champagne at the opulently gilded Beaufort Bar in the new-look Savoy Hotel (www.the-savoy.com).

The most breathtaking view: Climb up to the Golden Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Green Park (www.royalparks.gov.uk) gets a lot of use but somehow there is always a bench or patch of grass where you can grab a breather.

Shopaholics beware: For a spot of window-shopping, I always enjoy a bowl along Jermyn Street, just off Piccadilly, which is lined with venerable gentlemen's outfitters and specialist shops devoted to cigars, cheese and leather goods. If I need to buy a present, Heal's (www.heals.co.uk) in Tottenham Court Road will always have something, or pop into the equally appealing Habitat next door.

City soundtrack: 'Up the Junction' by Squeeze is so very London... You should also load up 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks, 'Itchycoo Park (The Small Faces), 'God Save The Queen' (Sex Pistols) and 'London's Calling' (The Clash).

Don’t leave without... drinking a proper pint of ale in an unreconstructed pub. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet St is satisfactorily ancient, while the Princess Louise in High Holborn is a magnificent piece of Victoriana. My local is the tiny Charles Lamb in Elia St, N1 (www.thecharleslambpub.com) - see you there...