Northern Lights guaranteed
Always fancied aurora-chasing? Read how to up your chances of seeing something amazing
When complete strangers ask “did you get lucky?” and “how was it for you?” over the breakfast buffet on a cruise it’s likely to raise a few eyebrows. When it happened to me my truthful answers were “I did” and “it was amazing”, though I’d actually spent the night before out on deck in thermal long johns.
The northern lights had long been on my bucket list. Now I’ve a big tick against them thanks to that clever cruise that put the odds squarely in my favour.
I’d had friends who’d seen a glow on the horizon in Iceland or Scandinavia, or caught some astral action on a trip to Scotland but few reported anything spectacular.
Northern Lights Promise
I put my faith in Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten (pronounced Hurty-grooten), which has a promise on its Astronomy Voyage, and others up Norway’s beautiful coastline, – if you fail to see the aurora you’ll get another try for free! What’s more they have a 100% success rate on the 11 seasons they’ve been running the trip.
Why so lucky? There are two reasons. One, the aurora hangs out around the poles, so the further you are into the High Arctic the nearer you are to the action and several of its cruises spend six of their 12 days there. Secondly, on the Astronomy Voyage, that I joined, Hurtigruten puts an expert astronomer on board who spends the whole night togged up on deck, so if something worth seeing brews up while you’re under your duvet you can get an alert through the tannoy in your cabin.
Cloud is the biggest enemy but though I was only on board for six of the 12 nights of the voyage to my great excitement I saw the lights five of those. And the aurora was not just glowing but moving. Rippling curtains, fans, long wavy vertical ribbons, I saw them all – even a great loop that looked like it had lassoed the funnel of the ship!
Sometimes I clutched the rails oohing and ahhing like it was a firework display, sometimes I lay back in a deckchair in the dark, taking it all in. Once, doped up on sea-sickness tablets, I feel asleep face down in the lounge, still padded up like a Michelin man!
I don’t mind saying I got a bit teary on several occasions. It was a special time, and a bonding time. There were people from a backpacker in her 20s to a man of 87 sharing the spectacle. Some had been coming for years.
The science bit
Our brilliantly enthusiastic expert astronomer was Dr John Mason MBE who was actually one of the founders of The South Downs Planetarium at Chichester. He ran space lectures on board by day, pitched to interest those with even a basic knowledge (“a kick up the bum” was one of his memorable descriptions of the astral activity that creates the northern lights!)
There’s not much in the way of entertainment besides, no sequinned variety shows, no need to dress up for dinner, just gorgeous Christmas card scenery and excellent local food. I photographed pink sunrises and sunsets that lasted for hours, read, ate, watched the lights and submitted, with a scream, to the tradition of a ladle of ice cubes down my neck as we crossed the Artic Circle.
Hurtigruten hugs the Norwegian coast, and besides catering for tourists, provides a vital point-to-point ferry service for locals. so the ships are comfortable (cosy cabins, a sauna, bar and various lounges) rather than flashy. The experience is usually described as a voyage rather than a cruise, though you get a proper al la carte dinner service in the evenings. (I tucked into the legs of colossal king crabs I’d seen on deck but was too squeamish to try reindeer!)
There’s also plenty to see ashore while the light holds – days becoming startlingly shorter the further north you go. You can join a free walking tour in most ports or pay extra to go husky sledging, whale watching (I saw orcas by spotlight!), hike to Viking burial mounds and journey by snowplough to Europe’s most northern point.
It certainly proved a trip of a lifetime and at a surprisingly affordable price.
Northern Lights tips:
The northern lights are generally seen mid-October to the end of March.
Pack serious layers – you’ll be on deck in the Arctic for long periods.
Don’t expect colour – your camera will capture it but it is difficult for the naked eye to pick up in low light (I saw the aurora green at dusk when there was more daylight and off-white at other times).
Be patient – it’s possible to see the lights at any time from dusk, you won’t necessarily have to stay up late, but if it is cloudy you may not see them at all.
Hurtigruten’s Astronomy Voyage makes a 12-day return trip from Bergen, reaching the Northern Cape and turning at Kirkenes. It is booking now for next winter 2019/2020 from £1,517 full board. Several other voyages include the Northern Lights Promise with prices for the Classic Round Voyage for winter 2018/19 from £986 per person, cruise only.
You can book Hurtigruten cruises with award-wining Sussex & Kent travel agency Baldwins Travel Group which has branches in Lewes and Uckfield in East Sussex and Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Maidstone, Cranbrook, Sevenoaks and Tenterden in Kent.