A sighting of the northern lights features high on many a cruiser’s bucket list. It certainly did on mine. Luckily, winter voyages to Norway to chase the lights have become more and more popular in recent years – they are now offered by lines including P&O Cruises, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Saga and Fred. Olsen, while Norway’s Hurtigruten fleet of working ships sails up and down the west coast between Bergen and Kirkenes every day of the year.
The aurora borealis is an elusive phenomenon. Sightings aren’t guaranteed. You have to be patient and vigilant. The first time I got lucky, the skies had been overcast for three days and there seemed little hope. It was January; dark, cold and snowy up beyond Honningsvåg, deep inside the Arctic Circle. I signed up for a snowmobiling tour, which involved charging through the night, far away from the ship, across an eerie, snow-covered landscape, trying to follow the tracks of the snowmobile in front. Swaddled in Arctic gear, snow boots, gloves and a big crash helmet, I was too focused on my driving to look at the sky.
We shot up a small, snow-covered hill and the guide stopped. “Look!” he exclaimed, pointing heavenwards. The clouds had vanished. Great curtains of coloured light were rippling, glowing, fading and reappearing, first green, then white, then tinged with pink. The sky seemed vast, alive with this incredible celestial display. I can safely say it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. All the way back to the ship, I craned my head skywards. The show continued late into the night, passengers huddled on deck once we’d set sail, ooh-ing and aah-ing with delight.
You don’t have to brave a snowmobile to see the lights. Cruise lines offer night tours ashore where they set up camp and wait for a sighting, picking the location at the last minute according to local advice on where the chances are best. You may have a long wait, but with hot chocolate, cake and a roaring fire inside a lavvu (a kind of tepee used by the Sami people in the north), there are worse ways to spend an evening. On a Saga cruise last winter, we were rewarded with a stunning show of dancing lights on one such tour. The lights reappeared as we sailed from Alta; the captain made an announcement during dinner that they could see the aurora from the bridge and everybody in the dining room leapt up, abandoning their dessert and rushing up on-deck to view the spectacle.
There are no guarantees, but to get the best chance of a sighting these are my tips.
- Sail in the Arctic winter, of course, between late September and early March. Pick a cruise that goes as far north as possible. The best time for a sighting is usually between 6pm and 1am and the best conditions are cold, dry weather. Some cruise lines offer to wake you in the night if there is some activity, so make sure your cabins PA is on.
- Try to avoid full moon, as it is too bright, although you can still see the aurora then.
- If you want to photograph the lights you will need a tripod and a wide angle lens. But don’t waste your time trying to capture the phenomenon on a mobile phone. Just taking it all in with the naked eye is an unforgettable and deeply moving experience.