Some tourist experiences are underwhelming (Los Angeles), some are middling (Eiffel Tower), and some completely deliver (Taj Mahal). The Northern Lights are definitely in the latter category.
A few years ago, in northern Sweden’s legendary Ice Hotel, I encountered this cosmic light show, aka the Aurora Borealis. As my party strolled outside to coo at the lights flashing across the night sky, the Japanese couples there rushed into the hotel. “They believe it’s auspicious to conceive while the Northern Lights are out,” said the phlegmatic hotel manager.
Whatever you think of that, there is something magical about the lights, and this year they’re at their most illuminated for 50 years. Your best chance to see them is at midnight, around the equinox in late September, and away from city lights.
In January, they were seen in Yorkshire but normally, you’ll have to press further north, as the aurora is most clearly visible above 65 degrees latitude, gifting the northern Scottish mainland, Orkney and Shetland with the best chances in the UK.
In Luosto in Arctic Finland the aurora appears on about 200 nights of the year
“There has been a fantastic amount of interest this year because of the special conditions,” says a spokesman for VisitScotland. “Our providers are stepping up.”
At the Pentland Lodge House guest house in Thurso, Liz Sutherland registers potential Aurora spotters, then contacts them when conditions are right. Other holiday locations claim great viewing, too, including a self-catering former RAF base, Saxa Vord Resort, on the northerly island of Unst.
Iceland, Norway and Canada
So viewing the Aurora is possible in the UK. But in truth, you’ll have better luck elsewhere. Try Iceland, Europe’s most westerly archipelago and a place of wintry magnificence where the lights often disport. Explorers’ Glaciers, Geysers & Northern Lights: Astronomy Kids package takes families to see the Icelandic skies and throws in an astronomy expert to help.
One of the more predictable ways of seeing the Lights is from a boat. The Hurtigruten coastal cruise offers a Hunting The Light package on the Norwegian coast, landing in Tromso and sailing up to the Russian border. (Beware: the days will be long and dark.)
In Canada’s Hudson Bay, there is a scientific research station where the aurora-watching Winter Skies learning vacation attracts chin-stroking groups of up to 16.
Fine views from Finland
But it seems to be Finland that has the measure of aurora tourism. In Luosto in Arctic Finland – where the aurora appears on about 200 nights of the year – is the Aurora Chalet Hotel via Guild Travel), where an Aurora alarm alerts guests to its appearance. The Aurora Hunters tour offers Aurora Borealis and photography tours in Finnish Lapland.
Igloo Village Kakslauttanen has views of the Northern Lights from glass igloos (the glass is thermal, so you’re in the warm), and RukaVillage in the Ruka ski resort has apartments with hot tubs from which visitors can wallow and watch the Northern Lights.
Specialist travel company Aurora Zone has launched ‘hunting’ trips to see the Northern Lights with dogsleds, skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles and minibuses. Good luck, and if you’re packing a camera, bring one with long exposures and a tripod. An iPhone won’t capture the lights in full flight.
And try not to get a room next to a Japanese couple.