The northern lights remain one of the most enigmatic sights in travel. But the Arctic winter (Oct-Mar) is not only the best time to go aurora hunting – it’s also the perfect season to forge out into the icy seas, wild tundra and boreal forests of the far north, leaving behind the Arctic Circle in search of ever-clearer vantage points just to see the northern lights. It’s a cosmic ballet that rarely fails to impress. But you can’t just live for the night, and with a wealth of trips combining seeing the lights with everything from whale-spotting to Arctic bushcraft, there’s plenty to impress even if the lights don’t come out to play…
1. Norway – See the lights ‘guaranteed’
Expert-led lectures and dark Norwegian skies form the backdrop for ‘guaranteed’ aurora-spotting on Hurtigruten’s Astronomy Voyage cruise. Pit-stops include the spectacular Northern Cape and one of the world’s most northerly towns (Hammerfest) en route to and from turning point Kirkenes. Indeed, the tour operator is so confident that you’ll see the lights on this 12-day cruise, they promise free trips to those who don’t see them.
When: 21 Mar, 16 Oct, 7 & 13 Nov 2017
How Long: 12 days
2. Sweden – Explore the Arctic Circle on two skis
Have an aurora adventure on KE Adventure’s Inside the Arctic Circle – Skiing the Kings Trail trip. Follow the route that stretches between Abisko NP and Kebnekaise Mountain (skiing about 15km a day), with the former’s sky station and pitch-black nights ideal for seeing the lights. The route demands basic-to- intermediate skiing ability and decent fitness, but its wild valleys and panoramic views en route are more than reward.
Who: KE Adventure
When: 17Feb, 3 Mar &10 Mar 2017
How long: 9 days
3. Alaska, USA – Walk with the Reindeer
Intrepid Travel’s Alaska Northern Lights tour mingles aurora hunting with wild encounters. Explore taiga forest in wild Denali NP before hitting Fairbanks to wander with reindeer at a ranch near the base of Moose Mountain, learning about the animals and their habitat.
Who: Intrepid Travel
When: 8 Feb & 4 Mar 2017
How Long: 8 days
As the year-end holiday season draws nearer, you might be wondering where to for your next winter holiday. We recommend Norway; an extraordinary city nestled within some of nature’s best wonders in the world, a vast adventure playground for the active enthusiasts, and an opportunity to witness the enthralling Northern Lights that will get most of your peers green with envy.
The bulk of your time should be spent within the Norway Svalbard islands, located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Here, you will find untouched arctic wilderness and wildlife within their natural yet rugged and fragile habitats. One fine example includes the polar bears. In addition to the thousands of polar bears living in this region, you will encounter the world’s northernmost settlements, with a population of approximately 3,000 people. Over 2,000 of these human inhabitants live in Longyearbyen, the administration centre and largest settlement of the islands. Though small, this colourful community awaits visitors with a surprising range of cultural activities and opportunities such as concerts, shows, festivals and exhibitions.
Dig deep into the rich history of Longyearbyen through various attraction visits to coal mines, local village and churches and the Svalbard Museum – featuring a complete exhibition on Svalbard’s history and present natural places in Arctic Norway. After which, uncover the future as you tour some research facilities and the global seed vault, the world’s largest seed storage, to learn of conservation efforts not only for the local community, but for the world.
Of course, no visit to the North Pole should go without Aurora Chasing. Join a snowmobile (or snowcat) tour and be captivated by the unique blue light that characterise the polar night. Northern Lights campsites are also set up in traditional Sami style to allow guest a full immersion experience. While waiting for the occurrence of the rare and mystifying Northern Lights, open fires are often seen and people gather to hear Arctic stories told by friendly and professional locals. When daylight comes, admire the gorgeous landscapes featuring snow-capped mountains and crystal-blue fjords while keeping an eye out for the arctic animals. If lady luck is not on your side, fret not. Husky sledge safari will give you an introduction to dog sledding with the famed and lovable Alaskan Huskies. At Trappers Station, there are 90 happy huskies eager to take you out for a ride.
End off your vacation with a relaxing city tour in Oslo, a metropolitan city with forests and fjord aplenty. As one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, you are bound to encounter eye-catching architecture popping up in town with an abundance of world-class museums, restaurants and art. Learn about the Norwegian history, culture and lifestyle within the many cultural institutions, including the Norwegian Opera &C Ballet, the National Theatre and the National Museum of Art. Despite being a seemingly bustling city, Oslo is able to maintain a relaxed atmosphere akin to a small town and that’s the charm of it.
Large it up in Austria (sort of)
If you’re all about going big or going home, then Austria’s Arlberg region might just be for you. We’re not talking boozy sessions – although there’s probably plenty of that too – but about big investment, namely the £35m that’s been spent on the area. And what do you get for your 35m big ones? The largest interconnected ski area in Austria, and what will be one of the largest ski areas in the whole world, that’s what. At the heart of it all are big infrastructure improvements – forget bumping along in a bus, instead there are four new lifts helping to link the resorts of St Anton and Lech, opening up 306km of downhill runs accessed with 87 lifts (all covered by a single pass). That’s one way to live it large.
Ski and sail in Norway
Can’t decide whether to splash your cash on a skiing adventure or a sailing adventure? It’s a tough life. Or is it? With Another World Adventures you can combine both on one epic, seven-night jaunt through the Lyngen Alps, northern Norway’s top ski destination. During the day you’ll be taking on the region’s natural surroundings, while evenings will be spent recuperating on deck, tucking into Norwegian cuisine and getting your nude on in the hot tub. Maybe. When you’re not soaking in hot water you’ll be exploring the harbour towns of Koppangen, Norlenangen, and Lyngseidet before a night in Tromsö, aka the ‘Paris of the north’. Head back to the boat and you’ll be rocked to sleep by the waves, ready to climb to the summits and ski down to the snow-covered beaches the next day. Nice.
What happens when Europe’s biggest ski festival and Coors Light get together and up sticks to Canada? A massive music fest on the slopes of Sun Peaks Resort, British Columbia, silly. Taking place from 6-10 April, the full-on event is sure to feature the same key elements that Snowbombing Europe has become famous for – slope-side pool parties, elaborately designed stages, debauchery. The usual.
The party bus of big acts is yet to be announced, but last year’s festival (featuring the likes of the Prodigy and Andy C) has set our hopes high – 2,152m high to be exact. Expect gladed areas, bumps, steeps, long cruisers and alpine bowls – perfect for post-fest recovery.
The indigenous people of the Arctic Circle had some interesting ideas about what sparked the northern lights. In Finland, they attributed the aerial light show to a magical fox who sprayed snow into the sky with his tail. The Sámi people, from what is now Lapland, believed the lights were the souls of the departed, while Labrador Inuits believed they were a result of the dead playing football with a walrus skull in the sky. The Norwegians, on the other hand, thought that the aurora borealis was caused by the spirits of old maids dancing in the heavens-a belief their Viking descendants took with them to Scotland when they settled there.
Wherever and whenever they occur, the northern lights always inspire awe in the human witnesses below. Even today, when we know what causes them (charged particles from the sun striking atoms in our atmosphere), seeing the night sky come to life with shimmering sheets of celestial fire still retains much of the mystery that enthralled our ancestors.
If you’re planning an aurora-seeking adventure of your own, Regent Holidays’ Arctic specialists can help you create a bespoke itinerary to Iceland, Greenland, Lapland or Norway. Each destination has its own fascinating culture to explore and a very special way to see the lights.
Foreign visitors per year: 520,000
Main town: Tromso
Languages: Norwegian, Sami
Major industries: oil and gas, aquaculture, minerals, tourism
Unit of currency: Norwegian krone (Nkr)
Cost index: glass of Arctic Beer Nkr60 (US$10), hotel double per night Nkr750-1400 (US$125-233), Sami reindeer hide Nkr500 (US$83), dog-sledding excursion Nkr1250 (US$208).
Hey, who turned out the lights? Land of the midnight sun and the wizard’s wand spectacle of the aurora borealis, Northern Norway is always light fantastic, but in 2015 all light disappeared totally for a couple of minutes when the moon blocks out the sun. Put 20 March in your diary and book your ticket to this epic blackout. The best place to witness one of the most stunning celestial events of the century? The frozen wilderness of Svalbard, an archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole, where polar bears outnumber people. If you missed the total solar eclipse, you’ve got a long wait – the next one in Europe will be in 2026.
Not only the weather is cool north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. Base yourself in party-loving Tromso, home to the world’s northernmost university, to hit some of its happening jazz bars after a day spent reindeer sledding. Bodo, too, is both gorgeously remote and surprisingly hip, with new-wave Scandi restaurants like Smak reinventing the culinary scene, clubs like Dama Di ramping up the nightlife and London-based street artist Phlegm making a splash on the city streets. Northern Norway is where the wild things are in more ways than one.
The Sami host a week of traditional festivities in early February — the highlight is the reindeer-racing championships.
Spandex-clad runners hit the streets of Tromso at 70°N for the Midnight Sun Marathon in late June.
Bodo swings into summer at the Nordland Music Festival in August, a 10-day bash of classical, jazz, rock and folk music.
You’ll need to slip into a dry-suit and dive into the frozen sea to catch king crab in Kirkenes from December to April, but it might just be the best crab you’ve ever tasted.
Northern Norway is going to blow your mind with its heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes of glaciers and fjord-riven mountains, all bathed in crystal-clear light. Welcome to one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. Experiences like crossing the Arctic Circle as the aurora borealis comes out to play, spotting polar bears – not too close, mind – on the icy tundra of Spitsbergen and eating reindeer stew in a fire-warmed Sami lavoo tent will be etched on your memory for ever more. Spend a while lapping up the gentle island pace in Kjerringoy, watching sea eagles wheel and whales splash around in the ocean in the Tolkienesque Lofoten Islands, and hiking in the glacial grandeur of the Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park and you may never want to leave, we swear.
Where the northern lights shine so too does Sami culture. The indigenous Sami have been in Northern Norway longer than anyone, their lives shaped by the seasons and the migratory patterns of reindeer herding. Technological advances (snowmobiles and helicopters to track reindeer, for instance) aside, the Sami way of life remains rooted in tradition. They have their own language, parliament, dress and dwellings – the tepee-like, reindeer-skin-clad lavoo. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into one, you’ll probably be treated to a joik or two. Sung from the heart, these soulful, enigmatic poems are often odes to friends and family, defined more by rhythm than rhyme.
Reindeer, stewed Sami-style with juniper berries, wild mushrooms, sour cream and thyme (finnbff), or roast (reinsdyrstek), is a red-meat treat, as are elk burgers and steaks. An oddity on the Norwegian breakfast table, brunost is a cheese that is, well, not actually cheese but sweetish, brownish, fudgy whey. Yum, huh? Simply slice and layer onto dense rye bread. The fish from icy Arctic waters are top quality, and just-caught cod and salmon never taste better than simply grilled on an open fire and served by a fjord. Cloudberries (moltebcer) are the one thing that is worth braving mosquito-infested swamps for, locals say. These golden berries make wickedly tangy mousses and ice creams. Polish off a meal with aquavit, a caraway-flavoured potato liqueur.
As natural phenomena go, Saltstraumen plays in the premier league. Like the whirlpool of Nordic giants, this soul-stirring wonder is the world’s strongest tidal current, with 400 million cu metres of water rushing through a sound that links two fjords at speeds of up to 20 knots (37km/h). For a thrill, notch up the speed bouncing past it at close range in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat), with the silver-grey ripple of mountains a beautiful blur on the horizon.
The aurora borealis is Mother Nature’s greatest light show – a firework-like display lighting winter skies at some of the planet’s darkest latitudes. Named after the Roman goddess of dawn (Aurora) and the northerly wind (borealis), it occurs when charged particles from the sun are magnetically deflected to the Earth’s polar regions, releasing light as they collide with the atmosphere. Most displays are green, but some include reds, blues, pinks and violets.
The lights are most dependably seen at latitudes north of 60° N, on clear, cloudless nights between September and April. They’re sometimes visible as far south as Scotland, but are most usually sighted in northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Russia, Alaska and Canada. Though you might see the aurora anywhere within the Arctic Circle, Abisko in Sweden, Tromsø in Norway and Nellim in Finland are popular spots to track them.
The Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca believed the green bands to be giant holes in the sky.
Viking sailors reputedly held that the lights were the Valkyries (Odin’s fair maidens) galloping across the heavens.
Inuits imagined the lights represented the spirits of their family and friends dancing in the next life.
Fishermen in northern Sweden once deemed the phenomena a good omen, and a sign of rich catches.
Seeing the aurora is never guaranteed, but head away from urban areas and light pollution, pick a clear, starry night and find a good vantage point, such as a hilltop or lakeside. Also, check if your hotel has a wake-up service, to alert you if the lights appear.
“Here I stand at the North Cape, the outermost point of Finnmark. I could even say that this is the end of the entire world,” wrote Francesco Negri, the 17th-century traveller who first made it to Norway’s Northern Cape, the northernmost point of mainland Europe.
Jutting out into the Arctic Ocean, it long remained a romantic but remote winter destination, reached only by a daily, snowplough-led convoy. This year, however, there’s a new way to arrive: a snowmobile trip.
Run by experts Destinasjon 71° Nord, it embarks from Honningsvåg, a picturesque village set on the mouth of a fjord. On the evening journey, travellers fuel up with a three-course meal before donning the snuggest polar gear and setting off across the Finnmark plateau, a silent, eerily beautiful expanse of fjords and plains – illuminated, with any luck, by the northern lights.
At around midnight, adventurers arrive at the glowing globe that marks the Cape, and toast their success with champagne in the visitor centre, where there are also films and exhibits to see, before heading to bed. The journey back after breakfast the next day is just as unforgettable, speeding over undulating, fjord-pleated scenery bathed in unearthly Arctic light.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Destinasjon 71° Nord’s guided ‘Midnight Expedition’ includes dinner, midnight snacks, breakfast and one night’s stay in simple rooms; a five-hour daytime version, without these, is from £215. Quote ‘Lonely Planet Traveller’ when booking either tour for a 15% discount on the price.
Norwegian and SAS fly to Alta from various UK airports, via Oslo, with flights on to Honnigsvåg via Wideroe. It’s also a three-hour drive from Alta, via a scenic, sea-skirting road.
From incredible gorges and canyons, to pure blue coasts, mysterious castles and bridges, unusual natural formations, great wine trails, and trains with stellar views, we unearth experiences in Europe you won’t find on an ordinary tourist map.
The name conjures images of icy fjords, Viking longboats, and trolls. But these icons of Norway tell only part of the story. While the landscape is still largely dominated by a long, snowy winter, Norway’s northern climate is moderated greatly by a wealthy society placing a heavy premium on convenience, beauty, and accessibility for all. Yesteryear’s marauding Vikings are today’s well-mannered hydroelectric engineers, so the nation has the intellectual know-how to make theirs not merely a highly desirable nation in which to live but a great year-round destination for travelers. From art, culture, and history to the world’s best hiking, biking, and skiing, Norway has much to offer.
Visiting Hardanger is the only way to understand why artists have drawn inspiration from the surrounding landscapes with thundering waterfalls or colourful fruit trees in full bloom. The landscape of Hardanger is like a picture postcard or a painting in an art gallery—everywhere you look, there is yet another stunning view. Fruits have been grown here since the 14th century, and for hundreds of years artists and travelers have come here to get close to nature. Hardanger is surrounded by five large waterfalls that frame the scenery like a painted masterpiece. Each waterfall has its own distinct character, and their majestic power exert an almost hypnotic attraction that can only be fully understood when you experience them in person.
SNOW WALLS OF SOGNEFJELLET
For those who love long drives, this is a special treat. The road over Sognefjellet was an important transport artery linking the coast and inland areas. Trading led to the transport of salt and fish eastwards while butter, pitch, and leather were transported west. Travelling across the mountain in the old days was not without its perils—vagabonds robbed travelers and merchants. But now, this route offers an incredible sight in early spring when the road is open again, and is flanked by almost 10-metre high banks of snow. That’s not the only gorgeous view you see on the road.
From the verdant meadows and the lush cultural landscape of Boverdalen, you can catch a glimpse of towering mountains in the far distance, as the road slowly ascends through the valley. It makes its way up to the summit at 1,434 metres, making the road northern Europe’s highest mountain pass. Continuing down towards the Sogneord the mountain region appears untamed. Where the Hurrungane massif towers up to the heavens the mountains suddenly open up and the landscape changes once again. Towards Gaupne, the final point on this stretch, the road descends to skirt the beautiful Sognefjord whose clear waters change colour from green to blue in tune with the light and the weather. What should you do when you arrive? Relax and let your impressions sink in. Some people turn and drive the same way back, and are surprised to see how different everything is. Although everything is the same, it’s as if you see the surroundings anew.
FISHING BRIDGES AT MYRBAERHOLMEN
“The Atlantic road is physically out in the sea. I’m driving on the coastal road from Vevang towards Averoya. Stone, islets, islands and eight bridges spread over an equal number of kilometres. It’s just one of the dramatic roads in Norway. The swells come rolling in from the big sea, the waves are broken and thrown up in the air. It’s a dramatic picture, even on a day with sunshine.
When Mother Nature really shows off her strength, the waves beat over the bridges and the asphalt is torn off the road, while the cod swim along the barriers.” This is how the Norwegian photographer Baard Loeken describes the Atlantic Road in his book Hjemlandet (The Homeland). Historically, the conditions on the islets have been the very best for salting and drying of cod, and for this reason a lot of people chose to live on these windswept islands. A hundred years ago, the politicians planned to build a railway here, but the plans were abandoned in the 1930s. The idea to build a road instead was born. Construction work started in the 1980s. Twelve storms later, in 1989, the road was officially opened.
At Myrbaerholmen Bridge, there are two fishing bridges, which mean sports fishermen can haul in cod without being a hindrance to traffic. Come here for one of the most authentic Nordic experiences.
TRAINS WITH THE BEST VIEWS OF NORWAY
There’s a more spectacular way to see The Northern Lights and other Nordic delights… from Norway’s gorgeous trains.
Takes you to a fairy tale kingdom with views from different altitudes—as the train goes over mountains and valleys.
This is a way to experience all of Norway in just one hour. The line runs from the high mountain station of Myrdal down to Flam beside the Aurland4ord. The scenery changes constantly — steep mountainsides to snowcapped peaks, rivers, waterfalls and lush fjord landscape.
THE RAUMABANEN RAILWAY
You pass Dombas, Romsdalsfjord and Europe’s tallest vertical rock face: the Trollveggen wall which is 1000m high.
THE NORDLAND NIGHT TRAIN RIDE ON
Voted the most beautiful train ride in the world. At Saltfejellet you cross the arctic circle. In winter you can enjoy the Northern Lights from this train. In summer, you can marvel at the brilliant Midnight Sun.
Take advantage of guided walks through wildlife reserves and daily game drives in search of tigers and leopards in Nepal. Get in touch with nature by staying in tents and eat outside with binoculars in hand. A mixture of marshland and grassland habitats attracts as many as 500 avian species to the country, including the stunning Himalayan monal, the national bird of Nepal. A great place to spot feathered friends is Koshi Tappu National Park, a birdwatcher’s paradise. But if birds aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other wildlife to get excited about, such as sloth bears, crocodiles, elephants and swamp deer.
The biodiversity hotspot of Madagascar is where many wildlife enthusiasts make their pilgrimage. The island is teeming with endemic species and new animals are being discovered all the time. Perhaps that’s what makes Madagascar so exciting; the guidebooks are constantly being rewritten. One of the most recognisable animals is of course the lemur. There are 101 species of lemur living on the island, all of which are found nowhere else in the world. It’s possible to get guided lemur tours and witness their natural behavior, or you can go on safari and experience all the wildlife Madagascar has to offer.
Costa Rica is a haven for sea turtles. It’s a great place to go and experience first-hand the life cycle of one of Earth’s most ancient creatures. During nesting season, turtles line the coasts, laying dozens of eggs to bury beneath the sand for safety.
The six species have different nesting seasons at different sites. There are always turtles laying eggs somewhere in Costa Rica, which means there are almost always hatchlings emerging. The coasts of Costa Rica are strongholds for these turtles, particularly the leatherback sea turtle that has declined by 90 per cent since 1980, and much conservation work goes on here.
Its possible to stand back and take in the sight of hundreds of small turtles making their frantic dash to the sea, or you can volunteer for one of the many organisations working to protect the turtle’s future.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago and one of the best places to see polar bears and other iconic Arctic wildlife. Race across the snowy tundra in the company of an experienced guide and take in the astonishing beauty of the icy landscape and secluded fjords. Many companies offer snowmobile safaris, giving you the opportunity to witness wild polar bears roaming the ice in their natural habitat.
You’re not guaranteed to see a bear but to increase your chances, it’s best to visit in the summer, before the ice freezes over and the dark days draw in.
Zig-zagging across the ice sheets on a snowmobile means you won’t have to rely on husky-drawn sleds, giving the dogs a break. If you’re lucky, you may even fit in seeing the Northern Lights.
Few places will capture the imagination quite like the jungles of Malaysia. With dozens of places offering eco-friendly accommodation, you can immerse yourself in the wilderness. Sanctuaries such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre teach rescued orangutans how to live in the wild. Simply pay them a visit or sign up for a volunteer placement.
Why it’s a hot spot: The Antarctic is a good feeding ground for orcas and it is estimated that half the world’s population (around 25,000) reside there. Tours circle the Antarctic Peninsula in search of dorsal fins cutting through waves, or to witness orcas crashing into icebergs to knock unsuspecting sea lions into the water where they can be devoured.
Where to see: Tours of the peninsula from Argentina’s Ushuaia are popular, with sightings of minke and humpback whales common. Trips from New Zealand to the Ross Sea in the eastern Antarctic are also rich with orcas.
When to go: February-March
Why it’s a hot spot: Neither heavy in numbers nor easy to spot, the lure of Patagonia’s orcas is their sophisticated hunting technique. Witness the lobos (meaning wolves, a local nickname given to the area’s predatory orcas) gulp down sea lion pups after purposely beaching themselves at high tide in order to capture their prey.
Where to see: Viewings are mainly land-based, with the beaches of Caleta Valdes, Punta Delgada and Punta Norte all good viewing spots.
When to go: March-April (Punta Norte) and September-October (Punta Delgada and Caleta Valdes)