Discover The Rivalry
In Search of the Light
Seeing the northern lights involves being in the right place at the right time. So how do you choose just where to take your chances?
WORDS SHANEY HUDSON
Seeing the northern lights is a lifelong dream for many, but the anticipation of planning a trip is usually accompanied by the angst of deciding precisely where you should try to see them. Luckily, the secret is to focus on the experience you’d like to have. Do you want the convenience of the city, a wild adventure on the frozen Arctic tundra or the gentle pitch and roll of a ship at sea?
Tromsø: city of auroras
Located at 70 degrees north, the city of Tromsø is surprisingly one of the best places to hedge your bets on seeing the northern lights. While light pollution can dim the aurora’s show, the Norwegian city is located under the aurora oval, the band of light that shines like a ring around the earth’s geomagnetic north pole. This makes it a destination offering one of the highest probabilities of seeing the lights, and a convenient departure point for a number of excursions, including cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Here, you can also get an appreciation for traditional Sámi culture, by taking a dog-sledding excursion to a lavvo (dwelling) to hear tales of the aurora guovssahas, or the light you can hear.
Dog sledding under the northern lights in Norway. Photo: Shutterstock
The beautiful and amazing northern lights dancing across the evening sky in Tromsø, Norway. Photo: Shutterstock
Snowshoeing is a popular activity during the northern lights season in Tromsø, Norway. Photo: Ørjan Bertelsen
Svalbard: into the wild
From early November until late January, the sun bids the island of Spitsbergen farewell, and it’s possible to see the northern lights at any time. What differentiates Svalbard from other places you can see the lights is its incredible wilderness. Located at 78 degrees north in polar bear country, aurora chasers can head out in the warmth and security of a snowcat from the township of Longyearbyen or in speed and stealth on an electric snowmobile across a frozen valley called Adventdalen. Those whose wanderlust leans more towards the heroic age of polar travel can help harness sled dogs, before mushing across the frozen river to the edge of the Arctic tundra, to watch the lights shimmer and shine across the night sky.
The northern lights in the mountains of Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen. Photo: Shutterstock
Iceland: through the frame
Known as the land of fire and ice, Iceland’s rich volcanic terrain, small population and spectacular glacial scenery make it a firm favourite with photographers keen to capture the aurora – especially since it’s visible for eight months of the year. However, the country’s auroral activity peak is during the equinoxes around October and late February/early March, when there is more solar activity. In the capital Reykjavik, the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, Harpa concert hall and local lighthouse all make excellent backdrops for photos of the aurora. Head away from the capital and you’ll discover black sand beaches scattered with boulders of glacial blue ice, frozen waterfalls and even the occasional erupting volcano against which to frame a dancing aurora.
Northern lights shining over Hallgrímskirkja cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo: Shutterstock
On board: northern lights by ship
The darker the sky, the brighter the northern lights. And there is no greater theatre of darkness than the open ocean, away from land-based light pollution. Northern lights cruises, where guests are able to take in an uninterrupted view of the aurora from the deck, have grown in popularity in the past few years. Generally, the captain will make announcements when the lights appear on the horizon, meaning guests can also stay warm inside their cabin until a solar storm begins. There’s also the opportunity to sign up for wake-up calls should the heavens put on a show in the early hours when most people are sleeping.
Guests enjoying the northern lights on deck. Photo: Agurtxane Concellon