What are the Northern Lights?
In myth, the Aurora Borealis was thought to be spirits and souls dancing across the sky, or a fox sweeping his tail across the landscape spraying snow up into the sky. In reality this spectacular light show is triggered by a high speed collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the Earth's upper atmosphere. This causes the rarefied gases there to glow green, red and purple across the sky in an enchanting display.
The first part of an auroral display usually comes from the east, as the earth rotates into the area of maximum activity. You'll most likely see a pale green column first, but this may then grow into billowing sheets. If you're really lucky, the whole sky will be full of curving, twisting shapes. The formations can arise at any moment, filling the sky at an incredible speed.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
With the Midnight Sun bathing the Arctic in up to 24 hours of daylight in the summer, your best opportunity to see the lights is in the winter months when the sky is dark. Aurora activity is most commonly witnessed between the months of September and April, preferably under a clear, cloudless sky between 9pm and 3am.
One of the greatest barriers to witnessing the Northern Lights is cloud cover, as they are simply not visible when it is overcast. January and February are often considered to be the best months to go in search of the Northern Lights due to the clearer skies, but of course there are no guarantees - and some say the autumn equinox and lack of winter snow clouds in September makes autumn one of the best times to go.
Where can you see the Northern Lights?
To further increase your chances of experiencing the Northern Lights, experts recommend spending as long as you can around the Arctic Circle in an area known as the auroral oval. The auroral oval moves around depending on the level of geomagnetic activity, but northern Norway, the North Cape and Lapland are your best bet.
Within this area, the Northern Lights may be seen almost every night, but are seen less and less as you travel south. You should also get away from any light pollution, which is why an Arctic expedition cruise is perfect, taking you away from towns and cities.
The Best Luxury Northern Lights Cruises
Ponant have just announced a brand-new programme of never-before-seen itineraries on the magnificent Le Commandant Charcot, venturing beyond the Arctic Circle in Norway in the boreal winter.
There's the option to discover the remote North Cape just as winter approaches with a chance to see the awe-inspiring Northern Lights during autumn and explore the beautiful Lofoten Islands, with Ponant's Northern Lights itineraries that take place between September and March 2024-2025.
Silversea have long been front runners when it comes to pairing luxury with expedition, and Silversea offer a few choice sailings that combine the best standards of food, service and comfort with seeing the Northern Lights on exciting shore excursions.
Explore on a Reykjavik round trip in September 2024 on the stunning expedition ship Silver Endeavour, visiting beautiful Greenland and Iceland shrouded in autumn colours before winter sets in - visiting during this time means longer days and more bearable temperatures - or go one up and end in New York via stops in remote Canadian next September.
More focussed on experience rather than luxury - but still offering a supremely comfortable experience - AE Expeditions' (previously Aurora Expeditions) voyages are tailor-made for adventurous travellers, with experienced and enthusiastic onboard expedition teams including naturalists, historians and geologists.
AE Expeditions will chase the lights on Greg Mortimer, which has a revolutionary X-BOW design, on 9 September 2024, on their Northern Lights Explorer itinerary. This spectacular 17-night voyage that explores UNESCO-listed Vega Island in Jan Mayen - home to the northernmost active volcanic in the world - Greenland's Scoresbysund and Iceland's remote fjords. Many experts swear that this is the best time to view the aurora, with autumn bringing fewer obscuring snow clouds overhead in the night sky than winter and the autumn equinox bringing greater solar activity. Expect everything from bird watching and whale watching to Zodiac cruises, stepping out each evening to view - with luck - the dazzling aurora.
Specialising in polar expedition travel, Quark's 'Sail and Soar' 9- and 10-night Greenland itineraries on Ultramarine on the 14th and 23rd September 2024 offer chances to immerse yourself in Greenland - including exploring via helicopter rides (extra supplement applies) - in the Northeast Greenland National Park.
The world's largest national park, it covers 375,000 square miles of uninhabited Arctic wilderness and is home to wildlife including polar bears, Arctic hares and musk oxen, and walrus, beluga whale and narwhal around the coast. Whilst this is not a specific Northern Lights tour as such, most of Greenland lies within the Arctic Circle, making it a prime location for watching the aurora borealis as you step out on deck.
One couldn't claim Hurtigruten Expeditions as luxury, but we couldn't not mention them on this list of the best Northern Lights cruises. With over 100 years of experience, on board a Hurtigruten expedition ship you can expect expert lecturers, naturalist guides and zodiacs to facilitate trips ashore, along with comfortable cabins, a fresh Nordic style and a relaxed ambience.
Hurtigruten Expeditions offer monthly departures of their 14-night Northern Lights Expedition Cruises from both London and Amsterdam between November 2023 and April 2024 on 528-guest MS Maud, extensively refurbished in 2021, where you'll head north above the Arctic Circle, visiting destinations like Tromso, the beautiful Lofoten Islands and Narvik with activities like dog sledding, hiking, kayaking and snowshoeing on offer.
What can you do on a Northern Lights cruise?
You can combine a Northern Lights cruise with a range of exciting activities and excursions, such as visiting a snow hotel, husky sledding or even snowmobiling through the frozen landscape. Make sure you read Sharon's review of her trip with Hurtigruten for an idea of what a Northern Lights cruise involves.
What to pack for a Northern lights cruise
First and foremost - wear layers! We recommend a cosy base layer, like wool or silk, followed by a fleecey item or two for insulation (because it really does get this cold!) and waterproof trousers are a must as a third layer to keep you dry. Make sure that your insulated jacket is windproof too with plenty of room for you to move around in. Take a hat and gloves to keep your head and fingers warm and plenty of thick, woolly socks.
As for your downtime on the ship, expedition cruises tend to embody a more relaxed approached to on-board attire, thus you'll likely not need gowns and jackets for dinners, with normal holiday wear being perfectly acceptable.
Next up, don't forget to take your binoculars! You will likely need them to hone in on the incredible wildlife and terrain.
A good camera is a must have for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and make sure that you have enough batteries and memory cards while you're exploring because there likely won't be any way of buying more. Nothing worse than your camera breaking down when you're in Iceland just as you spot a killer whale in the distance.
How do you photograph the Northern Lights?
As you stand beneath one of nature's most sought-after nights you'll certainly want to snap a photograph or two to take back home with you. Some recommended equipment for keen photographers includes a tripod and cable, with longer lenses useful for tighter compositions. Taking off any lens filters, including the UV filter, is key to avoiding aberration on your images. Adjusting your aperture to as wide as your lens allows and switching from auto-focus to manual will help you to take a perfect photograph.
Aside from the actual "taking" of a photograph, the hallmark of a successful photo is its composition. You can, of course, take a photo of the striking green sky but to show it in the context of your surroundings will enhance and add a new dimension to the picture. Are you, for instance, near a forest, a lake or a mountain range? Experiment with your angles and you'll be a landscape photographer in no time!
Of course, there is no perfect set of rules for photographing the Northern Lights, as the quality of photos is reliant on light; thus there are elements of trial-and-error involved. However, experimenting with photography is half the fun, and no two auroras are the same, so play around with your settings and you'll find that you come away with a set of interesting and unique photographs.