There are some sights that capture the imagination, and fill you with the sense that there ARE more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Horatio), and however scientifically minded you are, seeing the northern lights, or aurora borealis, for the first time is magical. Just because we now know that it's not the gods doing it, but a particles caught in the solar wind colliding with air molecules in the earth's atmosphere, doesn't make these multicoloured displays much less magical. See them for yourself by venturing northwards into Iceland, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska or Lapland, or see them in luxury on an astronomy cruise.
There are websites that predict where the best conditions for seeing the northern lights will be, but essentially even the experts recommend heading north and waiting. You can venture out on the ice, but you don't need to, and if you're travelling alone the best thing to do is to choose a spot with a reputation for picturesque aurora displays and hope for the best.
The residents of Tromso, Tysfjord and Svalbard in Norway, Lake Superior and Churchill in Canada, Kiruna in Sweden and Oulu in Finland are all treated to regular displays, so seeing the northern lights can be as easy as spending a few nights in one of these chilly, but pretty northern towns.
Even if you're travelling alone the best way to maximise your chances of seeing the lights is to go out in the evening with a guide in a small group. Kjetil Skogli, who runs his business out of Tromso comes recommended because he takes groups out in a bus looking for the lights, while many other companies are based in a single location just out of Tromso.
At sea there's no light pollution to spoil the crisp, clear sky views, so a cruise along the coast of Norway by Tromso and Trondheim, along the south coast of Greenland or along the top of Siberia, Canada or Alaska can be a comfortable way to see the northern lights. The Gulfstream keeps Norway's northern coast ice free, and there are lots of little towns along the fjords here, so this is probably the smoothest option.
Specialist sky watching cruises are best because they'll have astronomers or other experts on board, and all the preparation needed to get you the best view is taken care of by someone else. They are also often on smaller vessels which also keeps the light pollution down.
The Jukkasjarvi Icehotel isn't just a hotel made of ice that melts and is rebuilt every year in a different way: thus, probably the world's most comfortable igloo - at 200 kms above the line of the Swedish Arctic Circle, it's also an ideal base for seeing the northern lights. They can even arrange to take you out onto the tundra on a sleigh lead by sled dogs. Hotel Kakslauttanen is 150 kms north of the line of the Arctic Circle, and famous for its unique accommodation: igloos made of snow and glass which are perfect for stargazing indoors. On the edge of the Urho Kekkonen National Park, at Hotel Kakslauttanen you can also dine in the world's largest snow restaurant and test out the world's largest smoke sauna, and between late August and late April this hotel is in prime position for some spectacular aurora borealis action. The Hotel Ranga, about two hours drive from Reykjavik in southern Iceland is the other hotel famous amongst northern lights enthusiasts. Its remote, rural location on a ridge gives it 360 degree, uninterrupted views, and it has in-house experts who'll help newer aurora watchers.
The Abisko National Park in Swedish Lapland is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. As well as being perfectly positioned it's also very dry, equalling virtually cloud free skies. The Kungsleden Trail passes through the national park, on its month long route crossing Sweden's remote northern wilds, but the most northerly week of the walk has the best access to the northern light show, and can also be done of skis in winter. If that sounds too adventurous, journey up to the Abisko Mountain Station just for the evening.
If you can't manage the time or the expense you can try and see the lights from the air on a three hour flight run out of the UK. This method only has about an 80% success rate, but in most cases includes a lights lecture before you go.
Light shows vary from greening tinges on the horizon to dancing, multicoloured curtains of light fanning across the sky. Even when conditions seem perfect there's still no way to guarantee seeing a show but to be patient and keep coming back night after night. The most dramatic northern light shows generally happen over the darkest months, between November and February, though they can be seen as early as late August, and as late as April. The further north, and away from the lights of civilisation, that you go the better your chances of seeing a good show. The phases of the moon also make a difference to other lights in the sky, so if you can, plan your viewing to coincide with the new moon.
BUT the good news is that statistics suggest that 2010 is going to be the most active year for the conditions that cause the northern lights for a long time.
To get the best photos of the northern lights you need to use an exposure time of between 10 and 20 seconds which means you definitely need to pack your tripod. Digital cameras with the fastest wide angle lenses will capture the best memories for you. It might be an obvious thing to say, but more is more when it comes to choosing your perfect northern lights watching outfit.
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