TRAVEL: Lights fantastic
Take in the breathtaking Northern Lights from aboard a ship in the Arctic Circle
There are many ways of bringing in the New Year but seeing the Northern Lights from the deck of a ship in the Arctic Circle is an experience that is difficult to beat.
Once you have seen the night sky illuminated by glowing curtains of eerie colour against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, firework displays will always be a poor substitute.
Scientists say we are experiencing a peak in solar activity that creates this natural wonder, so there is no better time to go hunting the aurora borealis.
If you want to see the lights but are put off by the expense of travelling to remote polar regions where you have the best chance of a sighting, then consider taking a mini-cruise with Hurtigruten.
Since 1893 Hurtigruten (‘the express route’) have provided a daily passenger and freight service serving communities along Norway’s long and spectacular coastline. The 1300 mile journey visits 20 small ports and large cities including Tromso, famous as the start point for legendary polar expeditions including those by Roald Amudsen who is remembered by a statue and an exhibition in the city’s Polar Museum.
Along the way you can take in the breath-taking beauty of the Norwegian fjords and soak up the culture of the coastal peoples who use the Hurtigruten fleet as a floating bus service.
Life on board on the fleet of 12 comfortable ships is relaxed, warm and laid-back, with delicious food sourced from local products. If you are full board you can sample local salmon and reindeer from the lunchtime buffet, with a three course meal served every evening in the restaurant.
Each day you can choose to join a variety of excursions – from sight-seeing to adventures to snowmobile safaris - or simply sit back and take in the scenery from a comfortable seat in one of the glass observation lounges.
Nature lovers should keep a sharp look-out for whales, dolphins and 50 different species of birds including puffins, fulmars and cormorants. On one occasion we saw the magnificent sea eagle, or white-tailed eagle, which has a wingspan of 2 metres (7ft), swooping on its prey just yards from our deck.
To begin our journey, we flew to Bergen to join the MS Midnatsol (the midnight sun) the largest and newest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. With NASA reporting heightened solar activity, we hoped we would see the aurora en route to the capital of the Arctic. From Bergen we began a seven-day cruise that took us north beyond the Arctic Circle at 71 degrees north, with the crossing marked by the appearance of King Neptune on deck.
The journey took us through the Loften Islands with their clusters of fishermen’s cabins and past Nordkapp (the North Cape) - the most northerly point in Europe - to remote ice-bound Kirkenes, on the border with Russia.
Along the way we visited the city of Trondheim with its medieval cathedral and wooden merchant’s houses, admired ice sculptures inside a hotel made from snow, ate freshly-caught King crabs and joined an exhilarating dog-sledding expedition across a snowy hillside.
After several nights of murky weather we had begun to wonder if we would see the celebrated aurora borealis. But when the Midnatsol left Tromso the skies cleared. Just north of the city, as we were tucking into pudding in the ship’s restaurant, the crew announced ‘the aurora is here!’
After a mad scramble up four flights of stairs, we saw what resembled a volcanic eruption emerge from behind a snowy hillside to our starboard. An eerie streamer of yellow light seemed to rise from the sky, dropping chiffon-like curtains in its wake along an arch that appeared to soar above the northern horizon. Passengers crowded onto the upper deck of the ship to take in the majestic vision until the lights faded from view 40 minutes later.
Obtaining a good photograph of the aurora is not straightforward, but patience, warm weather gear and access to a good digital SLR camera and tripod helps. Fortunately, Hurtigruten provide everything from tips on photography to presentations on the science and mythology of the lights as part of the package.
It is possible to take the return journey south to Bergen, a round trip of 12 days in all, but we opted to fly home from Kirkenes.
But with ships sailing from twice a day, the programme is flexible and with a bit of forward planning it is possible to construct your own tailor-made light-hunting expedition.
Stay: David joined the MS Midnatsol for a 6-night/7 day cruise, overnighting at the Thon Hotel in Kirkenes, just 7km from the border with Russia.
Flight: Economy KLM flights to Bergen via Amsterdam start from £141. We returned from Kirkenes to Manchester via Oslo with Norwegian Air Shuttle.
Offer: Hurtigruten UK are currently offering two-for-one offers on its winter cruises starting from £433 per person on selected dates until March 2013. For more details visit: www.hurtigruten.co.uk/ or call 0203 642 1192.