A guide to the best northern lights cruises for 2015 and 2016, with no-fly
itineraries and trips including winter activities such as dog-sledding
Our fascination with nature’s grand illuminations never wavers. An Arctic Circle cruise not only brings the Northern Lights within reach, but also offers a holiday that’s enjoyable in so many other ways, not least through participation in some truly out-of-the-ordinary excursions and activities.
The Northern Lights can be seen from anywhere in the far northern hemisphere. Only last week, displays were visible in Scotland and northern England. Although present year-round, they can only really be seen when the sky is dark at night – from mid-September to early April.
Much has been said about the intensity and regularity of the Lights – or the aurora borealis. The phenomenon is caused by particles on the solar wind interacting with those in the Earth’s atmosphere, but the extent of the display depends on activity on the surface of the Sun, measured over an 11-year cycle. Solar activity has been at its maximum over the past two winters, resulting in some spectacular displays.
So is it still worth going? Although the Sun’s cycle may have peaked, its descent into a quieter phase is long and gradual and there’s no reason why dynamic displays should not be seen for at least a couple of years to come. Sightings are not unknown even at times of a solar minimum; conversely, when there is a lot of cloud cover, say, you may not see the aurora during a solar max.
Most Northern Lights-themed cruises sail to northern Norway, where the aurora appears regularly and the climate is relatively benign, or to Iceland. In 2016, four cruise lines will be operating trips (scroll down), all departing and ending in Britain and of 11-15 days’ duration. Less-visited by British tourists than the usual northern lights routes around Norway, are the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both of which offer excellent viewing potential.
Lesser-visited by British tourists than the usual northern lights routes around Norway, Greenland makes for an excellent viewing ground.
An alternative to sailing from Britain is to take a cruise with Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal service that operates daily, year-round. Several different route segments are possible; all involve flying, but a short break is an option.
For the ex-UK cruises, all Norway routes offer one or two-night stays in Alta to give the best possible chance of seeing the aurora from land. Tromso is another key stop. Both of these small cities are in the Northern Lights “prime zone” and, apart from majestic settings, have plenty of other diversions such as museums, shops and cafes.
Of course, you don’t need to be on land to see the aurora; in fact, away from light pollution, some of the most intense displays can be seen from ship decks.
All the cruises in this part of the world call at towns and cities that are beguiling in winter. Depending on your route, these may include Bergen, the maritime home of Edvard Grieg; the Viking-history-rich Stavanger; Andalsnes, surrounded by mountains; and Honningsvag, gateway to the North Cape.
All routes offer scenic cruising with sights including the Lofoten Wall, the Seven Sisters mountains and Torghatten, the granite peak with a hole through its centre. Most voyages are timed outside the coldest, darkest months, so you can appreciate the low sun playing on the pristine landscapes during daylight hours. Daytime temperatures in the north are surprisingly mild, with Tromso typically above freezing in late February.
Hurtigruten ships call at 34 ports between Bergen and Kirkenes near the Russian border, ranging from key cities to tiny, isolated hamlets. Some stops are for just 15 minutes, while others are for a few hours.
The classic round-trip from Bergen with Hurtigruten takes 12 days, but you can choose either the north or southbound sector. Another popular option is a five or six-day round trip from Tromso. During 2016, Hurtigruten has five special astronomical voyages accompanied by a British scientist.
So confident is the line that passengers will see the aurora on its 12-day voyage that it is offering a free six or seven-day cruise as compensation if it does not appear (conditions apply). The Northern Lights were seen on virtually all qualifying journeys last winter.
In addition to ferrying cruise passengers, Hurtigruten’s vessels are working ships. Standard cabins are quite basic but the lounges and restaurant are spacious. The food served is nourishing but with little choice, and entertainment is limited.
If you prefer creature comforts and on-board entertainment, the trips from the UK are the ones to choose. The ships have a choice of restaurants and bars along with theatres and show lounges.
The Northern Lights are just one reason to head north in winter. The others are the activities found only in Arctic regions. The most popular is dogsledding, available at Tromso and Alta. This involves sitting on a sled while the handler stands behind, with a team of huskies pulling you across the snow. A slightly more sedate experience can be had on a reindeer-pulled sled.
Another option is snowmobiling, on which you’ll be given instruction and a safety briefing before following a lead vehicle through valleys and forests. A visit to the Sorrisniva igloo hotel near Alta – with the possibility of an overnight stay – is another possibility. (Note: some activities may not be available before Christmas due to lack of snow.)
Also at Alta – said to be the home of the Northern Lights because of its special observatory, on the top of Mt Haldd) – you could visit a settlement of the indigenous, reindeer-herding Sami for an insight into Arctic life, or take a trip to see rock carvings that are thousands of years old.
Tromso has the striking modern Arctic Cathedral, the setting for frequent midnight concerts, along with the excellent Polaria aquarium and Polar Museum, which traces the history of polar exploration. Some voyages will afford the chance to go to the North Cape, the northernmost accessible point in mainland Europe. The drive here, often following a snowplough, is more exciting than the cape itself.
Hurtigruten voyages do not include overnight stops but the company offers the full range of typical excursions and some special ones too, such as ice fishing (through a hole in the ice) for giant crabs or a Viking feast in the Lofoten Islands.
Icelanders are keen snowmobilers, so that activity will certainly be on offer for those who head to their country. Reykjavik, the capital, is full of welcoming pubs and restaurants. The modern Hallgrimskirkja church is worth a visit.
Norway and, to a lesser extent, Iceland are expensive countries, so excursions are not cheap. Expect to pay at least £50 for a coach trip, £150 for dogsledding and at least £200 for snowmobiling.
Pick of the cruises in 2016
Fred Olsen (01473 742424; fredolsencruises.com) has a 13-night round trip from Southampton on Balmoral departing on March 5, 2016. Calls at Molde, Tromso, Alta (overnight stay), Stavanger and Bergen. From £1,109 per person.
P&O Cruises (0843 374 0111; pocruises.com) has a 12-night round trip from Southampton on Oriana, departing February 25. Calls at Stavanger, Tromso (overnight), Alta (two-night stay) and Flam. From £849 per person.
Cruise & Maritime Voyages (0844 998 3801; cruiseandmaritime.com) has two Northern Lights cruises to Norway and two to Iceland. A 14-night round trip from Liverpool departing on October 3, 2016 on Magellan calls at Dublin, Lerwick, the Faroe Islands, Akureyri and Reykjavik (both overnight). From £1,669 per couple with buy-one-get-one-free offer.
Saga (0800 092 9083; travel.saga.co.uk) has a 15-night round trip from Southampton on Sapphire, departing February 26. The ship calls at Bergen, Andalsnes, Tromso, Alta (two-night stay), Narvik and Alesund. Includes aurora-search excursion. From £3,052 per person.
Hurtigruten (020 3411 2826; hurtigruten.com/uk) has an 11-night round-trip voyage from Bergen, visiting 34 ports, with departures on most days from autumn to spring. From £1,197 per person including flights from London and drinks package. Shorter trips are available.
Quark Expeditions has a 13-day Northern Lights on the Arctic Express cruise to Greenland that takes in Iceberg-choked fjords, tundra hikes and the arctic wildlife of Greenland National Park. It also visits the Inuit settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit and South Scoresbysund, the world’s largest fjord system.This cruise on Ocean Nova costs from $7,995/£5,236 departing August 27, 2016 (00 1 802 490 7564; quarkexpeditions.com).