Lights, camera, action! Northern Lights

A lack of light pollution and endless dark skies make cruising one of the best ways to see the Northern Lights. Jeannine Williams looks at some of the top sailings

No matter how many times you have seen photographs or television documentaries, nothing can prepare you for seeing the Northern Lights. In the crisp air I can’t take my eyes away as I gaze up in awe at nature’s most spectacular show. 

Norway is one of the best places to see the lights – or Aurora Borealis – and although sightings are never guaranteed, cruises that venture inside the Arctic Circle increase the chances of doing so. 

On my sailing aboard Havila Capella, one of Havila Voyage’s four brand-new ships that started sailing along the Norwegian coastline this year, we’re incredibly lucky to spot them three times in as many days. 

They variously appeared as a luminous pale green archway and dramatic emerald brushstrokes set against the canvas of the inky night sky. It’s magical. Thanks to Havila’s ‘Nor Light’ button on the bedside phone, I also don’t have a fear of missing out when I decide to turn in. A nocturnal alarm telling me the lights have appeared is the best wake up call I’ve ever had!

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In the spotlight

Ships range from expedition vessels to luxury cruise ships and include the fleets operated by Hurtigruten and Havila which carry foot passengers and cargo to numerous ports along the coastline, which provides an additional insight into local life. And there’s a ship to match different clients and budgets. Excursions, such as late afternoon snowmobile rides, provide an exciting way to potentially spot the lights or there are coach tours to regular sighting locations which are suitable for less active clients. 

Matthew Valentine, Havila Voyage’s Head of Sales UK & Industry Partners, said: “Watching the Northern Lights is an incredible experience but it doesn’t have to involve standing out in the cold for hours on end. Sailing on a cruise ship, away from the light pollution on land, means you are more likely to see a strong display and if you are travelling along the Norwegian coast you sail under the aurora oval, the area where they are most likely to occur.

“If you are travelling on a Havila ship, head up to the bar, which has panoramic views and a glass roof, so you can keep an eye out for the lights while you enjoy a drink in the warm.” 

His top tip for agents to pass on to clients: “If you want to take some great photographs, you will need a long exposure. Remember to set your camera or phone up in advance, so you are not wasting time when the lights appear. It would be a shame not to be able to enjoy them because they only appeared briefly and you were playing with your settings!”

James Cole, Managing Director of Panache Cruises, which offers sailings with Azamara, Silversea, Explora Journeys, Oceania Cruises, Regent and Seabourn, said: “Northern Lights cruises are really popular with our customers, and there is a lot of choice depending on the cruiser’s sense of adventure. 

“Some of our clients are intrepid adventurers, while others are more simply lovers of wildlife and nature. The range of Northern Lights cruises is wide and varied, with September to April being the prime months to spot this natural phenomenon.” 

Cole added: “Hurtigruten Expeditions offers a Northern Lights promise that if you don’t see the lights on your cruise, they will let you sail again for free! 

“Silversea has just released a new itinerary for 2024, or if customers are looking for a full expedition experience to the Northern Lights, Aurora Expeditions has some great offers, plus a polar expedition jacket to take home.”

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What’s new

 Swan Hellenic recently debuted the 152-passenger SH Vega and a winter sailing on the 10-night Greenland Discovery itinerary which provides a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

Havila Voyageswill complete its four-strong fleet with the launch of Havila Polaris this October and Havila Pollux before the end of 2022. It has also launched a new ‘Northern Lights Promise meaning guests will be eligible for a free six- or seven-night voyage, if the natural phenomenon doesn’t appear during a 12-day cruise.

P&O’sadult-only ships Aurora and Arcadia sail from Southampton in 2022 and 2023 on winter Norwegian cruises.

For another no-fly option, in March and November 2023 Ambassador Cruise Line’sships Ambience, carrying 1,400 guests, and latest acquisition Ambition, carrying 1,200, will respectively make their debut on Norwegian and Icelandic sailings from Tilbury and Bristol.

 In its latest programme Saga unveiled a pair of new two-week Arctic Norway and the Northern Lights sailings for February 2023 on both of its 999-passenger sister ships for the over-50s.

For the first time, in March 2024, French luxury cruise line Ponant is offering the 10-night Nordic Discoveries & Traditions round-trip Tromsø itinerary on the 184-passenger Le Bellot.

 Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has unveiled the all-new Olsen Art Studio on its newest ships Borealis and Bolette, which will be used for classes to capture the Aurora Borealis on ex-UK Norway sailings.

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Top experiences

Tidal thrills:To witness another spectacular natural phenomenon unique to Norway, climb aboard a sturdy Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) for an exciting sea safari to Saltstraumen. Located off Bodø is the world’s most powerful tidal current, which creates a swirling maelstrom of huge whirlpools – some more than 10m (30ft) in diameter when water forces its way through the narrow strait connecting the Saltenfjord and Skjerstadfjord. Available as an excursion on Hurtigruten’s six-night Classic Voyage North, passengers are kitted out in warm waterproof gear for the journey into a wild landscape where there’s also the chance of spotting majestic sea eagles.

Learn to curl:We’ve all seen it on TV and now clients can have a go at the sport of curling, believed to have originated on the frozen lakes of Scotland in the 16th century. Described as ‘chess on ice’, it involves sliding polished granite stones across the ice towards a circular 

target. On Viking’s 12-night In Search of the Northern Lights itinerary aboard Viking Venus, the novel shore excursion in Stavanger begins with learning basic techniques from a local expert. Participants then compete in a fun match to see who can take bragging rights back to the ship.

Reindeer sledding:Experience traditional transport in northern Norway on a reindeer-drawn sledge. 

An option on P&O’s 12-night Norway itinerary on Aurora, the ride takes guests through white blankets of untouched snow against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and trees. Taking place at the Camp Tamok wilderness centre, a scenic drive from Tromsø, passengers are kitted out in warm clothes and boots before meeting the reindeer. After the adventure they gather round a camp fire to learn more about the Indigenous Sami people before feeding the reindeer.  

Ice sculpting: Local artists in Alta create ice and snow sculptures for the town’s extraordinary ice hotel which is built each year from 250 tons of ice. 

On Saga’s 15- night Arctic Norway and the Northern Lights sailings onboard Spirit of Adventure and Spirit of Discovery guests can explore the hotel, learn how the sculptures are made and have a go at creating one with the help of a sculptor. Afterwards relax in the ice bar with an Igloo Blue cocktail. Another Saga excursion offers the opportunity to stay overnight in the hotel.

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Where to book it

A six-night northbound voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes starts from £1,475pp, full-board, departing on various dates from November 4 to December 13, 2022, cruise only.