Natarsha Brown goes in search of the Northern Lights, and finds much more ashore.
There are few phenomena that capture the imagination like the aurora borealis. Lucky star gazers can witness anything from the entire dome of the night sky becoming awash in colourful cascades of green, yellow and blue, to an ethereal scarlet glow resting timidly on the horizon, before disappearing in the space of a blink. The dancing light show is entirely at Mother Nature’s whim – only adding to the enigma.
For the best seats to this celestial scene, one must head for the seemingly endless polar nights of the north from September to March, and hope for the stars to align: a dark and moonless sky, mild weather, little to no light pollution and lucky timing. Nestled between latitudes of 60 and 75 degrees (aka the ‘aurora zone’) and far from city glare, Norway’s spectacular coastline makes for prime viewing.
It’s hard not to think of a company offering a ‘Follow The Lights’ tour (aka the Hurtigruten Norwegian Coastal Express’ Northern Lights voyage) as tempting fate, yet Hurtigruten has operated in these waters for more than 127 years – calling them the experts is somewhat of an understatement. Yet beholding this natural spectacle is just the first entry on a seemingly endless roll-call of unforgettable experiences on this journey between Oslo and the Arctic Circle. Read on for our top picks.
From now until August 31 2021, Hurtigruten Norwegian Coastal Express are offering a flights-inclusive package with their Follow the Lights 2022/23 departures, from only $9,999. You can also enjoy the confidence, peace of mind and security with your 2022 Northern Lights adventure through their Book with Confidence policy.
Hurtigruten’s ‘Follow The Lights’ voyage has almost 50 departures scheduled between September 2022 and March 2023, with southbound (14 days, from Ivalo to Oslo) and northbound (18 days, Oslo to Helsinki) options. Not all excursions mentioned are available on both journeys.
Wander the hidden rooms of Nidaros
Nidaros Cathedral is Scandinavia’s largest medieval building and the northernmost Gothic structure in Europe. It is ornately embellished, sculpted in the early 20th century with statues of biblical figures and Norwegian bishops and kings. Sitting on the original grave of St Olav, the Viking king who replaced the pagan Nordic religion with Christianity, the impressive stone structure dates back to 1153. Platinum guests can discover the hidden rooms and secret chambers deep within, including the dark passages of the crypt – the largest collection of medieval tombstones in the country.
Cross the Arctic Circle
An invisible line sweeps across Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland. A line that also splits Norway in two. The exact location varies, with the theoretical divider shifting almost 15 metres over the course of a year and dependent on the angle of the Earth’s axis compared to the plane of its orbit at the time. Yet the magic number of 66° 33’ is accepted as marking the spot, north of which the Midnight Sun shines 24 hours a day throughout summer. Crossing the Arctic Circle is a rite of passage on board. Celebrated on Hurtigruten’s decks with a quirky polar tradition: a spoonful of cod liver oil or an ice-cold baptism. Afterwards, the Hurtigruten Northern Lights tour visits Vikingen’s striking Arctic Circle Monument.
Tour medieval Tallinn
Start early for a full-day excursion to Estonia’s absurdly photogenic capital. Brimming with wonderful sights, Tallinn’s UNESCO-listed Old Town retains its fairytale charm. Think ancient churches, cobblestone streetscapes and noble merchant houses. It is also one of Europe’s most complete walled cities. The walking tour ambles through baroque Kadriorg Park and the seaside district of Pirita, before continuing on to Toompea Castle, home to the Estonian parliament, the 11 bells of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the whitewashed Dome Church.
Dogsled with huskies
No add-on on the Hurtigruten Northern Lights tour immerses you in the vast white wilderness of Finnish Lapland quite like the husky tour. It’s just you, your musher, your canine companions and nature – and no sound other than a chorus of excited barks and the scrape of your sledge across the ice. After a short drive to the camp, guests are kitted out with all the warm essentials. For example, snow overalls, shoes, gloves, hats and layers upon layers of blankets. Then it’s time to meet the dogs. Limited to two passengers per sledge, the guides know the dramatic landscapes inside out, so you can simply sit back and watch as the frozen lakes and snow-drowned plateaus pass by.
Sleep in a glass igloo
Wilderness Hotel Inari is the ultimate place to spend a night and experience the elusive aurora beyond the boat. The property enjoys great views, sitting on the shores of Finland’s grand Lake Inari. Accommodation ranges from Arctic Chalets complete with a sauna, fireplace and woodland or lake views, to Aurora Cabins featuring slanted, laser-heated glass ceilings so you can gaze at the starry skies from the comfort of your bed, waiting hopefully for a flicker of iridescence. During your stay, peruse Siida, the fantastic local Sami museum. Before hitting the neighbouring slopes on a guided cross-country skiing or snowshoeing outing.
Attend a midnight concert
Tromso’s commanding Arctic Cathedral’s inspiration has been attributed to icebergs, Indigenous Sami tents, boathouses and the peaks of nearby mountains. Either way, it is an exquisite nod to minimalist Scandinavian design. While the mystery remains with architect Jan Inge Hovig, the result can be appreciated by all. The impressive building features 11 aluminium-coated panels on each side of its roof. Not to mention one of the largest and most monumental stained-glass mosaics in Europe. Meanwhile, the interior is bedecked in oak pews and chandeliers of Czech crystal. And the excellent acoustics are superbly showcased by a 2,940-pipe organ. Late-night concerts run throughout the warmer months. The program encompasses traditional Norwegian folk songs performed by choirs, quartets, and orchestras, among other classical selections.
Gallop across Lofoten’s beaches
The horse has always played a vital role in Nordic life. In old Norse mythology, the horse was a friend and helper of the gods. Odin, the chief god himself, is depicted as racing across the heavens with his eight-legged steed Sleipnir – the best of all horses. Saddle up among the incredible scenery of Lofoten to walk, trot or tölt across the shores of Gimsøy island. Passing ‘saga’ relics from the Viking Age along the way, of course. During fall and winter, you ride in darkness, listening to the lapping waves and looking overhead for the mystical Northern Lights.
Learn about Sami culture
The formerly nomadic, Indigenous Sami people are Norway’s largest ethnic minority and longest-standing residents, having inhabited northern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia for millennia. On this excursion, enjoy an intimate meet-and-greet with a herding family and their reindeer on the Nordkyn peninsula, chatting about the challenges faced by today’s Sami, as well as how old ways can remain relevant in the modern world. While sitting around a fire in a traditional lavvu, listen to first-hand stories and joik chanting over a steaming bowl of reindeer broth, before setting out on a reindeer safari.
Snowmobile into the polar night
Embarking from Mehamn, the world’s northernmost mainland town, groups head up and over the mountains to the old trading post and fishing village of Kjøllefjord – en route learning about the area’s geographic and climatic conditions, what daily life is like on the wild and stormy Finnmark coast, and how the locals effectively utilise nature. After an in-depth training session, from here the snowmobiling begins. While winding through the powder-laden valleys and across ice-covered fjords, look to the sky, of course, for a glimmer of those elusive lights.
This article about the Hurtigruten Northern Lights tour and its many onshore excursions was produced with content supplied by Hurtigruten and is a Signature Luxury Travel & Style digital exclusive. Be the first to see more exclusive online content by subscribing to the enewsletter.
Lead image: Northern Lights in Norway © Hege Abrahamsen