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What it's like to search for the Northern Lights by cruise ship in Arctic Norway

Author: Anna Selby

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The Northern Lights are an elusive phenomenon. World of Cruising set off for the Arctic with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines in search of the aurora borealis.

The far north – Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic end of Scandinavia – is a place you go in the summer months when the weather is good. Right? Well, it turns out it’s a place to go, too, in the depths of winter, especially if you want to see the Northern Lights. They’re around the top of most people’s bucket lists but those aurora borealis can prove very elusive. So just how do you find them?

First, there’s the simple fact that the further north you go (though, interestingly, not at the North Pole itself where you’d miss out due to a halo effect), the better your chances.

But, second, you need a dark sky so in summer, however far north you are, there’s no chance in the land of the midnight sun.

Then, third, there’s the weather. If there is thick cloud, again you see nothing and, hardly surprisingly in these parts, you can get quite a bit of winter weather! So the short answer is you find them with quite a lot of patience and a great deal of luck!

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Unsurprisingly then, on 30 January as we left Southampton on board Bolette (Fred Olsen’s super brand new ship) for a cruise entitled In Search of the Northern Lights, there were quite a lot of fingers crossed.

We were heading to the far, far north of Norway and there were two destinations – Alta and Tromso – where our chances should be particularly good. Nothing, though, can be guaranteed on a quest like this.

- READ MORE: Fred. Olsen ship Bolette sets sail to Norway & Canaries -

In fact, we were lucky early. Just after our first port, Trondheim, as we sailed into the dark Norwegian Sea, the captain gave us the thumbs up and everyone flocked on deck for that very first sighting.

There was some cloud and we were probably not far enough north for a truly spectacular sighting but, sure enough, there they were, our first peek at that pale eerie glow streaked across the sky.

Bundle up for the cold conditions when travelling in Norway in the winter. Credit: Shutterstock

Alta, our northernmost port of call, is a small town on the edge of a wild and beautiful monochrome landscape – mountains and fjords, frozen lakes and forests – all set in the most pristine snow with hardly a footprint to be seen.

There’s a population of 20,000 but people are outnumbered here 10:1 by reindeer. So our first visit was inevitably Johan’s reindeer farm where they’ve been herding Santa’s helpers for generations and still live a partly nomadic life, spending summer in a lavvo (a Sami tepee) and following their herds through the mountains.

- READ MORE: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines: Discover the Northern Lights -

We sat inside a lavvo ourselves huddled around a roaring log fire as Johan told us tales of Sami life and the wind howled shaking the sides of the tent.

So, yes, that weather. The bad news is that in Alta we had a blizzard and the temperature (factoring in the wind chill) at times dropped to -22C. There is though, as they say, no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

So prepare for around five layers and lots of thermals. Certainly, it doesn’t bother the Norwegians whose kindergarten children spend the entire winter outside in the snow!

Check off your bucket list if you're lucky enough to take in the beauty of the aurora borealis. Credit: Shutterstock

As, of course, do the reindeer. They are actually much smaller than most people expect and they were waiting for us patiently, snow on noses and antlers, oblivious to the blizzard.

Clambering on to the homemade two-man sleighs they took us for a ride through the pine forest, a magical Narnia-like half hour, snow falling and silence but for the creaking of the harness.

That evening we headed back out into the Nordic darkness to Peskatun camp, a spot renowned for the Northern Lights but found ourselves driving into that blizzard thoroughly blocking the sky. Hmm, those lights were certainly living up to their reputation of elusiveness.

- READ MORE: Inside Fred. Olsen cruise ship Borealis -

The next morning was still very cold and there was a bitter wind but, undaunted, it was time to meet the huskies including – you guessed it – another sleigh ride. The dogs turned out to be not the fluffy Siberian husky we are all familiar with but crossbreeds with some husky in their genes but also greyhound and collie for speed and intelligence.

These are racing dogs and the Norwegians take their husky races very seriously – the Finnmark Race (the toughest) leaves from here when teams of 14 dogs cover 1200kilometres over 5-6 days.

After yesterday’s silent reindeer sleigh ride, this was a very different experience. The huskies howled and barked, impatient to be off – though when they do start to run (quite a lot faster than the reindeer!), they are focused and silent. This, they seemed to say, is what we were born to do.

"For around an hour and a half, the lights danced across the entire sky." Credit: Anna Selby

The animals were very exciting but the skies had remained gloomy – would we fare better in Tromso? Yes! It dawned bright and clear – but would it last? Tonight we would be off the ship staying at the Aurora Huts, specially designed for Northern Lights watching and probably our best chance of seeing them.

At 3pm eight of us set off through the gathering dusk to meet Thomas who has just opened his unique North Experience base camp. “Hut” isn’t quite the word for where we were staying, though.

There are just four “glass igloos” with domed glass ceilings and walls that are mostly windows. There is no light pollution. In the summer, igloos float on the lake and have, Thomas pointed out, a fishing hole in the floor.

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We had just finished our dinner (reindeer soup – delicious) when Thomas rushed in excitedly. It was happening!

For around an hour and a half, the lights danced across the entire sky, seeming to leap from the tops of the encircling mountains, greens, blues and even reds forming the strange shapes that traditionally made the Sami people believe them to be omens of disaster.

And perhaps they were right because the next day when we boarded the ship, Captain Jozo Glavic (a man destined for a second career in stand-up) announced that there was a particularly ominous storm heading our way and we wouldn’t be able to go to our next port of call, Bodo.

Instead, we headed for safe harbour in Kristiansund though not before we’d sighted six-metre waves.

Not just any old cruise, then, but a true adventure in every sense. And that bucket list? Well and truly ticked.

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