Aurora Borealis also known as The Northern Lights are on the ‘bucket list’ of many people. There is an aurora belt that bends and dips its way around the Arctic area of our planet known as the Aurora Borealis and also the Aurora Australis in the south, both areas being north and south latitudes of 60-75 degrees.
The Aurora Borealis is the light show from the solar wind that happens as electrons blown from the Sun dance across our atmosphere at the magnetic poles. There are several places popular for viewing these ethereal light shows only visible in the deep darkness of long winter nights.
The question becomes what type of trip do you want to arrange to see this ghostly showering of particles 50-300 miles above the Earth. There are trips to Iceland that involve land based expeditions with lodging in hotels, ice hotels and camps. The more remote from city lights, the more likely to see these magical visitors. Iceland has numerous geothermal sights as well and some Aurora tours spend time at these tourist spots. In addition there are trips that arrange for remote lodging options in Finland at very high latitudes near the Russian border. These are land based and may involve rough terrains and transport via snowmobile or 4 wheel drive vehicles. Physical stamina and gear for the cold and dark of northern nights is a must. Many of the trips that we explored involved a planned trek of 4-7 days, but with perhaps half of the time spent near cities with larger hotels and thermal wonders that are popular in the winter months. With this type of trip, your time is limited away from city lights and thus your chance of seeing the aurora Is decreased.
There are options for this type of travel in high latitudes of Norway as well, but there is another interesting way to have the privilege of viewing these gossamer green veils in the sky, and so we had Lilian Mills, a Virtuoso Member travel expert, plan a trip for us to northern Norway. We chose to ‘travel like a Norwegian’ on the flagship transportation line of coastal of Norway known as Hurtigruten. One of their ships, the MS Midnastol has yearly Astronomy Expeditions to seek out Aurora that last 6-12 days. We booked the 12 day trip that included a guarantee that we would see the Aurora or get a free trip next year.
The Hurtigruten ships are large, comfortable ice-class ships that benefit by being both luxury cruise and working ferry boats for local Norwegians. Over the twelve day journey, 34 towns and 1500 miles along the west and north Norwegian coast from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes at the Finish border with Russia comprise the stops for the ship. The mountains and fjords are the jewels of Norway’s west cost which provide a dramatic backdrop while sailing. Some of the coastal towns are so small and isolated that the ship is in and out in less than 20 minutes. At other towns the ship docks for many hours. At these longer stops, there is time to explore the towns, shop, and take photographs, or arrange for unusual side trips. It is an ‘expedition style’ voyage with informative daily lectures by Ian Ridpath, author of Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy, and Norton’s Star Atlas. Also casual interchanges with the lecturer and other well-travelled guests provide for plenty of question and answer time as well as tips of what to seek out (there were several astronomers and NASA researchers on board as passengers.)
The ship leaves from Bergen, a gentle and sophisticated city on the SW coast. Be sure to make time by arriving at least a day ahead to see the Bryggen Hanseatic Warf, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cobbled streets and old, colorful buildings are well preserved. Some buildings in Bergen date from the 12th century. The museums in Bergen are also well worth visiting, with KODE comprising five museums housing impressive collections of modern art including Picasso, Klee and Munch as well as fine art from Scandanavia and Asia. Bergen is temperate in climate due to the Gulf Stream, and a very walkable city, but in winter daylight is limited so plan outdoor activities and sights between 10 AM and 3 PM. At about 5 PM on the day of sailing, a Hurtigruten bus will come and pick you up at your Bergen hotel and bring you to the ship.
As the ship starts its voyage north, one of the first stops is the Royal City of Trondheim. Here is the Nidaros Cathedral, the largest such medieval church in Scandinavia. Daylight gets more limited as the ship moves north, so consider arrangements for land excursions. These can be made on board or with taxis at the ports. The ships pull up right into town and many areas are close enough for walking, but be aware of time and light. Another tip is to bring clamp-on spikes for your hiking boots (or purchase onboard) as the more northern towns have icy streets and sidewalks, and the top deck of the ship is often icy. These can be worn even into local shops; it is expected in the winter.
Included in the Astronomy Voyage is a unique excursion to the University of Tromso Geophysical Observatory. Since Tromso is a large town, it is doubtful that you will see the lights here due to artificial light. Data about Earth’s magnetic field and geophysical observations are compiled and researched at this university. History and photography explaining the phenomena is also on view.
The crossing of the Arctic Circle near the Loften Islands provides another reason for a celebration. A ceremony is held on deck and first-time crossers are ‘baptized’ with Arctic waters and certificates are issued that state the date, and latitude of the crossing; silly fun! Also on board is a lesson from the Captain on how to fillet large fish. On the upper deck, he demonstrated the technique to great fanfare, and then sushi-like snacks were served.
We travelled in December and one of the options for land trips was a midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral in Tromso. Tromso is the largest town north of the Arctic Circle and is located on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. Because of its acoustics and dramatic location overlooking the water, it is also known as the “opera house of Norway.” Near midnight a coach bus took us to a beautiful glass and concrete church looking much like enormous ice crystals situated on a hill. The acoustics were perfect inside the building and Norwegian carols were mostly performed acapella by candle light with a few songs having instruments. “Amazing Grace” was the final song, and it was so well done. Refreshingly simple and lovely.
At the far-north port of Honnigsvag a popular excursion is to Nordkapp or the North Cape. Although this provides a spectacular view in summer, in the winter months it is dark; but there is quite a history to the place and it is the most northern point in continental Europe. If you will only be there once, go for it!
Among the experiences available at the most distant port of Kirkenes is an opportunity for a dog sled trip. Passengers are driven to a site near the Russian border where experienced mushers and Husky sled dogs are eager to add adventure to the tour. All gear is provided including snow goggles and wraps. You may find yourself in a snowstorm!
All along the way, but particularly above the Arctic Circle, the Northern Lights might appear, although these phenomena are not predictable. Outside, the upper deck is the place to be. The Aurora is more faint than what appears in most photos that are seen. The camera lens needs to be left open for 10-15 seconds for a bright photo. Our eyes can’t concentrate the light at once, so we see a dimmer version of what the photos show. There are jacuzzi tubs to sit in while searching for the lights or just stand and take in the wonder. The stars are pretty amazing too! A warmer way to view the Aurora is from the two-story glass lounge in the front of the ship, but inside lights can interfere. We were fortunate to view the Aurora on at least four nights. They were visible more often than that, and the ship does announce over the speaker system when they are spotted. You can have this broadcast into your room if desired. But they can be there for five minutes and then gone, or may shimmer for hours.
The Hurtigruten ships provide a business model and travel concept that would be unusual in the U.S. The upper five floors of the ship are guest rooms and well appointed public spaces complete with a theatre, meeting rooms, restaurants,a two story glass lounge area, gift shops as well as hot tubs and saunas. The lower floors carry the autos and trade goods. Tourists such as ourselves never had need to use the lower floors. Locals get on and off the boat at the various stops with little notice. Some stops are only 15 minutes, with the boat coming in to dock and exiting very smoothly and so quietly that one may not realize the boat has stopped. On longer scheduled stops of 3-9 hours, local people may board and have dinner in the restaurant or even rent a public space for parties. It is at these times also that land tours are offered to the tourists on board to experience Norwegian life on land. For Americans, the lack of security with the numerous people coming and going and the casual announcements on board for ‘all visitors to please leave, as the ship will be departing’ took a bit of getting used to. Certainly refreshing yet different from what most North American and European travelers have come to expect. Norwegian style at its best!
Lilian Mills, our travel advisor, had coached us that this style ship was not like an American cruise ship. Although the public spaces were quite nice, the basic room is pretty basic. She was well versed in the details of this style of travel and did recommend the suite or Arctic superior room to have available most amentities that Americans prefer. We had an outside suite. It had a large window and full bath. Our room did not have a queen bed, but rather 2 comfortable twins and a couch. Be aware that on this ship, some rooms have windows that open to public walkways on the deck. The most expensive suites have king beds and face the stern. The suite grade rooms and higher have a TV; most rooms do not. The TV had few channels, but two news services from Europe broadcast in English kept us up to date on events. There were also TVs in some of the common areas. There was once daily maid service and the staff was efficient.
Lilian Mills suggested a ‘water package’ for our meals. Although tap water is available and perfectly drinkable, it is not automatically served with meals. We had bottled water, still or sparkling, as part of our package. Some passengers who had not been made aware of this were upset that they had to pay for bottled water at meals. Coffee and wine packages were also available, but we did not purchase these. The food served was locally sourced and fresh, and catered to a Norwegian palate. Dinner seatings are scheduled with table assignments, but can be changed. With ‘full board,’ most meals were plated with no choice of menu, and some meals were buffet (breakfast was always a buffet.) The menu was posted in advance, and both menu and buffet leaned heavily to seafood. There was no beef or chicken served while we were onboard, but there was duck and raindeer. They did have vegetarian plates, lots of potatoes and bread but no rice. There was some fresh fruit available at breakfast. There was also a small cafe to purchase alternative meals and snacks. This contrasts with the land trips that we looked at in Iceland and Finland that included no meals.
As of this writing, the ship gets in at about 2:30 PM and most flights back to the US leave in the morning. So either plan on a night’s stay in Bergen, or check the flights to Oslo which are frequent.
We very much enjoyed the Astronomy Expedition aboard the MS Midnstol, meeting interesting people from around the world and the remarkable glimpse of life in northern Norway.
We also highly recommend our travel specialist, Lilian Mills, of Post Haste Travel in Hollywood Florida who made our trip a breeze!