Witnessing the glowing lights of the aurora borealis dancing in the night sky is a dream for many. They are one of the world’s most incredible natural phenomena and feature prominently on travellers bucket lists. A northern lights cruise is a fantastic way to experience Mother Nature’s most magical light show, but where is the best place to see the aurora borealis? Continue reading to find out..
Due to Alaska’s unique position close to the Arctic Circle, it comes as no surprise that it’s one of the best places to see the northern lights. The state's diverse landscape ranges from jagged, snow-capped mountains to dense forests. In amongst the wilderness, Alaska’s bustling towns and cities are home to approximately 731,545 people.
On a cruise to Alaska, you’ll be taken to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to experience the wild, rugged landscape in all its glory. Generally, your first port of call will be Ketchikan. This picturesque city faces the Inside Passage, the dramatic route your ship will take past towering mountains and glaciers. From here, you’ll visit the quaint community of Stika, to the breathtaking Icy Strait Point and on to the capital city of Juneau, before reaching Skagway, home of the Gold Rush National Historical Park.
Spending a week in this remote part of the world means you’ll stand a good chance of seeing the aurora. But remember, the lights often appear in the early hours of the morning, so be sure to stay up for a chance to see the sky glowing. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute provides a daily forecast on its website, so you can see how visible the aurora will be during your cruise.
A land of waterfalls and icy fjords, Iceland has long been praised as an excellent place to see the northern lights. Although it’s larger than many other countries, including Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands, its population is just 356,991. To put that into perspective, the Netherlands is home to more than 17.2 million people. With so few people around, Iceland’s light pollution is minimal which means the aurora can be seen in larger towns such as Akureyri and Kópavogur and occasionally from the capital city, Reykjavík.
Iceland Aurora, a group of passionate photographers based in Reykjavík, take visitors on photo tours to capture the lights. We chatted to Tony, a guide at Iceland Aurora, about spotting the lights in Iceland, he said: “Iceland is in a perfect spot for intense aurora activity. The weather we get here can be stormy and even dangerous, but the strong winds clear the air giving fantastic northern lights viewing. The incredible landscapes can make your northern lights experience very special.
“We are a small team of professional photographers that help visitors to achieve their dreams in Iceland. The company was formed in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted. Our tours are private Jeep tours or ice and aurora workshops with small groups.” On some cruises to Iceland, you’ll get to spend two days in Reykjavík. If you’re eager to see the aurora, it may be worth booking an evening tour with Iceland Aurora.
Norway is perhaps most famous for its dramatic fjords. Towering mountains drop into the still water, creating a beautiful backdrop. If on a Norway cruise between November and March, you’ll have a high chance of seeing the northern lights. Bodø, Tromsø, Svolvaer and the Lofoten Islands are all renowned for being excellent places to spot the aurora, so lookout for a cruise that stops at one of them for a better chance.
Tromsø, considered to be the home of the northern lights, is a spectacular city in northern Norway. Its perfect position above the Arctic Circle means it’s likely you’ll catch a glimpse of green and purple while visiting on holiday. Vanessa, from travel and lifestyle blog Nordic Wanders, moved to Tromsø for her studies, “As a local, I often watch the northern lights from my favourite place - the comfort and warmth of home! When the aurora is really strong, the lights can be seen from the city centre. But I’ve also seen fantastic northern lights displays on my travels too. For example, in Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands or the area around Bodø.”
We asked Vanessa her top tips for seeing the northern lights, she said, “Be patient and schedule enough time up north on your trip! Some months are better suited to getting a glimpse of the northern lights depending on where you’re headed. The polar night season in Tromsø, for instance, is not the best time to see the northern lights as the weather often is very bad with lots of rain or heavy snowfall. If it’s only possible for you to travel during that time though, you need to make sure to stay in the area (above the Arctic Circle) for at least 4 nights in order to increase your chances.”
As northern Scotland is on the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway, it’s actually a great place to see the lights. The Scottish Highlands and Scottish Islands feel a world away from the rest of the UK. Mountains rise from lochs and tower over the coastlines with remote communities nestled between them. Looking out for the northern lights, or ‘mirrie dancers’ as they’re called in Scotland, takes a lot of patience! But witnessing them on these wild and rugged islands is one of the most magical experiences in the world.
A cruise to Scotland will transport you to some of the northern lights hotspots; Lerwick in Shetland and Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands. If you’re planning on hunting out the lights once there, we recommend following AuroraWatch UK - a free service run by specialists at Lancaster University which issues alerts on aurora borealis visibility. We chatted to Dr Nathan Case from the Department of Physics at Lancaster University, he said: “AuroraWatch UK operates several ‘magnetometers’ located across the UK. Magnetometers are scientific instruments that record disturbances to the earth’s magnetic field caused by the aurora.
“The stronger the disturbance we measure, the stronger the aurora and the further south in the UK it is likely to be seen. We issue our alerts in real-time via email, Facebook and Twitter.” This super useful tool is perfect if you’re planning a cruise to the islands. What’s more, the aurora grace Scotland more than you might expect. Nathan continues, “If you want to see the northern lights, the further north you can go, the better. You will also need clear, unobstructed views of the northern horizon with little light pollution. Shetland and the other northern isles stand the best chance, but lochs, beaches and hillsides with a clear north view are also great spots to try.
“If you can find the right spot, the aurora is visible quite frequently from Scotland during the winter months (September through to April) with at least some sightings possible a few times a month. Such sightings will often be of a single auroral arc that appears white to the naked eye, or may not be visible at all, but will show up nicely in long-exposure photographs. Particularly strong auroral displays, such as those that can be seen from right across Scotland and even in the middle of Edinburgh, occur less regularly - perhaps half a dozen times or so a year.”
The archipelago of Shetland has more than 100 islands and is located around 100 miles from the nearest point on the Scottish mainland. Its main port, Lerwick, is level with Bergen in Norway, making it a prime spot for aurora hunting. We chatted to David Nicol, Managing Director of NB Communication working with Promote Shetland, to find out why Shetland is such a fantastic location for those eager to see the aurora, “Quite simply, Shetland is the best place in the UK to see the northern lights. Our northern latitude and lack of light pollution combine to provide perfect conditions to experience this awesome natural spectacle. Of course, no-one can guarantee when the mirrie dancers will be out, but that’s just part of the appeal. When you do see them, the sight can take your breath away.”