A night to remember?
The Northern Lights are at the top of the world – and at the top of most travellers’ wish lists. Pat Richardson joined a Saga cruise to see them.
As every seasoned traveller surely knows, the natural sights that no one can say with certainty you’ll see are the ones that deliver the biggest thrills. The Northern Lights are just such a sight – but this must-see is, in reality, a might-see. To be in with a chance, you’ve got to be in the right place, at the right time, and the likeliest places lie within the Arctic Circle.
One of the most enjoyable ways to get there is on a cruise. It’s also a wise choice, because it’s important not to go to the far north just to see the Northern Lights. Do-or-die determination won’t help if skies aren’t clear or if solar-activity levels are low. A cruise, such as Saga’s Northern Lights Adventure, with an itinerary offering such activities as dog-sledding, reindeer-sledding and snowmobiling, means you’ll have other thrills to look forward to.
You may sail a long way north of the UK, but on a Saga ship you won’t feel far from home. British touches abound on board, from traditional afternoon tea, including Tregothnan tea, grown in Cornwall and scones with clotted cream and Tiptree jam, to such stalwarts as HP Sauce and Branston Pickle.
Ports of call have plenty to please. In Bergen, gateway to the fjords, there’s a colourful array of old wooden houses on the Bryggen (old wharf), a breathtaking view from the top of Mount Floyen, reached by funicular railway, and composer Edvard Greig’s former home: Troldhaugen. In Tromsø, gateway to the Arctic, there’s the strikingly contemporary ‘Arctic Cathedral’. In Stavanger, close to the dock, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a cluster of attractive white houses, which together form Europe’s largest collection of 17th- and 18th-Century wooden buildings. You’ll also go to Narvik, Alta and Aandalsnes.
There’s scenic splendor, too, in this Winter wonderland. Yes, you’ll have to go in Winter, because Summer nights in this region aren’t dark enough to see the Northern Light at their best. In Winter, nights are black velvet. Beneath them, a blanket of snow highlights every contour of the landscape, from soft hills to jagged peaks and crags, as well as countless ‘Christmas’ trees. Look out, too, for the sparkle of frozen waterfalls; but don’t worry about the fjords, which remain ice free year round. Snow and ice will, quite literally, underscore any wintery activities you opt for, and I recommend any and all.
That, of course, includes the highlight – Hunting for the Aurora Borealis – which on Saga’s cruise is an included excursion. You’ll set out from the ship after dinner and get back very late; on Northern Lights excursion nights, dinner is served early and a late-night buffet awaits your return. Before you leave, a specialist guide will explain that the phenomenon is triggered by sunspots, which cause rapidly moving particles from space to collide with gaseous particles in our atmosphere, producing small bursts of energy. We see these as light, in colours determined by which gases are involved.
Scientists can determine the likeliest times for seeing the lights based on the timings of recent sunspot activity; and meteorologists’ forecasts for clear or cloudy skies indicate the likeliest places for seeing them. Your guide will suggest a good location and an advance party will get there first to set up lavvus (Sami teepees), light campfires, prepare hot chocolate and cut cake.
All these comforts will be awaiting your arrival, and as it’s below freezing outside, you’ll likely be inside, sipping hot chocolate by the campfire, when an excited voice shouts, “Come and see this! It’s amazing!” We’d been warned by our guide that cameras ‘see’ the colours better than our eyes can, and the Northern Lights might look more like white cloud to us than a disco; so we were braced for a degree of disappointment. We felt no such thing.
Yes, what we saw was white, like thin clouds, but not shaped like clouds, and doing things clouds don’t do. We watched, awed, as a huge feather-like plume swayed across the sky, a winding spiral danced by, a perfect ring formed and then dissolved as if a magician had waved his wand and a rippling curtain shimmered in the distance. Eyes widened, mouths fell open, but hardly a word was spoken.
Half an hour or so later, the celestial show was over. For all of us it was, without question, a night to remember.
Saga offers a 15-night Northern Lights Adventure on Saga Pearl ll, departing February 28, 2017, from £2,768pp. Price includes all meals on board, wines at lunch and dinner, Hunting for the Northern Lights excursion, all on-board gratuities and UK mainland travel service to Southampton and from Dover, as well as optional travel insurance and additional cancellation rights, or a discount if not required.
Visit www.saga.co.uk/cruises or call 0800 505030 for further information.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Holidays