A Northern Lights tour to Norway will put you in prime position to see the fabled Aurora Borealis and much else besides, writes Brian Crisp
A Norway cruise in search of the Northern Lights
I’m standing on the deck of the Viking Star cruise ship looking skyward, staring longingly into the all consuming darkness of the Norwegian sky. It might look like I’m pondering the meaning of life, but actually I’m hunting. Not “big five” African safari hunting, but hunting the wondrous Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis – if you want to use the scientific name.
Numerous polls confirm that catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights, dancing between 50 and 150 miles above the Earth’s surface, constantly tops the bucket list travel experience of most Scots.
But is it best to see the lights from land, or at sea?
“I like travelling on ships. When you come on a voyage like this, you’re not just seeing the Northern Lights, you’re also seeing Norway, which I think is a very beautiful country, and the people are wonderful,’’ astronomer, and on-board Enrichment lecturer, Ian Ridpath says.
“The scenery’s magnificent, the snow-covered mountains. The downside of that is that you’re on a moving platform so it makes it more difficult to take photographs.’’
The Northern Lights are an electrical phenomenon that occur in the Earth’s upper atmosphere which causes the upper atmosphere to glow producing ghostly red and green shapes that when good, drop like curtains, and move quickly across the sky.
“They are caused by atomic particles from the Sun, primarily electrons, bombarding the atmosphere in a ring around the Earth’s poles and making it glow like a fluorescent lamp,’’ Ridpath says.
From October to late March, you can see the Northern Lights anywhere under that ring of activity but your best chances happen in northern Europe, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.
To the naked eye most aurora appears grey. The colours show up best in photos, and even better if your camera is an SLR, sitting on a tripod, with a 20mm lens trained toward the stars.
To give yourself the best chance of capturing the Northern Lights digitally you should set your camera to Manual Mode; open the lens aperture as wide as possible (f/2.8); turn off the flash and auto focus; and set the ISO to 800 or above.
There’s no need to use the zoom and you must remove any lens filters, otherwise images will have Newton’s Rings.
If you don’t have a fancy camera, don’t despair though as there are apps available for your iphone (Northern Lights Photo Taker, Nightcap Camera and Slow Shutter Cam) and Android devices (Night Camera).
If like me, you take a cruise, there’s no guarantee that you will see the Northern Lights.
“You can’t dial it up,” Londonbased Ridpath says. “It’s like a big game hunt because the ship will take you to where the prey lives, which in this case is the north of Norway, under the auroral oval, but you can’t be guaranteed that the animals are going to come and drink at the waterhole, so to speak. You can’t be guaranteed that there will be any particular activity. The thing you’re most dependent on, the aurora watcher’s biggest enemy, is cloud, and you’ve got to have clear skies.’’
Thankfully the skies were clear on my 13-day “In Search of the Northern Lights” cruise sailing from London’s Tilbury docks to the historical city of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city located in the southern part of the country’s west coast.
Along the way we had three sea days and stops at Stavanger, Bodo, Tromsø, Alta and Narvik.
Viking Cruises is the antithesis of those monster ships that transport 4,000 to 5,000 people from port to port on packaged high-octane fun holidays.
The Viking Star sleeps just 930
After night one the staff somehow remember your name, and drink order
passengers and with a crew of about 500 the level of service, and attention to detail, is impressive. But you would expect that at this price point.
The ship, launched in 2015, has a very Norwegian feel – Scandinavian fabrics, lots of loungers, clean architectural lines and there’s plenty of private space available for guests. In fact, the on-board atmosphere is very much like what you would experience on a river cruise.
Guests get free wine and beer at meal times. There’s no casino, and unlike some other cruises, no on-board photographers constantly snapping your photo, which helps create a relaxed environment.
The bars are classy and after night one the staff somehow remember your name, and drink order.
The average age of passengers on this cruise was 60-plus with 65 per cent coming from the United States, 15 per cent from Australia and the rest from all parts of the globe.
Because it is a relatively small ship it never seems crowded, even when you are disembarking for shore excursions.
And when it comes to shore excursions you certainly are spoilt for choice.
In Stavanger, our first port of call, guests had the choice of 13 different shore excursions, plus a two-and-ahalf hour Panoramic Stavanger tour which was included as part of the fare. If you wanted to dip into your pocket to explore more you could sign up for a Pulpit Rock cruise; a Stavanger home visit; a traditional fishing experience; a fjord foray by either RIB (rigid inflatable boat) or helicopter; or head to the ice skating rink to learn how to curl like a pro. I chose the “Taste of Stavanger” tour. The city centre of Stavanger, Norway’s fourth largest city with a population of just over 120,000, is built around the harbour so arriving by cruise ship gets you a prime parking spot within walking distance of the old town and its almost 900-year-old cathedral.
The tour starts at the Maritime Museum where we are served a plate of sardines (Stavanger owes its growth to this very small, very oily fish) before heading to Ostehuset Domkirkeplassen which serves food and drink over three levels. They brew beer downstairs; run an urban deli/ café on the ground floor; and serve high-end restaurant meals, inspired by local produce, on the top floor. We taste the cheese made by Lise Brunborg at her Ysteri production facility, which coincidentally is located in an old sardine canning factory. Brunborg is a master cheese maker whose approach seems to sum up the way Stavangen food producers think in their relentless hunt to find, and serve, the best of local products. Local is good, better, best.
That’s certainly something chocolatier Asle Ostbo practises at Chili Chocolate which sits in a wooden building halfway down one of Stavanger’s rough slippery-whenwet cobbled streets. Everything he sells contains either chilli or chocolate and his best selling item – a combination of chocolate, sea salt and caramel – is his aunt’s recipe.
Stavanger boasts two Michelinstarred restaurants, RE-NAA and Sabi Omakase, and although the city centre is small it still manages to be vibrant with a hipster feel.
But there’s no need to even consider dining off the ship as the Viking Star offers seven different dining options including the remarkable Italian restaurant, Manfredi’s. And there’s nothing like a hearty Italian meal to give you strength and sustenance when standing on the deck, hunting Northern Lights, on dark Norway nights.
The 13-day In Search of the Northern Lights cruise sails from London to Bergen or reverse. Fares start from £3,790 for sailings in 2021 between February and March. For UK guests this fare includes gratuities, wine, beer and soft drinks with meals, tea and coffee, water, dining in alternative restaurants, room service 24/7, free wifi, a complimentary shore excursion in most ports, entertainment and enrichment talks, use of spa facilities and flight from or to Bergen. Call 0800 298 97 00 or go to www.vikingcruises.co.uk
You can of course see the Northern Lights from Scotland. The website www.spaceweather.com issues alerts by phone to subscribers about best possible viewing times.
Brian Crisp was a guest of Viking Cruises.