WINTER doesn’t have to equal gloom. At least not above the Arctic Circle when the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis (or simply aurora), turn up. When these neon-bright streaks of color—green, pink, violet—zip across the skies, the season becomes distinctly lively. Between August and March each year, lightpeepers from Texas to Thailand make their way north to witness the show. “Northern light tours are our most requested tours right now,” said Marc Télio, owner of Vancouver-based Entrée Destinations. “There’s a crazy amount of interest in them.”
Perhaps it’s the thrill of the chase: The lights are notoriously hard to predict, which only adds to the quixotic nature of the quest. And they can be fleeting—sometimes lasting mere minutes.
For those who tended to nod off during Earth Science class, a quick refresher: The northern lights are caused when charged particles from the sun crash into atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere. The color of the aurora depends on the kind of atoms involved, and the altitude at which they collide.
The lights are most commonly seen at the 60th parallel and above, latitudes that span Scandinavia, Canada, southern Greenland and northern Russia. In the U.S., Alaska offers the best odds, although northern states, from Minnesota to Maine, often get a glimpse. But even within those areas, the lights only occur within the auroral oval, a narrow belt that encircles the magnetic north pole. The oval’s contours change constantly, expanding and contracting—“like dough,” said Jan Sortland of the travel firm Norwegian Adventures. And they do so at the speed of you-know-what. At one point last fall the oval extended as far as northern Italy. But soon, in its flitting way, it retracted again.
Be warned: Many tour operators that promise a seat at nature’s light show may not be able to deliver, cautioned Mr. Sortland. The Aurora won’t appear unless specific criteria are met. True dark is the first requirement; ambient light is the enemy. You need to stay far from cities and roads. The next? Clear skies. These are harder to arrange. Sites such as Canada’s Northwest Territories and northern Norway, where the weather tends to be crisp and clear, are ideal. Cloudier places can be iffy.
Here, a brief guide to viewing the lights, zeroing in places and tours that offer worthy diversions other than lightpeeping—in case a certain diva doesn’t show.
Lodging—Hot and Cold
Luxury and the Arctic Circle are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. One key exception: Loggers Lodge, deep in the woods of Swedish Lapland. A large, elegantly furnished one-bedroom cabin, it comes with a private chef (housed nearby). It’s also equipped with an outdoor hot tub, which makes a tough-to-beat lightpeeping perch as long as you kill the lights (from about $1,780 a night, loggerslodge.com). Over on the west coast of Greenland, the Hotel Arctic, while decidedly more austere, offers something no landlocked facility could: a humbling view of the looming icebergs of Disko Bay (from about $230 a night, hotelarctic.com). Surely the widest-angle perspective on the aurora can be found on Scotland’s Shetland Isles, where guests at a cottage just in front of the recently restored Sumburgh Lighthouse can watch the Merry Dancers, as the lights are locally known, streak above the intersecting waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea (from about $730 a night, shetlandlighthouse.com). And at the Iso-Syote hotel, in Finnish Lapland, you can bunk down in a large glass-walled igloo (from about $94 a night, hotelli-isosyote.fi). Another literally cool shelter is the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, in Alta, Norway. Carved from ice, this surprisingly intricate structure opens in January before disappearing, drip by drip, in the spring (from about $300 a night, sorrisniva.no). The Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi, also in Swedish Lapland, is even more whimsical; every year dozens of artists sculpt an elaborate dwelling out of huge blocks of ice. As at the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, overnight guests are outfitted with expedition-level sleeping bags to ward off the chill. Still not persuaded? The Icehotel recently expanded, adding Icehotel 365, a heated structure which, as its name implies, is available year round. No thermal sleeping bags here—the new suites at 365 even include toasty bathrooms with saunas (from about $170 for a heated room and about $250 for a cold room, icehotel.com).
The Arctic camps set up by Nordic Luxury, an Icelandic tour company, provide a thrillingly atmospheric way to experience the lights. These temporary villages of plush tents—complete with sheepskin rugs and heaters—are designed for private groups of up to 15 and can be installed in various parts of the country. Glampers can explore on horseback, fat bikes or buggies or, if there’s a river in the neighborhood, do some fishing (Nordic Luxury supplies all the gear). And while these mobile camps pack it in come winter, there’s still a good chance for aurora sightings from August through October (from about $7,070 a night for up to 4 people, nordicluxury.is).
Several hotels in the far north offer nocturnal excursions, using horses, dogsleds, snowmobiles, and other conveyances to tote their guests deep into the snowy wilderness. At least one hotel, the Finnish Iso-Syöte (see “Lodging—Hot and Cold”), relies on a team of fleet-footed reindeer. A number of touring companies also build entire itineraries around the lights: for instance, Chasing Aurora, a four-night tour organized by the Canadian firm of Entrée Destinations. The journey begins with a skiplane flight to the northern city of Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon territory, then continues, via dogsled, from one lodge to the next. On day three, guests are taught to take charge of a canine team—a skill rarely needed but sure to impress your French bulldog back home—then let loose on their own sleds (from about $4,302 a person, entreedestinations.com).
If a trip to the Yukon greatly improves your prospects of seeing the lights, Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Barents Sea, makes it a near shoo-in: It’s so far north that it experiences polar night—known locally as “the dark season”—from September to May, when the aurora can shine for 24 hours a day. Norway’s Hurtigruten Svalbard (formerly Spitsbergen Travel) offers several tours, including one that lets you track the lights from the deep comfort of heated Snowcat vehicles (from about $2,093 a person, spitsbergentravel.com).
Forecasting the Flicker
Most countries in Light-land offer aurora forecasts of one sort or another. In Iceland, where the weather can turn on the proverbial Icelandic kroná, there’s one online forecast for aurora sightings, another for cloud cover (en.vedur.is). In Minnesota, radio stations sound “northern lights” alerts when the aurora is near. Some hotels, including Finland’s Santa’s Hotel Aurora, even send alerts to their guests via text message. But be prepared to sprint—by the time you’ve raced out to see the lights, the sky may be blue-black again. Good thing, then, that the hotel offers other diversions, too, including cross-country skiing, ice fishing and nighttime snowshoeing excursions, where you can stomp around in the dark, ever hopeful that the lights might appear (from about $190 a night, santashotels.fi).