Three Unique Places to See the Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis ( or the Northern Lights ) is at the top of many bucket lists. And rightfully so! This amazing natural phenomenon has sparked legends of sky warriors, spirits, and far distant dawns. It has kept people looking up at the long winter night sky for centuries.

silhouette against the Aurora Northern Lights Alaska
[Photo Credit: Steve Halama via Unsplash]
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When you consider making this bucket list dream a reality, the first country that might spring to mind is Iceland. Iceland is a great place to see them! But, it’s not the only place to see these incredible lights. If you’re looking for something a little different, read on for 3 unique places to see the Northern Lights. Starting right in our own backyard!

First, a little background to prepare you to go aurora hunting:

What is the Aurora Borealis?

The short version: The particles emitted from the sun’s atmosphere break free and strike our atmosphere causing a reaction resulting in light.

The longer version: It’s so hot on the outermost surface of the sun (the Corona) that the hydrogen atoms split into protons and electrons. The gas of the charged particles is electrically conductive. The gas breaks free of the sun and blows away from the surface- sometimes called solar wind. These particles then strike our own atmosphere causing a chemical reaction that results in a release of energy in the form of light.

The Aurora from Space
Aurora from Space [Photo Credit: NASA via Unsplash]

When are they visible?

For the northern lights to be visible, you need darkness, high geomagnetic activity (storms on the surface of the sun), and clear skies (little to no cloud cover).

To increase your chances, you want to be far north, in the winter months (long, dark nights) and away from light pollution.

But the biggest factor in seeing the Northern Lights is the simple weather report. You won’t see much without clear skies, so keep a very close eye on the weather and cloud cover.

Remember: The lights are an unpredictable force of nature. So make sure the vacation you choose has other things that interest you! That way you’re guaranteed a good vacation, even if the cloud cover isn’t in your favor.

Ok, now that you’re ready to start your aurora hunt, let’s look at some unique locations!

Bright Aurora Northern lights against snow trees
[Photo Credit: Tim Motivv on Unsplash]

Fairbanks, Alaska

There’s a great Aurora spot right in our own backyard- no passport needed! If you’re looking for something a little more familiar and closer to home, then look no further than Northern Alaska.

You have a great chance of seeing the lights near Alaska’s second-largest city. With plenty of hotels, B&B’s, and its own airport, Fairbanks is easy to reach. To really see the Aurora clearly, you’ll have to travel outside the bright city lights. You can rent a car to visit Cleary Summit, Creamer’s Field, or Murphy’s Dome on nightly trips.

Aurora over Alaska
The view from Cleary Summit in Fairbanks [Photo Credit: Tommy Tang on Unsplash]

Fairbanks knows they have something special with these fantastic spirits, so many of the hotels offer aurora wake-up calls allowing you to sleep peacefully without the worry of missing anything. They also offer several Aurora tours if you’d rather not rent a car.

Best Time to Visit: The shoulder months of Late-September and Early March give you the clearest skies, but November-February will provide the longest night hours.

Places to Stay: Fairbanks has a huge selection of hotels, but you can also try staying a little outside the city at the Chena Hotsprings Resort or the Borealis Basecamp which offers geodesic igloos with 16ft windows/skylights to really improve your chances.

Other Things to Do: There are numerous outdoor activities from dogsledding to wildlife hikes, reindeer ranches, museums, and cultural sites.

northern lights behind Scottish monument
Northern Lights in Scottish Highlands [Photo courtesy of VisitScotland]

Orkney & Shetland Archipelago, Scotland

Scotland brings to mind Castles, lochs, monsters, whisky, and haggis but the Northern Lights? Picture yourself sitting in a cozy cabin nestled in the windswept northern isles, sipping local whiskey and watching the skies for these Merrie Dancers (as they’re known locally).

 If you’d like to plan a trip to Scotland or the UK then this is definitely something to include!

The northernmost Scottish Isles offer incredibly low light pollution with some of the largest expanses of Dark Sky in Europe. Combined with their low lying landscapes, this more than makes up for their “low” latitude compared to other aurora-viewing hotspots.

galaxy and northern lights behind a castle wall
In addition to the Aurora, there are fantastic night sky views in Northern Scotland [Photo courtesy of VisitScotland]

Reachable by ferry, Orkney & Shetland are the perfect places to make-your-own-adventure when hunting for the Aurora. The “Aurora tourism” boom hasn’t quite reached these isles yet, so there are few tours offered. Which gives you the opportunity to enjoy the lights in an intimate setting, and consider renting a camper van to be able to “chase” them across the isles.

Best Time to Visit: The winter months with the longest nights will be your friend in Scotland- aim for December- February. Visit in January- February to include one of Shetland’s famous Viking Fire Festivals on your trip!

Best Places to Stay: Any of the Islands are a good choice but try to stay away from the light pollution of Lerwick, Shetland. There are plenty of B&Bs and self-catering cabins, but the islands do have a few full-service hotels as well.

Other Things to Do: Archaeological and UNESCO sites ( Orkney has four monuments spanning five thousand years), wildlife walks & hiking, Shetland Ponies, Fire festivals and Folk Music Festivals.

Bow of a ship in icy Norwegian waters
[Photo Credit: Pascal Debrunner via Unsplash]

Cruising the Norwegian Coast

If you’re looking for something a bit more structured and with a practical guarantee of seeing the northern lights look no further than Hurtigruten Cruises!

Based in Norway, they have several options for Aurora Hunters. All the cruises head up the coast of Norway to the north-easternmost point of Kirkenes, a town that shares its border with Russia.

These cruises offer onboard guides, lectures, and presentations all about the lights and the stunning landscape. You also have to option of mini shore-excursions during the day in each of the ports! Although there is the risk that you’ll have more clouds on the coast, Hurtigruten offers a “Northern Lights Promise” which is their guarantee you’ll see the aurora or you get another cruise free! Making this option your highest chance of seeing the Aurora.

Aurora Northern Lights over water in Norway
A ribbon of light near the coast of Tromsø, Norway [Photo Credit: Sebastian Kowalski via Unsplash]

Their classic cruise starts from Bergen and heads around the coast to Kirken with options for 6-12 days and stopping at 22- 34 ports along the way! You also can choose from their Short Coastal Cruises ( 2-4 days) or Expedition Cruises (12-15 days)

Best Time to Visit: To maximize your nightly hours visit in January or February. Although the “Northern Lights Promise” is valid from October 1- March 31st.

Other Things to Do: The fact that Hurtigruten fits so many ports into their itinerary is pretty amazing. So without too much extra hassle, you can go on mountain hikes, city tours, kayaking, dogsledding and other cultural activities.

Final Tips & Tricks

Some final tips before you begin planning your incredible Aurora Vacation:

Aurora Northern Lights over Lofoton Norway
Aurora in Lofoten, Norway
[Photo Credit: Stein Egil Leiland via Pexels]
  • Avoid full moons – five days before the new moon is best
  • If you’re taking a tour, aim for the start of your trip so you have another chance
  • Use red-light flashlights and keep your eyes off screens for the best night vision
  • Bring extra camera batteries
  • Be patient
  • It’s literally FREEZING outside! Dress in layers.

If this list has sparked your imagination, send us an email and we can make it even easier to plan your Amazing Aurora Adventure!

Northern Lights / Red Lights

Vacations often involve compromise — and the best ones leave everyone feeling that he/she got everything that they wanted! Cousins Jen and Vanessa wanted to go to Europe, but had differing views on which destinations were the most compelling. I helped them put together an ambitious “escape” that combined Iceland and Amsterdam, and it looks like it got two enthusiastic thumbs up 🙂

Hi Ann!

Our trip was AMAZING 🙂 Hotel Midgardur (in Reykjavik) was cute, comfortable, clean and friendly. The breakfast was simply but yummy…and vegan friendly 🙂 Grey Line tours did a really nice job. Our Northern Lights tour was cancelled the first night, due to weather…but the upgraded tour went out (it was double in price of ours…so we opted not to go). HOWEVER, the lights came out that night and were supposedly super bright over Reykjavik (we were totally bummed when we heard that the next day).

Our Golden Circle tour was great…tectonic plates, waterfalls, Geysers, horse farms and an old church. It was a LONG day…we rushed back to the hotel and had an hour to eat and get ready for our Northern Lights tour. We were out until 2am…no lights to be seen…and then slept for a few hours and had to wake up early to ride horses. It was cold…the horses were cool but once we were on them, the guides didn’t speak to us…tell us anything about our scenery, where we were going or for how long (I was through Laxness farms). We then went to the Blue Lagoon…it was nice and relaxing…then back to the hotel, where we had an hour to eat and go back out for the Northern Lights. Luckily, our guide and driver were much better than the previous night, so we SAW THE LIGHTS…yay. They were amazing and magical…we got home close to 2:30am…packed, showered and took at 4am shuttle for our flight to Amsterdam.

In summary, Iceland was great. We had super yummy vegan/veg meals (though food was expensive)…I would go back and maybe add an extra day for a break between tours. We definitely left exhausted!

We landed in Amsterdam after a night of no sleep, and proudly powered through the day without sleeping. The Hampshire Hotel Amsterdam American is older, but has character…and the breakfast…oh the breakfast. Never let me complain about all inclusive breakfast again. We spent at least an hour and a half each morning enjoying breakfast 🙂 It was delightful. We took a canal boat tour, visited the Anne Frank house, took fun pictures on the I AMSTERDAM sign, walked to the old windmill next to a microbrewery, had waffles, chips, checked out the red light district, went to the nine streets for shopping…and had AMAZING Indonesian food (also a vegan friendly city). Amsterdam is so walkable…Vanessa and I totally fell in love with the city. If any of your clients need places to eat (in either city), let us know, we can tell you where we went.

On a side note, we toyed with going to Paris for the day on Friday 11/13 (we looked up flights and train times)…and thankfully, it was too expensive for a day trip. Crazy and sad.

It was an amazing trip. I would go back to either city in a heartbeat…thank you for organizing…you have two very happy clients 🙂

-J

Surprise and Delight in Reykjavik

Iceland – February 2012

This is a trip that almost didn’t happen, and it would have been a huge shame if we missed it! I came down with a stomach bug two days before our departure and the morning we left was my first try at eating real food…but we decided to risk it, packed our bags, and headed to Logan Airport for our evening flight. I am so glad we did!

Our amazingly inexpensive Icelandair package included roundtrip flights from Boston to Reykjavik, three nights’ hotel accommodations, and a full day sightseeing tour of the Golden Circle. It was just the right amount of time for a quick introduction to this beautiful country, and I can’t wait to go back and see more. The full trip report is below, and the photos are here.

We left Boston at about 8:30 pm on a Friday night and were fortunate enough to have a fairly empty flight (needless to say, February is not peak season for travel to Iceland) so we each had a row to ourselves to stretch out and sleep. That made a huge difference! We arrived at 6:40 am (local time), collected our bags, changed some US dollars into Icelandic Krona and grabbed the FlyBus to our hotel, the Reykjavik Natura. NOTE: The Keflavik Airport is about 30-40 minutes outside the city of Reykjavik, and the FlyBus meets all arriving flights, so it’s very easy to get into the city. For some properties you have to change buses at the central bus station, but we were dropped right at our hotel.

Our hotel, owned by Icelandair, was located just outside the main tourist area of Reykjavik, next to a (surprisingly quiet) small domestic airport. We never noticed any planes coming/going, and the 20-minute walk into town was no big deal at all (the hotel also operates a free shuttle, but it runs on a very sporadic schedule). The hotel is modern and Scandinavian in design – very clean and spare – and it features a very welcoming lobby and bar/lounge, a nice restaurant, an indoor pool and full-service spa, and some of the friendliest, most helpful staff I’ve ever encountered. Everyone spoke perfect English, and they got us into a room by about 9:30 am, despite the hotel being oversold for that first night. NOTE: Travelers on the IcelandAir package are guaranteed an early check-in (by 10 am) which is a fantastic perk for early morning arrivals from the US. Our room was small but cozy, and it sort of felt like a cruise ship cabin, with everything tucked into ingenious little spaces.

A view of Reykjavik Iceland with a looming snow-capped mountain behind itsun voyager sculpture in Iceland

After a brief nap, we walked into town to explore. We started with the landmark Hallgrimskirkja church which stands high above Reykjavik. From there, we had a commanding view over the city and the harbor beyond. From there, down every side street into the center of town, there are shops, boutiques, galleries and restaurants.  We could have spent days wandering around, but we continued on to the waterfront, to photograph the stainless steel Viking ship sculpture and the cool new Harpa building (an ultra-modern concert and convention center). We stopped at Lake Tjornin to watch the children feed the ducks, and then went in search of a late lunch. We had received several recommendations for Icelandic Fish and Chips, which did not look like much from the outside, but was a fantastic find! The cod was so light and fresh, better than any fried fish I’ve ever had anywhere else, and they served it over a salad (sounds weird, but it worked!) with your choice of delicious dipping sauces, all made from Icelandic “skyr”, which is their version of yogurt. I would go back to Reykjavik just to eat it again!  The overnight flight and jet lag were catching up with us at that point, so we headed back to the hotel to have a nice drink by the fireplace and then called it an early night and went to bed.

the huge and icy gulfoss waterfall in Iceland

The next morning (Sunday) started with a hearty breakfast at the hotel, and then we took a quick walk to the nearby Perlan (the Pearl) which is a hilltop landmark that combines a geothermal treatment plant with a museum, restaurant, a manmade geyser, and a viewing platform with 360-degree views over the city. Our guide picked us up back at the hotel at about 11:30 am for a full-day (12-13 hour) tour of the Golden Circle. One of the most popular tourist routes from Reykjavik, this tour includes the natural wonders of Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall, and Geysir (the original geyser, after which all others are named). We traveled in a modified four-wheel-drive minibus, with a small group of just seven people, and it was a fantastic way to see the countryside. Our guide Stephan explained Iceland’s unusual geography and geology, and his rescue driver training came in handy on the icy side roads. He even stopped to let us pet and play with some of the ubiquitous Icelandic horses. So cute!!

The golden circle geysir shoots up against a beautiful morning sky in IcelandAnnie pets the muzzle of a fuzzy Icelandic Horse

Towards the end of the tour, we ended up in the town of Laugarvatn, for a visit to the Laugarvatn Fontana Spa, which harnesses the power of Iceland’s natural hot springs and offers steam rooms, a Finnish sauna, and a series of hot and hotter outdoor baths with a scenic view over the lake. We were complete wimps about the steam rooms and sauna (ouch!) but we enjoyed soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by flickering lanterns, as darkness descended. Fully relaxed, we all walked next door for a delicious gourmet dinner at the Lindin Restaurant. Run by a CIA-trained chef who used to own a restaurant in New York, this restaurant shocked us all. We had expected a typical “package tour” meal, but we were treated to unbelievable fresh, local cuisine and a chocolate mousse/watermelon puree/hot white chocolate foam dessert that I’m still dreaming about.

hilly and spotted with snow with the sea on the horizon an overlook in Iceland a rushing waterfall in Iceland

The ride back to Reykjavik at the end of the night was designed to maximize our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Despite Stephan’s best efforts, and some detours to try and find breaks in the clouds, we were unsuccessful. The overcast weather haunted us for the entire time we were there, and no one was able to see the aurora.

Monday morning dawned cold and rainy – not a great omen for the photo tour that we had booked in advance through the highly recommended Iceland Aurora – but it turned out to be a great day nonetheless. Our guide Kiddi picked us up in his crazy monster-truck of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and we headed for the south coast to (hopefully) see volcanoes and waterfalls. The relentless rain did not cooperate, and we could not see (or photograph) any volcanoes, but we did stop at two breathtaking waterfalls – Selfoss and Skogarfoss – and no one minded standing in the pouring rain and wind to grab some photographs of these natural wonders. Kiddi was patient and helpful, wiping rain-soaked lenses and providing advice on how to best capture the falls, and I would recommend the experience highly (even in the rain!)  Afterwards, he took us to the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano tourist center to learn about the 2010 eruption and its aftermath. It was very interesting to see the local impact of this major event that disrupted travel throughout Europe.

Back in Reykjavik that evening, we dried off from our outdoor adventures and headed into town for a special dinner at The Fish Market, which had been highly recommended by some new friends we met on the tour. We splurged on their special nine-course tasting menu, and I have to say it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten in our lives. Grilled minke whale, rock shrimp tempura, honey barbecued ribs,  a salad with quail egg and pomegranate seeds, assorted sushi, lightly salted cod, glazed salmon, smoked duck, and all with the most freshest and most mouth-watering sauces, seasonings and accompaniments. We almost couldn’t make it all the way to the dessert plate (cheesecake pudding, honey/fruit brulee, molten chocolate cake, and grapefruit and berry sorbets), but we persevered!  If it sounds over-the-top, it was. But we loved every single decadent bite.

bright blue hotsprings surrounded by dark volcanic rock in Iceland

Tuesday morning we checked out and boarded the bus to the Blue Lagoon. Like many tourists, we planned to soak in the lagoon for a few hours before heading to the nearby airport for our late-afternoon flight home. There is something completely other-worldly about sitting in the steaming blue water while freezing rain pelts you in the head! It sounds crazy, but it was really cool. They have silica mud which you can smear on your skin, and a swim-up bar in case you need some refreshment, but we were content with a dip in the hot waters and a light lunch in the café before we headed to the airport.

High winds delayed our flight by about three hours, but I have to say that if you’re ever going to be “stuck” in an airport, Keflavik is a great choice. We did some duty free shopping, drank some local Icelandic beers, ate dinner, snuck onto the free WiFi service that’s supposed to only be for customers in the First Class lounge, and generally enjoyed ourselves.

Best of all, the delayed departure (we left at about 8 pm) meant we were treated to a gorgeous display of the Northern Lights outside the plane window on the way home! It was Iceland’s parting gift to us, and we loved it 🙂

Here are my overall thoughts/impressions on this trip:

  • Iceland was a complete surprise to me. I expected outdoor attractions and scenic beauty, but I was completely unprepared for the sophisticated gourmet cuisine and the very high level of service. I think it would appeal to the urban “foodie” just as much as the Gore-Tex-clad hiker.
  • Traveling in the off-season was a fantastic idea. Our US dollars are at a real disadvantage versus the Icelandic currency, and meals can be expensive, so we were glad to have saved so much money on airfare and hotel.
  • This is a destination, like Alaska, where you need to budget time/money for tours and excursions. Most everyone we met was heading out of the city every day on a different sightseeing tour, and it would be a real shame to just stay in Reykjavik and not experience the countryside.
  • If you are visiting in the winter, bring the right gear. It actually was not that cold (30’s and 40’s), but we were very glad to have warm hiking boots and waterproof jackets/pants. You’ll want to be outdoors, so just make sure to dress accordingly.
  • Bring your appetite. Literally everything we ate or drank (from the bottled water to a hotdog at a roadside cafe) was absolutely delicious. Fresh, local, and organic take on new meaning in Iceland!

You heard it here first

I was in New York City this weekend for the Adventures in Travel Expo, and came back with lots of great new contacts, exciting ideas, and “inside scoop” to share with my clients.

The best seminar I attended was a talk by well-known travel guru Arthur Frommer.  He talked about current travel trends (like the increase in “a la carte” airline fees, and the rise of small group adventure tours), he gave some great advice for traveling on a budget, and — most interestingly to me — he gave his predictions for the three hottest destinations for the next six months.

Per Arthur Frommer, the biggest deals and best promotion of this winter will be for travel to Iceland, Ireland and Italy. Fortunately for me, those are three destinations that are already very much on my radar, and I’ve already been seeing some great opportunities for my clients.

So, if you’ve been dreaming about seeing the Northern Lights and taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon….or enjoying a pint of Guinness in a Dublin pub….or maybe gazing in awe at the Sistine Chapel….now is the time!  You heard it here first.

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)