Sometimes Even the Best-Laid Plans Go a Little Sideways

For our first real vacation during COVID, my husband and I planned a long-weekend getaway to Colorado. We wanted to spend a few days in Rocky Mountain National Park, visit a quintessential ski town (Vail) and go hiking in the Garden of the Gods. The idea was that we’d stay away from cities like Denver and Colorado Springs, and spend all of our time social-distancing in the great outdoors. Happy to finally have a trip to plan, I spent hours researching great hotels, making dinner reservations at interesting restaurants, and mapping out some scenic drives.

Then, because it’s 2020 after all, things took an unexpected turn.

Raging wildfires in and around Rocky Mountain National Park meant we had to scrap our visit there and re-plan the first half of the trip at the last-minute. And then an early-season snowstorm drove us down out of the mountains in the middle of our trip, and left us scrambling to come up with a “plan B” for the last two days. In the end, we did not actually follow through with a single thing I had pre-booked (hotels, restaurants, etc.) but we managed to have a pretty wonderful getaway nonetheless.

selfie of Annie and her husband in the snowy landscape of Garden of the Gods Colorado

And I think it was a valuable reminder that travel is all about your attitude — if you can roll with the punches, and enjoy the unexpected adventures along the way, you’re going to be a lot happier overall.

Here’s what we ended up doing:
{and if you want any info about the original plans, just let me know!}

We flew from Providence to Denver (via Charlotte) and were interested to see that crowds got heavier as we went along. The Providence airport was empty, Charlotte felt like it had maybe half the usual number of people, and the Denver airport was very busy. Everyone wore masks, the flight crew handed out little bags with hand sanitizer and snacks, and overall we felt pretty safe.

When we landed in Denver we picked up a nice big SUV and drove about 15 minutes away to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This is a true hidden gem – right outside the city, and so close to the airport, with free admission from sunrise to sunset.

two deer grazing among the tall yellow grass at the Wildlife Refuge near Denver Colorado

The refuge is over 15,000 acres in total, and we did the scenic 11-mile auto loop through the park (you can also stop and do various hikes along the way).

taking photos of bison from the car at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver Colorado

We downloaded the free app that gave us turn-by-turn narration of everything we were passing through, and we got to see buffalo, prairie dogs, deer, and more. It was an awesome introduction to the area, and I would highly recommend it on your way in or out of Denver.

From there, we drove an hour to Golden, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rockies.

a man in a blue jacket with the sculpture of a fish, a river and green trees in the background in Golden Colorado

The town is famous for being the home of Coors Brewing, but it’s a cute place in its own right, and I was really impressed with all the public art – there were sculptures on every street corner. The brewery is unfortunately not open for tours right now, but we enjoyed strolling through town and had a great dinner at Woody’s Pizza. The altitude was already kicking our butts, so we had an early bedtime and a restless sleep.

The next morning we left Golden in cold and icy conditions and took a scenic route through the mountains to Aspen. Having never been to the Rockies before, we absolutely loved this drive, with its mountain passes, changing elevations, and expansive plains. By the time we arrived in Aspen, it was sunny and in the 60s, which was totally unexpected!

the pools, hot tubs and outdoor patio of the Limelight Aspen hotel with the mountains and pine trees looming in the background

We checked into a lovely room at the Limelight Aspen (I would recommend this hotel highly) and headed out to explore the town.

Although I’m not a skier, I would go back to Aspen again in a minute. The compact downtown has cute shops and galleries, with the ski mountains looming right next door, and there are gorgeous hiking/biking trails that start right in the center of town.

a paved path through beautiful tall trees with yellow leaves in Aspen Colorado

We did a very pretty walk on the East Rio Grande Trail, which included a stroll through the John Denver Sanctuary. The restaurant scene is fabulous, as you would expect, and we enjoyed cocktails and lunch at The White House Tavern, and a delicious dinner on the outdoor patio at Tatanka.

The next day we were back on the road through the Rockies to Breckenridge (about 2 ½ hours). Where Aspen had felt upscale, quiet and luxurious, Breckenridge felt like a spring break destination. To be fair, the weather was positively springlike, so everyone was outdoors, but it was crowded and busy and felt a little unsafe given the pandemic. We checked into an unremarkable hotel, ate an average lunch, and decided to check back out and head down out of the mountains before the impending snow storm.

We were able to grab last-minute reservations at a very nice Colorado Springs hotel, so we booked our last two nights there. The Mining Exchange is a charming historic hotel in the middle of the city, walkable to tons of restaurants and we knew we didn’t want to have to drive anywhere once the storm arrived.

two people in front of the Garden of the Gods sign in the snow in Colorado

The snow started early the next morning, but we were still able to sneak in a quick visit to the Garden of the Gods. We were VERY glad to have a big heavy four-wheel drive SUV (and a native New Englander’s experience driving in snow) because there were lots of little rental sedans sliding all over the roads in the park.

the impressive red rock formations with a snowy landscape below at Garden of the Gods Colorado

But we enjoyed a snowy walk through the monumental rocks and a quick stop at the Visitor’s Center for context. The park is gorgeous, and admission is free, and it would be well-worth a much longer visit in better weather.

Back in Colorado Springs that afternoon we had a yummy lunch (and a flight of craft beers) at Colorado Craft, and a lazy afternoon watching football.

Our drive back to the airport the next morning was a white-knuckler, as the snow had continued through the night and the roads were not yet treated or plowed (which really surprised me, in a place that presumably gets lots of snow and should know how to deal with it). We eventually made it to the Denver airport, and back home to Providence, without incident.

a beautiful stream lined with fall foliage and light streaming through in Aspen Colorado

All in all, we loved Colorado, and we would happily go back to see the things we missed – especially Rocky Mountain National Park. The unexpected and unplanned things along the way more than made up for the stress that Mother Nature threw at us, and it was honestly just wonderful to be traveling again 😊

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]
three unique places to see the northern lights pin
[Pin it for later!]

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!

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)