NATURE'S SPECTACULAR NIGHT SHOW
Now is the perfect time to see the Northern Lights. Nigel Tisdall offers an expert's guide
T HE northern lights are one of nature's great displays: a mysterious, multicoloured show in which the night sky is suddenly lit up with a wondrous glow that twists and swirls like a heavenly lava lamp.
Elusive and ethereal, it is one of the great, timeless thrills of travel, a beautiful, shifting dance of nocturnal rainbows that many viewers find a humbling and spiritually uplifting experience.
It occurs most commonly in the Arctic region, and in recent years the chance of enjoying the spectacle has become a prime reason to fly north for a winter break, despite the often high costs and the cold. The good news is that the range of holidays available for viewing the northern lights has never been better. What's more, this winter is likely to be a gala occasion.
The strength of auroral activity runs in 11-year cycles; 2012/13 just happens to be a peak moment known as "Solar Maximum", with experts predicting plentiful and spectacular displays. If you have always wanted to see the northern lights, this is undoubtedly the time.
. WHERE AND WHEN TO GO
The lights are formed from fast-moving, electrically charged particles that emanate from the sun. These are driven towards the poles by the Earth's magnetic field - their varying colours are a result of the different gases in the upper atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere, they are known as the aurora borealis and hang above the planet in an oval-shaped halo. The lights also have their southern counterpart, the aurora australis, but the principal audience for this is penguins.
To see the celestial disco in its full glory, you will have to head north towards the Arctic, above latitude 60° at the least. The snowy wilds of Canada and Alaska are fine viewing spots, but for most of us it is more affordable, and convenient, to fly to Iceland or northern Scandinavia, commonly known as Lapland. Here it is possible to see the lights from late September to early April, with October to November and February to March considered optimum periods.
The hours of darkness increase the farther north you travel, and while the aurora can be sighted at any moment, 9pm to 2am tends to be prime viewing time. It's surprising how often the lights reveal themselves just as dinner is served, and many hotels offer an aurora alarm service if you don't want to stay up waiting.
Where you go will depend on your budget and the time available, but a more crucial decision is what else you want to do when you're not standing outside in sub-zero temperatures staring up at the night sky with fingers crossed.
It's important not to become obsessed with the single goal of beholding the aurora, but to see this as just one of many thrills of a winter holiday to the Arctic. Sparkling white landscapes, fairytale ice hotels, romantic husky-sled rides, the hi-tech-meets-frontier lifestyle of the indigenous peoples, cool city breaks - these are reasons enough to go.
With luck you will also see the heavens ablaze with a silky, swirling light, but this can never be guaranteed.
. HOW TO BOOK
Packages: These make sense for an Arctic adventure, particularly if you want to travel on a short break or in half-term and include activities such as snowmobiling, superjeep trips or husky sledding. Scandinavian countries are very good at keeping their transport systems moving in winter but bad weather can disrupt journeys and it helps to have the support and financial protection that comes from booking through a tour operator. There are several UK-based companies that offer trips.
Discover the World (www.discover-the-world.co.uk) has an extensive northern lights programme to six countries between December and March and offers direct flights between Heathrow and Kiruna, the gateway to Swedish Lapland. The flying time is three-and-a-half hours and avoids the connections in Stockholm, Oslo or Helsinki of some aurora-chasing holidays. A three-night break using these flights costs from £1099 per person, including transfers, breakfast and a night in a "snow room" at the Icehotel in Jukkasjrvi.
Other specialists include Transun (www.transun.co.uk), Aurora Zone (www.theaurorazone.com), Specialised Tours (www.specialisedtours.com) and Taber Holidays (www.taberhols.co.uk).
Iceland is a good option for a low-cost holiday with a decent chance of seeing the aurora. Icelandair (www.icelandair.co.uk) offers a three-night Northern Lights city break from £299 per person, including return flight from London, Manchester or Glasgow and an evening excursion to look for the lights. You can also stop over in Reykjavik for no extra fee.
Independent travel: It is easy enough to go online and set up a trip to the frozen north using scheduled airlines and accommodation booked directly with hotels. These will often arrange airport transfers, but, as the aurora is best seen in remote locations, it is usually worth hiring a car. However, before booking, check that you can't make the same arrangements more cheaply through a tour operator.
Iceland is especially suited to this type of holiday - try icelandexpress.com and wowair.com for flights, while www.visiticeland.com can help with hotels and further information.
One inviting option for non-drivers is to fly to Stockholm, then take a sleeper train (www.sj.se) to Abisko Turiststation in the far north of Sweden. Here you can stay at a functional mountain lodge (www.svenskaturistforeningen.se) and take a chairlift up to the Aurora Sky Station (www.auroraskystation.se), which is set at nearly 914m and in a "sweet spot" ideal for seeing the lights. For more options, see www.visitsweden.com, www.visitnorway.co.uk and www.visitfinland.com.
As with whale-watching or a safari, you need some luck to get a good sighting - but there are a few things you can do to improve your chances.
It helps to pick dates that avoid a full moon and to visit locations away from the light pollution caused by large settlements. Good weather is also crucial, but this is harder to predict. Local conditions can vary wildly, with sensational sightings at one spot but thick cloud just a few kilometres away. One solution is to go for as many nights as you can spare, and to visit more than one place.
. WHAT TO TAKE
Pack clothes in layers as you would for a skiing or winter holiday, including a hat, gloves, waterproof jacket, thermal underwear and boots. Many hotels provide guests with a thermal suit and boots for snowmobile trips and outdoor activities, so there's no need to buy special kit, as long as you are a regular size.
A driver's licence is required to drive a snowmobile. Don't forget your swimming gear for the hot tub.
. EXPERT TIPS
Don't waste time trying to take photographs of the aurora unless you're an expert - just enjoy the moment, which might well be fleeting.
Book some activities - the Arctic is a place for thrills and adventures and you won't want to miss out.
If you like camping, you will enjoy a night in an ice hotel; if you don't, stay in a warm room and just take the tour. - ©The Daily Telegraph