by Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph, October 29, 2019
As quarries go, the aurora borealis is a notoriously elusive target, requiring dark, cloudless skies and a sprightly sun flinging out enough plasma to bounce off Earth’s magnetic field and trigger the display.
In fact, when Viking named its cruise “In Search of the Northern Lights”, the emphasis was placed firmly on the “search”, with organisers at pains to point out that seeing the “Merrie Dancers" was by no means guaranteed. Yet, it’s the thrill of the chase that makes this so rewarding.
Setting out from Bergen, flanked by the wooden warehouses of Bryggen Wharf on a snowy January morning, it was easy to sense the apprehension felt by the 16th-century salt-cod traders as they embarked on the treacherous journey into the frozen North, where the daylight diminishes with each degree you travel closer to the pole.
The conditions on board the Viking Sky are, thankfully, better than in centuries past. There are just over 900 passengers on the ocean ships and around one crew member for every two travellers. The ships are hygge hideaways of understated Scandi-chic, perfect for hunkering down on those inky Arctic nights, when the winds howl and stateroom doors rattle.
The comfy lounges are filled with books about Shackleton, Franklin, Amundsen and Nansen, painstakingly selected by Mayfair library-builders Heywood Hill, booksellers to the Queen. A traditional spa continues the Nordic theme, with a steam room, sauna and even a snow grotto, allowing for the full Scandinavian bathing ritual of fire and ice.
The food is also exceptional, with two specialist restaurants at no extra cost, as well as very good informal eateries. And if you’re concerned about missing the Northern Lights while tucking into the reindeer ravioli, don’t panic. The whole crew is permanently on aurora-watch, poised to announce sightings via the tannoy. A channel on the stateroom TV can be set as an alarm for those who value the aurora above sleep. And believe me, many do. Experts can also advise how to get the best photographs: patience, a long exposure and a tripod or a steady hand are all key.
In fact, the ship is so comfortable it’s easy to be seduced into not venturing outdoors, particularly with temperatures plummeting to -25C and gales reaching 60mph. Yet this would be a mistake as there is so much to explore. Off the ship, optional excursions include concerts, wildlife cruises, ice-fishing, snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, helicopter rides, curling lessons, dog-sledding, and even a stay in the ice hotel in Alta.
After crossing the Arctic Circle – marked by the tiny island of Polarsirkelen – the first port of call is Narvik. Originally named Victoriahavn after Queen Victoria, the town is an important location for the year-round exporting of Swedish iron ore, as the gulf stream stops the harbour from freezing in the winter. Narvik also saw the first victory against the Nazis in the Second World War; sunken battleships still lie on the harbour bed, which divers can visit in the warmer months.
Venture 90 minutes inland, and it’s possible to pet wolves and see lynx, wolverine, brown bears, musk ox and moose in the 110-acre Polar Park. Yet although the history and animals were plentiful in Narvik, the Northern Lights remained stubbornly evasive during our visit and so we sailed further northwards to Alta.
At nearly 70 degrees north, Alta is considered the world’s most northerly city, and known as the City of Northern Lights. To get the best chance to see them, we took a night-time excursion into the dark mountains, where the sky was pitch-black. The stars twinkled ostentatiously, but the aurora kept us in the dark. Frozen and disappointed, we caught our coach back to the ship where stewards were waiting with mulled wine to warm our spirits.
The next day we visited the Sami, indigenous people who still herd reindeers in the mountains. The Sami believe the Northern Lights emanate from the souls of the dead and would traditionally refuse to venture outside when the aurora was in the sky. Even now few will whistle during a display for fear they’ll be noticed and snatched by their ancestors. They call the phenomenon “guovssahas”, meaning “the lights you can hear”, as they sometimes make a popping and crackling sound like static electricity. We bumped along in a reindeer-drawn sleigh on a frozen river followed by a bowl of “bidos” or reindeer stew.
Back on the ship Ian Ridpath from the Royal Astronomical Society was on the sports deck to help us spot the lights. But the clouds rolled in, erasing any hope. Yet as we sailed further south towards Tromso, expectations began to lift as the aurora forecast showed a spike in solar winds, the first real chance of action. Passengers swapped advice about the best aurora apps.
As dinner finished on the sixth day, the announcement everyone had been hoping for came from the bridge. “The Northern Lights have been seen on the starboard side.” Coats were snatched, shoes pulled on, and we headed to the icy decks.
The wait was worth it. Even by Tromso standards, the aurora was exceptional, throwing everything it had into the Norwegian night. Flickering ribbons of white, purple and red darted across the skies, forming shapes of people and animals, then dissolving into wisps of smoke as fast as they had come. Glowing green drapes billowed like curtains, while corona shot laser beams of light from their heart and fluorescent arcs capped the mountains.
The name aurora was first coined by Galileo in 1619 after the Roman goddess of the dawn, yet the lights have been recorded as far back as 2600BC by the Chinese, who were convinced that the bright streaks were the breath of dragons. The lights appeared above the ship, then moved south and were gone. The aurora was so astonishing, it was seen as far south as Aberdeen and reappeared for a brief spectacle as we sailed out of Tromso the next evening.
The next day we were scheduled to stop at Bodo, but strong winds prevented landing and we sailed on to Stavanger, entertained by hastily arranged lectures and quizzes. Had we landed we may have seen the treacherous Norwegian Maelstroms mentioned by Herman Melville in Moby Dick as the world’s strongest tidal current rushes through the strait of Saltstraumen, creating whirlpools up to 32ft wide. But the dark days and severe cold can be tiring, even when on holiday, and passengers were thankful for an extra day of rest.
And there is plenty to do on board, from yoga classes, massages and beauty treatments to games, concerts, wine-tasting, films, tours of the bridge and galley, and more.
By the time we reached Stavanger, the bright snow had given way to a dull, rainy drizzle and it felt as if we were slowly pottering home. Thirteen days after we set off, Viking Sky sailed into Tilbury, London’s cruise port terminal, and we were home within less than 90 minutes, a far more civilised re-entry to reality than struggling through busy airports.
There is a Norwegian saying, “Berre den som vandrar, finn nye vegar”: “Only those who wander find new paths”. This is luxury, five-star wandering. The 13-day voyage is impeccably planned to give the very best chance of finding the Northern Lights, and we were fortunate enough to see them. As Roald Amundsen puts it: “Victory awaits him who has everything in order. Luck, people call it.”
A 13-day In Search of the Northern Lights cruise with Viking costs from £3,590pp, based on two sharing. Departing February 3, 2020, including flight home from Bergen (0800 298 9700; vikingcruises.co.uk).