Northern Lights, Norway

Sarah Bolton on 10 March 2008

This year saw a chance to tick off another thing on my list of things to see/do in my lifetime - seeing the Northern Lights! You may have seen the TV programme earlier this year with Joanna Lumley fulfilling her dream of seeing them, and being awestruck at the sight - well, it happened to me too. There is never any guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights, so to see them on 2 nights in a row was wonderful.

The best way of having a chance of seeing them properly is to go somewhere remote with no light pollution to spoil the view - and what better way than by going on a boat onto the open sea? I flew to Tromso, via Oslo, with SAS, and spent 1 night at the Radisson hotel on the harbourside in Tromso. That evening we had the most wonderful experience - husky dog sledging under the Northern Lights. Above the Arctic Circle in winter it gets VERY cold, and we went well wrapped up with lots of layers, and on top of these we were given snow suits with hoods and thick gloves. The feeling of being pulled along in a winter wonderland by several panting dogs in front of you, snow falling around you, and coloured lights dancing above you, is absolutely magical. On returning to the centre we were then taken to a Sami tent, known as a lavvu, which looks similar to a Native American teepee. The Samis are the indigenous people of northern Norway, and over a typical Sami dinner of reindeer stew, we were told more about the culture and the ways of the Sami people.

In the morning we were taken on a guided walking tour of Tromso by Audrey - completely nutty as a fruit cake, but brought to life the history of the town and regaled us with tales of her past. (She also knew EVERYONE in the town - stopping for a chat with everyone we passed by!) One trip that we did from Honningsvag was the North Cape excursion - a coach tour through some of the most beautiful scenery to Europe's northernmost point. As well as the obligatory photo beside the North Cape monument, we viewed the exhibition at the visitors centre, sent post cards from the most northerly letter box and posed with trolls!

Hurtigruten, previously known as Norwegian Coastal Voyages, operate a fleet of 14 ships, 11 of which operate along the coast of Norway at any one time. As well as taking "cruise" passengers, they are mainly working ships, providing an essential link between the tiny communities along the coast. This makes the trip fascinating as you stop several times throughout the day and night to allow people and/or cargo on and off - so if you are so inclined you can go ashore for 10 minutes in the middle of the night! Passengers can do either the full coastal journey, or do particular "cruises" which are sectors, including the one that we did. Cabins on board are basic but warm, comfortable and clean - let's face it, you're not here to stay inside! On the whole, the cruises are done on a half board basis, and the food was much better than I anticipated - very wide choice of tasty dishes. The crew are wonderful, and all speak English. And everyone is well aware that the tourists on board are there for the scenery, wildlife and Northern Lights - so when the lights appear an announcement is made (even in the middle of dinner!) and there is a stampede onto the decks. Only the hardy, determined and very well layered stay for very long - but for those that can the sight is spectacular.

This truly was an experience of a lifetime and I can highly recommend it.