Are the Northern Lights on your bucket list? Sailing to northern Norway is one of the best ways to see this natural wonder, writes travel journalist Lesley Bellew.
A pastel pink sprinkling of fairy dust danced across the night sky, turning lilac-blue before being gobbled up by a greedy, fast-moving glow of green light.
As if the genie had escaped Aladdin’s lamp, the aurora borealis swirled above us, creating hypnotic luminous waves, playing hide and seek among wispy clouds.
We craned our necks to watch this magical, mystical game of chase in the sky, with shapes changing by the second, and zig-zags spreading into great plumes of colour that disappeared as quickly as they formed.
Saga Pearl II had sailed from Portsmouth in the UK and crossed the Arctic Circle to Alta, in Norway, with 400 passengers who were all hoping they would be lucky enough to see the elusive Northern Lights – and nobody was disappointed.
Local weather experts had recommended an hour’s drive north where skies were clearer than in Alta and passengers happily travelled through the snow to this prime viewing spot.
As the night drew in we stood around open fires drinking hot chocolate, keeping ourselves warm-ish in the biting temperature of -15ºC. With necks craned to the sky we stood patiently wondering if the Northern Lights really would come out to play and, at first, there were definitely a few non-believers.
Collective ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ got louder when it became obvious there were colours forming in the sky and the playful natural light display of electrically charged particles began to form like a flock of starlings rising and falling in the sky.
Seeing the bucket list aurora borealis was the star performance of this winter cruise and the jubilant passengers returned to the ship to find a magnificent midnight Northern Lights banquet so they could literally feast on their stories.
Dog-sledding was another thrilling tour on a day that one of the world’s biggest dog-sledding race was under way in Alta. The Finnmarkslopet Race, a 1200km challenge with competitors from across the globe, created an exciting atmosphere across the town with dogs’ howls deafening the crowd as the mushers set off on the week-long challenge.
At Holmen Husky Lodge, where some of the race huskies were bred, we took a 45-minute dash through the snow alongside the beautiful River Alta. Under a bright blue sky, musher Ella guided six dogs to pull our two-person sledge through Christmas-card scenery where trees were laced with ice crystals and the snow was dazzling white.
Ella explained the rudiments of survival in this vast, bleak region as the huskies sped along; all a mix of malamute, pointer, German shepherd, Labrador and greyhound to combine power, intelligence and endurance.
The dogs were paired to make the most of their abilities with the physically stronger pair at the back, and in the middle a young trainee, who when drifting over his line was promptly snapped at by an experienced partner. The leaders, an intuitive pair of navigators followed every call from Ella, whose ‘Yip, yip, yip’ calls guided the dogs through our winter wonderland. Another exhilarating experience!
Meeting the Sami
There are more reindeers than people in the Alta and Finnmark region and they are herded by the Sami people, Europe’s northernmost indigenous people. The opportunity to meet the Sami to learn about their heritage and life today as well as take a reindeer ride was another memorable tour on our Saga Pearl II cruise.
In a traditional lavvu (Sami tent) we sat round a fire pit filled with burning silver birch logs and learned about the Sami’s nomadic lives. The men wore colourful hand-embroidered costumes and reindeer-skin ‘leggings’ and talked about their challenges in the modern world, their age-old customs and we joined in a joik – the Sami’s traditional song.
In the snow, we learned how to lasso reindeer and took a gentle reindeer sledge ride through lands where the Sami had arrived 10,000 years ago.
We packed in the tours during our two-night stay in Alta and also visited the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, which is rebuilt every year after melting during April to May. Complete with 30 bedrooms, a romantic wedding chapel and bar, it was fascinating to see the artistry that goes into the structure as well as the ice carvings based on Norse myths.
Some passengers chose to stay the night where the temperature is -4ºC but most of us were happy just to down the bright blue vodka.
Harstad, a new port of call
Visiting a maiden port of call was an added bonus and in Harsted, still inside the Arctic Circle, a guided tour brought home the harsh conditions that the allies endured during World War II. In nearby Trondenes, the fearsome 158-ton Adolf gun still overlooks the fjord, while in contrast, a visit to the 14th century Trondenes Church, Northern Norway’s oldest church, was a serene experience. This beautifully simple white building with wonderful frescos and an extraordinary baroque altar was another special cruise memory.
Art Nouveau in Alesund
We sailed on to Alesund where the architecture took on a more romantic style with a myriad of ornately decorated Art Nouveau properties. Fire swept through the city in 1904, and the rebuilding program took on the popular architectural style of the era. Donations came from all over Europe because, although only one person died, some 10,000 people were left homeless.
On board delights
A Northern Lights cruise is full of activity, with early starts and late-night tours, so we returned to ship with a ravenous appetite and stoked up on what must be some of the best meals at sea. Anyone who missed Saga Pearl II’s legendary Sunday roast beef lunch was kicking themselves. We also indulged in fresh Norwegian salmon, chateaubriand, lamb tenderloin and waffles, plus, of course, that memorable Northern Lights’ banquet with lashings of caviar, goulash and champagne to toast our bucket list cruise that ticked all the boxes – and some.
What to wear
One of the big talking points on a Northern Lights cruise is what to wear for viewing Northern Lights and sledding. Here are some tips:
Be sure to take strong, waterproof snow boots or walking boots, preferably with a breathable lining. (Grips to go over boots are supplied by Saga cruise ships). Wear two pairs of thermal socks.
It is essential to take an Arctic or ski jacket to keep warm in freezing conditions.
For men and women, thermal leggings or tights are a sensible choice to wear under warm, waterproof trousers. These can be fleece-lined for extra warmth.
Most thermal wear can now be bought in fine thread for more comfort.
Full-sleeved thermal vests and roll-necks are essential. A hooded sweatshirt is another sensible option and a light-weight goose down gilet offers extra warmth.
Remember jeans are not good for keeping warm in the snow.
Fleece balaclavas that roll down into neck-warmers are another good investment. Pack scarves and hats, too.
Ski gloves are worth the investment but also take a fine thread pair of gloves if you want to take photographs.
Lesley Bellew sailed on Saga Pearl II.
Are the Northern Lights on your bucket list? Have you ever been to Norway? Would you recommend it to our members?