“Beyond the distant peaks, a green and blue symphony of lights had begun. It rippled and shimmered like sunshine on water, leaving Rich blinking back tears. He’d read something about this but had never seen it before. ‘It’s the aurora borealis,’ Lou said quietly. ‘Northern lights.’”
– Danika Stone, Edge of Wild
One of nature’s greatest spectacles that paints parts of the northern hemisphere’s night skies with giant, fluorescent swirls, the aurora borealis — which means ‘dawn of the north’ — occurs when gaseous particles collide with solar-charged ones that have penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere around the magnetic pole. The most common colour to occur is a vibrant green, caused by oxygen molecules at an altitude of around 100km, while the rarer bloodshot auroras, also caused by oxygen, are formed at higher altitudes of more than 300km. Nitrogen stains the sky with an occasional cobalt. The aurora’s display can sometimes reach heights of 640km, and, conversely, if you go too far north, the power of the spectacle is diminished. A similar phenomenon, the aurora australis — which means ‘dawn of the south’ — illuminates our southern skies too, and though both occur regularly, they are said to peak every 11 years. Indigenous Americans and the Inuit of Alaska believe the lights, which are most clear in the north in winter, to be spirits of their ancestors and the beasts that they had hunted.
Verve brings you some of the best spots to view the heavenly kaleidoscope.
Many consider Sweden’s Abisko National Park — home to a plethora of wild reindeer — to be the world’s premier aurora borealis destination, thanks in part to a 70km-long lake that helps create a consistently clear patch of sky, known as ‘the blue hole of Abisko’. Its legendary Icehotel is a luxury lodging much of which must be reconstructed every year, with the world’s leading ice sculptors called in to keep things fresh. Traditional chalets are available, but why opt for those when you can rest your head within your own private, intricately carved frozen space, wrapped in thermal blankets atop of reindeer hides to fend off the -8C chill? Aurora tours on snow mobiles or by dog sled can be booked through the hotel.
The world’s most northern ice hotel, Sorrisniva, awaits across the border of northern Sweden along the banks of the Alta River, Norway. Guests can choose from 30 ice bedrooms carved each year by local workers and artists, along with an ice bar, an ice chapel for weddings, and several ice sculptures, all delicately illuminated with beautiful lights. Even the beds are frozen. Alternatively, a gaggle of tipi-like sami tents replete with open fires afford a romantic setting to take in the aurora borealis. You can also ride snow mobiles, reindeer sleighs and try your hand at ice fishing.
Among the cosiest options on the list is the igloo village at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in the Finnish Lapland. Stunning en-suite, glass-roofed igloos — specially designed to not frost or steam up — in forest clearings afford spectacular views to the heavens. Other amenities and activities include the world’s biggest smoke sauna, aurora hunting excursions on snowmobiles, skiing, quad-bike safaris, reindeer or husky sledding, and horseback riding.
Positioned in the shadow of the spectacular — and spectacularly unpronounceable — Eyjafjallajökull volcano, you can take in the aurora borealis surrounded by snow while in the steaming comfort of a mineral-rich hot tub at Hotel Ranga. The beautiful, boutique lodge is finished in timber from top to toe, with animal skins on the walls, woollen blankets and furniture forged from driftwood. Between aurora borealis spotting, head out to observe some whales and explore the local ice-caves.
Alaska’s Fairbanks is the USA’s most notable base for aurora-watching, positioned beneath the Arctic, near the state’s revered Denali National Park that’s home to spectacular peaks and ancient lakes and wildlife such as the moose, eagle and grizzly. The historic Chena Hot Springs Resort shuttles guests by night to an 800m-high viewing spot (with height comes a more enchanting celestial experience), while back at the resort guests can soak in thermal mineral springs and sip on cocktails served in glasses carved from ice. There’s also a museum, crafted from ice of course, that contains lavish, frozen sculptures.
Little light pollution combined with a favourable latitude means Canada boasts plenty of jaw-dropping views of the northern lights — there’s even a village dedicated to them. Aborigine-owned Aurora Village, in the Northwest Territories near Great Slave Lake (the deepest in North America), offers lodge and tipi accommodation and operates many tours including dog sledding, wildlife viewing, snowshoe adventures and ice fishing. Expansive grounds hide an array of viewing areas including private hilltops and hidden enclaves from which you can admire the aurora — they even provide heating viewing seats so that you can withstand the chills for longer.