The next few years are predicted to be the best for seeing the northern lights due to high solar activity during the current solar cycle. So if you're considering planning an aurora hunting trip, now is the perfect time.
Most of us have probably written something along the lines of "seeing the northern lights" on our bucket list, but to that end, there's one important caveat you should be aware of. Very few are satisfied with seeing them just once.
As soon as these dancing ribbons of light fill the night sky, you'll be left awestruck, elated and ultimately, wanting more. Lucky for those of us on Hurtigruten's Astronomy Voyage, we got not one, not two, but seven nights of the northern lights, with some shows visible for hours at a time.
Full disclaimer: Space.com was invited on a press trip to experience Hurtigruten's Astronomy Voyage.
Bergen — Kirkenes — Bergen
Price: From £2942pp, includes breakfast, lunch and dinner + exclusive excursion to the Tromsø planetarium.
Duration: 12 days
Northern Lights Promise: If there is no recorded sighting of the northern lights while sailing, Hurtigruten will give guests a free 6- or 7-day Classic Voyage to redeem the following season. Terms and Conditions apply.
If you're interested in booking the Astronomy Voyage head over to Hurtigruten's official site.
We began our journey in the beautiful port city of Bergen.
Famous for its fish markets, rainy weather and historic harbor district, Bryggen, the old Hanseatic Wharf is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site. With buses regularly shuffling in and out, Hurtigruten's official port is easily accessible from Bergen. It's also within walking distance to several hotels.
While we were waiting to board, the atmosphere was full of excitement, anticipation — and doubt. Will we actually see the northern lights? How cold will it get? What is it going to be like experiencing the polar night? These are just a handful of the questions spilling from the eager lips scattered across the room. Together, we'd soon embark on a voyage we'd never forget.
We met our trip's astronomer Tom Kerss and tour guide Eva Stiegler at the port. They explained the trip itinerary and what to expect during our adventure with the Hurtigruten Coastal Express.
Then, after a short safety briefing, we were ready to board the charming ship MS Richard With — named after Captain Richard With who established the Hurtigruten Coastal Express in 1893. Our ship was renovated in 2018 and converted to a green hybrid ship in 2022. Battery packs combined with low-emission engines reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by about 25%. Holding a maximum of 590 passengers, MS Richard With is the perfect size for an unobtrusive voyage along the Norwegian coast.
During the 12-day voyage, we traveled over 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) up the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes and back again while visiting 34 ports, more than 100 fjords and 1,000 mountains. Crossing the Arctic Circle and experiencing the long polar night made us feel like we truly were on a voyage to the top of the world.
An iconic feature of the Norwegian coast
In 2023, Hurtigruten celebrated its 130th birthday. The company not only provides adventurous expeditions and specialized trips such as the Astronomy Voyage but it's also a lifeline for many remote communities located along the Norwegian coast. Delivering the post, home supplies and valuable transport links, Hurtigruten is welcomed in every port.
The Hurtigruten Coastal Express is the perfect voyage for anyone who wishes to have an authentic Norwegian experience. At some ports, you might find locals coming aboard to grab a cup of coffee and slice of cake in the bakery "Multe" or hop on for a quick trip along the coast themselves. Due to their smaller size (in comparison to large cruise ships), Hurtigruten ships can access remote areas and travel through smaller fjords, meaning passengers can experience even more of the rugged Norwegian coastline than if they were to take a larger cruise liner.
As we know, the northern lights are fickle creatures — but with the company's generous "Northern Lights Promise" you're guaranteed an aurora sighting or you'll get a free voyage the following season! (T&Cs apply).
The explorer lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows, is the perfect spot to sit back, relax and watch the world go by.
While out on deck you can enjoy a long soak in one of two jacuzzis, watching towering mountains drift by under the star-studded sky. Getting in is the easy part… getting out while the brisk arctic wind roars is a whole other story.
Warm clothing is a must during this voyage. We encountered a wide variety of temperatures going from around 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 degree Celsius) to as low as 7 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 degrees C) — not including the wind chill which reached a low of -11 degrees Fahrenheit (-24 degrees C) during our visit to Kirkenes.
But as the Norwegians like to say, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes." So, preparation is key! My advice? When you think you have enough layers on, just put on one more to be safe. After all, you can always take it off!
Kerss kept our group entertained with fascinating astronomy lectures throughout the voyage. His talks spanned a wide range of space topics from explaining the science behind auroras and how to make space weather predictions to debunking common moon misconceptions and taking us on a fact-filled tour of the universe with excerpts from his new book "Diamonds Everywhere" (Collins, Oct. 2023). Our evenings were spent stargazing on deck with the occasional retreat inside to grab a hot drink and warm up before facing the bracing arctic conditions once again.
The onboard food, provided by Norway's Coastal Kitchen was exquisite. Supporting 50 local farms, bakeries and producers from across Norway, guests not only get to see the Norwegian coast but taste it too. From melt-in-your-mouth cod from Vesterålen, award-winning cheeses from Lofoten, and quality craft beer from Bergen, you won't be left going hungry! Dietary requirements were also very well catered for ensuring everyone could experience authentic local cuisines.
We enjoyed our three daily meals in the main restaurant Torget with buffet-style breakfasts and lunches and three-course meals for dinner. There is also an à la carte fine-dining restaurant "Kysten," all-day dining in the bistro "Brygga" and delicious ice cream available from the bakery Multe.
Hunting the northern lights
About 80% of our astronomy group had never seen the northern lights before, so the pressure was on.
As we shuffled out onto the ship's deck, dutifully bundled up in thermals, down jackets and windproofs, the atmosphere was palpable. It was only day 2 of the voyage and we had yet to cross the Arctic Circle — so, while hopes were high, we realistically weren't expecting to see anything but a sky full of stars that night.
But to our surprise and delight, something began to stir in the distant northern sky. Lo and behold, the northern lights decided to greet us with our first beautiful, albeit rather subtle, auroral arc display.
The activity waxed and waned. Moments of rather strong action with tall columns reaching high up into the sky would fade to a faint milky green haze barely visible to the naked eye.
But this was only the beginning.
As the long polar nights rolled on by, we were treated to an almost daily cascade of active auroral displays, each more spectacular than the last. By day 5, we'd already been treated to several dazzling aurora shows — and we were hungry for more.
Then, on day 8, after a wonderful morning hike up Mount Salen in Hammerfest, we were treated to something truly breathtaking. We'd been notified by Kerss that solar activity looked promising that evening. An early dinner ensured we were all suitably fueled and ready for a night of skywatching.
Then, at around 7 p.m. local time, the sky burst into a rich tapestry of rippling green light. It was undoubtedly the best northern lights display of the entire trip. Unsure of which way to look, everyone stood in awe of the otherworldly show before us. The entire sky was full of an ethereal light, dancing to the whims of Earth's magnetic field.
It was also lovely to see the reactions of those who had never experienced anything like this before, watching the display through their eyes and hearing their bursts of excitement and pure joy. It was a truly remarkable experience.
Unlike the majority of the group, I had seen the northern lights before, albeit just once, while on a trip to Kiruna, Sweden. But the excitement and wonder I felt was just as strong whether it was my first aurora encounter or eighth! Every northern lights show is different, so, in a way, each time feels like the first time. That unique aurora magic never goes away.
Experiencing the northern lights with Hurtigruten's Astronomy Voyage was extraordinary. But what made it even more memorable was the people I got to experience it with.
The collective excitement and awe that exploded from the astronomy group when we first glimpsed the mesmerizing light flickering in the distance was a feeling I'll never forget.
The entire trip was unforgettable and, though the northern lights were spectacular, it was my fellow voyagers who cemented it as one of the best adventures I've ever had. These sentiments of collective enjoyment and camaraderie were shared by the astronomy group. But don't just take my word for it.
"We are deeply appreciative, and humbled by the depth of knowledge Tom and Eva have shared. We are in our late 70's but we realize one should never stop learning. Much of the material has been new to us, but we are excited to continue to learn more (and to buy Tom's books)" Dennis Wilson (70s), Anacortes, Washington, U.S.
"It has been Margaret's (mine too but more Margaret's) long dream of seeing the Northern Lights. We made a voyage to the extreme northern part of Canada in 2018 — no sight of the aurora. We spent a week in Iceland in 2020 — still no sighting. We thought we'd give it one more try in Norway and voila we saw the wonderful sights! Of course, the highlight was to realize our dream of seeing the aurora but also to be a part of a group of like-minded enthusiasts. The lectures with a noted astronomer were a bonus that really enhanced the experience. The amity and camaraderie with new friends added immeasurably to a great time." Alex and Margaret Marr (80s), Ferndale, Washington State, U.S.
"Tom was amazing. I'd travel to the ends of the Earth with him. Oh, I already have. Well, I'd do it again. He made a complex subject understandable, enjoyable and wanting one to dig deeper to understand more." Jim Steinberg, Colorado, U.S.
"Everything about this trip was full of magic and destiny. To date, it is one of the best trips of my life. Having had the opportunity to see the northern lights is a unique and invaluable experience. It made me cry. And I think it made the experience even more magical to have shared it with wonderful people who were enthusiastic about the sky, the stars and especially the northern lights." Cindy Vieyra Alvarez (30s), México City, México.
"We were excited to see the northern lights and we were not disappointed with them showing on the first night. From then on it, got better and better, and when in their fullest it was nothing short of a spiritual experience that we were both overjoyed and amazed by. We got to know the group over the trip and found real friendships in them. I am 53 and Dave is 50 next year but loved the mix of ages." Nicki and Dave Small (50s), Scotland.
"When I booked this trip, I didn't know what to expect except that I wanted to experience the northern lights. Eva and Tom provided the perfect combination between education and entertainment. I loved being part of a group of people sharing the same awe for this magical phenomenon. When I finally stood under a lit-up sky where aurora was dancing in front of my eyes, there wasn't anything I could say or do… I was just mesmerised and, well, emotional! I turned to one of the friends I made during the voyage and hugged them. The feeling was beyond what I had imagined. I will remember and cherish forever that moment, and hope I can experience it again." Caroline Clep, Brisbane, Australia.
"To see the northern lights has been a dream of ours for a long time and this trip offered us a chance to see them. It exceeded our expectations. The highlight for us was being part of a wonderful group of like-minded individuals who we could share the thrill of seeing them with, led by Tom and Eva. I [Tricia] was emotional as it was overwhelming, did not expect the intense northern lights display we had, it was just amazing." Tricia & Peter Keverne (60s), Lancashire, U.K.
"Everyone in the astronomy group made this voyage even better because at the beginning we were just a bunch of strangers with the same dream: to see the northern lights. But every night we became closer as we bonded in the cold just waiting to see if we could spot the northern lights. On the second day, they appeared. At first, they were a dim light and fairly small, but my feelings were huge. For me, that day, I fulfilled my dream of seeing the northern lights. On the eighth day of the cruise, the sky exploded and we got to see the biggest and brightest lights. At that moment the bonding also exploded because for me it was such an honor to share this experience with people who still have dreams and goals, and one of these dreams was happening right in front of us." Mario Nahum Quiroz Salazar (30s), Ciudad de México, México.
Never a dull moment
Though our evenings were spent transfixed on the skies above, during the day we were spoiled with choices for additional activities and adventures. This included opportunities from snowmobile safaris to dog sledding rides and cultural tours to invigorating hikes. The only problem was there were simply too many to choose from!
Our astronomy group also enjoyed a private trip to Norway's largest planetarium in Tromsø. We watched two planetarium shows, one about the Sami and Viking constellations and the other describing the science behind the northern lights with wonderful footage captured by Tromsø-based photographer Ole C. Salomonsen. Afterward, we were given free rein at the Science Centre which had a wealth of interactive exhibits to keep us busy.
Optional excursions could be booked either prior to travel or directly onboard with the help of an incredibly friendly excursion team who kept us thoroughly entertained throughout the voyage with interesting lectures, on-deck introductions to points of interest and special ceremonies when we crossed the Arctic Circle.
My personal favorite was the horseback riding trip in Lofoten. Walking along a snow-covered beach, hearing the crashing waves and the crunch of snow under hooves. Looking up to see delightful northern lights above and Geminid meteors streaking across the star-studded sky. I don't know how I'll ever be able to top that night.
There is no doubt in my mind that this voyage was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The northern lights, the friendships and the stunning scenery made for a truly unforgettable experience.
If you're looking for a trip of a lifetime, look no further.
Editor's note: This article was made possible by travel provided by Hurtigruten.
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Daisy Dobrijevic joined Space.com in February 2022 having previously worked for our sister publication All About Space magazine as a staff writer. Before joining us, Daisy completed an editorial internship with the BBC Sky at Night Magazine and worked at the National Space Centre in Leicester, U.K., where she enjoyed communicating space science to the public. In 2021, Daisy completed a PhD in plant physiology and also holds a Master's in Environmental Science, she is currently based in Nottingham, U.K. Daisy is passionate about all things space, with a penchant for solar activity and space weather. She has a strong interest in astrotourism and loves nothing more than a good northern lights chase!