Nature’s Holiday Lights

Here’s where to get the most amazing waterfront seats for the Northern Lights, Mother Nature’s megawatt display.

Nature's Holiday Lights - Alaska

Alaska Stock Images/National Geographic Stock

In the middle of the night, the sky radiates green, blue, red, and purple. Lucky viewers watch the show over water, witnessing the afterglow of the aurora borealis reflected at sea. Before heading out to see the lights, check an online forecast. Every day, the University of Alaska Fairbanks predicts the chances of the Northern Lights appearing around the world; visit gedds.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast.

WHERE TO SEE THE LIGHTS
The farther north you go, the better your odds of seeing the lights, so if you’re determined to catch them, head to such places as Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. Special tours connect you with experts who will help you view and understand the show. Glimpsing them from the Lower 48 is less likely, but it’s still possible. Like searching for a rainbow, there’s no guarantee, so plan a few other adventures to enjoy while you’re there―snowmobiling, anyone?

UNITED STATES
We’ve found places that have a history of seeing the aurora, and hotels that are open year-round. Come chase the lights here, and have some winter fun snowmobiling and cross-country skiing while you’re at it.

ALASKA
It’s easy to find displays over the Beaufort Sea. But farther south, and much simpler to reach, Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula are also prime spots. The cozy Historic Anchorage Hotel provides wake-up calls if the aurora comes out. Rates from $109; historicanchoragehotel.com.

MAINE
Over the years, sky watchers have had luck near Acadia National Park. Because Maine has little light pollution, its dark skies make it easier to see the lights than in other areas, says Peter Lord, director of the Island Astronomy Institute. That said, “It’s nothing we can deliver or predict.” Still, winter visitors find Acadia’s carriage roads ideal for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. For easy access to Acadia and Bar Harbor’s many restaurants, try Quimby House Inn, a block from the ocean. Winter rates from $65; quimbyhouse.com.

MICHIGAN
Several times most winters, visitors can catch a dazzling display over Lake Superior from the Upper Peninsula. Prime spot: the Keweenaw Peninsula. Try the Dapple-Gray Bed & Breakfast, which offers four private suites with a deck or balcony overlooking Lake Superior. From $150; dapple-gray.com.

MINNESOTA
Most years, Grand Marais sees the lights, and it offers an excellent vantage point over Lake Superior, about 110 miles northeast of Duluth. Neighbors have an informal phone tree to alert each other when the aurora is visible, and Julie Anderson of Anderson’s North Shore Resort gladly wakes her guests to experience them, too. Even without the lights, she says, some come for winter sports or to read by a fire in a lakefront cabin. From $100 per night; andersonscabins.com.

 

AROUND THE WORLD

CANADA
Hudson Bay offers a stunning tableau for the lights. Head to Churchill, Manitoba, for a five-day Fire & Ice Adventure, which includes lodging and gourmet dinners in a custom lodge on the edge of the water. Guests can snowmobile, snowshoe, and build an igloo. At night, they’ll seek the lights. From about $5,125 USD, including airfare from Winnipeg, Manitoba; churchillwild.com.

NORWAY
Cruising is perhaps the easiest way to experience the aurora over water. The five-day Astronomy Voyage off Norway’s north coast features an onboard lecturer, Dr. John Mason, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, who explains the science and myths behind the display. The specialty trip, offered by century-old Hurtigruten (formerly Norwegian Coastal Voyage), was first available in February 2009 and proved so popular that the line planned two sailings in 2010: February 3 and March 11, about $1,650 USD, depending on airfare from original destination; hurtigruten.co.uk. Fjord Travel offers five-day winter excursions from Oslo to the Arctic city of Tromso, a center for aurora research. Go dogsledding or trek with reindeer by day, and see the lights at night. From about $1,500 USD; fjordtravel.no.

ICELAND
Stay in the lively capital, Reykjavik, and book an excursion to see the lights at www.re.is. We like the modern-chic 101 Hotel. From $368 USD; 101hotel.is.

WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
These colorful swirls and streaming arcs appear when charged particles from the Sun’s atmosphere collide with particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. Because the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the North and South Poles, Sun particles are more likely to seep into the Earth’s atmosphere in these areas. Different colors signify different gases being released; for example, the most common color, greenish yellow, signifies oxygen; nitrogen produces shades of red or blue.

Published December/January 2010

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