Explore: Chasing the Northern Lights

Your guide to the adventure of a lifetime.

By Terry Ward

Each wondrous in its own right, Alaska, Finland, and Sweden share one particularly extraordinary trait: All three fall within the auroral oval, the zone within which the northern lights (also known as the aurora borealis) become visible. The phenomenon is caused by electromagnetic storms in space and is steeped in lore. The Nunamiut of Alaska believe that if you whistle at the lights, they will dance to your tune, while others say that whistling will prompt the shimmering curtain to scoop you up and carry you into the sky. As for the Vikings, they believed the lights were how the gods made themselves known on earth.

This dazzling spectacle is best viewed from September through March. Even if you know roughly when and where to go, catching the lights can be tricky and depends partly on good luck and clear weather. To see them for yourself—and have some fun along the way—follow our lead to arctic latitudes in North America and Scandinavia, where igloos, reindeer-led sleigh rides, and dog mushing are a prelude to the big event: the lights themselves.


Alaska

Carl Johnson, who took this shot outside of Anchorage, leads photo tours of the northern lights.
Photo: Carl Johnson

The Last Frontier is a magical place to look for the northern lights, and unlike most areas within the auroral oval, Americans don’t need a passport to get here. Many travelers base themselves in Fairbanks over Anchorage because it falls farther north and thus deeper within the auroral oval, making it a more reliable place to see the lights, but the phenomenon can be seen around Anchorage, too. Just make sure to get out of the city lights—the darker and clearer the sky, the better.

Fairbanks

For Outdoor Lovers: Up north in Fairbanks, the Northern Alaska Tour Company (3820 University Ave. S.; 800-474-1986; three-day tours, from $789 a person with double occupancy) leads multinight excursions into the remote Brooks Mountain Range to search for the aurora. You’ll also cross the Arctic Circle (and get a certificate to prove it!) and go dogsledding through pristine wilderness.

For Pleasure Seekers: At the 1,940-acre Chena Hot Springs Resort (17600 Chena Hot Springs Rd.; 907-451-8104; aurora snow-coach tours, $75 a person; children 6–11, $38; round-trip shuttle service with pickup anywhere in Fairbanks, $125 a person for two or more people), 60 miles northeast of downtown Fairbanks, you don’t have to be a guest to take part in the on-site activities—snowshoeing, dogsledding, ice-skating, or searching for the lights aboard a snow coach. If you’ve got time, don’t miss a relaxing dip in the natural hot springs, which stay open until midnight; you just may glimpse the sky doing its thing while you soak in the mineral-rich waters.

Anchorage

For Independent Types: You don’t necessarily need to sign up for a tour to see the northern lights in Alaska’s largest city. If you would rather go it on your own, set out after dark and travel 16 miles southeast of downtown to the Glen Alps Trailhead and Viewpoint (3101 Glen Alps Rd.; 907-345-5014), at Flattop Mountain. The parking lot here is a popular place to scope out the sky on cloudless nights. Before heading outdoors for the evening, fortify yourself with a meal of wild Alaskan salmon at Simon & Seafort’s Saloon & Grill (420 L St.; 904-274-3502; dinner for two, $70*), a downtown Anchorage institution that affords panoramas of the calm waters of Cook Inlet.

For Shutterbugs: A clear image of the aurora is notoriously difficult to capture, but you can maximize your chances as a student of photographer Carl Johnson of Arctic Light—Gallery & Excursions (17800 Steamboat Dr.; 907-748-7040; aurora photo tours, $275 a person). The tours usually max out at three people, so you’ll get lots of one-on-one training from Johnson, who has been in Alaska since 1999 and says that taking good photos of the aurora depends more on fine-tuning the camera’s focus than its exposure settings. He’ll walk you through other hacks while leading you to remote areas within an hour’s drive of Anchorage so that you can escape the crowds and lights. “We practice compositions while waiting for the aurora, working on incorporating landscapes, trees, rivers, and ponds so people already have ideas for how they want to frame their shot by the time the lights appear,” Johnson says.


Finland

Mikko Karjalainen/Alamy
Viewing the northern lights over a lake in Oulu, Finland.
Photo: Mikko Karjalainen/Alamy

In parts of Finnish Lapland, the northern lights are visible for about 200 nights a year, from late August to early April. The small town of Kemi, set near the Swedish border and right on the Gulf of Bothnia, is a favored destination for winter fun and aurora viewing. Finnair flies to Kemi from Helsinki, or you can take a bus, train, or rental car to get here. Alternately, a 90-minute drive farther north from Kemi brings you to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. Rovaniemi is mainly known for being Santa Claus’s official hometown—but a chance to spot the northern lights is another compelling reason to visit. To the southeast, travelers can gaze up at the lights in Vuokatti, a ski village in the Lakeland region that’s an hour’s flight from Helsinki.

Kemi

For Instagram Obsessives: From the walls to the tables to the cups, SnowRestaurant (29 Kauppakatu; 011-358-16-258878; three-course dinner for two, $120; opens in January) is made almost entirely of ice and snow. You can wrap yourself in one of the restaurant’s blue-and-white blankets while you feast on Arctic specialties, such as reindeer fillet or smoked salmon, beneath a glittering chandelier. If the aurora appears while you’re eating, don’t worry—someone will beckon you outside.

Rovaniemi

For Adrenaline Junkies: In Rovaniemi, Aurora Emotion (27 Lehtoahontie; 011-358-40-5402146; Northern Lights Safaris, $175 a person for a two-person eSled) recently launched the world’s first electric snowmobile safaris on machines called eSleds. You’ll be outfitted in the proper gear—think boots and balaclavas (a type of ski mask)—before embarking on a guided 8 p.m. ride through forests frosted with snow to see the northern lights, stopping along the way for belly-warming sausages, crêpes, and drinks.

For Families: With Lapland Safaris (1 Koskikatu; 011-358-16-3311200; tours, $186 a person; children 4–14, $140), arctic reindeer will pull you and your little ones on sleds to Santa Claus Village (011-358-16-3562096; admission, free), a themed village where you can meet Santa, mail a letter with an Arctic Circle postmark, and see the northern lights. Before you leave Rovaniemi, sit for a meal at Ravintola Nili (20 Valtakatu; 011-358-40-0369669; four-course tasting menu for two, $135) to try smoked vendace (a Finnish fish specialty) or pike soup; fishermen catch the pike by casting nets under the frozen surface of nearby lakes.

Vuokatti

For Dog Lovers: The countryside around Vuokatti is a natural paradise. On the Howling Northern Lights tour from Vuokatti Safaris (1 Suvikkaantie; 011-358-40-9115-323; Howling Northern Lights tours, $244 a person, including safari outfit), you’ll pile into a two-person dogsled for an hour-long ride through meadows and forests, passing by lakes, rivers, and canals, and then spend time getting to know your team of friendly huskies before gathering around a picnic dinner.


Sweden

Conny Sjostrom/Shutterstock
The northern lights shine over a lake in Sweden’s Abisko National Park.
Photo: Conny Sjostrom/Shutterstock

The picturesque town of Åre, an hour’s drive east of the Norway border, is a good place to base the family for an aurora expedition. Åre sits at the foot of Sweden’s largest ski resort, where a dedicated kids’ ski area has “magic carpet” (conveyor belt) ski lifts and serves pint-size hot chocolates and cardamom buns.

For even better odds of seeing the northern lights, it’s worth the trip farther north into Swedish Lapland. Daily flights depart from Stockholm to the country’s northernmost town, Kiruna, some 90 miles within the bounds of the Arctic Circle.

Åre

For Soft Adventurers: Explore Åre (1 Regnbågen; 011-46-647-50885; Åre Northern Lights Adventure tours, $113 a person) leads nighttime snowshoeing excursions outside of town through thickets of towering fir trees to wide-open spaces where you can keep an eye on the sky for the northern lights. The company also arranges daytime activities, such as reindeer feeding, ice fishing for arctic char, and even ice-sculpting lessons. Back in Åre proper, Granen Restaurant (127 Tottvägen; 011-46-647-51560; dinner for two, $45) makes for a good introduction to Swedish fare. And one can’t talk about this area without also mentioning star chef Magnus Nilsson’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Fäviken (216 Fäviken, Järpen; 011-46-647-401-77; dinner for two, $677). A meal here is hard to secure—only 16 diners are seated each night—and a very serious splurge, but hard-core foodies may not mind all that for the chance to dine on innovative dishes made with flora and fauna from the surrounding hunting estate and lakes.

Swedish Lapland

For Cocktail Culturists: In the snowy village of Jukkasjärvi, Sweden’s IceHotel is rebuilt every winter with enormous blocks of ice cut from the nearby Torne River. You can sip cocktails with muddled mountain berries in glasses carved from ice at the on-site Icebar (63 Marknadsvägen, Jukkasjärvi; 011-46-980-668-00; drinks for two, $44) then dance into the wee hours on a floor made of snow—stopping to dash outside if the northern lights appear, of course.

For Foodies: In Lapland’s Abisko National Park, the Aurora Sky Station (STF Abisko Mountain Station, Abisko; 011-46-980-402-00; admission, $82; admission for two with four-course dinner, $436; both prices include warm overalls) is set on Mount Nuolja in an area nearly devoid of light and sound pollution. A chairlift brings travelers through the inky sky to the station. Consider reserving the add-on four-course dinner so that you can settle in for the night as you wait for the lights to appear.


STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts in some of the featured destinations include:
Holiday Club Saariselka 3553

Kids will love the on-site Angry Birds Activity Park, with its play areas and foam pit. 7 Saariseläntie, Saariselkä, Finland

Holiday Club Salla 3939

Cozy up by one of two fireplaces in-unit or with hot chocolate in the spacious dining room. 2 Revontulentie, Sallatunturi, Finland

Holiday Club Kelorinne 3498

Ideal for ski enthusiasts, with lodges right on the slopes. 2 Revontulentie, Sallatunturi, Finland

Holiday Club Pyha 3554

A picturesque setting for skiing or hiking just north of the Arctic Circle. Hotelli Pyhätunturi Oy, 21 Kultakeronkatu, Pyhätunturi, Finland

Holiday Club Yllas 1 2418

After a day of snowmobiling, unwind at the sauna or in the rock-walled hot tub. Tunturintie 16 A 1, Äkäslompolo, Finland

Holiday Club Yllas 2 2425

Shares amenities with Holiday Club Yllas 1. Tunturintie 16 A 1, Äkäslompolo, Finland

Fjallbyn 1946

Enjoy rustic living in floor-to-ceiling pine lodges that afford sweeping views of Tännäs. 8 Torpvägen, Tännäs, Sweden

Holiday Club Are 7791

Some units have a private sauna so you can pamper your muscles after a day on the slopes. Åre Strand, Åre, Sweden

RCI® Tip

Looking for ways to see all that Alaska has to offer? Several cruise lines offer itineraries throughout Alaska. RCI® subscribing members can save up to $1,200USD per cabin toward the purchase of select sailings with Cruise Exchange.** Visit cruiserci.com for more terms and conditions.

For member reviews and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in the featured destinations include:
Chena Hot Springs Resort

Known for its hot springs and year-round outdoor activities, this resort 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks has rooms outfitted with coffee makers and Alaskan photography. Children 17 and under stay for free. 17600 Chena Hot Springs Rd., Fairbanks, Alaska; 907-451-8104; chenahotsprings.com; doubles from $210 a night

Seaside Glass Villas

One-bedroom cabins with glass ceilings and expansive windows let you watch for the northern lights while staying toasty in bed at this property on the frozen Bay of Bothnia in Finnish Lapland. 15 Lumilinnankatu, Kemi, Finland; 011-358-16-258878; visitkemi.fi; doubles from $630 a night, including breakfast

IceHotel

Carved from ice, the rooms and suites at this Swedish Lapland hotel come with thermal sleeping bags and reindeer hides. Daily breakfast and sauna access are included. 63 Marknadsvägen, Jukkasjärvi, Sweden; 011-46-980-668-00; icehotel.com; doubles from $237 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • **RCI Cruise is administered by International Cruise & Excursion Gallery, Inc. d/b/a/ Our Vacation Center and/or ICE, a Delaware Corporation, with its principal place of business at 7720 N. Dobson Rd., Scottsdale, Arizona under contract with RCI, LLC. RCI disclaims all responsibility in connection with any third-party travel services. For more information, go to www.cruiserci.com.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2018