Updated August 21, 2018
Few places promise darker skies -- where northern lights shine brightest and dance longest -- than cruise ships sailing the Arctic Circle in winter.
Northern lights cruises sail mostly the northern coast of Norway, and some venture to Iceland and Greenland. Passengers see snow-smothered fishing villages with buildings painted in primary colors, bustling commercial ports and austere, monochromatic tundrascapes. Onshore, cruisers can dog sled, cross-country ski, snowmobile, overnight in a snow-ice hotel, join cultural tours that visit indigenous people' settlements, possibly view wildlife and enjoy special dining experiences reflective of the region's winter lifestyle.
Of course, the main events are the northern lights themselves. Some Native Americans saw the lights as war omens. A myth from the Arctic Circle's indigenous people tells that the northern lights are the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus skull. Vikings believed the flashing lights were armor and shields of Valkyries, warrior maidens of Norse myth.
Scientific speculation of why northern lights appear started in the 17th century. Scientists Pierre Gassendi and Galileo Galilei both are credited with naming the glowing night lights "aurora borealis" meaning "dawn of the north." Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas is the Greek god of the north wind. Modern research of the northern lights phenomenon began around the late 19th century.
Today, NASA studies the northern lights and what causes them. An aurora is caused by energized particles (protons and electrons) released by gaseous plasma explosions on the sun's surface, creating solar winds traveling through space. Aurorae are most frequently seen in the North and South Pole regions because Earth's magnetic field lines cross the atmosphere there year-round. In the Southern Hemisphere, the lights are called "aurora australis."
Best Time for Northern Lights Cruises
When it comes to actually seeing northern lights, it comes down to luck, but the odds are greatest if you're in the right place at the right time around the Arctic Circle (66 degrees 33'45" North). However, while aurora events are happenstance and vary in intensity, they are most visible roughly between October and March on cloudless, dark winter nights.
Viewing northern lights hinges on three interrelated factors: your location on the planet during the winter season, the local time of day and the solar cycle (an 11-year period when explosions on the sun's surface are more frequent than in other years). Generally, skies are clearest near the spring and fall equinoxes in later September and March.
Northern Lights Cruise Lines
Midsize and small ship cruise companies offer the most Arctic Circle sails during prime northern lights viewing months. Lines to choose from include Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Marco Polo Cruises, Saga Cruises and Fred. Olsen.
Special mention needs to go to Hurtigruten, which offers the largest selection of Arctic winter cruise dates. The Norwegian fleet of 11 midsized ships calls on 34 ports, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the north on the Russian border. Hurtigruten operates as both a passenger cruise line and a lifeline for Norwegian coastal residents. These working ships transport locals' cars, fjord towns' freight and up to 1,000 people total on any given day (all onboard announcements in Norwegian, English and German). Hurtigruten guarantees that the northern lights will make an appearance on all winter 12-day Classic Roundtrip Coastal Voyages from October 2015 through February 2016, or you get a free cruise.
Among the mainstream cruise lines, P&O Cruises departs from Southampton, calling on Amsterdam before heading north up Norway's coast. German line Aida visits Iceland and Norway. (German is the only onboard language.) Celebrity Cruises offers a land package in Reykjavik, Iceland, with a northern lights excursion.
Greenland's Arctic Umiaq Line is a year-round ferry-freight-cruise ship calling on ten ports on Greenland's west coast. It carries 248 passengers, has 26 basic overnight cabins (each sleeps four) and food service (guided tours offered in some ports during summer). The ship sails roundtrip from Nuuk to Ilulissat until mid-December, and then only north to Sisimiut until spring, due to unpredictable sea ice conditions. (Onboard languages are Greenlandic, English and Danish.) Itineraries are three and four nights.
Iceland, Greenland and polar regions around the Northwest Passage promote some of their active, adventurous cruises in primarily September and March as northern lights viewing opportunities. If seeing aurorae is your primary objective on these trips, let the fall and spring equinoxes be your guiding lights when choosing dates. Lines cruising in these regions are Hurtigruten, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, Quark Expeditions, Polar Cruises, Peregrine Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions, Iceland Pro Cruises and Adventure Canada. Tour operators offering land trips with winter season cruise components are Five Stars Scandinavia, Nordic Visitor, Atlantik, Icelandic Pro Travel and Tasermiut South Greenland Expeditions.
Northern Lights Cruise Itineraries
Northern lights cruises depart mostly from ports in the U.K. and Norway and generally sail 10- to 15-night itineraries during the winter season. Many cruises hug the northern Norwegian coast above the Arctic Circle, and some venture to the Svalbard Archipelago, where the Gulf Stream flows prevent the seas from freezing in winter. Some cruise lines and tour operators host Iceland, Greenland and Northwest Passage cruises in mostly September and March.
Norway: Norway dominates the northern lights cruise circuit with voyages ranging from five nights to 14 nights. When selecting a northern lights cruise, keep in mind that sailing along Norway's three northernmost counties -- Nordland, Troms and Finnmark -- offer the greatest opportunities for viewing northern lights, both onboard the ship and during nighttime excursions ashore. Ports of call often include Bodo, Tromso, Alta, Honningsvag and Kirkenes. Some cruises stop in Norway's Vesteralen, Lofoten and Svalbard islands.
Iceland, Greenland & Northwest Passage: Cruises to these destinations average 14 nights but can be just three nights when part of Arctic land tours or even almost a month on icebreaking expedition ships. Cruises stop in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Greenland's capital city, Nuuk, as well as historic Sisimiut and Ilulissat. Northwest Passage cruises travel north around the Canadian High Arctic with stops that include bird sanctuary Prince Leopold Island, Beechey Island, Canada's most northerly community Grise Fiord and Greenland's Ilulissat Icefjord. A few expedition ships push north on Greenland's east coast to Inuit settlement Ittoqqortoormiit on the world's largest fjord system, Scoresbysund. It's located near remote Greenland National Park, the world's largest national park, where polar bears, walruses, reindeer, musk oxen and birdlife thrive.
Alaska: Although Alaska enjoys a high volume of aurora activity, its cruises are not often mentioned as northern lights cruises. During the Alaska cruise season, it's rarely dark enough for the lights to be visible.
Northern Lights Cruise Port Highlights
The greatest pleasures of prime northern lights winter season cruising around the Arctic Circle's deep blue waters are the stunning contrasts of scenery, variety of onshore activities and anticipation of seeing the aurorae. Ports vary greatly from industrial centers and fjord villages to picturesque coastal towns and remote outposts on barren, frozen coast.
Bodo, Norway: Industrial grit, raw nature and public art frame Bodo, wedged between fjord islands and craggy mountain peaks. The Nordlandmuseet exhibits survey Norway's history, fishing industry, and Viking and Sami people's cultures. Norsk Luftfartsmuseum showcases Norway's aviation military history. Giant murals of gnarly trolls and stylized Nordic summer landscapes splash across sturdy cement block buildings housing cafes, antiques shops and art galleries.
Norway's Vesteralen and Lofoten Islands: These mountainous islands harbor archeological sites of Stone Age farmers and Viking colonies, as well as small farms and fishing villages like postcard-perfect Stamsund. Winter northern lights cruises call on major commercial port Sortland. A Lofoten excursion is to tiny Borg, home of Lofotr Vikingmuseet, a reconstructed chieftan's home-museum preserving Viking lifestyle, crafts and artifacts found on site. The authentic lodge hosts traditional Viking feasts of lamb, root vegetables and mead.
Tromso, Norway: Considered the gateway to the Arctic from whence many historic explorations launched, Tromso's museums and architecture preserve Norway's adventurous polar past. Port attractions include the city center's preserved mid-19th-century wooden buildings; contemporary stained glass, triangular Ishavskatedralen, a church and concert venue; and Polaria, the Arctic research center and aquarium housed in a stainless steel saw tooth structure that looks like giant, stacked glacial ice shards. Within the 1837 wharf Custom House, the Polarmuseet exhibits recount the region's hunting history in addition to famous icy expeditions by explorer Roald Amundsen and sea captain Fridtjof Nansen of the North Pole ship Fram. Tromso is the base for active adventures ashore, including husky dog sledding and snowmobiling. Considered the North Sea's party port, Tromso has the most pubs per capita in Norway.
Spitsbergen, Svalbard Archipelago: Into September, some cruises call at Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, the southernmost of Norway's Arctic Ocean islands of Svalbard. Covered mostly by glaciers where polar bears roam, adventurous cruisers hike, and dog sled accompanied by guides toting rifles.
Alta, Norway: A historic Sami settlement and site of the world's first northern lights observatory, industrial Alta was rebuilt after World War II. Winter cruisers visit the new northern lights Cathedral and overnight at Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. Outside town at Hjemmeluft, the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses the Alta Museum-World Heritage Rock Art Centre. In winter, visitors tour museum exhibits about the region's geography, Sami culture and ancient rock art. Outdoor walkways (only open when snow-free) lead to Northern Europe's largest collection of petroglyphs and rock paintings created by hunter-fishermen 2,000 to 7,000 years ago.
Honningsvag, Norway: Cruisers board buses to tour Mageroya Island fishing villages or go to the Nordkapp or North Cape at 71 degrees 10'21"N (1,306 miles south of the North Pole). It's Europe's northernmost point, easily accessible to tourists and marked by a globe sculpture on a clifftop above the pounding Arctic Ocean. Nordkapp's visitor center houses a giant gift shop, modest wildlife, historic diorama exhibits and a semicircular cinema showing a dynamic northern lights film infused with Sami myth and scientific perspectives.
Kirkenes, Norway: Norway's northernmost urban center is Kirkenes, rich in Sami culture, iron ore and World War II history. Excursions include a military history-focused bus tour to the dense, pine forested Norway-Russia border and an underground bunker visit. Cruisers participate in frozen fjord-caught King Crab dinners, Sami encounters, snowmobile rides and Snow Hotel overnights.
Reykjavik, Iceland: The island country's capital and southern cove cruise port is Reykjavik. City draws include pulsing nightlife, a new opera house and soaks in the steamy, geothermal Blue Lagoon. A popular day trip is to UNESCO World Heritage List site Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and Iceland's parliament was founded in 930 A.D. Visitors to Gullfoss marvel at a two-tiered waterfall plunging into a deep, narrow canyon. Nearby, at Haukadalur Valley, see spouting geysers. The Ring Road connects Iceland's many waterfalls, national parks, wildlife refuges and glacial areas.
Nuuk and Ilulissat, Greenland: In Nuuk, Greenland's capital, visitors take in the Katuaq Cultural Centre, Gronlands Nationalmuseum, Nuuk Art Museum, historic Old Harbor and the country's largest microbrewery. Vessels call on Sisimiut, grounded in strong Saqqaq, Dorset and Thule cultural history. Passengers aboard ships sailing Greenland's west coast around Disko Bay might spot Bowhead, Narwhal and Beluga whales. At Ilulissat (birthplace of Northwest Passage explorer Knud Rasmussen) is Ilulissat Icefjord and the massive jagged-iced Jakobshavn Glacier. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world's most active glaciers.
Northwest Passage: This famous route, traveled mostly in summer months from northern Canada through parts of Alaska and to Russia's far east at Anadyr, is open for extremely limited colder-months cruising, usually on icebreaker expedition ships. Sites visited can include Radstock Bay's polar bear research area; the Yukon's Ivvavik National Park; and Beechey, Prince Leopold, Banks (Aulavik National Park), Herschel and Wrangel Islands.
Northern Lights Cruise Tips
Prepare to be flexible. The northern lights are a natural phenomenon that performs on its own schedule, so there are no guarantees you'll see them, regardless of when you sail. But NASA's Space Weather Bureau website (www.Spaceweather.com) helps remove some guesswork by tracking solar storm activity. On many cruises, when crew spot northern lights, they make nighttime in-cabin announcements.
Pack warm clothing. Scanning night skies for northern lights requires patience and warm clothing. Besides a down coat, warm hat and gloves, pack wind- and waterproof outer pants (like ski pants), thermal long underwear, wool socks and winter boots ideal for walking. Ice crampons come in handy around Arctic ports where walkways are icy slick. Sunglasses shield your eyes from snow glare. Outfitters usually provide weather appropriate outer gear for active excursions. Bring your bathing suit for outdoor hot tub soaks and pool swims on deck.
Photographing the northern lights. A tripod or monopod is an absolute necessity to shoot exposures of around 30 seconds or more required to capture northern lights' colors. Always pack several SD photo memory cards and an extra charged camera battery because cold quickly drains them. Finger gloves with flip-back mitten covers make it easy to press the camera's shutter-release button without removing gloves. And, when the lights appear, don't spend all your time fiddling with camera settings. Remember to just tip your face up in wonder as the mystical northern lights dance across the night sky.