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Viking Venus sails past a smaller vessel in Arctic Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Viking Venus sails past a smaller vessel in Arctic Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

6 Reasons to Take a Northern Lights Cruise to Norway in Winter

Viking Venus sails past a smaller vessel in Arctic Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Viking Venus sails past a smaller vessel in Arctic Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Senior Editor, News and Features
Aaron Saunders

Last updated
Feb 23, 2024

Read time
8 min read

When most people think of winter cruises, they picture sunshine and pool drinks with little umbrellas in them. And for many people, a winter cruise offers the ability to escape the cold and snow of the winter months and head somewhere warmer for some relaxation out in the sun.

A Northern Lights cruise, however, is different, in that it heads directly into the harsh cold of northern Norway, trading warm beaches and pool drinks for heavy parkas and hot toddies.

Lines like Hurtigruten have long offered winter voyages up the rugged coast of Norway, but Viking has arguably popularized the Northern Lights sailing for many cruisers. Indeed, Viking has committed one ship per year to the run, sailing an adventuresome itinerary between Tilbury, England and Bergen, Norway from January to March of each year.

Cruise Critic booked passage on Viking Venus to discover what makes these cold-weather cruises so special, and why passengers flock to this pseudo-expedition cruise experience again and again.

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A Voyage to Norway in the Winter is An Expedition Cruise by Any Other Name

Passengers walk back to Viking Venus in Alta, Norway during the afternoon (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Passengers walk back to Viking Venus in Alta, Norway during the afternoon (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Though it may not technically constitute an expedition experience, our sailing along the Norwegian coast in early February attracted the hearty adventure set. Passengers sported expedition jackets from the likes of Viking, Silversea, Seabourn and Lindblad Expeditions, adorned with patches and logos from voyages to Antarctica and the Far Arctic. They came with hiking boots and Nordic walking sticks and crampons and the heavy winter gear of experienced modern-day polar explorers.

Dock workers walk to drop the lines of Viking Venus in a snowy Tromso (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Dock workers walk to drop the lines of Viking Venus in a snowy Tromso (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

It's no wonder: a voyage up the turbulent Norwegian coast in winter isn’t for the faint of heart. Our sailing was beset by harsh weather conditions that changed our itinerary substantially and led to an embarkation in Tromso – not Tilbury – over the course of two days via five charter flights booked by Viking. We saw record-low temperatures that pushed past -30 Celsius in Alta, and heavy snowfall off the Lofoten Islands.

A sense of adventure is required for these sailings, which is exactly why these pseudo-expedition cruises are so popular. Most excursions are weighted into the late evening hours, which results in passengers waking up late and enjoying late breakfasts and lazy afternoons before setting out all over again once the sun goes down.

The Excitement of Seeing the Northern Lights is Evident Among Passengers

Downtown Alta, Norway during the Arctic winter (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Downtown Alta, Norway during the Arctic winter (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

The main reason the 930 passengers who were booked onboard our Viking Venus sailing through Norway were there was, of course, for the chance to see the Northern Lights.

The Aurora Borealis is often visible – powerfully so – during the winter months when temperatures drop and skies are clear. And that electric frisson of anticipation ran powerfully through passengers at every step of the voyage.

Passengers have gamed every aspect of their chance to see the Aurora Borealis. They have apps on their phones that alert them to when conditions are right for the Northern Lights to appear. Other apps track everything from the local weather to the conditions in the often-tumultuous North Sea that Viking Venus had to traverse to reach our scheduled ports – and our unscheduled ones.

Cloudy skies can obscure viewing opportunities for Northern Lights. (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Cloudy skies can obscure viewing opportunities for Northern Lights. (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Viking realizes the obsession with the Northern Lights and kicks it up a notch: an interactive notice displayed on passenger’s stateroom televisions allows guests to opt in (or out) of notifications from the navigation bridge when “The Lights”, as they’re quickly dubbed onboard, become visible.

That means Viking will alert you at any hour of the day – including the middle of the night – if the Aurora Borealis makes an appearance.

Seeing the Northern Lights Isn’t Everything – Winter, However, Is.

Riding the Arctic Train from Narvik, Norway to the Swedish border (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Riding the Arctic Train from Narvik, Norway to the Swedish border (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Of course, the chance of seeing the Northern Lights is stymied by that other unpredictable variable: the Norwegian winter. But the winter, too, becomes every bit as powerful a character as the Aurora Borealis – and presents yet another reason to set sail on these adventurous voyages.

During our 12-day “In Search of the Northern Lights” itinerary aboard Viking Venus, we sailed through blizzards, explored in the snow, hid from the rain, cozied up near fires in remote locations to escape the wind chill, and embraced the polar darkness that is virtually omnipresent, particularly on voyages in January and February.

The church in Alta, Norway was built in 1858. It was the only structure not destroyed by retreating German forces in WWII. (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
The church in Alta, Norway was built in 1858. It was the only structure not destroyed by retreating German forces in WWII. (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable the farther north you sail: the anticipated forecast for Alta called for no snow or wind, yet we experienced heavy snowfall for upwards of three hours on our first evening, followed by winds that pushed 40 kilometres per hour and drove the windchill factor through the roof.

You don’t know when you book your excursions to see the Northern Lights – or to do dogsledding, snowmobiling or out sailing on a smaller boat – what the weather conditions will present. And, for the most part, these excursions will operate snow-or-shine, cloudy or not.

Guests participate in a traditional Sami cermony near Narvik, Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Guests participate in a traditional Sami cermony near Narvik, Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

On cloudy nights, it may be tempting to bemoan the cost of the tours or the lack of “The Lights”. But the experience of being out in the remote reaches of Arctic Norway, in the middle of a snowstorm, is one that we discovered to be equally appealing.

Then, there are excursions that can be enjoyed no matter what: we took the chance to ride the Arctic Train from Narvik, Norway to the border with Sweden, and took part in a traditional Sami cultural event in a traditional Lavvu tent.

The Atmosphere Aboard Your Cruise Ship is Endlessly Cozy

Soft lighting in the Arctic winter makes for cozy shipboard scenes (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Soft lighting in the Arctic winter makes for cozy shipboard scenes (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Once you’ve gone outside and frozen yourself stiff, there’s nothing like returning to the warm lights (and warmer service) of your ship. In every port, Viking Venus shone like a beacon in the darkness. Crew put out electric lights to illuminate a path to the ship, creating what Scandinavians call “hygge” – a feeling of coziness – before passengers even step back aboard.

And when you brave the polar winds that swirl around the steel gangway and finally step into the warmth of the ship’s interior, Viking’s crew were waiting with hot chocolate and hot toddies to warm passengers up.

The Bar in the Explorers' Lounge on Deck 7 aboard Viking Venus (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
The Bar in the Explorers' Lounge on Deck 7 aboard Viking Venus (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

A different sort of atmosphere is present here than on other cruises: the outer decks remain largely snow-covered and deserted, with passengers preferring the warmth of the ship over the pull of the open decks. The Thermal Suite and Hydrotherapy Pool at the LivNordic Spa on Deck 1 – complimentary for all passengers – is a popular place to warm up after a chilly day on-shore.

And the Explorers’ Lounge, with its two stories of glass overlooking the ship’s bow, becomes the de-facto place to socialize as passengers gravitate away from the chill that permeates The Living Room atrium on Deck 1 as a result of the open shell door to the outside world.

Admiring the short days and wintery landscapes of Norway aboard Viking Venus (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Admiring the short days and wintery landscapes of Norway aboard Viking Venus (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Life onboard Viking Venus, as with other ships exploring Norway’s furthest reaches in winter, takes on a different tone. People read and relax during the day. Bars become most popular in the pre-dinner hours, as passengers seek to fortify themselves against the cold with a belt of scotch or, in Viking’s case, maybe some Norwegian aquavit. Jackets and hats and gloves and cameras become de-facto gear in dining rooms.

“The Lights” could appear at any time, and passengers are ready to embrace them.

Northern Lights Cruise Itineraries Showcase Norway’s Winter Wonderland

Dock workers walk to drop the lines of Viking Venus in a snowy Tromso (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Locals line up for warm drinks and quick eats in Tromso, Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Of course, with so much focus on the Aurora Borealis, it’s easy at times to forget that this is, at its heart, a cruise to Norway. Prized for its beauty during the summer months, Norway in winter is every bit as striking: fjords are coated in snow, and lighting is soft and diffused during the few short hours the sun remains out.

Much of the time, Norway’s ports are bathed in civil twilight – a blue-tinged hue that’s neither darkness nor daylight. And when the sun finally does set and darkness descends, towns are bathed in the light from streetlamps, floodlights and the warm and cozy lights of homes and businesses.

Alesund, Norway in wintertime (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Alesund, Norway in wintertime (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

If Norway’s primary color in summertime is green, the Norwegian winter is characterized by shades of white and grey and blue; a storybook landscape that seems better suited for fairytales than rugged polar reaches.

Tromso harbor, in winter (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Tromso harbor, in winter (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Northern Lights cruises are a fabulous counterpoint to cruising Norway in the summer. It may be the same country, but the experiences you can have ashore couldn’t be more different. Get ready to celebrate the season in Sami tents in the wilderness, or by taking a snowmobile journey through the backcountry, or saddling up to a dogsled. You can camp overnight in a tent, or glamp in an ice hotel – a unique experience that has to be tried to be believed.

The Variable Nature of Northern Lights Itineraries Means Constant Adventure

Heavy swells and high winds aboard Viking Venus during a winter North Sea transit (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Heavy swells and high winds aboard Viking Venus during a winter North Sea transit (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Forget the Drake Passage: the North Sea is no joke in the winter months. Passengers can expect, at a minimum, 10-foot seas and near-gale winds for much of their open-sea journey that takes place outside the protected inlets and passages that dot the coastline of Norway.

Frequently, sea conditions can be even more treacherous, with 20-to-30 foot seas and Gale 7 to Gale 9 winds. Anything more, and ships start seeking shelter – which is exactly what happened to Viking Venus on the voyage previous to ours, when the ship sheltered for six solid days in Tromso to escape seas that built to over 60 feet and winds that approached hurricane level in what was Norway’s worst winter storm in three decades.

Sea smoke blows off the ocean at Alta, Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Sea smoke blows off the ocean at Alta, Norway (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

That, of course, results in the published itinerary being, as an expedition leader once told me, “The Plan from Which to Deviate.” Treat every port of call on your Northern Lights itinerary with an asterisk, and be cautious about booking your own independent tours: arrival and departure times change along with the weather conditions, and your ports of call could be shuffled around, swapped, or cancelled entirely.

Our own voyage saw the complete readjustment of the schedule due to the delays incurred on the previous voyage, while new calls in Alesund, Norway and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England were added. Our expected arrival in Alta at Noon became 7:30 in the morning. You just never know what will happen to the schedule due to the weather conditions – and that’s all part of the adventure.

Viking Venus in Narvik in February 2024 (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Viking Venus in Narvik in February 2024 (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

In the end, that’s what a Northern Lights cruise to Norway in the wintertime is: an adventure to remember.

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