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Arctic Circle

Your guide to northern lights cruising in Iceland and Norway

Northern lights cruise holidays offer an experience like no other in some of the globe’s most magical locations. This is everything you need to know about viewing the aurora borealis.

Northern lights cruises are an excellent way to take in the jaw-droppingly beautiful light display put on by majestic Mother Nature.

Multiple stops at locations famous for viewing the lights mean your chances of catching the show are far greater… and you’ll never have to worry about getting from one place to the next.

What’s more, with adults-only Ambassador Cruise Line you don’t even need to worry about tackling an airport. The British brand offers premium value, no-fly northern lights cruises from the UK to both Iceland and Norway at a very affordable price, with a selection of sailings available in 2023.

So, to get you prepared, we’ve taken a deep dive into everything you need to know about viewing the celestial ballet, from when to see them to what to pack.

What are the northern lights?

The northern lights are created by the collision of electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere and transferring their energy to light.

These magnetic fields converge around the polar regions hence the phenomenon in the north taking place in the Arctic, usually between 60 and 75 degrees of latitude (there’s a southern equivalent too!)

The heavenly bonanza is also known as the aurora borealis which means light of dawn and was allegedly coined by Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science, in 1623.

That said, the lights actually only show at night when the sky is dark (and preferably clear), showcasing hues of green and blue, and occasionally pink and violet.

Can I see the Northern Lights on a cruise?

Yes, northern lights cruises whisk travellers in comfort to some of the best spots to see the colourful spectacle.

Ambassador’s Iceland cruise for the northern lights stops at Reykjavik (after calls at the Faroe Islands and Orkney Islands en route). Did you know, the Icelandic city is one of just two capitals in the world where you can witness the aurora borealis thanks to its location at a latitude of approximately 64 degrees north?

There are a plethora of excursions away from Reykjavik (above) and the city’s lights to ensure holidaymakers get their aurora fix (although remember they are never guaranteed – nature is not a reliable beast!).

On the Ambassador Norway northern lights cruise from the UK, passengers call at Tromsø, one of the best places to see the vibrant show due to its position 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Another stop on the Norwegian itinerary is Alta which has been nicknamed the “town of the Northern Lights”. Indeed the world’s first permanent northern lights observatory was opened in 1899 here.

Can you see the Northern Lights on a cruise to Norway?

Northern Norway is one of the best places to take in the aurora borealis along with Iceland and the northern parts of Finland, Norway, Russia, Canada and Alaska as well as southern Greenland.

It’s not just the light spectacle you can enjoy in this neck of the woods, though. Skiing, winter fishing and dog sledding (above) are all fun activities available in Norway. Or why not join a whale or wildlife safari or experience the local Sami culture?

Hiking is an ideal pastime in Norway. When in Alta, Ambassador Cruise Line recommends checking out the Sautso-Alta canyon – Northern Europe’s largest canyon. It’s a beautiful spot and affords brilliant views of the Alta River. You’re bound to see some reindeer along the route too!

For some culture, there’s the UNESCO-listed Alta Museum (Northern Europe’s largest and richest rock carving site) and the modern Northern Lights Cathedral ((above) one of the architectural icons of the north – it’s at its best during the winter when the northern lights gleam behind it).

Over in Tromsø, don’t miss the Fjellheisen Cable Car up Mount Storsteinen – the views are breathtaking. You can also try your hand at reindeer sledding!

What month is best to see the Northern Lights?

Any trip to see the northern lights will involve a fair bit of standing in the cold, we’ll warn you now. The aurora is a winter’s marvel when the Arctic sky is at its darkest.

The months the northern lights are most visible are March and September as there is greater aurora activity around the equinoxes (the two times a year when daylight and nighttime hours are of equal length).

Consequently, savvy Ambassador Cruise Line offers its northern lights cruises 2023 during the spring (or vernal) equinox, departing in early March.

Your best bet to see the lights is during your overnight stay in Alta. You definitely won’t get an early night, though, the top sightings often occur between 11pm and midnight although the strongest lights can appear from 9pm.

Do Northern Lights happen every night?

No, the northern lights do not occur nightly and can never be guaranteed but being at the right place at the right time will increase your chances of witnessing the phenomenon.

Forecasts are available to help guide you, with The Kp Index generally considered the most accurate. Aurora forecasts are issued for a three-day period and are constantly updated.

So, how long can you expect the show to last? When they do appear, the northern lights may only show for a few minutes – although they may return shortly afterwards.

At best you can settle in for a display lasting a couple of hours or longer (you’d have to be very lucky!) but a good display is often between 15 and 30 minutes.

What should I pack for a Northern Lights cruise?

For northern lights cruises, you’ll want all your usual cruising garb as well as key warm clothing and layers, lots of layers.

In March, the average daily Tromsø temperature is -2.8°C – and that’s without factoring in the wind chill factor which will lower this figure even further!

Here’s our guide for what to pack:

  • Gloves (a thin pair of gloves and a thick pair of mittens best)
  • Boots (proper winter boots if you plan to be outside for extended periods but otherwise standard hiking boots will suffice)
  • Socks (make sure they’re wool not cotton and do pack a spare pair in your day bag)
  • Jacket (invest in a well-insulated, windproof one, ideally waterproof if conditions are set to be wet)
  • Outdoor trousers (insulated trousers or salopettes are good for cold and windy conditions – ski trousers will do the job well)
  • Tops (opt for wool, silk or synthetic polypropylene items, not cotton, next to your skin plus two or three additional layers made of fleece or wool – Merino wool is the crème de la crème)
  • Headwear (wool or fleece hat plus balaclava or equivalent recommended)
  • Swimwear (in Iceland you’ll find amazing geothermal pools and spring baths!)
  • Sun protection (polarised sunglasses plus SPF 50 sun cream sensible as the sun’s rays are very strong in winter and reflect off the snow potentially harming your eyes and skin)
  • Lip balm (the northern air is very dry!)
  • Camera equipment (a tripod and self-timer will help for stability when capturing the northern lights and waterproof cases will help protect your gear)

Set Sail

Norway’s Land of the Northern Lights

When: March 9, 2023
Duration: 14 nights
Where: London Tilbury | Alesund | Trondheim | Tromsø | Alta (overnight) | Bødo | Bergen | London Tilbury
Ship: Ambience
Price: From £1,079 pp

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Iceland’s Land of the Northern Lights

When: March 23, 2023
Duration: 11 nights
Where: London Tilbury | Kirkwall, Orkney Isles | Torshavn | Reykjavik (overnight) | Invergordon | London Tilbury
Ship: Ambience
Price: From £849 pp

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Published 16.01.23