Northern Lights Star Attraction of Norway Cruise

Patric Baird crosses another popular tourist attraction off his bucket list

Most people are familiar with the term ‘Bucket List’ – a note of all of those things we want to see or do before we die.

As a travel writer, I have been very fortunate in having a job which allows me to travel the world, experiencing many of its man-made attractions and natural features which appear on most people’s must-see lists.

However, there was one particular sight which had eluded me while I was busy marvelling at the Easter Island statues, enjoying a pizza in Naples and walking along the Great Wall of China. I had never seen the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, nature’s very own light show which appears in high latitudes at certain times of the year.

Although sometimes visible as far south as Ireland, the best chance of catching a glimpse involves a journey above the Arctic Circle, so when I was given the opportunity of a trip to Norway at the tail-end of the Northern Lights’ ‘season’, I reckoned that my Bucket List was about to lose an entry or two, particularly as the trip coincided with the recent solar eclipse which was going to be most visible in Northern Europe.

I flew from Dublin, on one of the non-stop, regional charter flights direct to the Norwegian city of Tromsø, included in the 6 Day Arctic Highlights 2015 package, offered by Hurtigruten. I had packed my thermals, but arriving after the three-hour flight, I was a little surprised that it didn’t feel any colder than Belfast, which I had left earlier in the day. It was only a short taxi ride through an impressive system of underground tunnels into the city, a blend of modern Nordic architecture and pastel-painted wooden buildings, some of which date back to the late 18th century. Shortly after checking in to the Clarion Aurora located directly on the historic waterfront, I had a stroll around the compact city centre followed by an excellent complimentary Scandinavian buffet, provided every night by the hotel.

The following afternoon, I was due to board the ship, MS Nordlys, on a three-day voyage which would take us to the Northern-most point in Europe and offer an opportunity to see the Northern Lights in all their glory along the way. With the morning free, I was booked on a dog sledging excursion at the Wilderness Centre (, one of around 50 excursions spread out over the whole year, including snowmobile trips, hikes, horse riding, speedboat tours and kayak tours, which cater to the varied interests and requirements of passengers and change with the different seasons.

There’s nothing like skimming over the frozen ice on a sledge being pulled by huskies to invigorate all the senses. Snow had begun to fall which is a good thing for the dogs, apparently, as it stops them from overheating although not so good for me as I had decided that wearing my thermals wouldn’t really be necessary. There was certainly no danger of me overheating, but the 45-minute ride across the Arctic landscape was a truly breathtaking and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Revived by a piping hot bowl of reindeer soup and chocolate cake, served in a traditional Sami wooden hut with its open hearth fire, I boarded the coach for the return journey to Tromsø where our ship was docked, just a short walk along the quayside from the hotel.

The mid-sized MS Nordlys, one of Hurtigruten’s fleet of a dozen ships, had begun its journey in Bergen, with its final destination at Kirkenes, near the Russian border where it turns around and heads back to Bergen. The entire journey takes twelve days, calling at around 30 ports along the way, although many of these stops are only for a few minutes as the ship picks up and delivers passengers and supplies. Many holidaymakers choose to enjoy the complete return journey from Bergen to Kirkenes and back, book a single trip either way – from south to north, or from north to south – or do as I did in only joining for a three-day round trip to Tromsø.

Being a passenger on board a working ship differs somewhat from that on a purpose-built cruise liner. My standard cabin was very comfortable; although lacking certain ‘frills’ such as a television, it had an en-suite bathroom with compact shower, radio, and foldaway bed, although there are several more luxurious on-board suites available for those with a bigger budget. There was also an in-cabin Tannoy system, over which sightings of the Northern Lights would be announced by the crew. Not that I spent much time there anyway, as the rest of the ship has plenty of cruise ship-standard common areas, including lounges, bars, shops and a café.

The restaurant serves a full buffet breakfast and lunch, as well as a gourmet evening meal comprising authentic Norwegian dishes reflecting not only the seasons, but also the local specialities and cuisine of the regions past which the ship is sailing, such as fish, reindeer, beef and duck. The menus are developed by using the produce of local small-scale suppliers, with around 80% of the food taken on board sourced directly from indigenous and local producers being brought fresh onto the ship each day.

As we sailed north, with extended stops at the town of Hammerfest and Havøysund village along the way, the weather became a little less clement, with frequent snow showers, plunging temperatures and strong winds beginning to whip up. I’m blessed with a particularly strong pair of sea legs, so the rough conditions weren’t a problem for me, although passengers of a more delicate disposition may want to pack some sea-sickness tablets along with those all-important thermals.

One major port of call was Honningsvag, the gateway to the spectacular North Cape, the northernmost point of mainland Europe. I joined a coach excursion to the Northern Cape Plateau, which rises 307 metres almost vertically from the ice cold Arctic Ocean and is only 2,000km from the geographical North Pole. The scenery was truly spectacular and the modern visitors’ centre contains plenty of distractions such as a cinema, museum, gift shop and café.

The ship continued on its northward journey, sailing through the heartland of the indigenous Sami people, passing the Finnkirka rock formation, an ancient sacred site, towards the little fishing village of Kjollefjord. Our final stop of the outward trip was Kirkenes, which is located on the longitude 30° E, giving us a position of further east than Istanbul and St. Petersburg. From here, I took an excursion to Kirkenes’ famous Snowhotel which is rebuilt every December by craftspeople from ice and snow, before it dissolves into slush the following April. Although stunning, with its ice bar and cosy suites decorated with unique snow art, the idea of my spending a night or two there was something of a chilling prospect.

While I was embraced by some welcome warmth back on board, the ship set a southerly course back to Tromsø, retracing its passage along the Varanger peninsula. We reached Tromsø around 11.45pm and, although the prospect of a hot, deep bath, widescreen tv and big, comfortable bed at the nearby Clarion Edge hotel was very tempting, I had booked a visit to the Arctic Cathedral (, Tromsø’s modernist-styled landmark building on the other side of the bay from the ship’s dock for a Midnight musical concert with local singers and musicians – their haunting performance in such atmospheric surroundings was certainly well worth staying up for!

Oh yes, the Northern Lights. Nature offers no guarantees, so be prepared for not actually seeing them during a visit. On the first night, we had just sat down to dinner when there was an announcement from the bridge that there were some lights in the sky. If the captain had just announced ‘Abandon Ship’, I doubt if the passengers would have left the dining room any quicker. By the time I got on deck with my camera and warm clothing, I just caught a glimpse of a few wisps of green light amongst the clouds before a sudden snowstorm blacked out the sky.

However on the second night, there was quite a spectacular display of the lights, thanks to much better weather conditions. Lasting for about 30 minutes, the shimmering sheets of green lights emerged all over the clear night sky, although there were none of the red, pink or blue colours which sometimes make an appearance.

On the third and fourth nights, the sky was just too cloudy for any activity, but although I’m very happy and feel enormously privileged to have seen them – as well as a slightly lacklustre eclipse as well – I wouldn’t have been too disappointed if I hadn’t as the overall Norwegian experience is more than enough for anybody’s bucket list.