Northern Lights? 'Not real' is what I would have said, had you asked me any time between 2015 and a few weeks ago. After somehow missing the Aurora Borealis every night on a 10-day road trip around Iceland, it became somewhat of a mission to witness it. As such, this year's adventure with the parentals was spent chasing Northern Lights in Norway.
The trip started in Norway's second largest city, Bergen (AKA Bryggen). Although Bergen is considered big, by Norwegian standards, it very much has the charm of a small town. Statistically one of the wettest cities in Europe, it gets drenched in about 2.25m/89in of precipitation a year. Luckily, we were rain-ready with our wet-weather gear, so the downpouring didn't stop us from exploring. I recommend seeing the colorful Hanseatic buildings on the harbor (shown below), taking the cable car up to Mount Fløyen, visiting the fish market and eating dinner at Spisekroken. Delightful as Bergen was, I believe the city was best served as a gateway to the surrounding fjord country.
On the eve of Saturday 13th October, we boarded Ms Nordnorge, one of the more recently refurbished ships in the Hurtigruten fleet. Hurtigruten (meaning 'fast route'), is a cruise, ferry and cargo operator that was established in 1893, by the government, to improve communications along Norway's coastline. Ms Nordnorge wasn't a mammoth, luxurious cruise liner. It was informal and comfortable, with no dress code, locally sourced food and a delightful crew.
Our tour was the Classic Voyage North. On this 134-hour journey up the Norwegian coast, we stopped at all of the ports indicated below, traversed deep fjords, enjoyed expeditions and crossed the Arctic Circle before we disembarked in Kirkenes.
At 8pm sharp we set out to sea. When we awoke the next morning, we were in Ålesund, surrounded by mountains, mist and insane wind.
Around mid-day, we found ourselves in the middle of Hjørundfjord. Smaller boats took us to land for our first excursion, 'Hike with a Visit to a Shieling'. I must admit that I wasn't particularly enthused when I first read the title, but that was partly because I didn't know what a shieling was and partially because I had my heart set on visiting one of the world's most stunning swings, which was located in the same fjord, at an inn/pub called Christian-Gaard. However, once we arrived into Urke, Hjørundfjord it became clear that we would not have time nor the proper transport to get to the very remote swing in the road-less village of Trandal.
As we began our hike, the beautiful scenery quickly curbed my disappointment. The air was fresh, the Sunnmøre Alps snow-capped and the river had never been 'so rich and full’ (in the apt words of our guide).
Once we arrived at the shielings and I learned that they were hobbit huts, I became infinitely more excited about this expedition!
Not only were there a bunch of Sherry-sized cabins dotted around, which pleased me as I have an affinity for miniature versions of things, but we were also going to sample local delicacies within the hobbit-holes. Although the hike was not exceedingly challenging, we had been walking at an incline for about an hour and half and I had worked up a bit of an appetite.
After three-hours had passed, it was time to return to the ship and sail back to Ålesund, where we were allowed to disembark for a second time that day. We had a little wander around the cute port town, but had been a long day and it wet outside so we didn't venture too far.
By Monday morning we were in Trondheim, Norway's third largest city. The top attraction here was the 200-year old wooden, colored houses in the Bakklandet neighborhood (pictured below).
Also cool to see was an islet we nicknamed Execution Island. The real name was Munkholmen Island (but that was harder to say and less fun to sing). This was Trondheim's execution site in the Viking era. Over the years, it changed from a monastery to a prison and fortress and is now a recreational area with a beach and restaurant (seasonally open from May to September).
We got back underway in time to pass some cute villages and wind farms before seeing our first Norwegian Sea sunset.
That night, it was announced over the ship's intercom that the Northern Lights had been spotted. Everyone on the boat ran out to deck 7. We found a less crowded spot on deck 5, where we were able to set up our tripods and get some proof that Northern Lights really existed. Points for those who spot the Big Dipper in the picture below.
I have to be honest, all I could really see was a grey streak, arcing across the sky, which looked a lot like the vapor trail of a low-flying plane. It was certainly not a spectacular display of green as captured in my photo. I later learned that the human eye views the Northern Lights generally in black & white, whereas DSLR camera sensors don’t have the same limitation. Couple that with long exposure times and high ISO settings, and you'll find that your camera has a much more dynamic range of vision in the dark than we humans do.
By the morning of day four, we had crossed the Arctic Circle. We awoke with certificates left at our door.
We arrived at port in Bodø around 12:30pm and got geared up for the 'RIB (rigid inflatable boat) Safari To Saltstraumen' excursion.
The Saltstraumen Maelstrom is the world's most powerful tidal current. When active, you can see wild whirlpools, boils and vortices. I'll have to take the Internet's word on that though, as the tides didn't cooperate for us. Regardless, the trip was fabulous. It was like being in a scene of an action film, as all the speed boats headed into the abyss, in formation, hitting waves at 30 knots.
On Wednesday, we arrived into Tromsø, where we visited the Wilderness Centre and learned a bit about dog sledding before meeting the huskies and their pups.
The puppies were naughty little rascals, but playful and super soft (and dirty).
That night, very faint Northern Lights came out to play.
On Thursday, we disembarked in Honningsvåg, on the island of Magerøya, which is the northernmost city in Norway, located in the Nordkapp Municipality, in Finnmark county. We took a bus journey to the northernmost point on the European continent, called North Cape. It is located at 71 degrees North, inside the Arctic Circle, about 2,000km from the North Pole. The globe monument is said to mark the northern tip of Europe.
Although the North Cape claimed to be the most northernmost point of Europe, it's fake news. The northernmost point is actually Knivskjellodden (71 11"48" N). You can see it in the middle of the photo below.
Our final Aruora display occurred that night, giving us a great end to our time spent on Ms Nordnorge.
East met West on Thursday morning, at the far-northern Norwegian town of Kirkenes, a few short miles from the Russian border. This was where our cruise culminated. We disembarked at 9am and were bused the airport for our flight to Copenhagen, via Oslo.
Kirkenes was the turning point for those passengers staying on the cruise longer. It's worth noting that Hurtigruten offers a Northern Lights Promise for those who do the full 12-day cruise. If the Northern Lights don't make an appearance during your time on board (journeys between 1st October and 31st March), you can go back and do another 6 or 7-day voyage, free of charge.
Although I was ready to be on dry land by the end of the trip, I was overwhelmed by Norway's beauty and felt that a cruise was the best way to experience the fjords and the coastal landscapes. I am also ecstatic to confirm that the Polar Lights are real!
Photographing the Northern Lights: I was shooting with a Canon 80D and an 18-135mm lens. I had a tripod and a shutter release remote. I set my camera to the Live View setting so I could use the LCD screen as a bigger viewfinder. In Program shooting mode, I switched my focus from automatic to manual and adjusted the focus ring to infinity. For my best shots, my camera was set at f/3.5 and 1600 ISO with the lens open for 30 seconds. Best results for photographing Northern Lights will depend on your gear, but generally fall within f/2.8-f/5.6 for the aperture, 800-3200 for the ISO and 15-30 seconds for the shutter speed. *NOTE: Regardless of your gear/settings, you'll struggle to get a perfectly clear photo when you're on a rocking boat, moving at 18 knots, with the wind blowing.
Know Before You Go:
In Bergen, it's easy and cheap to take the Light Rail from the airport into the city center (Byparken is the stop you'll want). It takes about 45-mins and costs £3.40.
Be sure to bring warm clothes and proper rain/wind gear. Hiking boots are a must.
Announcements on board are made in several languages and you can set the phone in your room to allow or refuse them. I would recommend keeping them on at night though, so you can run outside if the Northern Lights are spotted.
The Aurora Borealis is skittish, elusive and unpredictable. Seeing the lights depends not just on the weather (dry, clear skies are best) but also on location and a good dose of luck.
Norway is one of the most expensive countries in Europe so bring your credit card!