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In search of the Northern Lights with Hurtigruten

Hurtigruten’s Northern Lights Voyage includes an expert astronomer, whale watching and a lights sighting promise. Debbie Ward embarks on a search for the Aurora Borealis.

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

Debbie Ward goes in search of the Aurora Borealis on Hurtigruten's Northern Lights Voyage.

The announcement over Trollfjord’s tannoy comes first in Norwegian.


I see a woman freeze in the corridor for a second, then turn and run full pelt towards the deck. I’m after her even before the translation and I’m grinning with anticipation. It’s not an emergency; it’s the Northern Lights.


However I’d imagined my first experience of the Aurora Borealis, it didn’t involve it hovering over a branch of H&M. Despite the light pollution, this is where we watch it build to a fan-like display, as we glide past a town on Norway’s coast.


In a darker corner of the sky a curtain of light ripples, then comes the cherry on top – a series of shooting stars.


We cluster on the deck to watch the lights, stomping our feet, or reclining in deckchairs as if nocturnal sunbathing.


We sigh, we squeal, some of us get a little teary. “I haven’t seen them that good since I was this high,” says a Scottish man indicating a point on his thigh.


Hurtigruten offers a “promise” on its Northern Lights Voyage; if you fail to see the Aurora you get another cruise for free. An astronomer stays up all night and announces any interesting activity via a tannoy channel you can opt into in your cabin.


Most importantly, the ship spends 6 of its 12 nights under the auroral ring around the pole. Last winter was the voyage’s 10th season and it has a 100% success rate.


It’s on only the second night, still far from prime latitude, that we’ve bagged our first sighting.


“How was it for you?” is the question over breakfast the next morning as we scroll through photos and compare notes on bed times.


Our youngest astronomy group member is a backpacker in her early twenties; our eldest is 87. Most of us are after a bucket list tick but there are several repeaters.


A Dutch woman on her sixth such voyage was hooked after a snapping a shape in the aurora that looked like the bat symbol over Gotham City.


Star astronomer

Star astronomer

Photographing the lights is the theme of one of the daily lectures presented by our accompanying astronomer Dr John Mason MBE, who alternates cruises with another astronomy expert.


We also cover the science behind the display; how electronically charged particles from space are entering our atmosphere at high speed, colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms 90 to 120 miles above.


Mason has travelled widely, also accompanying eclipse tours for the likes of Intrepid, and was mentored by TV astronomer Sir Patrick Moore.


He should have his own show. His enthusiasm is contagious, and his humorous descriptions of complex subjects work across our knowledge range.


“In galactic terms we live in the Surbiton of the Milky Way,” he tells us, referring to Earth’s suburban location in relation to the sun, during a session on the solar system.


He warns us early not to expect to see the colours depicted in photos. The camera doesn’t lie but our own night vision has difficulty beyond monochrome.


I see off-white aurora patterns until, one bluish twilight, I’m excited to catch a long ribbon of green waving from a hilltop.


As we head north the Christmas card villages become white with snow under darkening skies.


Before I join the Winter Walk excursion at Bodo I spend an hour photographing shadowy mountains against a pink sunrise – or is sunset? “Actually it’s noon,” the guide tells me.


In the half-light we tramp over pretty Scottish-style beaches, kicking up huge mussel shells.


They are common here, as are Viking burial mounds such as the one we stand on to hear how these ancient travellers navigated as far as America long before Columbus.

Listening out

Listening out

My other excursion, at Tromso, requires a padded waterproof onesie and, quite improbably, involves whale watching in total darkness.


It’s billed as a Singing Whales cruise but this time they congregate too near noisy fishing boats for us to use the underwater microphone.


Instead, as in that tense scene in Jaws, we listen for splashes in the dark then spin a spotlight to track, not a vengeful shark, but the black and white flanks of orca just metres away.


Back on Trollfjord it’s all about watching the sky. “I love them, but I’m not a masochist,” one bleary-eyed light chaser tells me as he heads for bed.


I generally stay up until around 1am to see if the permanent glow on the horizon will spread and dance.


One night, taking a warm-up break in the lounge and groggy from seasickness tablets, I fall asleep face-down on a banquette while still padded up like a Michelin man.


It’s not my greatest indignity. When we cross the Arctic Circle I submit, with a scream, to the tradition of a ladleful of ice water down my neck.


I’m still shaking cubes from my clothes back in my cabin. The ship itself is comfortable and unflashy. The atrium is little more than a lift shaft with a Christmas tree and a marbled floor where we pull on cleats to better grip on icy streets.


There are smart viewing lounges, a sauna and free Wi-Fi. The cabins have twin beds that convert to sofas by day, and I welcome the heated bathroom floors.


“It’s not a cruise, it’s a voyage,” points out Mason. “You don’t put on a suit and tie for dinner.” There are white tablecloths however and the food is excellent.


There’s plenty of fish and reindeer meat, the legs of colossal king crabs that we are first introduced to on deck, and an array of tempting desserts.


We make several short stops a day for locals to embark and disembark so the ingredients are always fresh.


“It’s unique in the world, the Hurtigruten coastal voyage, I don’t think anything rivals it. People think of winter as miserable, they don’t think of it as sharp, crisp, fresh, says Mason.


And of course, there are the lights. By the time I depart, after only 6 of the voyage’s 12 nights, I have seen the aurora five times as it forms scarves, curtains and smoke-like pillars.


Hurtigruten has kept its promise and, as if to symbolise the fact, one night a strip of the Northern Lights appears to make a slow loop around the ship’s funnel like a signature from an invisible hand.


Book it: Hurtigruten’s Northern Lights Voyage makes a 12-day return trip to Bergen, reaching the Northern Cape and turning at Kirkenes. Departures mid-October to the end of March cost from £1,455 full-board.

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