Rek - Northern Lights
Westfjords Northern Lights
Isle of Eriska
2012 - the year to see the Aurora Borealis
I remember first seeing the Northern Lights at the age of five when I watched Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman on TV at Christmas. The snowman and the little boy were flying through the sky on their way to meet Father Christmas and the green lights swirled around them as they soared over trees and mountains. To me, they were just bright green, purple and red lights that lit up the sky for their journey and it wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered that these lights really did exist, even if the flying snowman didn’t.
Also known as the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights are one of Mother Nature’s stunning creations and I decided that 2012 would be the year to go on a hunt for this extraordinary phenomenon.
I had read that 2012 would be one of the best years to see the Northern Lights because it is the last year of an eleven-year solar cycle. The lights occur when the sun’s electrically-charged particles are blown towards the Earth in solar winds. Once they make contact with gaseous particles in the Earth's magnetic field, dazzling bright lights in shades of purple, green, and red are created and can be seen from destinations close to the Earth’s north and south poles.
My search began in Iceland – a country renowned for its close proximity to the North Pole and cornucopia of breathtaking natural wonders such as the Gullfoss Waterfalls, geothermal hot springs, the spurting Great Geysir, and the deep rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The capital city of Reykjavik is widely spread out with suburbs sprawled from the Seltjarnarnes peninsular to the eastern inland, but the city centre itself is small and compact and can easily be explored in a day. Though the lights are rarely seen in the city itself due to light pollution, you don’t have to travel far to see them.
Many tour operators will only go ahead with excursions to see the Northern Lights if the weather looks clear that evening. Fortunately, despite the cloudy skies above, my tour was scheduled as planned and I was soon on my way to an area in south Iceland where the sky was expected to clear around 11pm.
The coach pulled off the road into an empty car park and our tour guide, Yanz, explained that we would get out and wait there for a while. The moon was glowing from behind the clouds and, despite the plummeting temperatures, there was a buzz in the atmosphere as we all looked up at the sky willing the clouds to break.
One hour later, the coach’s engine roared into life and a few people from the disheartened crowd made their way back to its warmth. I looked up at the sky one last time when I suddenly heard some people behind me whooping in excitement. Sure enough, a thick band of luminescent green light was slowly crawling across the sky in a gap that had been vacated by the persistent clouds.
As people began whipping out their cameras to catch the stunning spectacle, the lights performed for their audience by adding a few twirls and dips while they danced across their huge stage.
The sky and the blanket of snow that lay across the rolling hills were both glowing in different shades of green as the radiant aurora emitted its rays like beams of sunshine.
The experience left people speechless, laughing, or crying and as I stood there with a huge smile on my face I could feel the raw energy and emotions from the strangers who had suddenly become united in joy and disbelief.
The shades of green lingered in the black sky for around fifteen minutes before they began to disperse leaving the stage clear for the next performers.
Scotland was my next destination and as soon as I arrived back in London, I boarded the Caledonian Sleeper train at Euston and made my way to Glasgow.
I’ve always loved train journeys so I was excited at the prospect of being rocked to sleep by the chugging train as I lay in my cabin bunk bed and dreamt that I was Audrey Tautou in Chanel’s TV advert.
I was surprised at how comfortable the journey was and before I knew it, there was a knock on my door for breakfast and we were pulling into Glasgow Central Station.
I’d chosen to keep trains as my only method of transport in Scotland so that I could get to see as much of this beautiful country as possible during my short visit. I was heading to Connel Ferry near Oban in North West Scotland where I would be staying at the Isle of Eriska Hotel and Spa.
Ten minutes after leaving Glasgow city, the concrete buildings gave way for the majestic snow-capped mountains and vast lochs that sparkled under the sun. Passengers seemed lost in their own thoughts as they absorbed the beautiful views while we weaved our way through the woodlands and rolling hills of the highlands.
The train arrived at Connel Ferry three hours later and a quick trip in a car took me over the steel Connel Bridge to the private and remote island of Eriska.
Scotland might not be one of the most well-known locations for aurora displays but there have been regular showings in northern parts of the country over the centuries.
The lights are known here as the Fir Chlis – Scottish Gaelic for “Merry Dancers” - and 2012 has already brought spectacular displays to Wick, Dundee and the Orkney Islands.
The Isle of Eriska features a five-star Relais and Chateaux hotel, spa and golf course, and its tranquil natural surroundings on the mouth of Loch Creran, a Special Area of Conservation, are perfect for a relaxing break.
Its secluded rural location makes it the ideal place to stare up at the skies and enjoy sunsets, stargazing and a display of colourful Merry Dancers.
Just one week before my trip, Scotland and northern parts of Britain saw the Northern Lights sweep across the skies in one of the brightest ever displays. Though they did not make an appearance during my short visit to Scotland, the good news is that the winter of 2012/2013 is expected to bring stronger solar activity and the vibrant lights will take centre stage for a spectacular solar-cycle finale.
The Northern Lights are in every way as spellbinding and magical as described in any TV programme or book, but like most travel adventures the experience is a unique personal journey for each observer. Just be warned, when you have seen them once, you will want to see them again…and again…..
- The Northern Lights can be seen all year round as long as the skies are dark and clear. The best places to see them are Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, Scotland, Alaska and north-western parts of Canada and the best months for sightings are August to April.
- For the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights choose an area away from light pollution; avoid a full moon and cloudy skies; and use a digital camera with an ISO setting of 1600 and remember to turn the flash off.
- I flew to Reykjavik with Iceland Express, a low-fare airline that operates daily flights between London Gatwick and Reykjavik. www.icelandexpress.com
- Reykjavik Excursions operates daily tours to visit Iceland’s Golden Circle (£50) and the Northern Lights (£25) and pick-up is available from hotels in Reykjavik. www.re.is
- Fosshotel Lind is a comfortable three-star hotel situated in the centre of Reykjavik just a few minutes’ walk from Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street. www.fosshotel.is
- ScotRail Operates a Sleeper Service between London Euston and Glasgow where connecting trains will transport you to popular destinations to spot the Northern Lights such as Oban, Thurso, and Wick. www.scotrail.co.uk
- Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa & Island, Near Oban, Scotland www.eriska-hotel.co.uk