Would you love to see the Northern Lights? Every winter this fiery natural phenomenon lights up the night skies above the Arctic in a mysterious blaze of swirling colours. Silk scarves, holy smoke, a celestial disco - everyone forms his or her own idea of what they look like. There's no disputing the feelings they provoke, though. Witnessing this ethereal light as it dances across the heavens is a humbling and emotional experience - and a reminder of the immense privileges of modern travel.
So how can we see them? It helps to first know what you're looking for. This elusive light show is formed because fast-moving, electrically-charged particles emanating from the sun are driven towards the poles by the Earth's magnetic field. All those bright, subtly shifting hues we see are caused by the various different gases in the upper atmosphere - green for oxygen, blue for nitrogen, and so on. Up in the Arctic, this forms a dazzling halo known as the aurora borealis. It has its counterpart in the southern hemisphere, the aurora australis - but that's virtually a private screening for the sole benefit of penguins.
For such reasons, anyone who yearns to see these nocturnal rainbows must head north to the Arctic in the darkness of winter. You could fly off to the snowy wilds of Canada or Alaska, which are prime viewing spots, but for most of us it's more affordable and convenient to fly to Iceland or northern Scandinavia, commonly known as Lapland. Here it is possible to see the Northern Lights any time from now until April, with February and March particularly good months for spotting. Try to pick dates that avoid a full moon (a rival light source) and go to locations distant from the light pollution caused by big settlements.
Good weather - which means clear skies - is another essential, but that's harder to predict. Local conditions can vary wildly, with superb sightings at one spot but thick clouds just a few kilometres away. One way to counter this is to go for as many nights as you can spare, and to visit more than one place, so as to increase the chances of a successful viewing. Far more important than all this, though, is to not get fixated with this single goal. With its serene white landscapes, glistening ice hotels, romantic husky-sled rides and engaging encounters with life at the top of the world, the Arctic is a wonderful place for a winter adventure whatever your age. And should the Northern Lights suddenly explode above your head like an almighty lava lamp - well, you will know immediately that you've been a very lucky, and privileged, traveller. So are we all wrapped up? Then here are the best ways to go aurora-chasing:
Countless visitors have been awed by displays of the Northern Lights while staying at Sweden's famous Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi. Open from December 10 to April 18 next year, the hotel is close to Kiruna and offers guests the chance to spend the night in a magical ice room sculpted by an international team of artists - past designs have included Arabic motifs. There are also conventional heated rooms, some with windows so you can lie in bed beneath the aurora, and the Icehotel is a good choice if you plan to travel with children. One of the most popular excursions is a guided Northern Lights snowmobile tour, where you tear across a frozen lake on skidoos then break for a warming meal at a wilderness camp. Other activities include ice sculpting classes, ice fishing, ice driving in a Saab 9-3 Sport Combi and a visit to the Esrange Space Centre, one of the proposed launch sites for Virgin Galactic's trips into space. In January 2010, a night in a double ice room with unique ice artwork and furniture costs from US$206 (Dh749) per person including breakfast and sauna. Icehotel, Jukkasjärvi, Sweden (www.icehotel.com; 0046 980 66 800).
Sailing up and down the coast of Norway, the fleet of cruise-style cargo ships, collectively known as Hurtigruten, offers excellent aurora viewing opportunities while at sea. A full round-trip sailing between Bergen and Kirkenes, on the Russian border, takes 12 days - highlights include crossing the Arctic Circle and visiting remote coastal settlements in the depths of winter. Shorter trips are also available flying into Tromsø, the "Gateway to the Arctic", including a voyage that coincides with the city's Northern Lights Festival (January 28 to February 6), which celebrates the return of the sun after months of darkness. You can also add on many other winter activities, including a visit to the North Cape, a night in an ice hotel, snowmobiling excursions and a ride in a sledge pulled by reindeer. A seven-day "Classic Voyage" sailing north from Bergen to Kirkenes in January or February 2010 costs from US$1,080 (Dh3,968) per person, including an outside cabin and half board. Hurtigruten, Narvik, Norway (www.hurtigruten.com; 0047 810 03 030).
In the far north of Sweden, the mountain resort of Abisko claims to be the best place in the world to see the Northern Lights. A hundred kilometres west of Kiruna, its location is certainly favourable, being set in the middle of the auroral zone and at one of the driest points in the country. There's a good chance of cloud-free skies and at night you can take a chairlift up to the 900m-high Aurora Sky Station (www.auroraskystation.se) for a guided viewing with a warm parka coat provided. From December to March, devoted aurora-chasers can book to stay overnight, maximising the chances of a sighting before descending the next morning for breakfast and a warming sauna. Alternatively, check into the functional Abisko Mountain Station, which is set in one of the country's oldest national parks, and a key point on its revered, long-distance hiking route, the Kungsleden (Royal Trail). For an epic winter journey, consider taking the overnight train from Stockholm, which stops right by the hotel. In January 2010, double rooms cost from $78 (Dh288). Abisko Mountain Station, Abisko, Sweden (www.abisko.nu; 0046 980 40 200).
Far above the Arctic Circle, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is a savagely attractive land of glaciers, polar bears and explorers' tales, where from March 1 to mid-May 2010 you can take a three-day husky safari across the frozen fjords to stay aboard the Noorderlicht, a splendid red Dutch-built schooner caught in the winter ice. The adventure starts at Basecamp Spitsbergen, a trapper's lodge-style hotel in Longyearbyen constructed from driftwood, slate and furs with 16 ensuite rooms. After that you're off mushing a fiercely motivated team of Alaskan dogs across the virgin snow. Participants get to feed, care for and befriend their team in the 70km drive to the "Ship in the Ice". Built in 1912 and modernised with 10 cabins, it's a marvellous escape where you can forget the cares of home while keeping an eager eye out for polar bears and the Northern Lights. Double rooms at Trappers Lodge cost from $379 (Dh1,392); a husky safari to the Ship in the Ice costs from $2,439 (Dh8,958) including meals. Basecamp Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen (www.basecampexplorer.com; 0047 790 24 600).
Thanks to last year's banking crisis, visiting Iceland has never been better value. The country's tiny capital, Reykjavik, is well known as a party spot - but if you want to see the Northern Lights it's best get away from the bright lights. A fun way to do this is by riding in a superjeep - the custom-built 4x4 vehicle with massive wheels that have become an icon of modern Iceland. Warm and powerful, they are able to drive far out into the wilderness to ensure a clear viewing of the Northern Lights - and also give an exhilarating ride. Trips can be arranged locally, or stay out in the countryside at Hotel Ranga, which is an hour's drive from Reykjavik and a favourite spot for aurora watching. In February 2010, double rooms cost from $275 (Dh1,013). Hotel Ranga, Hella, Iceland (www.hotelranga.is; 00354 487 5700). See also www.superjeep.is and www.icetourist.is.
Terrified of all that cold? Well don't be - in most cases, tour operators and hotels will provide or rent out all the necessary survival clothing, so you don't need to buy specialist gear or lug loads of luggage. To experience the full magic of the aurora, you have to get out into the sub-zero night, but there are ways to keep in the warm till the last minute. Guests who check into the Hotel Aurora Chalet in the Finnish resort of Luosto are given a personal Aurora Alarm so they can stay snug until a text message arrives with news of a sighting. Another option is to book one of the 20 glass igloos at the Hotel Kakslauttanen in Saariselka, which are roofed with a special thermo glass that stays clear and keeps you warm — even though the temperature outside can drop to a shivering -30°C!
In February 2010, double rooms at the Hotel Aurora cost from $225 (Dh828). Hotel Aurora Chalet, Luosto, Finland (www.aurorachalet.fi; 00358 16 327 2700). Until April 30 2010, a double glass igloo room at the Hotel Kakslauttanen costs from $283 (Dh1,040) per person, half-board. Hotel Kakslauttanen, Saariselka, Finland (www.kakslauttanen.fi; 00358 16 667 100).