Sara Macefield sails north with Viking Cruises to witness one of the most incredible natural sights – the aurora borealis
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so cold in my life. It’s minus 32 degrees and every time I take a deep breath, the glacial air stabs deep into my chest like a dagger and freezes the insides of my nostrils.
The sky is pitch black, with the only light flowing from a full moon that casts a luminous sheen over the dramatic snow-covered landscape. It feels like the dead of night, yet it’s only mid-afternoon.
In the distance, I make out a huddle of dark shapes and, as we get closer, I spot the spiky antlers of a herd of reindeer waiting patiently alongside Santa-style sleighs that have been lined up to transport us into the snowy wilderness.
This wintry escapade is one of the many unforgettable highlights of Viking Cruises’ Northern Lights sailings that debuted last month (January), taking passengers to the top of Norway and deep into the Arctic Circle.
The chance to spot the dancing displays of the aurora borealis is an irresistible prospect that has tempted me and the other 900 or so passengers on this first sailing.
Alas, cloudy skies and disappointing showings mean this natural attraction ends up as more of an also-ran when compared to the spectacular scenery and polar adventures that accompany this 12-night voyage that takes us from London Tilbury to Bergen.
All I spot are wispy pale squiggles that look vaguely green once captured on camera, but this lacklustre effort certainly doesn’t detract from a cruise that fast becomes one of the most memorable I’ve taken.
Overnight stops at the pretty Arctic city of Tromsø and the far northern town of Alta – which sits almost midway between Norway’s capital Oslo and the North Pole – open the door to a wintry world of adventures where guests can stay overnight in an ice hotel and a husky camp or speed away on Nordic skiing and snowmobile safaris.
I’m spoilt for choice, although the cost of such thrills, from around $300 to nearly $600 (there are cheaper, tamer options from $79), slams the biggest brake on my ambitions.
But such bucket list experiences are difficult to resist and the chance to visit a Sámi camp for reindeer sledding, followed by warming bowls of hearty reindeer broth served in a traditional teepee-like Lavvu tent while listening to Sámi herdsmen talking about their lives, make for a fascinating, if chilly, escapade.
But the best adventure follows the next morning when I find myself gliding through a winter wonderland of snow-covered trees on a sled pulled by a boisterous troop of howling huskies as the first rays of sun creep over the horizon.
It’s a magical feeling watching dawn break in such a northern extremis where, on my January visit, daylight lasts just a few short hours.
Our stop in Alta coincides with direct sunlight hitting the snowy mountain tops for the first time since last November as the sun rises at 10.33am before setting all too quickly around two hours later.
Days may be scarily brief, but the views are as pristine as you’ll ever see with ivory mountains sitting against a sky that turns every shade from pale rose pink to bright coral as morning builds, before deepening into a rich crimson tide as the short-lived daylight fades into dusk.
Our ship Viking Sky makes a perfect viewing platform for such natural phenomena with vast windows and airy interiors that effortlessly flow into each other.
As we sail southwards towards Bergen, I spend a lazy morning watching the craggy coastline slip by while curled up on one of the comfy sofas in the Wintergarden, where the glass retractable roof lends a conservatory feel.
Viking Sky, like its virtually identical sister ships, is a byword for Scandi-style chic thanks to the line’s Norwegian heritage, evident from the artworks and Scandinavian artefacts.
A fascinating reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the 1066 Battle of Hastings fills the stairwells, while the main reception area, called the Living Room, is a casually elegant space to take coffee, surf the internet (refreshingly, wi-fi is free), or browse books from the onboard library.
There’s a real feel of cosmopolitan quality, not just from the casually stylish furnishings and wonderfully luxuriant spa (complete with a snow room filled with white fluffy flakes), but the welcome inclusions.
Free wine with meals and a complimentary excursion (normally a coach tour – some average, some excellent) at each port stop are two of the most striking features that Viking has clearly taken from its river cruise operation.
Dining is another treat, with no charges for speciality options either. The main venue, The Restaurant, impresses with its wide selection of dishes and good service, although The Chef’s Table with its Mexican-themed menu and delicious Erling’s Scandinavian Bistro menu showcasing Nordic cuisine is outstanding.
Such Norwegian home comforts ensure that cruising through some of the planet’s most inhospitable terrain doesn’t have to be a hardship. It really does leave me feeling on top of the world.
When it all comes down to it, why risk it by waiting?
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Read the February 2019 issue of Cruise Adviser. In a recent survey of holidaymakers’ habits, 48 per cent of Britons put the northern lights at the top of their bucket list – placing the natural phenomenon above the Pyramids, African safaris and the Great Barrier Reef. We sent Sara Macefield on Viking Cruises’ very first In Search of the Northern Lights sailing from London Tilbury to Bergen to find out why it’s so high on so many lists – read her feature here. Elsewhere in the magazine, we have an interview with Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises; plus we look at why it pays to book early.