Right now your chance of seeing the Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, is almost as good as it gets. This ethereal spectacle happens all year round but you need dark, clear conditions in order to view it – as well as luck, of course. Autumn and spring are the best seasons; bear in mind, too, that you need to avoid periods around a full moon. With a new moon in the Northern Hemisphere on Saturday, the night skies this week and next will be at their darkest. We're also reaching an optimum period of the solar activity that generates the natural light show. This culminates every 11 years, with 2011-12 being the next peak.
"It seems to cast a spell over both sight and sense. It is impossible to tear oneself away. It begins to dawn with a pale, yellow spectral light ... like a reflection of a fire far away. It broadens, and soon the whole... sky is one glowing mass of fire." Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer and scientist, from Farthest North, first published in English in 1897.
"No photograph can ever capture the movement of the Northern Lights, nor the intensity of feeling when you see them. Remember to put your camera down and take a few moments to absorb the breathtaking show." Polly Evans, author of the new Northern Lights – A practical travel guide, published by Bradt (£6.99; bradtguides.com)
You do need to know what to look out for: the first time I saw the Northern Lights (several kilometres north of Bergen in Norway) I nearly missed them because I didn't at first appreciate that I was witnessing the start of auroral activity. The Aurora Borealis – the equivalent in the Southern Hemisphere is the Aurora Australis – generally begins as bands of white light, glowing faintly and static at first. The intensity of the light gradually grows and the bands merge into a moving, luminous curtain. If you're in luck this will take on a distinctive colours (green is most common but blue, violet and shades of red are also possible) and become increasingly active, twisting weirdly into arcs and spirals.
Auroras occur due to sunspot activity: electrically charged particles are blown from the sun and attracted to the Earth's magnetic poles. In colliding with gases in the atmosphere they glow – electrons passing through the gases of a neon tube light up in much the same way. The different colours correspond to altitude and to layers of gases in the ionosphere: red when the sun's particles hit oxygen more than 300km above Earth; green when collisions with oxygen take place between 100 and 300km above the planet; blue and reddish-violet from nitrogen at lower levels. When light intensity is weak the aurora appears as pale whitish light.
Searching the sky?
The lights are seen in greatest intensity around areas known as auroral ovals. Were you to view these from space, they would appear as rings with each magnetic pole roughly in the centre. Generally, the northern oval hangs over Greenland; northern Scandinavia; Siberia; Alaska; and Manitoba, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in Canada. So take your pick of these places – although obviously European travel is cheaper than heading to North America. The shape and location of the ovals change with increased solar activity and they can widen considerably. Hence the fact that in August this year the Northern Lights could (just) be seen as far south as Germany.
On the road...
Among its range of Northern Lights holidays, Discover the World (01737 218 800; www.discover-the-world.co.uk) has a three-night fly-drive option in Iceland, this week costing from £544 per person (based on two sharing). The price includes flights to Reykjavik from Heathrow, Manchester or Glasgow; car hire and B&B accommodation at the Hotel Ranga, set in a remote location and under wide skies about a two-hour drive from Iceland's capital.
On the water...
Hurtigruten (0844 448 7654; www.hurtigruten.co.uk), Norway's coastal ferry, is part cruise operation, part cargo ship and has been carrying passengers, post and fish along the fjords for more than a century. There's a fairly good chance of seeing the aurora borealis on any of its trips between October and March, although several packages are especially billed as Northern Lights breaks. The four-night Arctic Highlights package presents perhaps the best possibility of seeing the lights, as you remain in the far north for the entire time, travelling from Tromso to Kirkenes (almost on the Russian border) and back. The current cost of £910 per person covers flights to Tromso from Gatwick or Heathrow, three nights half-board on ship and one night B&B in Tromso.
Up a mountain...
Sweden has a dedicated Northern Lights centre, the Aurora Sky Station on Mount Nuolja in the Abisko National Park about 250km inside the Arctic Circle. An evening trip here is included in the Northern Lights Holiday offered by Arctic Direct (0800 458 6011; www.arcticdirect.co.uk). This three-night break costs from £1,195 per person (based on two sharing) which also covers flights from Heathrow to Kiruna via Stockholm, B&B accommodation at Kiruna's Arctic Eden Hotel, a day of husky sledding and a day of snowmobiling with an indigenous Sami guide.
What Google will tell you
Long ago, weather forecasts were predicted using the aurora. Countries could not agree on what they indicated, though. In Greenland they were believed to forecast storms, but elsewhere they were believed to foretell fine weather. We now use more sophisticated methods of forecasting weather, but there is some indication that the overall climate may have some link with the amount of aurora activity. ( www.bbc.co.uk/weather)
What Google won't tell you – until now
Well off the beaten track, Kongsfjord Gjestehus (00 47 78 98 10 00; www.kongsfjord-gjestehus.no) is one of the most stylish places to see the Northern Lights. An old family home filled with antiques and driftwood artistry, this guesthouse is set on a stunningly beautiful peninsula several kilometres from the Arctic town of Berlevag in Norway. Even if the Aurora Borealis remains elusive, this is still a magical place to stay. Doubles cost from NOK1,050 (£112) per night.