Nature's neon is even better than the man-made thing. The same sub-atomic electrical excitement that gives Las Vegas its surreal sheen produces, in more extreme latitudes, the greatest show above earth. On a cold, clear and dark winter's night, the horizon can quickly fill with colour, from intense greens and blues to soft pinks and silvers, in contorted bands that dance in time with surges from the sun and illuminate the frozen landscape. You don't see that in Vegas (yet).
The thrilling phosphorescence involves the solar wind being coaxed to earth and concentrated into heavenly highways by the earth's magnetic field. Electrically charged particles emitted by the sun are dragged into high-energy collisions with the nitrogen and oxygen that make up most of our air. Aggregated in their billions at night, the resulting spectacle dazzles the lucky few humans with a view of the upper atmosphere.
The odds of seeing the Aurora Borealis improve dramatically by the simple expedient of moving north, or more precisely towards the constantly shifting magnetic North Pole (currently located in northern Canada). The closer you are to the pole in winter, the longer the night – and therefore the wider the window of opportunity for witnessing a performance.
The optimum latitudes are 10 to 20 degrees from the magnetic North Pole, with the chances of success diminishing with every degree further. Northern Canada and northern Alaska are prospective candidates. Looking at the map, northern Siberia should be, too – although the far north of Russia is difficult and expensive to reach. It is also viciously cold and largely lacking in any kind of tourism infrastructure. And, given the location of the magnetic pole on the far side of the Arctic Ocean, unhelpfully located.
In contrast, Iceland and Lapland – the northern portions of Norway, Sweden and Finland – lie close to, or inside, the Arctic Circle, yet are far warmer than comparable latitudes elsewhere on the planet and have reasonable provision for travellers.
This year, more than a few fortunate travellers may enjoy the spectacle. The Belfast Telegraph headline this week, reading "Skywatchers set for Northern Lights", brought home that this is an exceptional winter for the aurora borealis. Solar activity is at a cyclical peak, turning the usual solar breeze into gales of free electrons travelling at almost one million miles per hour. This year the state of luminous excitation may reach more people than usual – by extending the spectacle into lower latitudes than normally afford a view of the aurora borealis.
You need not dispense entirely with urban pleasures on a Northern Lights trip; indeed, this could be the year when inhabitants of some important cities get a rare glimpse of the phenomenon. Only in very implausible circumstances – involving clear skies, a stray southward move by the aurora and a massive power cut – would the people of Cardiff (51 degrees north) or London (52) ever see the Northern Lights. Belfast (54) and Edinburgh (55) are getting warmer (metaphorically), with the latter sharing a latitude with Copenhagen.
The other big Baltic cities – Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and St Petersburg – are within a degree of each other, around 60 – which is shared by lovely Lerwick in Shetland. The Nordic capital with the northernmost latitude is Reykjavik, at 64, while Akureyri on Iceland's north shore makes 66. The Arctic Circle slices through Rovaniemi in Finland at 67. Tromso in north Norway is at 70. Top of the world: Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, at 78.
Before you book a boat to Belfast or a flight to the far north of Norway, bear in mind that the aurora borealis are as fickle as Las Vegas starlets. For any trip to see the Northern Lights, plan in the expectation that the travel gods will prove recalcitrant, and that the heavens will fail to come alive. Assume that you won't see them.
In a total of 13 nights at northerly latitudes in Norway and Iceland in search of the elusive electrification, I have seen one brief performance of the full Technicolor repertoire – and one even briefer white flutter of what looked like an astral net curtain. On a three- or four-night trip, there is a good chance you will see nothing. So choose a place with multiple, compensatory rewards on offer during the day.
An excellent choice is the week-long trip offered by Explorers Tours to northern Iceland (0845 805 5489; astronomytours.co.uk), on which there are only six places left for the 21 March departure at £1,449. The price includes flights on Icelandair, transfers to the Lake Myvatn area, accommodation and an expert guide, astronomer David Phillips.
By including exploration of a fascinating corner of Europe, with a visit to the Godafoss waterfall and expeditions across the strange volcanic landscape, participants are likely to have a most rewarding trip even if the lights don't come out to play. All five earlier Iceland departures from the company this winter are sold out, but next year, trips are scheduled for 5 and 9 February, and 5 and 9 March. With a peak in solar activity set to last until 2013, you could start planning now for next winter – or hedge your Borealis bets by booking for two successive trips to different parts of the northern world to witness the electrifying heavens above.
Norway's Astral Coast
In terms of ease of access from across the UK, and the diversity of activities, Norway is on top of the world for Northern Lights visitors.
Start in the former capital, Bergen, one of the world's most dramatic harbour cities – and, at 61 degrees north, itself a candidate for the occasional light show. A new link on SAS (0871 226 7760; flysas.com) from Manchester to Bergen makes the nation's most beautiful big city even more accessible. But its main benefit is as the southern terminus for the Hurtigruten (0844 272 8961; hurtigruten.co.uk), the "Coastal Express" ferry that runs daily from here to the far north of northern Norway. En route to Tromso – the de facto capital of the Norwegian Arctic – you pass heart-stopping coastal scenery and beautiful islands. You also get to spend time on land: the ferry is the lifeline for communities along the shore.
The most economical way to enjoy the journey is by booking a £492 package for a southbound journey (much less popular among the Norwegians), taking six nights and including three meals a day on board. This does not include flights, which are likely to add £250-£350 to the price. The full 12-night there-and-back trip starts at £904, but the flight cost will be considerably less because you need only a round trip to Bergen rather than an additional flight to or from the far north.
Real polar connoisseurs will want to take the final step, and the northernmost domestic flight, to a town nearer the North Pole than any other, Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen. You will need an expert, so contact Basecamp hotel (00 47 79 02 46 00; basecampspitsbergen.com) to organise activities such as husky sledging by day. The town is relatively easy to reach on SAS via Oslo and Tromso.
While Norway and Sweden have special claims to Northern Lights performances, Finland, Iceland and Greenland can also make compelling claims for your attention. For Finland, Transun (01865 265200; transun.co.uk) has a wide range of "Arctic Spirit" Northern Lights breaks with direct flights from Gatwick, Manchester, Bristol, East Midlands and Leeds Bradford to Lapland. These typically cost about £1,200 for a week (shorter durations available) including flights, transfers, full board accommodation and activities such as a snowmobile safari, and "Reindeer Camp experience".
Iceland is a shrewd choice for a short break. Icelandair (0844 811 1190; icelandair.co.uk) offers a £299, three-night trip from Heathrow, Manchester or Glasgow, including two-star accommodation with breakfast and and a "Northern Lights Tour" on day two. Alternatively, book a short stopover in Reykjavik en route to Boston, New York, Orlando, Washington or Seattle.
Greenland is a far more serious undertaking, at least financially. A competitive price for five days based at Kangerlussuaq, pictured, is £1,835 for departures up to 21 March 2012, with Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; regent-holidays.co.uk). The price includes SAS flights via Copenhagen (with a night at the airport Hilton in each direction) and four nights' B&B at the Hotel Kangerlussuaq, with transfers. But excursions cost extra, such as the two-hour, 30-minute "Northern Light Evening Tour" for Dkr325 (£40).
There is an equal and opposite aurora australis in the southern hemisphere, but the very different landmasses and ocean currents around the South Pole make this an unsuitable location – except possibly on Stewart Island in New Zealand (47 south). Its Maori name, Rakiura, translates as "glowing skies".
In the air tonight
Perhaps the single most compelling reason to become an airline pilot is the view from the flight deck – the best seat for sighting the Northern Lights. "Some pilots deliberately bid for flights passing close to the magnetic North Pole where the most extreme instances are more likely in the period from mid January till early March," says Captain Douglas Brown, chief pilot for BA's B747/777 fleet. "However, by careful choice of flight and seat, passengers can also take advantage of this optional extra."
The best flights are to and from North America's west coast: Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, all of which are served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) competing to San Francisco and LA. Book a window seat on the right (suffix K) outbound, or the left (suffix A), coming home. Westbound flights usually fly furthest north; going east, aircraft tend to follow a much lower track, crossing the 50-degree line of latitude shortly before arriving in the UK.
One more complication: many westbound flights leave the UK in the morning, rendering the Northern Lights invisible. So choose a departure carefully: BA's late afternoon departure to Vancouver, pictured, the 3.35pm flight to Los Angeles with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) or BA's flight to San Diego, which departs Heathrow just before 4pm.
Magnetic North America
Canada is currently home to the magnetic North Pole, which means that sighting opportunities are skewed to the north of the nation. Churchill (59 north, churchill.ca), perched on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, is the self-styled "Polar Bear capital of the world".
The polar bear migration takes place in late October and November, which means that you can combine a wildlife experience with the chance to see the aurora borealis. Tundra Buggy Adventure (tundrabuggy.com) is one of several operators offering trips out of town.
Churchill Nature Tours (001 204 636 2968; churchillnaturetours.com) has a range of tours involving special tundra vehicles and a one-hour helicopter flight, for about C$4,000 (£2,667) starting and ending in Winnipeg with flights to Churchill. You could alternatively travel from Winnipeg (once voted "most boring city in the world") on the very interesting Hudson Bay train, which takes 45 hours each way and costs C$370 (£247) return (viarail.ca).
The location as close as the average person can get to the north magnetic pole is Iqaluit (64 north) on Baffin Island – formerly Frobisher Bay, now capital of the territory of Nunavut. A three-hour First Air flight from the Canadian capital, Ottawa, costs C$2,037 (£1,358) return (firstair.ca)
Other good viewpoints in Canada's north include Whitehorse (venue for the Arctic Winter Games in March), but links to north Alaska are easier.
In Barrow, right on the Arctic Ocean at 71 north, the Top of the World Hotel (001 907 852 3900; tundratoursinc.com) is one of relatively few accommodation choices; it also organises Northern Lights-watching and Eskimo culture tours.
To reach most Lapland locations you must change planes in one of the Nordic capitals. Not so for 1,000 lucky travellers to Kiruna in Swedish Lapland, 90 miles beyond the Arctic Circle at 68 north. Special non-stop flights from Heathrow will operate on 4, 11, 14 and 18 February, and 10 and 17 March.
The specialist operator Discover the World (01737 214291; discover-the-world.co.uk) has persuaded SAS to put on those flights to take you from west London to north Sweden in under four hours. This puts you in the perfect location for the Abisko Mountain Station in the national park of the same name, where "clear air and virtually cloud-free skies" are promised because of a microclimate: "The behaviour of the prevailing winds in the area means that cloud rarely forms, creating ideal conditions for auroral appearances."
In case the Lights are turned off, an excellent no-show compensation is the chance to spend two nights at the Icehotel, including one night in a "Snow Room". Prices for a three-night trip start at £1,200, including flights, transfers and accommodation with breakfast.