While you might be missing the sun’s rays this time of year, rest assured that there’s still plenty of solar activity to be enjoyed—in the form of the awe-inspiring Aurora Borealis (aka “Northern Lights”) phenomenon.
In fact, the winter and late fall months (from September through March) are the very best time to witness the elusive spectacle light up the night skies, best viewed from points close to the Arctic Circle in spots like Norway, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and Alaska.
Cruises offer the perfect platform for sneaking a peek, steering spectators away from land-based light pollution and going out to sea for one of the best perspectives of the colorful flashing swirls and zigzags (the lights are actually electrically charged solar particles passing through Earth’s atmosphere).
Best of all, this year and next are predicted to be exceptional ones for solar activity, so get on deck with one of these ships and prepare to marvel at the mysteries of the Arctic night sky.
Norway’s long-established Hurtigruten line operates ferry-cruise ship hybrids that make runs up the coast of Norway—delivering cruisers who brave the frigid temps straight to some of the world’s best Northern Lights activity. Next winter, hit up one of their assorted 5- to 11-night Northern Lights-focused Classic Winter Voyages from Bergen or Kirkenes (rates from $1,311/person; select sailings from November through March), which operate on an assortment of Hurtigruten ships (averaging enough berths for some 600 to 1,000 passengers). Excursion opportunities include nighttime dog-sledding outings and snowmobiling tours through the snow-covered winter wilderness.
Or, try UK-based Cruise & Maritime Voyages, offering a series of Aurora Borealis-specialized sailings along the Norwegian coastline in 2013 and 2014, with stops in Tromsø and Bergen, and across the Arctic Circle. Their 14-night Land of Northern Lights itineraries sail aboard the 800-passenger Marco Polo, a converted ice-breaker, from London (rates from $1,926/person; embarks Oct. 6, 2013, February 16, 2014, March 2, 2014, and March 14, 2014).
Iceland, Greenland & Eastern Canada
Small-ship expedition cruise line Adventure Smith Explorations’ newly announced seven-night Scoresby Sund Aurora Borealis voyage (embarks Sept. 6, 2013; rates from $3,850/person) sets sail to the Arctic Circle and the longest fjord in the world at Scoresby Sund, in eastern Greenland. The trip begins in Reykjavik, Iceland, where guests are transferred to the 114-guest Plancius. In addition to scouting the night sky, cruisers can expect encounters with plenty of icebergs, fjords, and wildlife (like snowy owls, musk oxen, and whales).
French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant, meanwhile, is offering a 2013 luxury expedition in search of the Aurora Borealis aboard its five-star polar expedition ship, the 132-passenger Le Boreal. The 15-night cruise from Kangerlussuag, Greenland, to Quebec City (embarks Sept. 5; rates from $8,922/person), will also highlight whale-watching, visits to local villages, and sailings through pristine fjords.
While most cruises make their way to Alaska during the peak summer sailing season, a few operators offer shoulder-season itineraries that, under the right conditions, can also provide a glimpse of the lights. Holland America Line, for one, offers late-September, great-value sailings like the seven-night Glacier Discovery cruise from Seward to Vancouver (embarks Sept. 15, 2003; rates from $699); the seven-night Inside Passages from Vancouver (Sept. 22, 2013; rates from $699); or the seven-night Alaskan Explorer from Seattle (Sept. 22, 2013; rates from $799).