View the Northern Lights on a cruise above the Arctic Circle with Havila Voyages
By Sara Macefield | 15 Jun 2022
We go in search of the Northern Lights on a sailing above the Arctic Circle in far north Norway with new eco-friendly cruise line Havila Voyages
The powder blue of the vast polar sky is fading into a rose-tinged hue as the sun gently slides towards the horizon. Under the silvery glow of the pale moon, suspended like a gleaming disc above us, we crunch across a crisp layer of deep snow to where our chariots await – a shiny line of snowmobiles poised to speed us into this icy wilderness.
It’s a magical moment as we fire up the engines and slowly pull away across the milky white expanse into the Norwegian hinterland, revelling in the realisation that there’s nothing else around us – just snow, space and miles of sky.
In a few weeks, 5,000 reindeer will flood onto these ivory slopes when they move from their winter grazing grounds to spend the milder summer months here as the snow melts away to reveal the grasslands beneath.
But for now, the terrain is ours – an immense snowy Sahara stretching as far as the eye can see, where we glide along in single file revelling in the breathtaking views across this polar moonscape as the magical twilight of the Arctic night descends.
When we come to a halt and turn off the engines, the total silence is all-consuming, broken only by our whoops of amazement as we look behind to see that the horizon has dissolved into a searing cauldron of fiery crimson.
Nature is clearly putting on a show, but it hasn’t quite finished yet. A few minutes later, against darkening indigo skies, slim wispy streaks appear directly above us. The Northern Lights have come out to play.
Where to see the Northern Lights
They are the ultimate prize during this voyage, which hugs Norway’s craggy coastline to delve deep into the Arctic Circle and the promised land of the Aurora Borealis that teases and tantalises with the promise of mesmerising atmospheric displays.
I’ve been here before, both literally and metaphorically, as a previous Arctic visit failed to deliver the wondrous natural spectacle I’d hoped for. So when I board Havila Voyages’ shiny new ship, Havila Capella in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, ready to sail to Kirkenes on the country’s far northern tip, my hopes are high that this time the journey will bear fruit.
With forecasts of clear night skies and pronounced solar activity, the outlook is promising and, sure enough, after a night or two, the Aurora Borealis appears – but they are just whitish streaks across the sky, only attaining a greenish tinge in mobile phone pictures that are then edited to accentuate them even more.
I can’t help thinking that this is cheating and, while the pictures look good, they don’t reflect the reality. I’m still distinctly underwhelmed, but my disappointment is swiftly erased by the natural bounty along this historic route, stretching between Bergen and Kirkenes.
It takes in some of the most beautiful stretches of Norwegian scenery where roughly hewn mountains rise up like jagged teeth, their slopes dusted with icing-sugar snow. The ships on this route are subsidised by Norway’s government to ensure that the tiny remote communities dotted along the sweep of coast have a year-round freight and passenger service.
What to expect on a Havila Voyages cruise
Following years of being exclusively served by Norwegian line Hurtigruten, newcomer Havila Voyages debuted last December after winning a government licence to operate a number of services.
The line is part of the family-owned Norwegian company Havila Group, founded in the 1950s with interests in shipping technology, transport and tourism, and its first ships, Havila Capella and Havila Castor, will be joined by another two identical sisters later this year.
All claim to be the most environmentally friendly vessels on this route thanks to their being powered by a hybrid mixture of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and the world’s largest ship battery packs. This means Havila’s fleet isn’t only quieter, but emissions will be significantly reduced too – a vital requirement of sailing through the Unesco World Heritage-designated areas on the Norwegian coastline.
Life aboard Havila Capella is also something of a hybrid experience, as cruise guests mingle with locals who hop on and off between ports, sometimes not even requiring a cabin. While accommodating as many as 640 passengers, there are just 179 cabins, including some rather swanky suites full of Scandi chic touches and even an imitation log fire, promising that cosy hygge (or koselig in Norwegian) feeling while you admire the frozen landscape.
My Seaview Superior cabin is a comfortable minimalist bolthole and at 15 square metres feels pretty spacious – something Havila claims as one of its USPs. But I don’t spend much time here, preferring to relax in the comfy chairs of the observation lounge, where the 270-degree floor-to-ceiling windows give a perfect vantage point.
The hot tubs out on deck look even more tempting and I’m all set to take the plunge but, alas, they aren’t ready for use on our sailing. I console myself by tucking into the Norwegian-inspired cuisine with gusto. Havila may not be a cruise line in the usual sense, but that doesn’t mean we miss out on one of cruising’s most mouth-watering draws.
Mealtimes become the ultimate dilemma with so many classic and Nordic favourites, but tasting-type menus at breakfast and lunch mean we can choose as many dishes as we want. I’m not disappointed because virtually everything I order exceeds my expectations.
I gorge myself on delicious velvety forest mushroom soup and lightly grilled reindeer fillet, and dip into a line-up of veggie temptations with crunchy salads and crispy pea schnitzel. A premium Havila Gold menu, which carries a supplement, further opens up the choice and I throw caution to the wind, opting for the rather outlandish deep-fried cod tongue and cod cheek.
I needn’t have worried; both are delicious and taste just like scampi. After more feasting in the fine-dining Hildring Restaurant (from £26), I balance my gluttony by taking advantage of the plethora of onshore adventures to burn off some calories.
What to do on a Norway cruise
There’s everything from walking tours to dog-sledding and fishing adventures, though they come at a hefty price with the cheapest being a whistle-stop beer-tasting at approximately £40, while our snowmobiling jaunt tops the league at a cool £263.
In Bodo, we admire spectacular mountainous vistas while scrambling along rocky paths and across sandy bays on a Taste the Arctic walk (£83), and in Honningsvag I opt for a King Crab experience (£136) to get close and personal with these spindly giants of the Barents Sea before tucking into one of them for lunch.
However, I’m most excited about meeting Rudolph and friends on a reindeer sledding adventure at a Sami herder’s settlement near Tromso (£158). As we arrive, our antlered steeds are tethered up and ready to go, steadily clip-clopping in a long line as we sit back and relish views of the sun’s rays bouncing off the snowy sweep of land.
When we finally come to a halt, I try to engage our four-legged friend, but she remains aloof, twisting her head away as I try to pat her. It’s a different story for the rest of the 300-strong herd as I walk among them with a bucket of feed pellets.
Suddenly they all want to be friends; in fact, I feel rather too popular as several plod over in unison, barging each other out of the way as they try to stick their noses into the bucket. Scuffles break out and as I duck out of range, a disgruntled female butts me in the backside with her antlers. I let out a yelp of surprise as I skip away laughing, mightily relieved that these wiry combatants are so small.
A few minutes later, I’m tucking into a warming bowl of reindeer stew in a traditional Sami Lavu tent, listening to 21-year-old herder Inga Margrethe talk about the lives and traditions of these nomads who follow their reindeer through the mountains between their grazing areas.
“Reindeer herding has now become a man’s job rather than a family one as it used to be, because more people are getting other jobs. Even my own mother now works in an office,” she explains. “I’m very excited to be doing this, but also very nervous.”
Margrethe’s talk takes a fascinating turn as she explains how the Sami have endured discrimination as their culture and traditions have been chiselled away. And now their way of life is threatened by wind farms that are planned for the reindeer’s summer grazing grounds.
“The Sami people live in nature and respect it, while others just see it as a way to make money,” she asserts. Her words ring through my mind on the final evening as we make our way through the dusky night towards Kirkenes and I gaze at the pristine line of mountains framing the horizon.
Suddenly, the ship bridge announces that the Aurora is overhead. I race outside and am blown away by the maelstrom in the sky above me as pulsating greenish streaks dance through the heavens, continuously ebbing and flowing through the darkness.
This is what I’ve been waiting for – the ultimate light show that has us spellbound as we excitedly watch in awe. As a final-night finale, Mother Nature really did save the very best until last.
Book a Northern Lights cruise with Havila Voyages
A 13-night package is offered by Best Served Scandinavia that includes a Havila Voyages 11-night round-trip sailing from Bergen to Kirkenes and two B&B overnight hotel stays pre and post-cruise. It costs from £1,495 per person, including flights and transfers, for departures in January 2023. Find out more and book at best-served.co.uk
*Havila Capella restarted sailing for Havila Voyages on June 28, 2022, following a legal dispute that forced a temporary suspension of operations. Identical sister ship Havila Castor launched in May and is also sailing along the Norwegian coast.