“The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer.”

That’s how Philip Pullman described the aurora borealis in his novel The Golden Compass. His words echo almost every account one hears of the Northern Lights: an illumination of the soul and a deep appreciation for nature’s most spectacular lightshow – for those lucky enough to see them.

The chance of a sighting depends on three related factors: location, time of day and the solar cycle – every 11 years, explosions on the sun’s surface happen more often. We know this thanks to studies from NASA, just as we now know an aurora is caused by energised particles released from gaseous plasma eruptions on the sun’s surface that generate solar winds through space.

Winter adventure

Despite the well-known scientific reason for its occurrence, it remains an almost magical phenomenon. Yet there’s no guarantee of seeing it. Many travellers leave the Arctic having only seen the lights in their cabins. To avoid disappointment, many are seeking winter cruises to Norway, as the cold months are the best time to witness one of nature’s true wonders.

Hurtigruten is so confident guests will experience the light show during its winter cruise that it offers the ‘Northern Lights Promise’: if the lights don’t occur on the 12-day trip, you get a free voyage the following winter to try again along the 780 miles of Norwegian coastline.

“It is a quite bullish statement,” admits Asta Lassesen, the company’s chief commercial officer. But, she adds, “we do more or less own the Norwegian coast.” The cruise line has daily departures from Bergen operating every day of the year. “Taking the position in the wet winter was quite natural for us, to be honest,” she says.

Winter is a time for snowmobile trips, dog sledding to watch wild reindeer, and fishing for king crab.

Witnessing the Northern Lights has become a sought-after experience for travellers. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the number of operators wanting to capitalise on this. European-based cruise operators charting the polar waters include P&O Cruises, Aida, Celebrity Cruises, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Marco Polo Cruises, Saga Cruises and Fred. Olsen. Entering the market is Viking Cruises, the first US-based cruise line to launch a trip in winter. Its maiden voyage to the lights will happen on the 930-passenger Viking Sky in January 2019.

“We definitely expect the competition to increase in general,” says Lassesen. She has worked at Hurtigruten for a decade, joining as accounting manager. Five years later, she took up the role of chief financial officer and earlier this year moved into her current position as CCO. She describes the past ten years as “a great journey”, during which she has been at the forefront of the company’s organisational and commercial growth in exploration travel.

While other operators have only recently began to see the value of touring during the coldest months of the year, Lassesen says winter cruises are part of Hurtigurten’s longterm strategy, which has yielded positive results, especially in the past five years.

“Previously, we saw, and we still see, quite a lot of seasonality in our business,” Lassesen says. To overcome this intermittent trade, the cruise line began to focus on winter tourism in 2008 – but not just to see the Northern Lights. “Winter is beautiful in northern Norway. It is complete darkness from November to January, but we still have the ‘blue hour’ at midday and the light is just amazing,” she says.

Dramatic climate

Navigating the Norwegian coast in winter is not without its difficulties. The weather can be tumultuous and fickle. Subzero temperatures press the cold deep into the bones while heavy rain, sleet and snow might all visit the coast on the same day, delivered, and subsequently vanquished, by gusty winds.

The unpredictability of the weather can sometimes wreak havoc with cruise lines’ schedules. “Generally, we should expect people to spend more time at the destination than during an ordinary day visit, because the weather might change so rapidly and some of the excursions are, of course, weather-dependent,” says Inge Tangerås, managing director at Cruise Norway.

The organisation is responsible for marketing the country to cruise lines. It is owned by multiple stakeholders, including Norwegian cruise ports, destination companies and suppliers.

“Cruise lines have to allow more time at the destination, to take into account cancelled excursions or hiccups due to severe snow, ice or stormy weather that occurs during the winter up north,” Tangerås says.

Winter wildlife

This isn’t necessarily reason for concern, Lassesen suggests. She stresses that there are plenty of port excursions to provide guests with a variety of experiences. Winter is a time for snowmobile trips, dog sledding to watch wild reindeer, and fishing for king crab. The sighting of a killer whale off Sortland will give most travellers a giddy feeling to rival the experience of the Northern Lights.

“We also have the Norwegian Coastal Kitchen, which focuses on local food depending on what season you’re in,” Lassesen says. “You could have food experiences in the winter time that are different from what you would typically have in the summer time.”

Despite the available excursions, cruise lines need to be prepared to deal with delays from harsh weather while ensuring passenger comfort. But not all travellers seem to mind. “It is quite interesting that many people would like to experience a winter storm – though only for a limited number of hours,” Lassessen says.

Indeed, the Norwegian port authorities probably wish they only had to deal with the inclement weather for as long as cruise lines’ passengers.

The reality is far more taxing. “The ports must make sure snow is removed, so passengers and guests can arrive safely,” Tangerås says. “It is not unusual to sprinkle salt on ice to make it safe.”

Beyond taking the obvious safety steps and warning passengers to be prepared with suitable winter clothing and footwear, Tangerås stresses the value of local knowledge.

While excursions into the towns and cities can be done by passengers themselves without any significant logistical concerns, venturing “out in the field” for adventures requires immense organisation, according to Tangerås.

“Organisers need local knowledge,” he says. “They need to know how to read and interpret the weather conditions, and give a prognosis, because of how rapidly the weather conditions can change. This applies especially in the Arctic parts of Norway.”

This knowledge is also valuable for travellers who have a limited time to see the Northern Lights. “Knowing about the weather and light conditions could really make that dream happen more easily than if you tried to do it on your own,” Tangerås says. “[Locals] cannot, of course, manage the Northern Lights, but they know more about local conditions, when it is likely to appear and where to go for the best view.”

Winter is beautiful in northern Norway. It is complete darkness from November to January, but we still have the ‘blue hour’ at midday.

Regional excursions

Cruise lines have, of course, staked out the best itineraries and excursions, either because they possess local knowledge, like Hurtigruten with its 125 years of experience in the area, or because they have researched the area or partnered with local planners. Whether passengers are visiting the region to bear witness to the Northern Lights or simply to appreciate the dramatic fjords and fresh air, Norway’s year-round attractiveness is evidenced in the data. “Last year or the year before, Norway had cruise visits every month of the year,” Tangerås says. “It is gradually picking up and we think there is still huge potential for exciting adventures in Norway during the winter season.”

Part of the appeal of northern Norway, according to Tangerås, is “the Arctic climate, and the certainty of having real white winter weather and the fantastic Northern Lights”.

As more cruise lines bring new guests to the area, they need to find ways to stay ahead of competitors in the market. To do this, Lassesen suggests, requires a combination of heritage and innovation. New products are essential, such as tapping into the adventure-travel trend or extending their reach beyond the regular destinations.

Not everyone who charts the Arctic waters of northern Norway will see the lights swing and shimmer ‘with more grace than the most skilful dancer’. However, those who plan their trip during winter have a much better chance. Passengers need to pack warm clothes and ports need to work overtime to ensure safety standards are met. Cruise lines, as always, will need to find ways to deliver comfort, excitement and, in this case, a glimpse of magic.