Sorry this is a bit long folks, but it does contain some good tips!
I became interested in the Northern Lights a few years ago when I watched a documentary called ‘In the Land of the Northern Lights’ by Joanna Lumley. After seeing the documentary I decided that I was going to see them one day.
My baby son was born in August last year. I’d decided to take a year of maternity leave and spend my time with my baby and maybe do a little bit of travelling. Working in a demanding financial environment for years I needed some time off and a good holiday. The idea came to my mind: maybe this was the time for me to see the Northern Lights.
Having thought about and discussed the idea, it seemed a bit selfish to take a baby to the Arctic Circle. But I’d read that 2012-2013 is going to be one of the best years of seeing the Aurora due to solar storms coming to earth, and I couldn't resist giving it a second thought. Also, having taken my baby on a short skiing holiday in Turkey, I was a bit more comfortable with the idea of taking him into cold climates. After talking to my husband one last time, we decided to try to see the Northern Lights.
Our quest to see them started in Iceland in February this year. We booked a package holiday from All Iceland, which included the flights, B&B and a rented car: two nights in a hotel in Gullfoss and a night in Reykjavik. I was told by the agency that we would get a manual gearbox car, but when we arrived at Reykjavik airport we were given an automatic. You might think it is a good thing, but for someone like me who has driven only a manual car all their life it wasn't an easy thing to pick up at the beginning. Besides, it was so wet and windy the night we arrived, which was going to make driving more difficult.
Hertz's car rental stuff were very helpful and offered to lend us a GPS, which may you also think is a good thing, and I suppose it would be as long as it directs you the right way - but it didn't. So we ended up driving through the mountains on a road covered in ice and snow before we finally arrived at our hotel an hour-and-a-half after than expected. It was the scariest car journey I've ever had, driving with a baby in snow, ice and windy conditions in a foreign country and not knowing whether you're on the right way.
The hotel in Gullfoss, which was called as Hotel Gullfoss, was owned by a lovely lady, who was very hospitable. The rooms were nice and tidy for a 3* hotel and the continental breakfast was fair. The hotel was very close to tourist attractions such as Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir hot spring, which we visited during the day. Unfortunately, in the evenings it was very cloudy, so there was no chance for us to see the lights. When we were booking the holiday the tour agency said it wouldn't be appropriate to take a baby to one of the Northern Lights tour buses as people would be getting in and out of the bus and the baby might get cold, so best thing to do is to get a car and drive to the hotel in the countryside and wait for Northern Lights to turn up there. We made a mistake by doing this, as one thing I’ve learnt is that if you really want to see the Northern Lights, you need to chase them, unless you're very lucky.
Unfortunately our first two nights for seeing Northern Lights hadn’t gone really well. Although we saw a little glance in the sky on our second night it wasn't anything like the ones you see on the pictures, and didn't really satisfy me or my dear husband. So all our hopes were resting on our last night, in Reykjavik. We went to a national park during the day that had a waterfall (which you get quite often in Iceland) and other nice features as well. I met this tour guide there who runs Northern Lights tours in the evenings and he told me that due to weather and aurora forecast he had cancelled his Northern Lights tour for that evening, and he reckoned there was almost no chance to see them around Reykjavik that night. I was so disappointed, but tried to keep it all in.
When we arrived to our city hotel in Reykjavik, Hotel Klettur (which was recently built) I spoke to the reception to get info about Northern Lights tour for the night. The lady at the reception was very helpful. The time passed and the bad news came: all the tours were cancelled. We had no choice but to spend the night in the room. Our flight was in the afternoon so we decided to go and spend some time at the Blue Lagoon, which is only 20km from the airport. That was the highlight of our trip to Iceland. It was so relaxing and calming. I had the softest skin on my face for a few days after our visit to the lovely turquoise Blue Lagoon. I was really disappointed that we didn’t get a good view of the Northern Lights, but happy to be able to see the wild beauty of Iceland.
Second part of our quest to see the Northern Lights started in Tromso, Norway. After we got back from Iceland I couldn't resist having a look at Northern Lights holidays again. Although money was tight as I was on maternity leave, my lovely husband agreed that we should go as I really wanted to see them - but he asked me to prepare myself so as not to get disappointed again if I didn't see them, and to try to look forward to see other things in Norway.
When I looked at the prices for package holidays for Northern Lights tours to Norway they were unaffordable. So what I did was to organise our own package myself. Now first of all there is no direct flight to Tromso from London. You need to get to Oslo, Gardermoen Airport, and get a transfer from there. There are flights from Gatwick and Stansted by Ryan Air to Oslo, Rygge and Oslo, Torp airports and they are cheap but you need to get to Oslo,Gardermoen Airport yourself to take a flight to Tromso, which is doable (there is a direct bus goes to Gardermoen from Rygee) but the thing is if you get a domestic flight to Tromso from Oslo that’s where the expense starts from. So in the end I decided to get tickets from Norwegian (London - Oslo, Gardermoen – Tromso) as it was going to cost us more or less the same by flying Ryan air to Oslo, Rygge and get a bus to Oslo, Gardermoen and a transfer to Tromso from there, and this way we didn’t need to worry about to getting to Gardermoen from Rygge.
Next, I needed to arrange accommodation for us, and I needed to be careful with the money but at the same time we were travelling with a baby so, we don’t want to end up somewhere not suitable. So I did a little bit of search on Tromso hotels. AMI Hotel sounded nice and cheap (cheap by Norwegian standards of course - everything is expensive in Norway), also had a weather station and a Tromso webcam, which really interested me. I called them, but unfortunately they were fully booked.
I checked a few other hotels but they all seemed out of the budget. I’d seen Amalie Hotel, which had a very central location and prices that were very reasonable. I wondered why it was cheaper than the other hotels nearby. I read this review about it on Tripadvisor saying “there aren’t many reviews of this hotel as their guests are generally Norwegian”, which made sense when we got there. Unlike most of the other central hotels in Tromso, Amalie isn’t part of a chain: it is an independently owned hotel. For a 3* hotel I think it deserves a + as it has got everything you need for your stay (including a microwave in the dining area which helped us a lot when we needed to sterilise the baby’s stuff). It is clean and the continental breakfast is excellent. There is always tea/coffee in the dining area - doesn’t matter what time it is you can help yourself - and there is always someone in the kitchen, so if your flight is early they can arrange a really early breakfast for you. They also serve waffles in the afternoon and the most important thing for me is it has got very friendly and helpful staff who helped us a lot especially, when we were planning our route to Finland. Torregnar ( I hope I got this correct), the middle-aged gentleman at the reception who I believe is the manager, even leant us thermos bottles and a map for our journey.
It wasn't easy to arrange a trip to Norway with a baby, especially when you do not have a travel agency to talk to when it comes to how to see the lights. This time I didn't want to do the travelling ourselves as last time we didn’t manage to see the lights: I thought we needed a guide help us find them. I’d researched a few Northern Lights tour agencies which do tours in the evenings but they didn’t want to take the baby on the bus. They said the baby could get cold in the bus, although I explained to them that we’d been to Iceland and that we had really good suits for him to keep him warm. (I think they were a bit more worried about the customers in the bus to get annoyed by the baby if he starts crying etc.) I also suggested that we could hire a car and if they let us we can follow them with the car and would be happy to pay to follow them. All of the tours I spoke to said no.
When I spoke to the hotel they recommended a guide called Gunnar (GuideGunnar). So I called him to ask if we can book a tour. Unfortunately Gunnar said all of his tours in 2012 were fully booked. Otherwise he would have accepted the baby as he’s got the right equipment. I asked him if we were to rent a car if it is okay to follow him on one of his tours. He said that for safety reasons he wouldn’t let us to do so, but if we came to see him at his office in Tromso when we get there he could give us some tips for to help us find the Northern Lights. (I’ll come back to GuideGunnar a bit later to explain how amazingly he helped us.)
So I thought maybe the best thing to do is to call the tourist information to get their advice and help to arrange our trip. I spoke to a very nice lady called Uda from Visit Tromso. She said we're more likely to see the lights if we were to go by a tour/guide rather than hiring a car and doing the trip ourselves, as all the guides know where to go. But I explained to her that tours generally don’t accept babies. She told me that she is going to speak to a few agencies/guides and get back to me. She called later to say she couldn’t find anyone who was happy to take the baby on the bus, but there is a lady called Karina who would be happy for us to follow her in a car. I was so happy to hear this. Maybe my luck was changing.
Straight away I hired the car and the only thing left to do was to check the weather and Aurora forecast. If you are going to Norway/ Finland (Kilpisjarvi), http://www.yr.no/ is the best for weather forecast. You can even type small place names around Tromso and it will give you the forecast on an hourly basis, which really helps when you need to change location to hunt the lights. If you like to look for Aurora forecast you can use www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe.
When we arrived to Tromso it was about 5pm and we were going to meet with Karina for our tour at 7pm. We’d been up since 4am that morning. I think my son is really a good baby when it comes to travelling but this time it was a bit more difficult compared to other times as he got a bit bored during the two plane journeys. It was a hard work for me and my husband and we were really tired. But of course we had to stay awake and drive all night to see the lights. Unfortunately it was cloudy on that night. Although we followed Karina to a few different places that night we only managed to see a little glance of the lights, not too different from what we saw in Iceland.
Although I was a bit disappointed, it was only our first night. Next day we went to see GuideGunnar at his office. He gave us a lot of tips about how to see them and reminded us to check the forecasts before we head off anywhere. He said that if I texted him in the evening he could reply to say whether he could see the lights from where he was and whereabouts to go etc. We followed Karina on our second night in Tromso as well. Unfortunately it was a cloudy night and we couldn't see anything. I was losing my faith. On our third day in Tromso we decided to do a round trip during the day around Tromso which was about 200km in total. We took a ferry from Breivikeidet when the weather turned to worse. It was very difficult to drive in those conditions and I was checking the weather forecast constantly for the night for Tromso and around, and it wasn’t good news at all.
Now you can actually travel to Finland, Kilpisjarvi, from Troms, which is about 200km. When we were doing our round trip we came quite close to the border. I heard that when the weather is bad around Tromso, Northern Lights tour buses drive towards the Finnish border.
It was getting late in the afternoon and we hadn’t had anything to eat. I suggested to my husband to have dinner where we were (Oteren), and then decide whether to drive back to Tromso or continue towards Finland: there wasn’t much chance of seeing the lights near Tromso that night, but the weather forecast for Kilpisjarvi was looking okay. We drove to ‘Welcome Inn’ hotel Lyngskroa in Oteren, but unfortunately we didn’t have a good welcome. The gentleman at the bar told us that we cannot stay for dinner as they are only open for the hotel guests. When I asked him if I can use the toilets to change the baby he said no. I was just shocked! My poor little guy was in the car, sleeping all day. He hadn’t had much of a chance to move his legs and I started getting worried about him. He also needed to be fed. I ended up breastfeeding him in the car.
We decided to drive to Nordkjosbotn for dinner (which is the closest place to Oteren, about 20km ) and give GuideGunnar a call for advice. He said that he and his tour group were also driving towards Finland as there is almost no chance to see the lights around Tromso that night. We made our minds up and were going to Finland. A few kilometres after leaving Nordkjosbotn , a really heavy snow storm started. My husband was driving and I was at the back with the baby. When looking from the front window it was impossible to see anything. We really got scared and decided to head back towards Tromso, as we couldn’t risk anything happening to the baby. It was very dangerous to drive in those conditions.
I was so upset, I knew the fact there would be no chance to see the lights in Tromso that night, and to make the matters worse GuideGunnar called us when we were only 20km away from Tromso. He asked where we were and said they were about 10km away from the Finnish border and had a good view of the lights from where they were. Apparently the snow storm only continued for 10-15 minutes and it cleared afterwards. I started crying! What bad luck!
The next day, as it was going to be our last night in Tromso, my husband suggested that I should go on a Northern Lights tour with one of the guides on my own and leave him and the baby at the hotel. But I couldn’t do it. We had to see them as a family. So we went to see GuideGunnar at his office again. The weather seemed okay for Tromso and also for Kilpisjarvi. We decided to go to Kilpisjarvi during the day as we wanted to see the Lapland area and tell my son in the future that we’d taken him to where Father Christmas lives!
I think we made the best decision so far to go there. It was the most dramatic journey of my life. Tromso is a beautiful city,70 degrees north on the Arctic Circle, with two lovely bridges, a church, cable car (where you get beautiful views of the city) and you can get anything you like (even kebab shops ) when you think you're in the Arctic region. It is surrounded by beautiful fjords, dry fish by the bays, icicles hanging of the hills and proper blue Arctic snow. But Kilpisjarvi really stole my heart. It is a small village with around 150 occupants which has got only two hotels and restaurants. Between Kilpisjarvi and the next town in Finland is 400km of wilderness, the lovely lady Riikka from Retkeilykeskus told me. This place is amazing!
It was around 5pm (6pm Finland time) when we arrived to Kilpisjarvi and it was going to be dark very soon. There is a frozen lake where the other side is Sweden. There were people crossing it on snowmobiles. We had our dinner at Retkeilykeskus, which was an open buffet for 15 Euros, which I thought was very reasonable. It was a good buffet as well. We stayed there until 7pm and drove to the nearest parking place which was away from the street lights. It was dark and the sky was clear.
My husband went outside and he told me to come out. Here they were! It really scared me when I first saw them. As my husband described later on, in Kilpisjarvi it is like you are in the Aurora’s land rather than in a human land. Unfortunately, even though this was the best we’d seen yet, the clouds came a few minutes later and the lights were gone. It was about 8pm when we decided to head back towards Tromso, and I was still checking the weather forecast. It was showing fair in Skibotn (Norway), which is about 50km from Kilpisjarvi. We drove there and parked by a fjord. The sky was the clearest I’ve ever seen in Norway and the Aurora forecast was ‘5 Extreme’, which means high Auroral activity - which you only get very rarely. When it happens you can even see them from as far south as Oslo. There was only one thing we needed to do: be patient.
Our plane was leaving at 6.45am the next morning and it was 11.30 pm. I said to my husband that we’ve seen the best ever we could see, maybe it was time to drive back to the hotel as we were about 150km away. We started to drive back. It was only 15-20 minutes after that I asked my husband to stop the car. We were near Oteren when I thought I’d never seen so many stars in my life and the temperature dropped to minus 10 - then we saw these magnificent lights. There wasn’t only one, there were at least four or five of them. We were surrounded by them. Some of them were doing their ring shapes, and others making curtains. I was gobsmacked. It was one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever seen. We were there at least one-and-a-half hours. I have to say, I kept checking the baby in the car to make sure he was fine as Samis believe that the Aurora snatches children. This time it was me who had to leave the beautiful Aurora and they were still there when we were leaving. They must have been saying goodbye to me. On the way back to Tromso we still could see them but we had to drive back and get ready for our flight. We didn’t sleep at all that night and there was a twelve-hour journey with a baby back to England still to come but it was all worth it! Thank you, thank you...