The otherworldly Northern Lights are best observed above the Arctic Circle, and there are many more magical sights to enjoy in the frozen wilderness.
The Northern Lights appear like aerial elves, jumping and swirling in the Arctic sky as if they are playing a game of hide and seek with us.
Just as we yell “Hallelujah, we saw the lights”, they are gone again.
And the twinkling stars once again stand as guardians of the night as their unpredictable friends disappear into black. And we are left in Finland’s freezing Lapland snow, grateful to the universe for giving us a glimpse of one of her quiet quirks.
Beautiful as they are, there are a few things you should know about the aurora borealis before you go to the other end of the earth to see them.
Firstly, you should probably travel with the hope of seeing the Northern Lights rather than the expectation.
The lights appear on only 200 nights a year and the display can last from mere moments to several hours.
The lights commonly appear as a rather disappointing milky white but can sometimes appear in a more spectacular but rare range of colours such as bright green, pink and purple.
Even lights which are milky white to the eye can appear almost fluorescent in photos because the cones and rods in our eyes cannot pick up all the colours, especially in the dark, that cameras can.
You can get some good real-time aurora forecast apps which indicate the best hours to see the lights (the one by TINAC is pretty helpful). Marry this up with cloud cover forecasts and you will give yourself a good chance of seeing them.
Even though the solar flares did not shine as long or as brightly as we had hoped during our trip, there were so many other magical sights and activities in the Arctic Circle that our disappointment melted as quickly as the May snow.
We stayed at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland’s Lapland, which looks like it belongs in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, with its snow-dusted pines, reindeer and husky sleighs and log cabins that dot the rolling, white fields.
The owner Janni Eiramo, a hefty, white-bearded man who introduces himself as “Santa’s much-younger brother,” has single handedly created a winter wonderland that is as enchanting for adults as it is for children.
The extraordinary Mr Eiramo started building the resort — which is a reindeer sleigh ride away from the middle of nowhere — with his earnings from a berry juice cafe in 1974.
Over the years he has built up an east and west village that welcomes about 30,000 guests a year.
It is complete with thermal underground power and five restaurants — though only two open on a daily basis — and a sixth glass-domed restaurant that sits 30m above ground is under construction right now.
A night in a glass igloo is on the bucket list for many people and it does not disappoint.
While the lights did not appear when we stayed in the igloo, we were able to fall asleep under one of the starriest night skies we have ever seen, in the comfort of a glass dome heated to a steady 24C.
The glass itself is also heated so snow on the panes melts immediately, ensuring almost constant visibility.
The 65 glass igloos are adequately spaced to ensure privacy and have toilets but showers have to be accessed in the nearby sauna. The 45 kelo-glass igloos (half log cabin, half igloo) have full bathroom facilities.
It is worth bringing your own candles, and your own tipple if you fancy, as there are no supermarkets in the village.
Prices vary depending on size and time of the year. In the week before Christmas a two-person glass igloo is €592 ($849) a night, including breakfast and dinner.
The log cabins are just as enchanting and come with a sauna, fireplace and kitchen but you have to bring your own screen entertainment.
A large cabin in the week before Christmas costs $831 a night, including breakfast and dinner.
More Arctic magic
There are about a dozen exciting activities on offer at the resort, usually at extra cost, and should be booked in advance:
Santa’s cabin, workshop and reindeer farm: Santa lives in a big red home at Kakslauttanen Resort, with some reindeer on a farm across the road. Check with the resort in advance to see when he is around for a chat. Even if he is on important present-making business, Mrs Claus or an elf may be in the vicinity.
Husky sleigh and aurora hunting: This was the highpoint of my trip. The night-time sojourn through the pristine forest takes about an hour. Five husky dogs carry each sleigh, with one person sitting in the carriage and the other standing behind to steer it. The Northern Lights appeared during the trip but, for me, they were outshone by the magical forest and the beautiful dogs. Make sure you take a couple of blankets from husky headquarters. The person sitting in the sleigh will really feel the cold. The trip ends with hot berry juice in a teepee.
Horse sleigh and aurora
hunting: This activity was a tad boring considering the lights did not
appear, even though there is a certain charm about being towed on a wooden
sleigh which looks like one of Santa’s cast-offs. The sleigh stops on top of a
hill for hot berry juice and partially frozen cake.
Snowmobiling: The was my partner’s favourite activity. The snowmobiles travel at speeds of up to 40km/h. You can’t help but feel you are a James Bond villain while racing through the snow at night, even if there are 10 other people in the convoy. The night-time trips include a fire-pit stop to look for the lights.
Cross-country skiing: It’s not as hard as it sounds. The resort has a few well-worn tracks on which instructors teach novices. With the help of a skiing instructor, you will be skiing within the hour.
Smoke sauna: The Finns like their saunas very hot, so do not be surprised if you get into a sauna that is heated at 80C. The smoke sauna will leave you feeling as if you’ve rinsed your insides. Then step outside in the snow and watch the steam rise from your body.
At top: The Northern Lights cast incredible colours in the Arctic sky. Picture supplied