5 places to see the brightest Aurora displays
The biggest solar storm in five years rampaged across the sun's surface last week. Fears that our cell phone and GPS systems would be knocked out proved unfounded, but our skies certainly did feel its effect, with beautiful results.
Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights) has been putting on a show from the end of last year as a result of frequent massive solar explosions.
While they usually fade in March, thanks to the solar storm there are still some places that are witnessing the amazing sight. Until mid or late April, particularly in places in the Auroral Oval -- a zone with active solar radiation activity -- you can still see them.
Or you can head South for the Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights), which are going to shine, albeit less dramatically, from March onwards.
How: On the deck of a traditional steamer or on a Northern Lights-chasing bus.
Known as the "Paris of the North," Tromsø is a beautiful and accessible locale for a Northern Lights performance.
Norwegian tourism board's Mona Ravndal recommends a voyage on the Norwegian Coastal Steamer, Hurtigruten, to see the Northern Lights along the fjord.
A special "Northern Lights Cruise" departs in December only but the "Seven-day classic voyage North," which will take you through northern Norway including Tromsø and North Cape -- the so-called northernmost town -- is available all year.
Another option is to travel 40 minutes away from inner town. You will find yourself between the towering snow mountains and a peaceful fjord. A bus service between inner city and Ersfjorden runs before midnight.
Or join the Northern Lights chase with knowledgeable bus drivers.
How: On a heated bench in the freezing Aurora Village.
You have a good chance to see the glowing sky in Yellowknife, according to Mark Stevens, a writer for Canada's tourism site.
Visiting Aurora Village -- a 25-minute drive away from the city center -- may be the perfect backdrop for your Aurora pictures.
"[Aurora Village] is chiefly composed of a campground of teepees where you lounge in specially designed, heated viewing chairs as interpretive guides offer insights in a smorgasbord of languages," says Stevens.
The heated chair is a blessing in a place 40 C below.
Aurora Village also provides daytime activities like dogsled riding and snowmobile experience, so visitors won't be idle for a second.
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Fairbanks, Alaska, United States
How: In a hot spring.
There are two major challenges when hunting the Northern Lights -- the coldness and the sleepiness. And Fairbanks offers solutions to both.
Fairbanks in Alaska is often cited as the best place to see Northern Lights in the United States. It is also home to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks -- an established authority on Aurora activities. Updates and predictions on the lights can be found on their site.
One of the most enjoyable ways to see the Aurora display is while soaking in a hot spring pool. Geophysical Institute researchers recommend both Chena and Manley Spring resorts but Chena is better equipped and better connected with Fairbanks' airport. Bus shuttles run between airport and Chena resort.
Hotels also provide an Aurora alarm service so guests can be alerted if they "switch on" in the middle of night.
Room rate from US$189 per night, return bus tickets from airport to the resort costs US$150, www.chenahotsprings.com
How: With a dog sled expedition.
Kangerlussuaq is the gateway to the rest of Greenland with the only international airport in the country. With a stable climate and a proud average of 300-clear-sky days per year, it is one of the best locations for Aurora hunters.
World of Greenland -- Arctic Circle (Wogac) offers a Northern Lights tour from October to April, but from February-April they also offer on a three-day dog sled expedition to the west coast town of Sisimiut.
Staying in Hotel Kangerlussuaq at the airport is convenient but relatively expensive. It also organizes a fantastic ice cap tour nearby. Remember to open your hotel room's curtains and you may even see the Lights from your windows.
Dog sled tour to Sisimiut costs US$1,389 per person, operates from February to April; two-hour Northern Lights tour costs US$62 for adult and US$37 for child, operates from October to April; www.greenland.com
How: With a bit of luck.
Although being the best spot to view the Aurora Australis, Antarctica is also the most inaccessible one -- unless you are a scientist or a supporting person (cook, doctor, pilot, etc) for the research expeditions. And most of the Antarctic expedition companies do not organize tours after February.
But it is still possible to see the Southern Lights from the Southern tip of South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
For example, Stewart Island, also known as Rakiura in Maori (meaning the land of glowing skies), is a good option. There are only 400 inhabitants around and it is covered with great wildlife and natural scenery.
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