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If you’ve always been intrigued by the Northern Lights, the curious phenomenon that turns the sky around the Arctic Circle a splendid panorama of green, red, and yellow hues, start packing the winter gear, because the best time to catch this elusive natural artwork is from October through March.
But, as anyone who’s in search of the lights, also called Aurora Borealis, will tell you, there are no guarantees. You need a cloudless sky, little or no moon, and luck. And because craning your neck in the sub-zero darkness will try the patience of even the most intrepid adventurer, your best bet is to pick a home base destination that has more than the lights to offer.
Here are a few destinations that offer good opportunities for both. And if you’re itching to see the lights but would rather not experience the bone-numbing temperatures of such chilly destinations, mark your calendar for this time in 2011. Every 11 years or so, the lights are spotted much further south than the Arctic Circle. So wherever in the world you happen to be in October through March of 2011, remember to look up, and you just might get lucky.
Spitsbergen, Norway: This town on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago is the world’s northernmost place reached by regularly scheduled flights. Plus, the mountainous area is a hotspot for snowmobiling, dog sledding, and polar-bear viewing. For affordable, unique digs, check out the Basecamp Trapper’s Hotel, a former trapper’s lodge featuring unique décor and proximity to local shops and pubs (www.basecampexplorer.com; prices include breakfast and are at their lowest during the winter).
Fairbanks, Alaska: It’s 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle, but Fairbanks boasts solid enough viewing to draw scientists and tourists every year. Options abound for affordable digs in the city, but you’ll want to drive a few miles away for the clearest viewings. A good choice outside the city: Northern Sky Lodge, a B&B log cabin about 25 minutes from Fairbanks, that also offers dog sledding.
Reykjavik, Iceland: The northernmost capital of Europe is a good starting off point for viewing in Iceland, and several current packages offered at www.icelandtotal.com (photos take a few seconds to load, FYI) offer enticing deals for this expensive destination. Some are as low as about $700 for a four-night package, including some meals, transfers, and a snowmobiling tour. And because Reykjavik is just a few hours’ flight from several eastern U.S. cities (it’s closer to travel there from New York than to Los Angeles), an exotic weekend getaway doesn’t require months of planning. Balance out your evenings of sky gazing with days of exploration in a veritable winter wonderland of adventure, thanks to 15 active volcanoes, 10,000 waterfalls, and 800 hot springs.
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