Even if the cold doesn't bother you, the trouble with winter is that nightfall arrives sooner than most of us would like it to. There is however, one good reason to venture out into the frigid winter air during the darkest months of the year: the Northern Lights. Also known as aurora borealis or the "northern dawn," this electrical phenomena is approaching a peak period that will last until about 2016. In other words, if you haven't seen this shimmering display before, the odds of catching a glimpse in the next few years are higher than usual. Clear skies on or around the spring equinox (March 20 in 2013) will up your chances even further. And for travelers planning a trip to see the aurora, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks helpfully posts a forecast online.
What this means then, is that the question isn't when to go, it's where. Scandinavia is always a good bet, but not necessarily the cheapest option. Then again, if you're determined to go on a winter holiday with a serious light show, maybe you're willing to spend a little more to journey beyond North America. Aurora Zone is one company that specializes in tours to Finland, Norway, and Sweden, combining aurora-hunting excursions with reindeer safaris, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and, if you want it, a soak in a hot tub. Plus, for those who find a winter lodge or a snug cabin a bit too pedestrian, there's the option of booking a trip with an overnight or two at the original ice hotel in Swedish Lapland.
Another possibility is a Northern Lights package from Icelandair. After a roughly five-hour flight from Boston or New York, travelers can explore Reykjavik, hike across a glacier, or float in an outdoor geothermal pool before bundling up to spend some time gazing at the night sky. The fine print of each package is careful to specify that sightings are not guaranteed, but you can increase the chances of seeing what you came for by booking an additional northern lights tour on one of the free evenings in your itinerary.
Back in North America, you'll have to head to Alaska or Canada for the best views of Mother Earth's light show. In the Yukon Territory, the city of Whitehorse is home to a number of tour companies and hotels that offer sightings. Northern Tales Travel Services leads a variety of trips lasting up to five days, but visitors to this western territory can also simply book a guided single-night tour that includes hot drinks and snacks. And, should you happen to turn up in the Yukon during the summer months, you can always watch the panoramic video of aurora borealis that's been set to music at the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake, about five hours east of Whitehorse.
Just remember: wherever you ultimately decide to go to experience this natural wonder, there's no time like the present. Pack a warm down jacket, cross your fingers for a cold, clear night, and don't forget to bring a camera.
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