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Luxury travel

The ultimate guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Finland … and skiing during the day

  • Lapland in the Arctic Circle is a prime place to see the Northern Lights
  • During the day, you can ski on some great slopes and visit northern Finland’s ski resorts
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 11:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 5:58pm

Have you ever laughed at the sky? It was probably my bright red Arctic onesie that had put me in a good mood. Standing in a pine forest in Lapland in northern Finland with five others, all stood facing north, and each dressed in an all-in-one padded suit, I felt ridiculous.

Then it happened: the green glow we could see above the forest darted forwards and we were suddenly under attack. Green swirls danced and darted across the sky right in front of us, with rippling drapes dangling over our heads. I could not stop laughing. I had come all of this way into the Finnish wilderness, and got lucky.

Ski at hotel from The Shining on an Oregon-Idaho snow trip

It was the laughter of relief. The forests around Jerisjarvi Lake in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park in northern Finland are remote, but I had taken advice and made sure I was in the area (which is well into the Arctic Circle at 68 degrees north) for almost a week. Too many people visit places like this one in far north Finnish Lapland just for one night, and see nothing.

Up here, clouds are common and it is cold (it gets as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius), and it’s a waiting game – but what an incredible landscape it is to wait in.

How to get there

The key to seeing the Northern Lights is to get to the Arctic Circle – anywhere between 64 degrees and 70 degrees north – and get lucky. That applies to the geomagnetic activity that causes the Northern Lights, but mostly it's about clear skies.

First, fly into Helsinki (Finnair flies direct from Hong Kong). From there, Finnair and Norwegian Airlines fly to Ivalo (for Lake Inari, Ivalo and Saariselkä), Kittilä (for Levi and Pallas-Yllästunturi) and Kuusamo (for Ruka) and Rovaniemi. It is so easy that it is tempting to stay in Helsinki and take a flight north for a night or two as a side trip. Do not do that. Anything less than a week up north massively reduces your chances of being in position when there is a clear night.

You don’t have to go to Alaska or Scandinavia to see Northern Lights

When to go

Anytime between September and March is perfect if you want to maximise your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, because the nights are long, giving you plenty of opportunities to see a display.

Displays tend to be strongest around the equinoxes. The next, the spring (or vernal) equinox occurs on 20 March, 2019. It is also worth avoiding the full moon – particularly the week leading up to it and a few days afterwards, when it is so bright that it can interrupt weak displays of the aurora. However, if there is an intense display, the moon makes little difference. In fact, taking long exposure images of the Northern Lights when bright moonlight is shining on white snow can produce ethereal photographs.

Best places to see the aurora

Although a wilderness location is great for photographers and for seeing faint displays, once you're in the Arctic Circle you are as likely to see the Northern Lights from outside your hotel as anywhere else. However, there are ways to get deeper into the wilderness, with aurora-hunting treks organised from Ivalo, Levi, Rovaniemi and Ruka.

Best hotels and experiences

Since clouds and clear skies often do not cooperate, it is best to have wider ambitions while in Finland. The areas around Ivalo, Saariselkä, and Rovaniemi and Kittilä are winter wonderlands, where you can go snowmobiling, dog-sledding with huskies and snowshoeing in the Arctic wilderness. If you want to sample local Sámi culture, head to Lake Inari and its Sámi Museum.

Where to find and how to photograph the Northern Lights

There are also some intriguing hotels in Finnish Lapland ripe for seeing the aurora borealis, including the glass domed snow igloos of Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort (kakslauttanen.fi, from US$406 per room per night) south of Saariselkä and the cold rooms at the Arctic Snow Hotel (arcticsnowhotel.fi, from US$148 per adult in a double room) near Rovaniemi, each with a glass roof.

How to go skiing in Finland

Finland has 75 ski resorts, many of them within the Arctic Circle. Do not expect miles of challenging pistes, but there are some small boutique ski resorts and adjacent towns up north that are an excellent way of keeping you busy during the day.

Pyhä Fell is just a short drive away from Rovaniemi airport, and close to the wilderness area of Pyhä-Luosto National Park. Ruka has a small ski resort with extensive winter cross-country tracks (and dog sledding), while Saariselkä's small downhill ski resort is within walking distance of the town (and surrounded by 200km of well-maintained cross-country skiing tracks).

On Norway’s Senja Island, dedicated skiers are rewarded with perfect slopes

Perhaps the best option, if you've got family in tow, is Levi, the biggest ski resort in Finland, close to Kittilä.

Wherever you go in Finnish Lapland, keep an eye out for reindeer during the day, and at night, if it is clear, never stop looking for that riot of colour blazing away in the night sky.