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Plan your trip to see the Northern Lights at their isolated best

Catching a glimpse of aurora borealis is one of the great travel experiences Northern Europe has to offer. But contrary to popular belief, the middle of winter isn’t the best time of year to see them. In fact, booking a northern lights holiday for autumn instead is the best way to boost your chances of seeing nature’s greatest lightshow, as well as seeing it in true technicolor.

Joe Minihane

“September is when you usually get crazy northern lights,” says Markku Inkila who, as well as taking spectacular photographs of the aurora as a professional photographer, runs the Wilderness Hotel in Nellim

Set close to the banks of Lake Inari in Finnish Lapland, and just 30 minutes’ drive from Ivalo airport, Nellim’s remote location high above the Arctic Circle is the ideal place to see the northern lights. There’s no light pollution that far north and what’s more, the reflections off of the lake, which doesn’t freeze until later in the year, make them appear even more incredible.

So, what are the northern lights? In simple terms, they’re disturbances in the magnetosphere which surrounds the Earth, caused by solar winds. These winds create the spectacular auroras of green, blue and red light which draw people to see the northern lights in Finland, as well as across the entire Lapland region, which extends across Norway and Sweden.

Inkila explains that September is a particularly good time to see the northern lights because there’s a higher chance of more clear, cloudless nights than in the depths of winter. Of course, forecasting the northern lights is tricky, but book a five night trip in autumn and the chances are higher that you’ll see the sky come alive once the sun goes down.

This is great news, in particular, for amateur photographers looking to get their own shots of the aurora in action.

“There are four rules you must follow to get good pictures of the northern lights,” says Inkila. “One: wear warm clothes. Two: know your camera. Three: no light pollution. Four: carry some good luck with you.”

It’s hard to guarantee the last of those rules, but taking time to get to grips with your camera’s night time or low-light settings, and investing in a tripod to ensure it stays still while using slow shutter speeds is vital. Pack a warm coat and some thermals, bring a flask of coffee and let Nellim’s location take care of the light pollution.

There are other bonuses to booking in autumn too. Firstly, you won’t need as many layers as those hunting for the northern lights in winter. Secondly, there are fewer visitors, giving you the chance to spend hours looking out over Lake Inari from the jetty in Nellim without encountering other people. Seeing the northern lights in isolation is an incredible experience and one that tourists visiting busier spots during the colder months are unlikely to enjoy.

And then there’s the scenery. Nellim Wilderness Lodge is set within some of the most pristine forest in Lapland. The colors of the trees in September and October can easily rival the spectacular scenery of New England or Japan, with leaves of orange, red and yellow. 

The mossy forest floors and winding footpaths around Nellim are ripe for exploration, making good use of daylight hours spent in and around the lodge’s sauna waiting for the aurora to appear.

Throw in the cultural history of the region, with the indigenous Sami people calling the area home and an excellent museum exploring their heritage in the village of Inari, and booking a northern lights holiday to Nellim is a no brainer.

Lapland might not be as well known for its aurora trips as Iceland, but that’s all the more reason to head to this far away corner of northern Finland. At a time when getting away from crowds and enjoying some social isolation has never been more important, a few days spent chasing a glimpse of the northern lights when most tourists are looking elsewhere is one of the smartest vacations you can take.


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