Normally when I embark on a cruise, I make sure I have packed my summer clothes and maybe some swimwear so that I can jump straight into the pool when I reach the sunny climes!
That isn’t what happened on my last cruise to Norway, though. I travelled in March from the UK, and when I embarked on the ship I was hoping that I had remembered to pack enough pairs of thermal trousers, socks, and enough seasickness pills.
Cruising From Newcastle In Search Of the Northern Lights
On this cruise, I was sailing from Newcastle in the North East of England and heading 1700 miles up into the Arctic Circle. At the very top of Norway, I was hoping to try and find Northern Lights!
The place that I was cruising to was actually so far north that they have a continuous night for two months of the year when the sun never rises above the horizon!
It’s safe to say that this wasn’t your regular cruise and that things didn’t always go smoothly.
Previously I had always thought that to see the Northern Lights you’d have to stand around for hours in the cold on a mountain or take a trip on a small postal boat.
I saw a mainstream cruise line that I recognised making the trip. I knew that this was my chance!
I knew that seeing the lights by ship was even better than on land because there is less light pollution.
Of course, there is always a chance that we wouldn’t see anything at all – and that even if they did come out, I might not be able to capture a good photograph of them.
Checking in for the cruise was straightforward. Fred Olsen is a traditional cruise line that sends you all of the paperwork by post. No online check-in for them!
The cruise ship that I’d booked this cruise on was Fred Olsen’s “Bolette.” Fred Olsen is a traditional, family-run cruise line and they have a reputation for having an older-than-average passenger demographic.
I didn’t want to stand out being in my 20s, but for me, this cruise really was about the itinerary, not the other guests.
I had heard great things about Fred Olsen, so I was keen to sail with them!
The cruise was 9 nights long so I really hoped that I would enjoy it.
This cruise had 4 sea days, which is more than I would normally choose. Also, I had driven 330 miles to board the ship from the North East of England.
I live close to the largest cruise port in the UK, Southampton, but had to travel North because this was the itinerary I really wanted to try.
Our first evening onboard was great, we went to dinner, met a few new friends and saw a show in the theatre where they explained a little more about the Northern Lights cruise we were on.
At the show, they introduced four guest speakers who were going to speak on a range of interesting subjects.
Speakers hosted interesting talks during our cruise, on subjects ranging from the Vikings, to how to best photograph the Northern Lights.
At this point, I had no idea what was about to hit me. It was very much “the calm before the storm. “
The North Sea does have a reputation for rough seas, and although I cruise regularly I was totally unprepared.
Rough Seas Ahead!
When the captain announced that the seas were looking ‘rough’ I took my usual seasickness medication, went to bed – and hoped that this would be the end of it!
I spent the next day in bed feeling like I was on a rollercoaster that I couldn’t get off of!
I’ve been cruising for 18 years and although I’ve been seasick on a handful of occasions before I’ve never felt anything like this.
It was as if my normal seasickness medicine didn’t work at all! I only woke up occasionally to eat plain bread rolls…
I couldn’t face drinking a glass of Pepsi or eating a cookie. If I turn down Pepsi you know I’m really quite sick!
I knew though that we were docking the next day and I was really looking forward to getting my feet back on dry land.
I hoped that the seas were just this bad because we were making the crossing across the North Sea, and I optimistically thought that as we would be sailing closer to the coast after this I would feel better.
All I could think about was how it would be worth it when I got to see the Northern Lights – but I knew that there was a very real possibility that we wouldn’t see anything at all.
Even if the lights did come out, and there was no guarantee that they would – it would be so easy to miss them as they come and go so fast.
I also knew I’d need to be up and awake to see the lights. This wasn’t something I’d done a lot of since we’d been at sea!
Our first port on this cruise was Alesund and this was my first experience of real snow.
Sure, we get snow in the UK but only if you count 4.6 days of ‘snow’ a year that rarely settles on the ground.
The snow in Alesund was up to my knees in some places and it was quite an experience trying to wander around.
For me though, having just got off the rocky ship being on solid ground felt fantastic! Sadly our ship sailed away at 1 pm that day, so we were all aboard at 12.30 pm
I didn’t expect the port stop to be so short – but I’m grateful we had a stop on the way up into the Arctic Circle.
The sail away was beautiful and at this point, I thought that it was cold. How wrong I was! it was about to get much much colder…!
Afternoon Tea Onboard
The next day I started to feel a little better, I still slept most of the day but I knew I had two things on my daily schedule that I didn’t want to miss.
I had booked afternoon tea, so I made an effort to be okay for that.
Despite the fact that the horizon was going up and down as I watched it, I ate more at afternoon tea than I had eaten in the last couple of days and started to feel a bit better which was a relief.
If this was my first cruise, I probably would have wanted to get off in the first port and never got on again!
I knew from experience that this wasn’t a normal cruise experience.
When I met other guests who told me that this was their first cruise, I tried to make sure they understood that all cruises weren’t like this! I didn’t want them to be put off cruising forever.
Sailing into the Arctic Circle – The Blue Nose Ceremony
The second thing on my schedule for the day was to watch the ceremony that they perform as we sailed into the Arctic Circle. People cruising into the circle for the first time were invited to take part in what is called the “Blue Nose Ceremony.” I took part in this on a Viking cruise way back in 2018 so I didn’t take part this time.
At this ceremony, guests had ice-cold water poured down their backs! I couldn’t believe how many people were up for doing this!
When I did the ceremony on my Viking cruise I had to climb into a pool of ice – which was absolutely freezing, but so much fun.
After the ice bath, we were given a shot of Aquavit (which many people say is worse than the ice) and then they put blue foam on our noses.
Aquavit is a Scandinavian spirit, similar to Vodka or Gin.
Sometimes this ceremony includes kissing a dead fish – so I’m glad I didn’t have to do that! Not that anybody is forced to do this ceremony by the way, it’s just for fun.
The ceremony takes place by the pool in an area that has a retractable roof. There’s a bar here and a poolside restaurant which was included in the cruise fare.
I ate here a lot during the cruise and loved the atmosphere, the staff were so kind and helpful that they’d even pass out blankets as it was cold!
It didn’t look particularly cold because the temperature of the pool was heated to 25c. It could get chilly in here though particularly once we were in the arctic circle.
The Ship – Fred Olsen’s Bolette
The next sea day gave me a chance to properly explore the ship. She was bought from another cruise line called Holland America in 2020 and even though the ship was launched in 2000 I don’t think you’d know by looking at her.
Some of the carpets are a little bit whacky, but nothing felt damaged or old. The ship felt very well looked after, and I could tell how much the crew loved the ship.
On this sea day, heading up to Tromso I really started to get excited about the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights.
My friend David Nikel, who was a guest speaker onboard and a bit of a Norwegian Lights expert kept reminding me that we might not ever see anything. I was determined to give it my best shot, if that meant standing around in the snow every night I would do it!
It sounds a little counterintuitive but it turns out that a phone can see the northern lights way before the human eye can.
We were told to scan the sky with our phones and that we might see something showing up as green if the northern lights were there.
We, of course, did this every time we could and each evening I’d clear out about 500 photos of black nothingness from my phone – still it was better than missing it.
To my absolute delight, we had two port days next and we were docked in port for full days. This was such a relief to me.
Seasickness really is miserable, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody!
This was great not just because the ship wouldn’t be moving, but also because it gave us lots of time to explore the ports.
These two days were also our best chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Our first port stop was Tromso and it’s very common to come to Tromso for land-based trips to try to see the lights.
Tromso is actually the biggest city in northern Norway and it so was bizarre for me to see life going on as normal amongst so much snow.
In the UK if an inch of snow falls the trains break, cars crash into things and everything really goes wrong! In Norway they absolutely have it covered, I suppose they have to…
In Tromso, they experience a polar night where the sun doesn’t rise between mid-November to mid-January.
In summer Tromso has “The Midnight Sun. ” The sun doesn’t set at all between May to July.
I imagine if you’re born and raised here you get used to it but there’s something about the sun never setting that I think I’d struggle with!
Searching For The Northern Lights
Our day in Tromso was the first day where stargazing and Northern Lights watching were on the schedule.
We had dinner as normal and then got changed into our thermal clothes ready to stand up on the top deck.
I had thermal leggings on under my thermal trousers, thermal socks under other thermal socks – and still it was absolutely freezing!
I had a neck warmer given to me for my birthday, and it was the best! It is a tube-shaped piece of knitwear with a fleece lining, You put it on over your head, and It stops the cold air coming into your coat and it made it so snuggly and warm. I did see lots of other people with heated gloves – and even heated jackets, which was genius!
In total, we stood out on the promenade deck for a little over 3 hours on this first night – which might sound boring but it really wasn’t!
Apart from taking 15000 photos of the black sky on my phone, we chatted with the other guests and occasionally came in for a Pepsi.
The crew did bring out hot drinks to those of us on the top decks and they of course did the best they could to grit and clear the decks.
That said though they were of course slippy and covered in snow. Quite a few of the other guests had walking sticks or walkers but they never let it hold them back from standing on the top decks and seeing the lights.
It’s a bucket list experience and nobody was willing to miss it. Maybe that was the Northern Lights magic!
When it got to midnight and we hadn’t seen anything we decided to call it a night. By this point I really couldn’t tell how many toes I had, my feet just felt like one big blob of ice.
My nose was so cold too – I couldn’t really tell if I had a nose anymore!
I was disappointed at not seeing the Northern Lights, but I knew that tomorrow we would be sailing at night so the chances would be better.
It’s absolutely possible to see the Northern Lights from a city but without the light pollution, it’s much more likely.
The Northern Lights actually come from the sun originally, it’s bizarre but the sun has lots of explosions of matter and fire particles into space millions of miles away.
The particles make their way towards the earth for a couple of days before we are able to see them, which means that hopefully while I was laying in bed being seasick, the sun was charging up the sky ready for me to see the Northern Lights the next day.
Fred Olsen did say that they would make announcements if the Northern Lights were spotted – as long as it was before 11 pm.
That meant that if we went to bed after this time and they came out we wouldn’t know, but we couldn’t just stand outside forever!
The temperature in Tromso was -10c, which apparently is quite warm for Tromso’s position. It didn’t feel warm!
I also knew that I had the best excursion in the world booked for the next day, so I was quite happy to head to bed.
Alta – Meeting Fifty Friendly Huskies!
The next day we arrived in Alta, the most northerly port on our trip. I don’t usually book many cruise line excursions when I cruise but I thought if I’m going all the way to the arctic circle, I’m going to treat myself to one.
I booked a trip to go and see the racing Huskies at what they called a Husky farm. The word “farm” feels a bit odd – but I suppose it’s right, I can’t think of a better word, it was like a petting zoo for racing Huskies.
Alta is the start and end of Europe’s longest dog sled race, and the dogs actually race 1100 km over around a week.
They have lots of vet checks every day to make sure that the dogs are okay and want to keep going.
A friend of mine saw one of the races ending and said he was moved by the way that as soon as the race was over the contestant went straight to their dogs – rather than worrying about their own win!
When we met the Huskies they were jumping up and down trying to get their place to pull the sled. I wouldn’t have believed before that a dog would want to run that far.
Huskies have so much energy, and all the ones we met were so friendly.
They’d give us cuddles and even dances! They did smell though- a lot! I was thinking “is this what dogs smell like if you don’t wash them?”I’m glad I have a cat who washes himself!
I loved hanging out with the dogs, and this was a real highlight for me – one that I hoped would be topped by the Northern Lights.
I really hoped that the dog smell would disappear before I got home though, or my cat Hudson wouldn’t like it.
We Found the Northern Lights!
It was actually while I was at dinner that I heard the first rumours that the Northern Lights were outside.
We’d just finished our main course when other guests came back to their tables talking about having seen the lights. We decided to skip dessert to run outside to have a look.
I was just wearing a dress so it only took a few seconds for me to realise that it was too cold to be outside for very long.
We walked very fast, not quite running, but almost, back to our cabin and quickly put on our layers of thermals. This was one of the benefits of the ship not being very big, we were always close to our cabin. It’s actually quite tricky in a rush but we did manage it.
My socks were all twisted and my clothes weren’t on quite right but it didn’t matter – I was not about to miss the lights!
We headed out to the back of the ship to the lovely pool area that I imagine is really nice in the warm weather. When I pointed my phone at the sky, I saw something! Or I thought I did, maybe…
I hoped it would get better than this, but as it wasn’t even properly dark yet, I was feeling optimistic. This was only around 7 pm.
I wasn’t going to let the sky out of my sight though, I had a good feeling. Around 9 pm we went back inside briefly to warm up and we had a drink in the piano bar.
It was here that there was an announcement made about the Northern Lights, telling us where they could be seen best.
At this point almost everybody in the bar stood up, put their coats on and ran outside. Most people left their drinks behind, and it was so strange to see a bar clear out so quickly!
I can’t think of any other cruise situation where you would see everybody all at once leave a bar, leaving their drinks behind, it was quite funny!
We headed up to the top deck, and this is when things really started to get exciting.
We found a dark corner a little bit further back than the main pool which was ever so slightly protected from the wind. It was still freezing, but it was protected enough that we could take a couple of photos before our hands became impossibly cold.
The atmosphere was amazing!
In the distance, we started to see some faint lights and movements and really they looked like clouds. Taking a photo of the clouds through my phone they looked greenish, so I knew that I should keep looking and hopefully they would get stronger.
They did, I could see that they were green and moving, with my eyes alone!
It was like strange-shaped clouds were being lit up by a green light somewhere – I did wonder if the ship had just decided to shine some green lights into the sky for us, but it definitely wasn’t that!
The Northern Lights are actually 100km up in the sky, so although it felt like they were right there, they were really quite far up. They can actually be seen from space.
Standing on the top deck looking up at the sky with the other passengers was amazing!
It felt as though we had come such a long way to get to this point. If we had just seen what we saw up on the top deck I would have been happy – but it got so much better when we least expected it.
The thing that surprised me most was just how fast the lights moved and changed. I thought they’d be like clouds that float in and hang around for a while but often the lights would only last a few seconds before changing shape or disappearing.
If you were looking the wrong way or went inside to use the toilet at the wrong time, you absolutely could miss them!
They didn’t look as green in real life, but they definitely were green.
Fred Olsen turned off Bolette’s top deck lights, which really helped us to see better.
We decided to head back to our balcony cabin because we were freezing and were pretty content with what we had seen.
This was when the real show began. Without warning, this bright strip of green shot across the sky! It was in a wavy pattern, just like the pictures you see on tv! It was so bright!
It was tricky to take photos. You have to use a long exposure on your phone – and what you want to do when you take a long exposure photo is to stand still -but you can’t stand still on a ship that’s moving!
When I was stood there, I thought about an article I read recently about seeking out the feeling of awe – and how this can make us healthier and live longer.
It described the feeling of awe as like ‘little earthquakes in the mind’ and that’s absolutely what it felt like!
This felt like an earthquake in my mind.
I took another cruise that caused a little earthquake in my mind, but in a totally different way! When I was sat onboard Ambassadors Ambience eating my dinner my cruise was cancelled, yep completely cancelled, and we were asked to leave the ship!
I think earthquakes in the mind are all about experiencing things you didn’t know were possible. I certainly didn’t know a cruise could be cancelled while I was onboard. To find out what happened, and if I’d cruise with the cruise line again, check out this video next:
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