The perfect trip: Norway
Seeing the northern lights for the first time is a thing of wonder. One moment, the ethereal white or green curtains of light with a streak of violet take on forms that evoke the ancient mythology of the north - a palace of lights, a Sami fire in the wilderness, the prow of a Viking ship. Then they dissolve into nothing, only to form as if by stealth on a different horizon, dancing across the sky in the shape of a sea horse or crescent moon.
The scientific explanation - streams of charged particles from sun storms interacting with electrons in nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the earth's upper atmosphere - does little to demystify the experience. Elusive even when staring straight at it, the aurora follows no discernible schedule. The most important element is a cloud-free sky. And, statistically, 10pm to 11pm is the optimum viewing time.
While making this feature, I saw the lights through the plane window en route to Tromsø, and later from the deck of a Hurtigruten. But they didn't reappear. To see the northern lights requires patience and good fortune. 'Aurora is a diva,' says Knut Hansvold, a Tromsø native. 'But when she shows up, she is the most unforgettable of beautiful ladies.'
The northern lights are visible in northern Norway from October to March.
Anthony Ham has contributed to more than 20 Lonely Planet guides, including Lonely Planet Norway, Madrid, Morocco and Tunisia.