Christmas and December holidays are usually the time K and I spend with family and friends in India. However, this year, like most people, we have been unable to travel abroad. So just to add a little bit of holiday cheer and to make the most of our wintertime, we decided to take a short trip up north and chase the northern lights!
When talking about the northern lights or the Aurora Borealis, what most people don’t know is that Sweden is an equally great place to see them as are Finland and Norway! Of course, to see them you have to travel far up north to lapland. But don’t let the distance fool you. This region is very well connected with frequent flights to Kiruna from Stockholm and an overnight train, should you wish to travel slowly. Of course, there is always the option to drive if you don’t mind the 15 or so hours that takes!
We only had four days to spare so we opted for the quick and easy – only 1.5 hours by plane, Kiruna is the biggest town in the area with a well established tourist base. It offers a lot of accommodation and dining options, which tend to get scarce the further north you go.
We had decided to skip Kiruna and head to Abisko, a small town about 1.5hours from Kiruna. The main reason for this was because my research told me that Abisko in Sweden, was THE best place to see the northern lights! Abisko is surrounded by mountains which is said to create a sort of a micro-climate which somehow keeps the skies almost clear, and since the light pollution is next to nothing, it makes it easier to see the lights here than any other place.
We had booked a rental car for the duration of our stay and left for Abisko immediately after landing at the Kiruna airport. Given that we were visiting the north in December, and polar nights no less, it was completely dark at 2pm when we started our drive. Although there was a lot of snow around, driving was fairly easy. There is only one major highway that connects all the towns and villages in the area, and it is fairly non-congested.
Given that it was pitch dark outside, we didn’t see much on our drive and arrived at Abisko without any incident. Compared to Kiruna, Abisko has a much smaller selection of accommodation so make sure to book way in advance if you want to visit. We were lucky as due to Corona, there weren’t many international tourists at this time. But this also meant that a lot of the usual activities were also unavailable at this time.
I had really wanted us to stay at the STF Turistation, a big hostel which also offers twin rooms. Located rather remotely in the Abisko National park, this hostel is miles away from anything and anywhere. The town of Abisko is also a few kilometers away. But the remote location of the hostel is what drew me to it. Surrounded by the national park and the mountains, STF Turistation is the perfect starting point for a lot of activities and beautiful hikes. However, as luck would have it, they were not fully operational at the time of our visit and so we decided to stay in town instead.
On our first night after checking in, we took a small walk around town and realised that there was only one restaurant to eat at, if we didn’t want to cook our own meal! We promptly made a reservation at the restaurant in Abisko Mountain Lodge and ate there two nights in a row. For breakfast and lunch, we just bought a few essentials from the only grocery store, conveniently located at the edge of town.
Now for the northern lights. As per the recommendations of all guidebooks and websites, we were armed with several aurora tracking apps and were fervently trying to read the KP index all evening. Seeing our plight, the bar tender at the hotel helpfully told us about the live web cams located at the Abisko sky station which could be accessed by everyone. As soon as streaks appeared on those, we were told we could just go out and see the aurora from anywhere in Abisko!
For this tip, I will forever be grateful to this guy. After dinner, we went back to our room and after about an hour or so, around 7pm, I noticed the live cam broadcasting a greenish glow. K and I quickly bundled ourselves in all the warm clothes we owned – remember it’s the arctic – so temperature was around -15 along with wind chill and the fact that we would be outside for a few hours.
We walked down to the lake, only 10 mins from the town, and set up our camera. While the aurora is visible with the naked eye, the camera captures the best images and you will need a tripod! About half an hour later, we began to see light bands starting to appear in the sky. These bands steadily grew stronger and soon there were waves that seem to dance in the sky! We were actually witnessing one of the best northern lights appearance in weeks.
While K was busy shooting, I stood there mesmerised. It was truly amazing and surreal at the same time. And this was just our first night! We went back to the hotel as delighted as ever. We had seen what we had come for so everything else was now going to be a bonus!
Although polar nights in the arctic means that the sun never rises beyond the horizon, it doesn’t mean that it’s always dark. Everyday, for a few hours (read 3-4), there is beautiful daylight. Trying to maximise the light, much to K’s chagrin, we left for the STF Turistation soon after btreakfast. The plan was to walk around the national park for a few hours and I am glad we did because the frozen beauty of the place was just something else. We walked along the canyon which led us to a beautiful frozen waterfall on one end and on the other end, we were able to see the beautiful lake, Torneträsk, frozen in parts.
Mesmerised as we were, it was time to move along as I had also booked a snow shoe hike back in the village for us! Given the lack of tourists, we were the only ones on this hike and had a lovely time climbing a small hill just behind the town. To keep us company, we also had the guide’s very friendly husky, Sparv with us. By the time we summited our small peak at around 3pm it was already dark but we got to see some lovely views of the area.
Invigorated and a tad tired, we headed back to our hotel to rest as we were planning to chase the lights again that night! Unlike the previous night, the second night was slightly overcast and we had to wait until almost 11pm for the sky to clear. With an eye on the love cam, K and I were all geared up to leave the second lights started to appear. We weren’t disappointed and were able to see really great lights for the second time.
I must say, while I was a skeptic at the start of our trip, I was a full convert by the end of it. Abisko IS the best place in my opinion to see the northern lights!