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A quest for the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are perhaps nature's most enchanting spectacle. Chris Carter looks at the best places around the world to grab a front-row seat.

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The beautiful, remote wilderness of northern Sweden is a perfect spot to see the lights

Winter doesn't have to mean gloom, says Penelope Rowlands in The Wall Street Journal. When the "neon-bright" colours of the Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, streak across the northern skies, the season becomes distinctly lively. It is hard to predict when or where the lights, caused by charged particles from the sun crashing into atoms in the Earth's atmosphere, will appear. But that only "adds to the quixotic nature of the quest" to see them between August and March each year.

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The lights are best seen in the latitudes spanning Scandinavia, Canada, Greenland and northern Russia. In the US, Alaska offers the best odds, but the northern states, from Minnesota to Maine, often catch a glimpse too. Canada's Northwest Territories, where the weather is crisp and clear, are an ideal place to catch the spectacle.

Nature let loose

Still, if you really want to see nature let loose, then head to Iceland, says Sarah Marshall in The Sunday Times. "Glaciers spill down from ice caps, lava fields belch sulphuric spirals of steam, volcanoes growl deep beneath the earth's crust," and all the while "the Northern Lights dance over the mayhem". Thanks to the Gulf Stream, an ocean current that brings warmer weather to northern climes, things are more settled in the north of the country. So fly to Akureyri, Iceland's second city, and drive to the lakeside eco-retreat Fosshotel Myvatn, which opened in July (doubles from £104, B&B).

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From there you can visit the nearby lava fields at Dimmuborgir which legend has it are home to bloodthirsty ogres and trolls that boil children in their pots to take in the lights in dramatic surroundings. In northern Norway, you can choose to see the Lights "from a bucking snowmobile, on a galloping husky sled, round a Smi reindeer-herder's camp fire or from the portals of a hotel built entirely of ice", says Paul Bray in The Daily Telegraph.

A spectacular voyage

If roughing it in sub-zero temperatures isn't your thing, one of the best ways to see the lights is from the deck of a ship. Hurtigruten's Classic Round Voyagesails every day of the year. The ships are small, and the illumination is kept dim to maximise the effect of the Northern Lights, which you can expect to make multiple appearances during the 12-day voyage around Norway's "fjord-notched and mountain-walled coastline".

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(In fact, the cruise operator is so confident you won't be disappointed during the winter months that it will give you another week's voyage for free if the lights fail to make an appearance.) The lights are far from the only attraction of the trip: "the winter scenery is ethereally magnificent, with woods and mountains swathed in snow. Whales swim inshore to gorge on spawning herring, while reindeer and arctic foxes roam the snowy tundra, and juicy king crabs lurk beneath the ice".

Dinner and a show

For dinner in a more formal setting, nip across the border into Swedish Lapland. The Aurora Hideaway is a tiny private restaurant that is new to these parts, and looks like a garden shed on skis, say Jess Cole and Oliver Smith in Lonely Planet magazine. This allows it to be towed to "beautiful, remote locations in the wilderness of northern Sweden". Diners are taken to their table by a chauffeur-driven snowmobile through the forests and frozen lakes near Lule.

The menu features dishes prepared with locally sourced ingredients, such as foraged mushroom soup topped with smoked salmon, barbecued reindeer steak and wild herbs, and blueberry and meringue pie, served with warm vanilla sauce. "All being well, the food arrives with a side order of aurora borealis lighting up the skies above your table." Visit OffTheMap.travel for details.

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