Lake Inari lies north of the Arctic Circle in Finland and is among one of the best places in northern Europe to experience the natural wonder Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. People travel across the world to be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the dancing lights but unless you give yourself a long period of time in the north, then you can never guarantee a sighting. There are a few factors that you need to keep in mind: go north around the new moon because the full moon drones out the intensity of the lights, go to a dark and remote place, wait for a clear night, and lastly, remember that the lights are most vibrant during an eleven year cycle, with the most recent peak during 2014.
The best place in Europe is supposedly Abisko National Park in the Swedish part of the Arctic Circle because they estimate sightings once every four days but after having been to both locations, I can objectively say that I saw more sightings in Lake Inari – it may very well have been luck though. Additionally, I would recommend and argue for a trip to Inari more so than Abisko because there were more places to eat, a fully stocked supermarket that wasn’t outrageously priced (or at least not a ridiculous stretch from Helsinki prices), it had a few museums to entertain your hours of daylight), and it had public transportation (although….it wasn’t exactly cheap). One can fly pretty cheaply to this part of Finland as long as you book in advance on Norwegian. A bus leaving from the airport can take you to pretty much any hotel nearby for about 22 euros if you go as far as Inari. You can pre-book here or just pay the driver. The price seemed pretty standard and set in stone. When I visited Abisko, I stayed in a small ski resort town called Bjorkliden. (My blog detailing my stay can be seen here ).
Inari and Ivalo had many holiday cabins which weren’t the cheapest but they were somewhat affordable as long as you split it with a few friends. Our choice was Inari Holiday Village which was about 500 meters from the center of town and about 1 km or so from the Sami museum. The cabins had a small kitchenette, a sauna, and you could walk along the frozen lake to town if you so desired. We spent our days going on walks on the lake but because you can’t see how deep the snow is from just a glance, prepare to sink knee high in random places. The lake also has snowmobile road signs during the winter months if you’re looking for a longer journey. The town had two Sami culture centers and the main one was very well-made. The video that they show a few times a day in the theater is underwhelming, it’s merely a twenty-minute video of the Northern Lights moving and has absolutely nothing educational – it’s just a pretty moving picture which you could, in theory, watch while at home on Youtube. The Sami Museum has a buffet which we indulged on twice. It was 13 euros and reminded me of IKEA and featured a pretty strange Reindeer Bolognese. For the rest of our meals, we cooked basic food that we purchased in the Inari supermarket which is in the center of town.
The hotel wasn’t great for photos of the Northern Lights because of the light pollution. Unless you walk really far across the lake, you can still see the light pollution from town in your photos. So, after the first two nights, we saw the lights but not as vividly as we could have if we had gone out of town. Thus, we decided to book a tour. I’m generally against tours but without any experience driving on ice nor any clue about aurora hunting, we needed a way to get out of town to a darker place and a better location. During the early hours of the third evening, it seemed hopeless. The whole sky was covered in clouds and all apps and websites predicted a 10% or less of a chance of sighting the lights. However, our guide who was based in Ivalo, was absolutely certain that we’d see the lights so we trusted him. He provided us with warm overalls, thick boots, and transportation. Actually, it was quite incredible because we went less than three kilometers out of town and the sky was completely clear and, in addition, the lights were almost immediately visible. What I learned was don’t trust the cloudy skies and trust the locals who are used to staring at the green skies. The tour could have been better in that some of the stops were just along the main road so the foreground wasn’t as beautiful as it could have been and thus my photos are mostly just of the sky and not as much of a complete landscape. I feel like taking photos of the Northern Lights is one thing but having a foreground makes the photo much more incredible. I’d argue the same for any photograph of the stars.
To get out of town there’s pretty much only one way and that’s by bus or by plane. The buses are expensive (the same bus company above) if you buy them last minute so I highly recommend buying tickets in advance so you can save a bit of money. After Inari, we headed down to Rovaniemi to visit Santa and it was 60 euros a person for a four-hour bus journey. The bus did have excellent wi-fi and outlets though– good enough for streaming Netflix and charging my phone. Anyways, Inari was a fantastic, peaceful place with striking surroundings and offers a vibrant display of Northern Lights….if you’re lucky. J