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Chasing the elusive Northern Lights by boat

By Susannah Palk for CNN
  • The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are found in regions closest to the North Pole
  • Sightings are notoriously difficult to predict
  • Viewings on the water are one of the best ways to experience the lights
  • North Pole
  • Sailing
  • Svalbard
  • Norway
  • Greenland
  • Cruises

(CNN) -- Unpredictable, erratic but utterly astounding, the Aurora Borealis is nature's most magnificent light show.

More commonly known as the Northern Lights, when the spectacle is in full flow iridescent colors dance across the Arctic night, setting the sky ablaze with a range of cosmic greens, reds and yellows.

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The natural phenomenon can be seen in the northernmost regions of the world, including Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Alaska, and is the result of electrically charged particles colliding in the Earth's atmosphere.

Sightings are notoriously difficult to predict and cannot be guaranteed, but if you want to chase the elusive lights, right now is the best time to head up north. And to make a sublime experience even more spectacular, you should see the lights by boat.

Set against a black backdrop, away from the pollution and artificial lights of land, viewing the Aurora Borealis from the water is a unique way to experience it -- so we've put together a list of boating options that let you do just that.

The ice hotel

Left to freeze in an icy fjord in the northernmost part of Norway, each winter the 100-year-old fishing schooner "Noorderlicht" (Northern Light) transforms into one of the most isolated hotels in the world.

Accessible only by dog sledge or snowmobile, the 10-cabin boat sits in the magnificent Tempelfjorden, offering stunning views of the remote Svalbard region, an Arctic archipelago situated mid-way between Norway and the North Pole.

60 kilometers from the nearest town -- the small coal mining outpost of Longyearbyen -- "Noorderlicht" offers astounding views of the Northern Lights.

Due to its unique location, catching sight of the often elusive Aurora Borealis is almost guaranteed, but you must pick your dates carefully.

From mid-January (when the boat opens to visitors) though to mid-March the dark winter days and long nights are perfect for light watching. After this time the days become longer and the sky turns a perpetual pink, with the midnight sun appearing in mid-April.

The spa boat

If you don't fancy wrapping up in winter woolens to watch the lights, how about watching them from a hot tub?

It's possible aboard the luxury spa boat "Vulkana." A converted 1950s whaling trawler, the "Vulkana" comes complete with hamam, wood-fire sauna, Zen lounge and restaurant.

Based in the Norwegian town of Tromso, the gateway to the Arctic and unofficial capital of the Northern Lights, the boat lets you view the lights from lavish surroundings.

For short trips, a "Northern Light Safari" of two to five hours comes complete with a five-course meal. But for those wanting an extended stay, trips of two to three days take in the mighty Lyngen Alps and the beautiful island Senja and can be combined with themed packages including yoga retreats or off-piste skiing.

Tours are arranged according to the weather, for optimal viewing of the lights and calmer waters for those who have difficulty finding their sea legs.

The wildlife explorer

If you want to combine your search for the Northern Lights with a look at some of the Arctic's wildlife, then a trip aboard the "Plancius" may be for you.

Formerly an oceanographic research vessel, the "Plancius" now travels the fjords along the remote east coast of Greenland.

Home to more than eight species of whales and two million seals -- as well as walruses, reindeer and arctic wolves -- Greenland also boasts some of the Arctic's finest scenery.

Sailing up the Scoresby Sund -- the longest fjord in the world -- offers a good chance of spotting a polar bear, while a tour of the Nansen Fjord gives way to breathtaking views of icebergs, glaciers and snow-capped mountains.

Organized by the Travelling Naturalist, voyages are primarily educational and geared towards wildlife sightings. Be sure to ask for optimal dates and times to view the Aurora Borealis, so as not to be disappointed.

The classic cruise

For over a hundred years Norway's Hurtigruten ferry fleet has carried passengers, mail and supplies to some of the most remote port towns in the country.

Today the fleet is more geared towards cruise trips and tourism, traveling up and down Norway's coastline, calling in at some 34 ports -- something larger cruise liners cannot do.

Offering specialized Northern Lights itineraries, including their "Hunt the Lights" tour, the ships sail through Norway's sheltered coastal waters, with sights including the North Cape -- the northernmost point of Europe -- and a trip to the Snow Hotel, made entirely out of ice.