TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
Holiday snapshot: Wilderness adventures and natural phenomena rolled into one.
Holiday highlight: A boat ride or snowmobile safari across Lake Inari.
Time to go: Now until March 2013, when Northern Lights activity is high.
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Valid until: Friday, May 31 2013
Don't go there: Venture into forest across the Russian border and you will be heavily fined.
Factfile: Sarah Marshall was a guest of The Aurora Zone (01670 785012, www.theaurorazone.com) on its Autumn Lights Over Lake Inari small-group tour. The company's Winter Lights Over Lake Inari tour, with regular departures and good availability, runs until March. It costs from £1,425 per person, including warm clothing and boots.
Sarah Marshall heads for the Northern Lights of Finland
T here are numerous scientific explanations for the enigmatic aurora borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, but Lapland's Sami people have their own understanding.
"My grandma would tell stories about a fox racing across the hills to reach home," says Markku, a Finnish photographer who chases the lights on nightly safaris.
"He moved so quickly, it looked like his tail was on fire, blazing across the sky."
According to Nasa, the Northern Lights are currently at their most powerful in 50 years, with activity peaking until March next year.
Markku, whose family runs the cosy Wilderness Hotel in northern Finnish village Nellim, which sits above the Arctic Circle, claims his home town is one of the best places to observe the Earth's greatest light display.
Intrigued, I book a four-day stay at the hotel through The Aurora Zone, which specialises in small-group Northern Lights holidays to Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland.
A round, friendly Finn, with a torchlight strapped to his forehead and laden down with camera equipment, Markku briefs us before our first expedition and whets our appetite with stories of his favourite sightings.
Seduced by swirling images and colourful stories, we head out, driving along icy roads into the forest. Rows of tall, thin pine trees stretch into infinity, standing to attention like obedient sentinels guarding the nearby Russian border.
We stop and set up our camera tripods on a bridge crossing Lake Inari, which is only just beginning to freeze. If the lights do turn up, we'll be treated to a dazzling display of reflections.
But there is still one vital element missing – a star. To see the lights, we need a clear sky.
We sit and wait, as the temperature drops below zero. But after two hours, all we have for our trouble is a faint glimmer picked up by our camera sensors. Disappointed, we head to a campfire to warm up.
Ever the optimist, Markku tries to reassure us. "Don't worry, I have a 100 per cent success rate with guests. I'm not about to break that now," he promises.
In reality, there is no guarantee for seeing the aurora. A number of websites chart solar activity and offer predictions, and there is even a phone app that allegedly sends alerts when the lights are playing ball. None are particularly reliable.
Trips are not cheap and it is a long way to travel, but one way to get the most out of a holiday is to combine nightly aurora safaris with daytime activities.
Options at the Wilderness Hotel include forest walks and boat rides to one of the 3,000 islands in Lake Inari, or snowmobiling and ice fishing in winter.
Lotta, a laid-back tomboy with a devious sense of humour, leads us on a trek through the forest, collecting lingonberries to make a sauce for tonight's dinner – reindeer meat with creamy mashed potato.
The sun hangs low, casting long shadows across the forest floor. A sprinkling of snow covers the tundra like icing sugar, and jagged ice crystals are already starting to form on the lake.
After reaching the top of a hill, we search for wood to build a campfire and barbecue sausages. Lotta pulls out an axe and starts to chop a trunk already blown over by the wind.
The sense of space is overwhelming; for miles only tree-tops touch the sky.
There are only 150 residents in Nellim, most earning their trade as reindeer herders.
There is no village centre as such, although a simple, wooden Orthodox church buried in the woods provides a meeting point for the community.
Locals tend to be either lively and eccentric or shy and sombre, and an above-average number of men appear to have beards, something I discover on our visit to Tankavaara, where prospectors first struck gold in 1870.
The Goldpanning Finnish Open (where prospectors from all over the world compete) still takes place here every summer, but during winter tourists can hone their gold-hunting skills indoors at the Gold Museum.
On our final night at the Wilderness Hotel, and after three evenings of lukewarm activity, Markku is determined to find the show we were all expecting.
With body suits and snow boots borrowed from the hotel, we set off determined to stay out all night if we have to.
But we do not have to wait long for a star – the sky is peppered with silver flecks, some falling like burning embers.
At midnight, a band of green light sweeps gently across the horizon like a blade of grass swaying in the wind.
Over the next few hours, the lights grow in intensity. By 4am, my feet are frozen numb and a layer of thin ice has formed on the back of my jacket. But my patience is finally rewarded.
Dancing across the horizon like a neon ribbon trailed by a rhythmic gymnast, the aurora has woken up. Playful, flirtatious and unpredictable, she is much more seductive than I imagined.
The lights have been a triumph but the appeal of Nellim is actually far greater. This is a true wilderness, where space and silence are luxuries to be cherished.