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The northern lights illuminate the night sky above the Lofoten Islands, which are located within the Arctic Circle in Norway. (Photograph by DuncanImages/Alamy Stock Photo)

Aurora Rising: Norway’s Northern Lights

Weathered stave churches line the lush fjords of Norway‘s majestic west coast, unrivaled for its natural beauty, cascading waterfalls, and wildlife such as whales and puffins.

But come wintertime, snow covers the emerald shore, and the wild green of the cliffs ascends to the sky. Norway’s northern lights—best seen from December to March when they are most vivid—offer a unique fireworks show visible only in proximity to the Earth’s poles.

By turns explosive and elusive, the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, inspired countless Vikings and Sami, and they continue to draw photographers today who seek out their neon celestial beauty as it streams and morphs in the crisp winter sky like giant alien will-o’-the-wisps.

Norway’s Hurtigruten fleet now offers astronomy-centric cruises on which guests can chase the lights, best seen from the Lofoten Islands to the Arctic Circle towns of the North Cape like Tromsø, Øksfjord, and Honningsvåg. They’re also visible at sea, best during easterly winds.

“This is not your typical cruise,” says Judy Brass, an Omaha, Nebraska-based cruise travel agent, recalling a northern lights voyage. “We could program our phone for a wake-up call anytime the lights appeared, which we saw on three successive nights. The colors were amazing.”

> In The Know: Animals of the Arctic

Beneath the blazing northern lights, the Arctic is home to wildlife rarely seen anywhere else.

Mighty polar bears live only in the Arctic, where they spend most of their time on ice floes. They are amazing swimmers and sometimes can be spotted 50 miles (80 km) away from any ice or land.

Narwhals are mysterious ocean ghosts that travel in pods of up to 100, at times using their long, swordlike tusks against one another.

The Arctic’s snowy owls can sometimes be spotted swooping against the winter sky. And Arctic foxes, brown all summer, turn fluffy white with snowfall.

This article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.