Northern Lights tour in Sweden: Seeking the world's No. 1 bucket-list item

"They're out there," says our guide, Jonny Cooper.

We hastily put down our knives and forks in the hotel restaurant and rush out into the car park. There, we're greeted by one of the most extraordinary sights in nature. It's the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, bright and vast overhead.

For many travellers writing up their bucket lists, the Northern Lights come in at No. 1 as the thing they most want to see before they die. We've come here, to the small town of Bjorkliden in Swedish Lapland, to cross the item off our lists.

The lights appear as a huge, bow-like band stretching over our heads from horizon to horizon. As we watched, the bow splits in two and then merges again, flowing and rippling like water.

"I never get tired of it," says Jonny. "It makes me feel so small – the vastness of it."

My reaction is different. Rather than vast and distant, to me the lights feel so close, directly overhead, that I feel like I could reach up and run my fingers through them.

Occasionally strange pulses run through the ribbons of light, looking almost like waves on an oscilloscope. Later in the evening, the lights appear again, this time in a spiral shape that bends and twists before disappearing before our eyes.

What is it about the lights that have seen the phenomena top multiple surveys of the ultimate bucket list activities, beating out experiences like seeing Niagara Falls, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Grand Canyon?

Aside from being visually spectacular, perhaps it is the ephemeral nature of the lights that makes it so desired. This is not like visiting the Grand Canyon – it is not just "there", permanently, waiting to be seen. The stars (or perhaps more accurately, the sun) must align for the lights to be seen.

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Bjorkliden and neighbouring Kiruna, a small region of about 20,000, sits on the edge of the huge Tornetrask Lake and Abisko National Park, 250 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle. It's known as one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, thanks to its location in a climate "rain shadow" – when clouds and snow can cover the surrounding areas, the skies over Bjorkliden often remain clear.

But the forecast for our four-day visit is not great, with cloud and snowfalls predicted, which makes the almost immediate appearance of the lights such a thrill.

Being able to see the lights isn't just about the weather. Yes, clear skies are important, but there are other factors that come into play.

The displays are caused by electrons colliding with the Earth's upper atmosphere, carried by the solar wind. The Earth's magnetic fields pull these to the north and south poles, creating an oval of aurora activity around the these regions.

This activity reportedly occurs around half the days of any given year, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be visible at these times. In summer, the long days make the aurora more difficult to see (and in the far north regions that experience a midnight sun, it's basically impossible). As a result, aurora seekers are advised to head north in the depths of winter, when darkness descends in the mid-afternoon.

And this year is a good time to make that trip. Sunspot activity shifts on an 11-year cycle and this year is the last high activity period before things slow down for the next decade. That said, Jonny points out that in areas in the far north of Sweden like Bjorkliden, aurora activity will remain relatively normal during this cycle.

Our home for the stay is a private cabin at Hotell Fjallet on the slopes surrounding the lake. The little lodge is a delightful space, with a balcony, two bedrooms, a living area and a kitchen. We even have our own sauna, which we make good use of after long periods out in the snow.

Aside from its attraction as an aurora hotspot, Bjorkliden is also a popular place for other winter activities – skiing, dog sledding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling are all popular with visitors (the latter particularly with Norwegians, who cross the nearby border to engage in this hobby. Snowmobiling is highly restricted in Norway).

On our first day after arriving we head out for a hike in the wild outskirts of town. Our guide, local outdoorsman Anders, sets us up with snowshoes and takes us on a short walk through the national park. Our plan to walk along the frozen river of is foiled by the lack of solid ice covering the water. Although it's December, the true winter is late in arriving and the lakes and rivers in the area are yet to freeze. So instead we sit on a couple of reindeer pelts and enjoy some local fare – salted reindeer meat, cooked over an open fire. It's incredibly tasty and, I'm told, much healthier than beef. But by 3pm it's already getting dark so we head back to the hotel before an evening of aurora hunting.

We take a chairlift to the Sky Station for dinner, a mountain-top observation centre and restaurant offering spectacular views over the surrounding region during the day, and views of the aurora at night. Unfortunately, the wind is howling and with it comes heavy snowfall, so there's no chance to see the aurora tonight.

The same thing happens again the next night when I head out on an aurora photography tour. It's cloudy and snowing, but for a brief moment the stars become visible. Our guide advises us to start snapping (the aurora is notoriously difficult to capture and this photography tour from Lights Over Lapland shows us exactly how to set up our camera to do so). I point my camera at the treetops and, after a long exposure, I note there's a greenish hue at the bottom of my display screen.

"That's the aurora," explains my guide. It's not visible to the naked eye, but it's there.

The wind and snow is gone on our final night but the aurora again eludes us. Above the hotel is a frozen lake and surrounding it, a handful of traditional fishermen's huts, once used for ice fishing but now converted into cosy spaces with a bed and heating. It's where we hole up for the evening – there are no lights, other than a battery-powered lamp and no plumbing (the outdoor bathroom is a short walk away). Outside we have a cauldron with a roaring fire. It's a beautiful setting and we feel completely isolated, despite only being a short distance from the hotel. It would be the perfect place to enjoy a night under the aurora, if it had only shown up.

So while we're disappointed to have not seen the lights every night of our stay, we're also thrilled to have seen them at the beginning. And the experience of visiting this remote Swedish village and national park has, in itself, been worth the trip.

And while this particular bucket list item is ready to be crossed off, I'm not quite ready to do that yet. Like Jonny, getting a taste of this spectacular natural phenomenon has only made me want to see it again.

See also: The new bucket list: The 10 hottest places to visit right now

See also: The 10 best things to do in the dark (with your clothes on)

Trip notes

Getting there

Etihad flies from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth to Abu Dhabi with connections to Berlin through Air Berlin. From there, several airlines fly to Sweden. The nearest airport to Bjorkliden is Kiruna, about a 90-minute drive.

Touring there

Off the Map Travel specialises in luxury adventure tours with a focus on Northern Lights holidays across Scandinavia and can arrange activities, transfers and accommodation. A four-night trip to Swedish Lapland starts from $2773 per person twin share including breakfast, three nights in Bjorkliden, a dogsledding adventure, a trip to the Aurora Sky Station; and one night in the famous Icehotel with a visit to the Aurora Spa. See offthemaptravel.co.uk

Five other things to do in Swedish Lapland

Dog sledding

Dog sleds led by teams of huskies are a fun way to see the countryside and the experience is a must for dog-lovers – you'll have the opportunity to work with the dogs, helping them into their harnesses as they prepare to pull the sled. The dogs love it – they can barely contain their excitement as they wait to set off.

Snowmobiling

Driving a snowmobile is extremely easy and a lot of fun. Tours from the hotel follow trails out into the national park and also up to the frozen lake where you can mess around doing a few spins on the ice. It's easy to understand why the Norwegians come here for it.

The ice hotel

Take a 90-minute drive to nearby Jukkasjarvi, the home of the famous Ice Hotel. The hotel is remade afresh every year using blocks of ice hauled from the Torne River. Each room is a work of art and visitors can take a tour, have a drink in the bar or, if they're really game, spend the night wrapped in furs in one of the rooms. See icehotel.com

Hit the spa, Swedish style

Swedes have a do-it-yourself mentality when it comes to relaxation, which is why so many have their own saunas. The Aurora Spa at Camp Ripan in Kiruna offers a "spa ritual" whereby you move through various sections of the facility at your own pace, shifting from different types of saunas to hot and cold showers, feet cleansing and finishing up in a hot tub (and bar close to hand). See ripan.se

Skiing

Bjorkliden's ski area features five lifts and 23 pistes ranging in difficulty from green to black. There's also plenty of room for off-piste skiing.

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Off the Map Travel, Etihad and Air Berlin.

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