The Aurora Borealis is a spectacle of singular reproach. It dances across the night sky with an ethereal radiance rivaled only by its elusiveness. Because the aptly-named northern lights peak in polar latitudes—accompanied by extreme conditions—witnesses of the natural wonder have historically consisted of only the most rugged of outdoor adventurers.
But an intrepid band of Alaskan hoteliers are working to change that, responding to an evolving market. Throughout the state, the past decade recorded a surge of interest from luxury travelers. Many of them arrived in this far-flung corner of the country specifically to capture the aurora—in their souls and through high-powered lenses. They want to cross this fickle phenomenon of the bucket list, and they want to do so in style. From five-star accommodations atop glaciers to purpose-built viewing igloos, they now have options. And more are on the way. Pack your bags and get ready to pop some champagne: the aurora is going upscale.
Robert Sheldon is at the forefront of the movement. Along with his wife Marne, and sister Kate, he opened one of the world’s premiere alpine lodges in one of the most inaccessible locations imaginable: balanced on a 6,000-ft crag ringed by snow and ice, nearly a mile deep. You need a helicopter to arrive at the five-room Sheldon Chalet, navigating through much of Denali National Park’s 9,500 square miles of corrugated wilderness along the way. There is perhaps no better place to gain a glimpse of the aurora than here. So despite the steep cost of entry ($3,150 per person, per night—3 night minimum), it’s an exceedingly difficult reservation to secure.
“This is our third winter and we’re seeing the bookings coming in much more rapidly as word has spread,” observes Sheldon. Even a recent 37% price spike couldn’t slow occupancy rates. “There’s a latent demand that existed that we’ve tapped into. To me, luxury is more of a deep sense of place and profound experience than the physical accouterments.” Although he rarely fields complaints about the Adirondack chairs encircling the fire-pit, nor the vintage Bordeaux passed around the outdoor viewing platform.
“We estimate approximately five percent of the market is luxury,” he adds. “So with 2.2 million visitors to Alaska, that’s about 110,000 beds a night that could be filled at this level.”
Well, maybe not at this level, exactly. But there are many more beds to be made for a certain segment of traveler. And that leaves a tremendous opportunity for Fairbanks, in particular. The city billing itself as the "aurora capital of the world" sits smack dab in the middle of the auroral oval. Here meteorological and atmospheric conditions align to the point where a three-night winter’s stay boosts your likelihood of seeing the spectacle to near certainty. Yet until recently upmarket accommodations in the area had remained scant.
Borealis Basecamp raised the bar when it opened in 2017. A series of six viewing domes positioned towards the northerly sky beckoned a new tier of clientele; those that wanted access to adventure while maintaining the trappings of luxury. While you won’t find a traditional lobby here, you will enjoy well-appointed rooms with 1,500 thread count linens, Turkish cotton towels, and bathroom amenities from L’Occitane. Gone is the spa treatment, replaced with a pampered sled-ride under the spectral showcase. No morning yoga classes, but you can receive instruction on how to photograph the aurora—along with cameras and tripods with which to snap it. And a gentle en-suite alert system ensures you won’t sleep through any performances.
Standard rate during peak season—from January through April—is $449 per igloo, including breakfast for two. It’s broadly embraced as money well spent, evidenced by a continual occupancy rate north of 90 percent. As a result the 100-acre property, which remains open from the end of August into the beginning of March, has had to repeatedly expand its footprint. “By our second year we had 10 domes, by year three it was 15,” says founder Adriel Butler. “When we first opened we had a high concentration of guests from China. But our market out of the Lower 48 has been growing by leaps and bounds.”
Collecting some of that spillover is the Aurora Villa. Opened in March of 2019, this modern, seven-room lodge boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, hot tubs, and impeccably sleek decor. “The owner had a vision of a Scandinavian villa,” recalls Emily Banks, director of operations. “He met with a young architect and they literally came up with the concept on a cocktail napkin. A few months later it was a reality.”
Rates here hover around the $500 mark for rooms that feel optimized for couples, secluded yet just a twenty-minute drive east of town. For those seeking a more family-friendly vibe, the Lodge at Black Rapids provides higher occupancy suites while ceding little to exclusivity. Two and half hours south of Fairbanks on the sparsely-traveled Richardson Highway, the three-story cabin is brimming with a laid-back, rustic appeal. It offers multi-night northern lights packages, including lodging, meals, outdoor equipment, and a guide to get you under the aurora with minimal fuss.
Closer to Anchorage, the aurora may be a bit less predictable but the luxe adventure is just as robust. Last season, the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge reopened after a multi-million dollar expansion. All-inclusive winter packages run upwards of $15,000 per person for a required 7-night stay. For that sum, you’ll get a roundtrip seaplane transfer to the property, as well as five hours worth of chopper time to heli-ski the backcountry. While the accommodations (co-owned by Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe) appeal more to extreme athletes, aurora chasers are making their presence known.
As are the high-end hotels that hold them. “A lot more upscale, luxurious resorts are headed to the interior and coast of Alaska,” observes Banks after her first year in Fairbanks. “Aurora tourism is driving much of that growth. This is just the beginning.”