A short break in the Lofoten Islands

Jill Crawshaw discovers a wild part of Norway where the sun shines at midnight and the fishermen drive Mercedes
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Nowhere does the midnight sun shine to greater effect than on the Norwegian Lofoten Islands, anchored in the Arctic Circle, with their Caribbean-blue sea, purple mountains and green meadows, colourful fishing boats and rust-red clapboard cottages on stilts. And nowhere else can you overdose on air that's so like champagne.

When to go

At this time of year you can read at midnight without artificial light; you can also go sightseeing at 2am, canoe and take photographs, but if you want to be sure of sleep at night, take an eye-mask. The midnight sun phenomenon starts around the last week in May and finishes mid-July, which means you can pack an amazing amount in a visit at that time. It is still pretty light during the rest of July and August, but winters are long and dark. Edgar Allen Poe described the seas around the Moskenes Maelstrom as "lashed into ungovernable fury ... here the vast bed of the waters seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into frenzied convulsion - heaving, boiling, hissing."

To see the islands at work, make the trip between January and April, when the cod are landed, cleaned and racked as they have been since the days of the Vikings.

Getting there

You can get there by plane or train, or by hopping up the coast from Bergen, via Trondheim, taking a series of buses, trains, car-ferries or passenger express boats, but you'd be missing out on what is often described as the world's most beautiful voyage. So catch the hurtigruten - the tough little coastal steamers that since 1893 have been plying the 11-day round-trip from Bergen to the North Cape and Kirkenes on the Russian border, a ship leaving every day of the year.

You can make the voyage to the Lofotens in four days, dropping in on Maloy, Alesund, Trondheim and Bodo en route. There's an observation lounge on board where backpackers can sleep, cabins for the better-heeled, a cafeteria and a restaurant. The sight of the mighty Lofoten "Wall", a 100-mile stretch of snow-clad granite and volcanic peaks rising sheer from the sea, and looming ever larger as you cross between Bodo and the Lofoten port of Stamsund, is one of the highlights.

By air: British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Braathens (tel: 0870 5074074) fly to Bergen from the UK. An Apex return by Braathens from Stansted costs from pounds 139.

By ferry: all the ports along the hurtigruten route sell tickets for the ferries, and there are concessionary fares with big discounts for groups. Under-26s can buy a coastal pass costing pounds 159 for 21 days. In the UK, you can get steamer information from the Scandinavian Travel Service (tel: 0171-559 6660).

Getting around

The E10, a 140-mile stretch of good road that crosses bridges and goes through tunnels, links Fisk in the north with A (pronounced 0) in the south, where the islands peter out. Buses run a couple of times a day and you can rent cars from about pounds 40 (NKr500) a day from Stamsund and Svolvaer. Cycling is an excellent means of transport - tourist offices and some youth hostels hire them out for about pounds 6 a day. Tourist offices will supply maps, information on hiking trails and details of boat trips.

Where to stay

Built on stilts over the water, rorbua are wooden clapboard cabins, traditionally painted red, which originated as the shacks used by the fishermen so they wouldn't have to sleep under their upturned boats. Now converted, and in some cases specially constructed, as cosy tourist cabins sleeping from four to eight people, they vary in comfort - from bunk beds and stoves to holiday houses with all mod cons. They cost between pounds 32-pounds 80 per cabin per night. Many hotels and youth hostels have their own rorbua. Tourist offices will book accommodation for you - though they usually levy a pounds 3 booking fee.

One of the world's friendliest youth hostels, the Stamsund Vandrerhjem (tel: 0047 760 89334; fax: 0047 760 89739) has been welcoming visitors for 25 years. The hostel is made up of rorbua clustered round a quayside - rowing-boats are provided free, and you can go fishing all night in the midnight-sun months, and then eat your catch for supper. The owner takes treks and bird-watching trips into the mountains. Dormitory accommodation costs pounds 16 a night per person. Rorbua sleeping four to six cost pounds 33-pounds 50 per night. Family accommodation with kitchenettes and bathrooms cost pounds 19 per unit, as do suites for disabled travellers. The hostel closes from mid-October to mid-December, but is open at Christmas.

Sightseeing

Bone up on your stockfish if you want to understand the history, traditions and lifestyle of the Lofoten islanders.

The warm waters of the Gulf Stream (the Lofotens are the same latitude as Alaska and Greenland, but much warmer) lure spawning arctic cod to the Lofotens every winter. Stockfish is the cod that is hung out to dry on triangular wooden frames, then sniffed with the expertise of a wine connoisseur and sorted for export - the bulk of it going to Italy where it turns up on the table as baccala; the heads of the fish go to Nigeria. These exports are worth pounds 40m a year to the islands' economy - where else can you find a couple of new Mercedes outside every fisherman's cottage?

The best places to learn stockfish lore are the Stockfish Museum (the Torrfiskmuseum) and the Norwegian Fishing Village museum (the Norsk Fiskevaermuseum) at AC. They are open daily from mid-June until mid-August, with limited openings in winter.

Fishing-boat trips and expeditions, either to the Maelstrom in search of seals, eagles, kittiwake, cormorant and puffin colonies, and even whales, or to a coastal cave with 3,000-year-old cave paintings, take place from mid-June.

Another "must" is the new Viking Museum at Borg, which features the remains and reconstruction of the largest Viking Age building ever found. The museum is open from the end of May to the end of August.

Visit Utakleiv and Eggum for the best midnight-sun viewing; Nusfjorden was one of Unesco's pilot projects for the preservation of Norway's architecture; and in the picture-postcard Henningsvaer village, the Karl Erik Harr Gallery displays paintings by northern artists.

The most famous sight is the spectacular steep-sided and narrow Trollfjord; excursion boats leave Svolvaer daily for the three-hour trip - from the end of June until mid-August; and the biggest challenge is the climb up to the 40m-high "Goat", a two-pronged peak visible from Svolvaer's harbour. Daredevils are supposed to leap from one horn to the other.

Food and drink

Not the stuff that gourmets' dreams are made of, food in the Lofotens is plain and fresh and based on fish, meat, reindeer and potatoes. Vegetarians won't find it easy. If you're on a budget, stoke up on breakfast - a feast of cheese, eggs, meats, cereals and bread. Cafes and restaurants often lay on a lunchtime dagens rett, or daily menu for around pounds 5.20. Or from bakeries you can buy tasty smorbrod - open sandwiches heaped with shrimps or egg and mayonnaise.

The full-blown smorgasbord costs pounds 10-pounds 14. The best restaurants are in hotels, but expect to pay a minimum of pounds 15 for a three-course meal.

Do take your full duty-free allowance into Norway, as alcohol is both very expensive and hard to get hold of. Aquavit is the most common spirit, often drunk with beer as a chaser.

Entertainment

There is little organised nightlife on the islands, though plenty of the spontaneous home-made variety in the youth hostels.

Climbing, hiking, riding, canoeing, waterskiing and biking are popular both day and night, and you can also go scuba-diving, deep-sea rafting and, of course, fishing.

Deals and packages

Inntravel (tel: 01653 628811) offers a week's holiday up till 30 September combining three nights on the coastal steamer with four nights half-board in a rorbu in the fishing village of Mortsund on Vestvagoy, from pounds 849- pounds 925 per person based on two people sharing, and including flights to and from Bergen.

Further information

The Lofoten Tourist Board is in Svolvaer (tel: 0047 760 73000). In the UK, the Norwegian Tourist Office is at 5 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (tel: 0171-839 6255).

Comments