Norway: Bracing breaks in the north
Who needs Hawaii? Surfing rarely gets better – or colder – than off the coast of Norway. Demi Taylor catches some extremely cool waves
Wednesday 19 January 2011
I wove a line through a crisp field of golden stubble, encased head-to-toe in 5mm of neoprene and accompanied by a Norwegian surfer called Jan Erik Jensen. He was the embodiment of a Viking raider: tall, blond hair, piercing blue eyes, a bone-crushing handshake and an uncanny command of the ocean. As we neared the point, the white noise intensified into a roar as a thousand black boulders were marshalled in and out of formation by the sea, each movement serving to sculpt the rocks into ever-more precise globes. Jan Erik was talking: his lips were moving, eyes crinkling as he grinned, but his words were swallowed up by a cacophony of tumbling stones.
"Sorry?" I asked, mitt-encased hand tugging at my hood.
"I can't believe how lucky you guys are!" he shouted. "I probably surf every other day but this has to be the best south swell we've had here for 20 years." As if on cue, a crisp-edged, head-high wave walled up and reeled off in front of us, the shoreline replying with rapturous, rumbling applause. "Just don't go telling everyone it's like this all the time in Stavanger," he added with a smile as he planed into the water.
When planning this surf trip, I'd spread a map out on the floor and surveyed its crinkled contours with just two criteria: short haul, big adventure. My gaze hovered over old friends such as Lagos in the Algarve and Taghazout in Morocco. But while these spots can deliver a little winter warmth to the European wave-hunter, the trails to these coastlines are now well worn. I had, I realised, a third criterion: I was looking to escape.
Then my eyes lit on Norway. Stavanger is the hub of Norwegian surfing. This vibrant port city is home to around half of the country's 400-strong wave-riding community – and for good reason. The coastal region of Jaeren, 20 minutes to the south-west, is one of the country's most wave-rich and consistent stretches. It serves up vast helpings of pristine, dune-backed beach breaks, punctuated by thunderous boulder points. And the last vestiges of the Gulf Stream doing what they can to temper the water's chill.
Farther north, Norway's shorelines lie shattered, riven with dramatic fjords that pull in the summer crowds but make surf exploration a long and winding proposition. Here, by contrast, access to the breaks is easy: the ribbon of blacktop faithfully follows the curves of the coastline, offering up fresh potential with every turn. My destination was set; all I had to do was dig out my thermals.
As I paddled out from the shore – modern wetsuit technology and old-fashioned adrenalin fighting off the sea's icy grip – any fleeting feelings of apprehension were replaced with a piercing clarity. There's certainly something special about taking to the sea as the mercury drops.
"I find it exciting surfing when it's cold – I love the contrast," local teacher Jette Idland said. "It can be freezing cold or snowing, but you can be in the ocean experiencing it all, experiencing the elements first-hand." Surfing in these chilly waters served to intensify the situation, focusing my mind on the task at hand. Whether by the need to stay warm and keep moving or the appreciation of the textbook right-handers peeling through, I felt spurred onwards like never before.
For more than an hour, six of us traded waves. The party included Norway's first surfer, Roar Berge, who spent the 1980s pioneering these shores. "Well, that was a religious experience," he exclaimed as he walked back to the car park, grinning ear-to-ear. His face said it all, while his background put it into context; this really was a special day.
Jan Erik led us southwards. The houses were spread out across the flat coastal patchwork of muted golds, greens and browns. "There was this series on TV; just one guy and his dog going off into the wilderness with a film camera," Stavanger local Gunhild Vevik said. "It was amazingly popular – one million people tuned in," she explained, trying to convey the very Norwegian yearning for space and solitude.
It seems this need for isolation does not extend to the local wave-riding population: a collection of abandoned cars signalled that we'd arrived. It was past 2pm and the cool light was beginning to flatten off, turning the ocean into a silver screen. Each approaching line was an event for the gathered crowd. In this part of Norway, tides have no impact – it's all about the combination of wind and swell, so only the creeping fingers of darkness call an early end to the day.
Later, I found myself lying on a heated pad, cocooned in towels. My eyes were covered but I was aware of a figure leaning over me, murmuring reassurances. I was in a recovery room – of sorts. I lay ensconced within the evening calm of the Sola Strand Hotel's Nordsjobadet Spa. After three saunas and an hour's facial and massage, I felt suitably revived after the session of cold-water therapy.
Later still, the scales were being tipped as the bartender poured a glass of merlot. At Café Sting, wine is a valuable commodity; like gold, it is sold by weight. Glass on the scales, eyes fixed on the spiralling digits, a hand signals when the desired amount is reached. It's good fun, but you can't imagine this would wash anywhere else in Europe: the weekend scrum at the bar would be five-deep by 9pm. In Norway, where a small glass of wine in a bar can easily cost £10, queues are small, orderly and nobody's buying any rounds.
Once our ingots of wine were finished, we headed to Ovre Holmegate – a street of candy-coloured façades and eclectic cafés, including Boger og Borst – "Booze and Books". This, we agreed, was a winning combination in any nightspot, and we headed in.
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