Norway's Lofoten Islands: The ice kingdom

In winter, Norway's remote Lofoten Islands are frozen in time. Linda Cookson is entranced by the stark beauty of the landscape

Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice..." I've always loved the poem "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost. And last winter, on a visit to Norway's Lofoten Islands, the lines came physically alive for me as never before.

Fire was the more straightforward. Around 190km into the Arctic Circle, the awesome spectacle of the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, was a nightly occurrence on the islands whenever the skies were cloudless. Naively, I'd been expecting fireworks, some sort of celestial football match. The reality - a night sky transformed into a rippling curtain of eerie green or red ribbons, endlessly shivering, dissolving and reforming as though the very fabric of the heavens was being shaken - was more powerful and more moving than I could possibly have imagined.

But ice was the even greater surprise. In winter, the Lofoten Islands are a living ice sculpture. Approached by sea from the mainland, the white peaks of the islands' mountains rise vertically out of the water to form the breathtaking 100km Lofotweggen or Lofoten Wall, a floating barrier of frosted glass. Once on land, you're in a world of what the writer Kenneth White described as "ghostly whitenesses".

Being in a constantly white world, you gradually begin to understand something about ice and snow. If you think of colour as something being hinted at, rather than obvious and separate, then, paradoxically, the Lofotens are abundant in colour. There is pink snow, green snow, blue snow, snow the colour of a baby's cheek, icy snow the colour of the most fragile glass. A pearl-grey luminosity is trapped an inch below the surface of the landscape, and everywhere is a gorgeous silence, a silence that catches hold of sounds - the crunch of footsteps on the compacted snow, tinkling ice, trickling water, bird calls - and swallows them all.

Our base, in the heart of this silence, was a rorbu, a traditional wooden house on stilts beside the water. The name rorbu derives from the Norwegian ror (to row) and bu (to live), and these waterfront structures, usually painted rust-red or ochre, are a characteristic feature of the Lofoten Islands. Backed by snowy mountain peaks, our little home was like the illustration to a fairy tale. Below our window, ice flats rocked against the jetty while, out on the water, cormorants ducked and dived. As evening fell, small fishing boats chugged softly into the harbour, their cabin windows glowing yellow in the fragile light.

Fishing is the lifeblood of the Lofoten Islands. From late January, spawning winter cod - skrei - make their way to the islands from the Barents Sea, attracting fishermen from all along the Norwegian coast. Rorbuer were originally the temporary homes that these visitors occupied during the three-month cod-fishing season. Nowadays, the numbers of visiting fishermen have declined. Until the mid-20th century, some 25,000 fishermen came to the islands each year; today numbers are more like a 10th of that. But the islanders themselves remain dedicated to, and dependent on, the industry. The key product is torrfisk, or stockfish - cod that has been dried out to a fifth of its original body weight and is exported, primarily to Italy, as a delicacy. The constant salty whiff of stockfish and the huge wooden drying frames that seem to cover every available square foot of level space are as integral to the Lofoten landscape as its rorbuer.

The Lofoten archipelago is made up of a multitude of tiny islets - according to legend, the island chain was created by Thor flinging fistfuls of rocks into the sea. But the 24,500 population is concentrated on four main islands, all now linked with modern bridges and tunnels. Our rorbu was in the small village of Mortsund, on the island of Vestvagoy. The island of Austvagoy lies to the east; to the west are Flakstadoy and Moskensoy. All are linked by the E10 road, which runs the full 170km length of the four islands, from Fiskebol in the north-east to A (pronounced "Aw") in the south-west.

Fittingly, we arrived by sea. The state-subsidised Hurtigruten (or Coastal Express steamer) has sailed up and down Norway's coast for more than a century, delivering mail, cargo and passengers to places unreachable by rail. Much of the voyage - a 4,630-nautical-kilometre round trip between Bergen in the south and Kirkenes on the Russian border - follows the very same route that was used by Vikings to trade fish, fur and feathers.

The journey is entrancing. Boats glide close alongside the mountainous coast, secure in majestic sheltered channels. Extraordinary swirling skies, alternately smoky and opalescent, seem to mimic the contours of the land. And, moving through the fjords, we were constantly surprised by solitary houses at the water's edge, or half-hidden up snow-covered hillsides. A northbound and a southbound boat call at each of the 34 stops of the journey each day.

We later travelled to the western islands of Flakstadoy and Moskenesoy by bus. The return trip to A from Leknes (the main town of Vestvagoy) cost Nkr158 (£14) and was the loveliest bus ride we had ever taken. Travelling through Flakstadoy, we skirted white sandy beaches, fringed by snowy mountains marbled with blue shadows cast by spruce trees. Crossing the bridge to Moskenesoy, we were in a staggering winter-wonderland of a landscape, sculpted by glaciers. The beautiful villages of Reine and end-of-the-line A are a film-makers' dream.

I didn't want to leave the Lofoten Islands. I've already made a vow to return in the summer, when the snows will have mostly melted and a whole new world of walking and boating becomes available. But I'm pleased to report that we left in some style. The tiny Dash 8 plane from Leknes to Bodo, on mainland Norway, had more than a touch of the pioneering spirit about it. While we waited to depart, the wings were de-iced by a man with a blow-torch. And the airline's safety card said: "During icy conditions, the propellers' de-icing system will cause pieces of ice to loosen and hit the sides of the aircraft, causing a loud thrashing sound. This is normal." We had been warned.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Bergen is served by Wideroe (00 47 81 00 1200; www.wideroe.no) from Aberdeen, by Norwegian Air Shuttle (00 47 21 49 00 15; www.norwegian.no) from Stansted and SAS (0870 60 727 727; www.scandinavian.net) from Gatwick. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Tromso, in economy class, is £5. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

The writer travelled to the Lofoten Islands with Inntravel (01653 617920; www.inntravel.co.uk), which offers similar trips from £995 per person. This includes three nights on the Norwegian Coastal Steamer from Bergen to Stamsund in a double cabin, four nights half-board in the Statles Robusenter at Mortsund, return SAS flights from Gatwick to Bergen, transfers and flights to the Lofoten Islands. Car hire on the islands can be arranged in advance at an additional cost of £165.

GETTING AROUND

Steamer passages from Bergen to Stamsund can be booked direct from Norwegian Coastal Voyage (020-8846 2666; www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.com) from £246 per person.

STAYING THERE

Statles Rorbusenterm, Mortsund, Leknes (00 47 76 05 50 60; www.statles.no). One-bedroom rorbuer start at NK500 (£42).

Henningsvaer Rorbuer, Bannhameren 53, Hennigsvaer (00 47 76 07 46 00; www.henningsvar-rorbuer.no). One-bedroom rorbuer start at NK800 (£68).

Reine Rorbuer, Reine (00 47 76 09 22 22; www.reinerorbuer.no). One-bedroom rorbuer start at NK900 (£76).

Henningsvaer Brygge Hotel, Henningsvaer (00 47 76 07 47 50; www.henningsvaer.no). Doubles start at NK1270 (£108), including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Innovation Norway (020-7389 8800; www.visitnorway.com).

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