Norway's National Tourist Routes: Fjord focus on a coastal drive

See the work of artists and architects including Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley on a scenic road trip

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The Independent Travel

Stepping out into the fresh air of Bodo town, a sense of isolation hit me. I was surrounded by incisor-like white peaks and tall green spruces while being pummelled by a brisk Arctic wind. Following the lead of the locals by wearing shorts and flip-flops hadn't been the best decision.

Norwegians relish the respite from winter, no matter how brief. After several months of unrelenting cold and darkness, a shift occurs in the far northern reaches of the country, resulting in a single day that stretches more or less from May to August. I didn't need to worry about reaching my chosen campsites and cabins dotted along the coastline by nightfall. Even I don't drive that slowly.

As I cruised along the 270-mile Helgelandskysten Route that skirts the shoreline from Bodo to Bronnoysund, the scent of barbecues drifted over garden fences as people wandered along the streets clutching ice-lollies. It may have been sunny, but ice cream weather?

Norway's 18 National Tourist Routes carve their way through small towns on a long, weathered coastline, from the far south to the extreme north of the country, and have been growing in number since the first was officially designated in 1994. Created as a means of attracting visitors to rural regions, the routes are sprinkled with a series of 35 art installations – handy places to take a break from the road and reflect on the epic landscapes.

The installations vary in shape, size, artistic technique and material, but they're nearly always just a few yards from the sea or set on cliffs overlooking magnificent fjords. Artists and architects including Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley have added their work to this ambitious project over the past two decades, utilising the natural landscape as their windswept gallery space. There's even the chance to stay in one installation: the Juvet Landscape Hotel, 60 miles east of Alesund, is an ultra-modern space that featured in the British science fiction film Ex Machina earlier this year.

In Leirfjord, I encountered the first of the half a dozen installations that sit along the Helgelandskysten Route – which traverses the Arctic Circle – named Around. Forged from steel and positioned on a rocky hillside next to the sea, it was created by Brazilian architect Waltercio Caldas, its structure framing the landscape from every angle. As I braved the biting wind, a lone passenger ferry positioned itself perfectly between the metallic frame, giving me a split-second snapshot of land, sea and transport in one unique tableau.

Aside from remote art installations, this region is renowned for embracing the great outdoors, whatever the weather. It's rare to see a vehicle that isn't towing a boat. In the town of Nesna, about 150 miles south of Bodo, I kitted myself out in waterproofs and prepared to take to the water in a kayak.

norway-map.jpg"If you fall in you have about five minutes to swim to the shore," my guide, Magne, instructed me. "After that, you'll have about 55 minutes just waiting to die from the paralysing cold," he laughed, grinning, though completely serious.

"How far from shore are we going?" I asked.

"About 15 minutes."

After a quarter of an hour of energetic paddling, we positioned ourselves in the heart of the fjord. The sea was turquoise and calm with a visibility of several yards and we basked in the Arctic summer sunshine.

Continuing my drive south past fields of dandelions, bracing ocean inlets and more enchanting rural art installations I could appreciate how bleak this landscape must be for most of the year. In spite of the sunshine, an ominous subtext lingered behind every vista. Snow chains and toboggans hung outside garages, while cafés and restaurants sealed themselves off behind heavy duty doors.

Further south, in the town of Bronnoysund, I stumbled across a municipality where food provenance is taken extremely seriously. Within 24 hours, I feasted on locally reared reindeer, freshly caught Norwegian Sea cod and salmon roe the colour of an equatorial sunset.

"We have a small community of farmers and fishermen around here," explained Laila, owner of Hildurs Urterarium, a herb garden and restaurant, as she served me up a plate of steaming salmon covered in homegrown celery, tarragon, chives and cream, splashed over mashed potatoes.

"Give me a moment," she said, scuttling off. "I'll get you some homemade ice cream."

On the nearby Unesco protected island of Vega, sustainability is a necessity. Surrounded by 6,500 low-lying islets and battered by ferocious waves for 365 days a year, the island has little choice but to keep things local. All the fish eaten by islanders is caught from within just a few miles of the coast. It's a philosophy shared by its wilder visitors, too.

Migrating eider ducks come here every year to nest and rear their young, specifically because locals build them specially crafted duck hostels made from upturned boats, dried out seaweed and driftwood. The birds reward them with extra fluffy down to make warm duvets and expensive socks.

Before leaving Vega, I wandered around the island's art installation, positioned a few hundred metres from the ferry terminal. Designed by the late Finnish artist Kain Tapper, A New Discussion is a series of three granite monoliths of varying heights that emerge from the Arctic grassland like abstract structures that have been dropped from a passing spacecraft.

As I looked out across the galloping sea, the wind dropped momentarily, to leave a warm summer haze over the island, and a bead of sweat formed across my woolly-hatted brow. I knew there was only one thing for it. Weather like this called for shorts and flip-flops, and perhaps even an ice cream.

Getting there

SAS (0871 226 7760; flysas.co.uk) flies from Heathrow, Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen to Bodo via Oslo from £140 return. Norwegian (0330 828 0854; norwegian.com) flies to Bodo via Oslo from Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Avis (00 47 66 77 11 42; avis.no) offers car rental with different pick-up and drop-off points. Daily rates from around £90.

Staying there

Scandic Havet Hotel Bodo (00 47 755 038 00; scandichotels.com). Doubles from Nkr920 (£72) per night.

Havblikk Camping in Nesna (00 47 906 74 314; havblikknesna.no). Cabins range from Nkr385 (£30).

Offersoy Camping (00 47 917 05 564; kystferie.no). Cabins from Nkr770 (£60).

Bronnoysund Corner Motell (00 47 94 81 81 79; cornermotell.no). Doubles from Nkr830 (£65) per night.

More information

visitnorway.co.uk

northernnorway.com

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