Sea eagles and beaches inside the Arctic Circle
With his young family in tow, Mark Rowe set off in search of an altogether different summer escape, in Norway's supremely beautiful Lofoten Islands
Sunday 20 April 2014
Take it from me, I know – thanks to the so-called summers of 2010-2012 – that the very minimum temperature at which a parent can huddle on a beach is 13C. We'd vowed that, if we must shiver on a beach, we should do it somewhere more exotic in future.
Many moons ago, in the time before children, my wife had organised a trip to the Lofoten Islands, just north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. They are supremely beautiful, but what I really remember was the volleyball net on a beach lapped by the outlying waters of the Arctic Ocean. It's not St-Tropez, but thanks to the Gulf Stream, the Lofotens are mild enough that you need not swim around icebergs. So last summer, the idea was hatched for a family Arctic beach holiday.
We decided to retrace the original journey that we had made in 1999, fairly confident that there would be plenty of elements that the children would love. Before heading north, we first flew to Oslo, where we indulged in a museum-fest on the capital's Bygdoy peninsula. Our children, Oscar (five), Thomas (six) and Hannah (eight) spent the day in a clutch of fantastic museums: the Fram, dominated by Roald Amundsen's huge polar ship; the Kon-Tiki museum, a homage to Thor Heyerdahl, which mesmerised the children with its giant model of a whale shark and tales of floating a raft, Swallows and Amazons-style, across the Pacific; we were looking forward to the Viking museum, but our visit coincided with the arrival of six coaches – just about our only exposure to mass tourism on the entire trip – so we didn't linger.
The weather was good and so we headed for Vigelands Park, whose quirky statues of humans young and old are one of the city's major draws. (The children picked out ones that they identified with: mad-hair mummy and sulky daddy.) Next door was an Olympic-sized two-tier lido with warm water, which took up the rest of our day. We rounded it off by buying the children huge chocolate-coated ice creams on the swanky waterside quarter of Aker Brygge. Counting my change, I realised they'd come to the equivalent of £15.
Our Arctic journey began with a train to Trondheim, some 300 miles north. We were in a family carriage, half of which was a soft-play area with a television showing Tom and Jerry and The Moomins. As the trip progressed, I tried to calculate how many standing passengers our own rail companies would hope to shoehorn into this space. Meanwhile, rapids flashed past in canyons beside us.
From Trondheim, we departed on the night train for Bodo – another 400-plus miles further up the coast. At 11.40pm, it was a late departure for all of us, but the children were thrilled by the prospect of waking up in the Arctic and all three were wide awake as we left the station. The next morning Hannah was woken by a horn that signalled we had crossed the Arctic Circle. Too excited to return to sleep, she dragged me into the corridor to look at the monumental scenery: the window was filled with high peaks, while mist rose from a wild river.
In Bodo, we waited in the sun by the quayside for our ship, the Hurtigruten coastal steamer. The ship was on its way to Kirkenes, where Norway bumps into Russia, but we were taking the four-hour hop across to the Lofoten Islands. In between gawping at the approaching wall of jagged peaks that make up Lofoten Islands, I kept my eye on the children in the hot tub at the stern.
The archipelago comprises seven main islands and a smattering of islets that arc gently off the north-west coast of Norway. Their names have the resonance of Norse gods: Moskenesoya, Flakstadoya, while the Gulf Stream keeps them all warmer – comparatively – than other places on the same latitude, 68N, such as Alaska, Yukon, Russia's Kola peninsula and Greenland.
We were staying in a cottage in Mortsund, a luxurious version of the rorbu, or overturned boat, that fishermen in Lofoten would over-winter in. The interior was cosy and comfortable – built on pleasingly symmetrical lines of Scandinavian pine – and overlooked a fjord.
The wildlife was special too – breakfast cereal was sent flying as another sea eagle flew past our balcony, or an otter scuttled over the rocks. For four days we had blue skies and warm temperatures. On two others, the rain and wind blew hard, but we stood under shelters watching waterfalls form on the sheer slopes of the mountains.
Lofoten has few conventional visitor attractions. The surprise hit was the fish museum at the succintly named village of A – the last, or westernmost, village on Lofoten. The charismatic owner, Steiner Larsen, showed us around; it's one of the world's great, quirky little museums, with giant fish heads dangling from the ceiling and film of creatures of the deep being hauled out in ferocious weather.
We drove back from A over bridges that arch like a cat's back, through narrow, thrilling tunnels and stopped in the village of Reine, which got my personal vote for having the prettiest backdrop of any settlement in the world. It is surrounded by sawn-off shark-fin mountains that spring abruptly from the water's edge, with other peaks queuing up behind for inspection.
Later, we hiked over a pass to Kvalvika Bay near the hamlet of Fredvang. Sea eagles flew close overhead, there were boardwalks to negotiate across the bogs, but the bay was dreamy and secluded. All three children, rejuvenated by salami and chocolate, made it there and back. For a few hours it was our own private desert island beach.
The volleyball net still stands, at Haukland Beach, north of Leknes. The weather was sufficiently warm to paddle and the children played in the streams running down the beach all afternoon. Hannah and I took a three-mile walk around the peninsula to the hidden village of Utakleiv, spotting seals and collecting washed-up sea urchins.
We were overlooked by another of Lofoten's classically geometric mountains, which rises in a straight line at an angle of 50 degrees, its ridgeline, 1,300ft above the sea, little wider than a gymnast's beam.
We departed Lofoten by Hurtigruten, the ship nudging north through the fjords. It was the Arctic night train all over again, the children way too excited to sleep. The Hurtigruten staff were fantastically friendly and even their kitsch set-pieces, such as dressing up as trolls, became rather fun. Sitting on deck, watching increasingly tough Arctic-looking mountains sweep by as we trundled through the fjords will remain long in the memory.
We arrived at Tromso, which is laid out like a frontier version of Legoland, with multi-coloured clapboard houses and squared-off flats. Our first destination was Polaria, the world's most northerly aquarium and one of the best museums you could ever take children to. There is also an inspiring film of the polar wilderness of Svalbard that the children demanded to see a second time; and a Hurtigruten simulator which kept them occupied for nearly two hours.
We also visited the Polar museum, which is more hard-core, with accounts of heavily bearded, maimed adventurers who encountered one too many polar bears. However, the children were enormously entertained by the model of a ship called the Polarfart.
We rode the cable car high above Tromso and mused on the best parts of the trip. The highlight for Oscar was the Hurtigruten; Thomas was relieved that polar bears can't sail ships, but otherwise opted for the ubiquitous sea eagles. Hannah opted for "everything", then narrowed it down to an outing with huskies outside Tromso, even though she was dragged on her stomach through gorse and heather at a rate of knots by the tireless dogs.
And for the parents? There's undeniably some sense of achievement in taking little people so far and seeing them enjoy it. We had fewer child (and parent) meltdowns than on any previous holiday. And after so many years of Devon and Cornwall, even Oslo airport can seem impossibly exotic.
Getting there and around
SAS (020 8990 7000; flysas.co.uk), flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Oslo from £142 return. Adult tickets for the trains (00 47 61 05 19 10; nsb.no) from Oslo to Bodo cost Nk1,579 (£167) and include one free child ticket per adult. To reduce the cost, seek out advance-purchase “Minipris” tickets that offer one-way fares starting at Nk249 (£26). Hurtigruten (020 3411 8216; hurtigruten.co.uk) sails from Bodo to Stamsund from £39pp. The overnight trip from Stamsund to Tromso costs from £75pp, including breakfast. Children aged three to 15 years get a 25 per cent discount.
Staying and visiting there
Mark Rowe and his family travelled with Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk), which offers a week’s self-catering in a two-bedroom fisherman’s cottage in Mortsund for a family of four from £2,075, including a transfer from Leknes airport and car hire. Most museums have free entry for children. In Oslo, it’s worth buying the Oslo Pass (Nk290/£30 for 24 hours for adults; half-price for children), giving free entry to more than 30 attractions.
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