Warm, wet and wild, like an arctic summer

Basking on a sandy beach north-west of Norway.
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The Independent Travel

The jellyfish floated idly by the fringe of the bay as gentle waves flopped lethargically on to the white sand under a clear sky. Around us, pointed and perfectly triangular mountains rose abruptly from the sea, standing shoulder to shoulder. Grey and blue-black, they looked like shark fins poking up above a feeding frenzy.

The jellyfish floated idly by the fringe of the bay as gentle waves flopped lethargically on to the white sand under a clear sky. Around us, pointed and perfectly triangular mountains rose abruptly from the sea, standing shoulder to shoulder. Grey and blue-black, they looked like shark fins poking up above a feeding frenzy.

It was extremely bewildering. Here we were, 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle, staring at what would pass for a classic tourist-brochure image of the Caribbean. Later we came across a beach volleyball net. Only the Arctic terns, perched on a rocky outcrop, gave the game away.

The Lofoten islands, an archipelago scattered over 100 miles off the far north-west coast of Norway, have no right to be so hospitable, not at a latitude of 68 degrees north. This is the place where the earth starts tapering towards the North Pole. The same latitude south of the equator would find you walking around with the penguins on the Antarctic peninsula. The fact that not only are you in no danger of being frozen to death but can even enjoy a beer on an outdoor terrace is due to the Gulf Stream. The same warm Caribbean waters that trundle across the Atlantic to the benefit of the UK have an even more pronounced effect on the remoter reaches of Norway, keeping the coastline and fjords ice-free. There have even been ambitious – but so far futile – attempts to establish vineyards on the islands.

But these islands are skittish hosts, enchanting and gorgeous at one turn, threatening and brutal at another. Within 24 hours we had come to understand why vineyards might prove problematic, as a force 8 howled down the tight valleys and the cloudline reduced mountain spotting to an act of the imagination.

The sea became a spitting cauldron, with tiny unmanned rowing boats straining at their moorings. In its way it was no less beautiful.

Lofoten comprises seven main islands and dozens of smaller ones, linked together like a necklace by the E10 highway that runs east-west, often forced to double back on itself as it seeks to thread a way through the terrain. Volcanic in origin, they are dotted with lochs, some friendly, some gloomy, all reflecting the unimaginably ancient character of the land, formed from primordial bedrock, roughly 5 billion years old. In a succession of ice ages, glaciers dug into the rocks leaving sharp chambers and narrow valleys, a landscape so startling you can almost hear the rock grinding and crunching as the glaciers retreated.

These features are well appreciated from afar. Arriving by boat the jagged ridges of the island formed a seemingly impenetrable barrier, known appropriately as the Lofoten wall, stretching across the horizon. As the boat edged closer, small bays began to emerge, each with a handful of houses built of pine and backing onto mountains that dwarfed the whole scene.

The houses, brightly coloured and neat as Legoland, look as if they had come of the production line that same morning. Many of them, both in villages and across the countryside are based on traditional fishermen's shacks. For hundreds of generations fishermen have visited the islands to catch the vast shoals of cod in the winter waters, originally sleeping in their upturned boats on shore at night. The first shacks, known as rorbu, were built in the 12th century.

Over the years the rorbu (derived from "ror", meaning to row and "bu" a dwelling) have evolved from primitive turf huts with earthen floors to smart chalets mainly used for the tourist trade. They are crablike in appearance, perched on wooden stilts that suspend the huts over the water's edge, coated in a reddish brown paint tinted with cod liver oil. Just as ubiquitous are the thousands of wooden racks that dot the islands – during the winter fishing season they are full of drying cod, known locally as stockfish. It would be easy to pass a whole day dangling your legs from the rorbu gazing at the sea, perhaps with a rod and line in hand. But there is too much to see to dawdle for long.

We gorged ourselves on wonderful headland views at Eggum on the north coast and walked over a pass behind the hamlet of Utakleiv, where we came across magical tarns such as you find in the Lake District. The further west you go, the more dramatic the scenery. Hamnoya, a tiny settlement linked to two islands by a causeway was overshadowed by towering, top-heavy peaks and come-hither fjords, while nearby Reine is surrounded by so many lemon-drop hills that you almost feel as though you are suffering from double vision. The subtle beauty brings with it a harder edge, though. From here you can take a boat across calm waters to the Moskenstraumen, a maelstrom described both by Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. Puffins and sea eagles, those birds of the wilderness fringe, add to the edge-of-the-world sensation.

The road runs into the sea near the town of A – appropriately, since A is the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet. Here there is an open-air museum about the history of fishing on the islands, including a mildly stomach-churning exhibition on the production of cod-liver oil - tastes best, apparently, boiled with onion and vinegar. Norwegians have an appetite for these sorts of facts: another museum at Kabelvag will inform you that there are 10,000 kinds of fish hooks.

At Borge we visited the site of a Viking chieftan's dwelling. The impact of the building, as big as any church, was enriched by its location on top of a ridge surrounded by mountains and lochs. The museum is also keen to put the record straight on Vikings, who we discovered have had a bad press, being painted blacker than they were partly because their pagan beliefs conflicted with the pioneering Christians. To start with, Vikings never wore horns on their heads (so next time you see some Scandinavian football fans with those red hats with dangling horns and bells tell them they don't know their own history). Nor did they do half as much pillaging as you would think. Instead, they were, for the most part, houseproud, enjoying nothing so much as spending a day in the woodwork room. They were politically correct; women enjoyed equal rights of property and status, all of which they lost when Christianity took over.

But for a short period every summer there is another invasion, bigger than anything the Vikings could muster. Around 250,000 tourists descend upon the Lofotens, most drawn by the prospect of seeing the midnight sun, which lasts until 17 July. We visited in early September and had, without exaggeration, the entire peninsula to ourselves. We left our car a lonely figure in a series of giant car parks, a tell-tale sign of the islands' seasonal popularity. The one drawback of visiting outside the short tourist season is that shops, restaurants and cafés shut early, while museums are closed or have irritatingly short opening hours. But though we missed the midnight sun we enjoyed a spectacle which peak summer visitors miss, a sunset on a clear day when the long shadows of the mountains soak up the autumnal colours of the trees and turn the lochs an inky-jet black.

One afternoon we parked at another postcard-pretty village, Henningsvaer. We must have spent all of two minutes looking at the map because when we raised our eyes, the skies were dark once more. We found shelter at the one restaurant in the village – possibly the whole island – that was open. It was a good choice, for the Fiskekrogen, a clean, no-frills eating place, is the favoured bolt-hole of Norway's Queen Sonja, who pops in for the fish soup after a day's cycling.

She is not the only luminary drawn to these wilful islands. Michael and Raisa Gorbachev came here a few years ago, just before the former first Soviet lady was diagnosed with cancer. Locals warmed to him, full of jocularity and glastnost but not to his wife, said to be too aloof. "If it had rained she would have drowned," said one local shopkeeper, tilting her nose up into the air. "She clicked her fingers and he jumped."

Poor old Gorby. But while he is still reviled in the economic basket case that is the former Soviet Union, he at least got one thing right, describing the Lofotens as a "unique world" in the visitors book at Statles rorbu in the village of Mortsund. Unaware of another of life's slings and arrows heading his way with his wife's death, he added: "We've been moved by being here and we hope to come back again and again."

The Facts

Getting there

Inntravel (01653 629030; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers a seven-night package from £837 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, accommodation at Statles rorbu and three days' car hire. The company also offers a package to Lofoten, involving three nights on the coastal steamer, the Hurtigruten.

Further information

Norwegian Tourist Board (09063 022003; www.visitnorway.com).

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