By Suzanne van Rooyen
Glacier-carved mountains rise abruptly out of the Norwegian Sea and sparsely inhabited fishing villages dot the harsh coastline, home of the midnight sun in summer and 24 hours of darkness in winter, The Lofoten Islands are an end-of-the-world location where the power of the ancient Norse gods is truly tangible. These islands should be at the top of any adventurous traveller’s must-see list.
At a latitude of 68°N, the Lofoten Islands, off the Northwest coast of Norway, lie well into the Arctic circle. Although the islands share this latitude with northern Alaska, Siberia and Greenland, thanks to the Gulf Stream, they enjoy a far milder climate making them viable all year round, but always be prepared for cold, wet weather as storms can lambaste the islands regardless of season.
The Lofoten archipelago consists of several smaller islands and offers an array of unique experiences for those willing to rough it. Just getting to the Lofoten Islands can be arduous but is part of the fun. Flying is probably the easiest and not the most expensive option, buses and trains are also available from all major cities and towns. Driving from Finland or Sweden offers travellers a chance to roadtrip through Lapland. Roadtripping through Lapland requires a good car (or hardcore Scandinavian bus) with some off-roading capabilities, a friendly disposition towards reindeer and patience as weather (like 2 metres of snow in October) can often delay the trip. That said, driving through Lapland is almost as rewarding as arriving in the Lofoten Islands. On clear nights, be sure to keep eyes on the sky for breathtaking displays of the Northern Lights.
The cheapest way to Lofoten is to hitch-hike from one of the bigger cities (assuming prior arrival by aeroplane) like Oslo or Tromsø. Travel between the islands, especially the smaller ones, is often only possible by ferry but there may be a local fisherman willing to give a weary traveller a lift, a smile and broken Norwegian will go a long way here. For cyclists, the easiest way to get in and around the islands is by bike. With over 83km of track known as the Kaiser Route, cycling is one of the best ways to take in the spectacular sights. For those fit and brave, a Lofoten cycle tour is a must but be warned, although traffic is light, cyclists share the road with motorists and even here, that can be problematic.
Lofoten is rustic. Accommodation varies from island to island but for a truly authentic experience, stay in a traditional rorbuer, tiny huts originally used by travelling fishermen for overnight accommodation as they journeyed along the coast. There are plenty of camp sites too and due to the ‘Everyman’s Right’ law, camping in the Norwegian wilderness is totally legal so long as fire usage is kept to a minimum, property is not damaged and residents are not disturbed (hunting and fishing laws change according to season so check with local authorities before bagging dinner in the wilds). Many old warehouses, schoolhouses and other buildings have been converted into hostels and guest-houses offering cheap but charming accommodation for those who don’t mind more dormitory-like living. Many of these old places come complete with a ghost or two, and in a location as a remote as the Lofoten Islands, it’s not difficult to believe that spirits wander the fjords.
Finding food is easy for fish-lovers. Small fish shops scattered throughout the island villages offer cheap, tasty sea treats to fill hungry bellies. Traditional stockfish often called bacalao, is a must-eat. The lamb is also pretty good but a bit more expensive. Strict vegetarians and vegans should consider not going to Norway since there’s not much on offer for vegivores.
Be prepared to hike. It’s the number one activity here and a great way to experience the landscape. Trails come in easy, medium, tough and insane. Even for the most intrepid explorers, guided tours are recommended as the terrain can be treacherous and the weather very changeable making some trails downright dangerous even for the most experienced. There’s a tourist information centre on most of the bigger islands and they provide maps and trail information, usually for free.
No trip to Norway would be complete without a moment spent contemplating the Viking heritage of the country. In Borg, the Lofotr Viking Museum offers trips on the replica Gokstad Viking ship. Weather permitting, the row boat takes visitors out on the Norwegian sea, meandering between salmon farms and snow-capped peaks. Dose up on motion sickness remedies and embrace that inner Viking.
But if mere travel isn’t enough, summer jobs are available for those happy to stink of fish and learn a little conversational Norwegian. Finding work, on boats or in villages mending nets and packing fish. once in the islands is easier than trying to do it remotely online. For those already fluent or in possession of a Norwegian dictionary, this site might be useful. Working in these isolated villages can be challenging but rewarding. Don’t expect great pay. If the experience alone makes smelling fishy worthwhile then payment of board and lodging may make finding a job that much easier.
Get fit, learn some Norwegian, lace up the ol’ hiking boots and head north to Lofoten. It’s a destination well worth the effort of getting there and an experience to be remembered, just don’t drink too much of the local potato-brew akevitt and risk alcohol-induced amnesia.
About the Author
Suzanne van Rooyen is a South African freelance writer and SF author living in central Finland. She enjoys travelling and exploring strange places off the beaten track. When not writing she’s playing in the snow with her shiba inu or attempting to play guitar. Find her online here: http://suzannevanrooyen.com/