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A guide to Lofoten and Vesteralen

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31 January 2012 by Pete Mathers

Pete Mathers finds beauty and adventure in Arctic Norway's Lofoten and Vesterålen islands.

Pictures by the author unless otherwise stated. Lead image credit: Polarlightcentre, Laukvik.

"Eat your heart out Joanna Lumley," I thought to myself as the sky erupted with sweeping arcs of computer-screen greens and delicate pinks. Even the local Sami, the indigenous people of northern Norway, said it was the best display of the Northern Lights they'd seen this winter.

And, with the solar activity that causes the Lights approaching a peak, scientists predict that for the next few winters these celestial displays could be the best they've been for 50 years.

Few other places provide such good opportunities for seeing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, as the Norwegian island groups of Lofoten and Vesterålen, which at 68° and 69° respectively sit inside the Arctic Circle and within the Aurora Zone.

Unlike places on similar latitudes, which can regularly plunge to -30°C or more during winter, the heat of the Gulf Stream keeps Arctic Norway mild and welcoming right through the year, making Lofoten and Vesterålen wonderful winter playgrounds, with plenty to fuel the adventurer inside you.

Here are some suggestions for what to do in winter on Lofoten and Vesterålen - all of which I experienced for myself on a recent Wexas research trip.

Lofoten Islands

Draped across the waters of the Norwegian Sea, the Lofoten Islands are staggeringly beautiful: an untrammelled landscape of rearing mountains, deep fjords, squawking sea birds and surf-swept beaches. Picturesque, colourful fishing villages take advantage of the world's best cod fishing and artists and photographers are drawn to the islands like moths to a flame.

Svolvær

Svolvær, on the island of Austvågøy, is the administrative capital of Lofoten and one of northern Norway's most important harbour towns. It makes a wonderful base from which to explore and is called at daily by Hurtigruten cruise ships.  

Svolvaer

Svolvær harbour, Lofoten (credit: 68° Lofoten)

What to do:

Sea eagle safari
Join Rib Lofoten on the hunt for sea eagles, Europe's largest birds of prey. Dressed in warm thermal suits, passengers board the rib (rigid inflatable boat) from the quay by Svolvær's town square and head for Trollfjorden, a narrow fjord with precipitous mountains on both sides. Next stop is Grunnstad bay, where vertical rock walls tower over chalk-white beaches. The best chance of spotting sea eagles is on the next stretch, to the old whaler's island of Skrova, where a warming cup of coffee can also be found.

We returned to Svolvær from Skrova but it's possible to continue on to Henningsvær and Kabelvåg, stopping for lunch on the way.

Sea eagle safari, Lofoten (credit: 68° Lofoten)

Where to stay:

Thon Hotel Lofoten
Thon Hotel Lofoten is the largest hotel in Svolvær, in a convenient position on the town square overlooking Svolvær harbour. Standard double rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the harbour, private bathrooms, free wireless internet and even binoculars for peering out to sea. Breakfasts here are officially the 'third best in Norway' and guests have free access to the Friskhuset Svolvær gym, 200 metres down the road.

Lofoten SuiteHotel
If you're looking for luxury in Svolvær, this brand new waterfront hotel should tick all the boxes. Distinctly modern in design and décor, its 27 double rooms and 12 suites all have private balconies with panoramic views of the harbour, private bathrooms and fully equipped kitchenettes. Some even have private saunas! The connecting Bacalao bar and restaurant serves tasty dishes and if the stunning photography on the walls doesn't inspire you to get among Lofoten's rugged landscapes then I don't know what will.

Anker Brygge
You shouldn't come to Lofoten without spending at least a few nights in a refurbished rorbu - the traditional red-painted fishermen's cabins that often sit on stilts at the water's edge. Of the many on offer in Lofoten, my favourites by far were those of Anker Brygge, in the middle of Svolvær harbour looking over the fjord and mountains. Both traditional and modern rorbu are beautifully furnished; the beds are larger than standard sizes and unlike many of Lofoten's rorbu, these all have private balconies from which to enjoy the views.

Anker Brygge

Sunrise behind the rorbu of Anker Brygge

Where to eat:

Børsen Spiseri
Another Svolvær rorbu hotel, Svinøya Rorbuer, plays host to one of the finest and most distinctive restaurants in Lofoten, Børsen Spiseri. Housed in a quayside warehouse dating back to 1828, its à la carte menu offers all manner of local delicacies. I personally recommend the creamed parsley soup with duck confit, stockfish royal (steamed fillet of stockfish with potatoes, stewed carrots, egg butter and Serrano ham) and the light panna cotta with marinated wild berries, all washed down with a Spanish temprillano.

Henningsvær

Fishing has been central to life in Lofoten for more than a millennium, as hardy souls took to the sea in winter to haul in the cod that come here to spawn. Henningsvær is one of Lofoten's largest and most charming fishing villages, crammed with craft shops, galleries and ubiquitous red rorbu. Quieter than Svolvær, it makes another great base from which to explore.

What to do:

Gallery gazing
Of the galleries I visited in Henningsvær, standouts include Galleri Lofotens Hus, home to North Norway's biggest collection of turn-of-the-century art (a period often referred to as the Golden Age of North Norwegian art), and Engelskmannsbrygga, where workshops allow you to try your hand at pottery and glass blowing.

Where to stay:

Henningsvær Bryggehotell
Perched on a pier with views down the fjord, the Henningsvær Bryggehotell has the kind of setting that Relais & Châteaux would be envious of. Bijou and stylish, it has a wonderful restaurant and reception room, as well as minimalist modern rooms for two to four people (request room 223 if you can - it has unobstructed views straight up the fjord towards the setting sun). This is also the base for our specially chartered Lofoten holidays.

Henningsvaer Brygghotell

The view out to sea outside Henningsvær Bryggehotell

Henningsvær Rorbuer
If it's rorbu accommodation you're looking for in Henningsvær, I recommend the 26 restored rorbu of Henningsvær Rorbuer, complete with traditional wood panelling, varying numbers of beds, kitchenettes, bathrooms and shared outdoor hot tubs.

Northern Lights Base Camp

The Northern Lights Base Camp at Hov lies at the northern tip of one of Lofoten's many islands. Its isolated position clear of artificial light makes it ideally placed for spotting the Northern Lights and it's a one-stop shop for a multitude of activities.

For one, it's home to the most northerly links golf course in Europe, framed by jagged mountains and the open sea. January golfers were thin on the ground (golf here is far better suited to the Midnight Sun) but the well-kept greens were apparently packed with aurora gazers the night before our visit. Other activities include mountain hikes, horse riding, kicksled, snowshoe and sledging tours.

The camp is also a former Viking site, the remnants of which (an ancient amphitheatre and two hollows in the ground left by Viking longboats) were shown to us by a Viking storyteller. The stories ended on the beach at a traditional lavvo (a large tent used by Vikings and the indigenous Sami people). Viking feasts and overnight stays can also be arranged in the lavvo.

Northern Lights Base Camp

Traditional lavvo by the Northern Lights Base Camp

Lofotr Viking Museum

The Lofotr Viking Museum at Borg was built on the site of an original Iron Age Viking chiefdom dating back to around 500AD. The 83-metre longhouse of Olaf Tvennumbrunni is the largest Viking-era building ever found in Europe. It's been reconstructed in all its glory and gives a real feel for how Iron Age life in the Arctic used to be.

Upon arrival - under yet more swirls of the Northern Lights - we were greeted by the chief's daughter and honoured with a traditional Viking feast. Once filled with mead and tender Norwegian lamb it was time to go, but visitors who stay longer will find a reconstructed blacksmith's, museum exhibitions, a fighting arena, a boathouse, longboats and a gift shop.

Viking museum

Stepping back in time at the Lofotr Viking Museum (credit: 68° Lofoten)

Kabelvåg

In the Middle Ages, visitors to Lofoten would far more likely have headed to Kabelvåg than Svolvær, as it was from here that all the fish were shipped southwards to be exported to the continent. Today the town is a pleasant, quiet place, content to let its breathtaking setting between the mountains and the sea do the talking.

What to do:

Galleri Espolin
Given the scenic splendour and eerily beautiful light conditions in Lofoten, it's no surprise that artists' galleries abound in the region. For something a little different, though, I recommend a visit to the Galleri Espolin. Kaare Espolin Johnson was a Norwegian painter and illustrator who pioneered new techniques in black and white painting. Perhaps no other artist has so poignantly captured the nature, people and harsh conditions of life in the north.

The Lofoten Aquarium
It's the nature of islanders to know the watery world around them. If you're clueless about cod or flummoxed by fisheries then the Lofoten Aquarium is the place for you. It's a smart centre with both seal and otter enclosures and a focus on promoting sustainable relationships with the world's marine environments.

Where to stay:

Nyvågar Rorbuhotell
Each of the wooden rorbu at this quayside hotel complete with mountain backdrop contains two bedrooms, a kitchen and a small bathroom, and about half open on to views of the harbour. With nets and floats hanging from the ceiling, wood panels and polished brass, the cosy restaurant reminded me instantly of some favourite Cornish hideaways - until, that is, the promise of a sauna, the smell of Norwegian waffles and the dazzling canopy of Northern Lights brought me back to the magic of Norway.

Vesterålen

Unlike Lofoten, word is not yet out about Vesterålen, leaving the more northerly island chain blissfully light on tourists but thick with rugged beauty and authentic Sami culture. I doubt, however, that it will stay this way for long. With whale-watching trips that can virtually guarantee whale sightings, forested mountains through which the Sami herd reindeer as they have done for centuries, and perfect conditions for spotting the Northern Lights, Vesterålen is an ideal stage for active winter holidays.

Andenes

The tiny outpost of Andenes is the northernmost point of the island of Andøya and northern Norway's best base for whale watching. Besides the attraction of the world's largest mammals, the harbour also plays host to a NATO air base, a lonesome lighthouse and a charming jumble of painted wooden boat sheds and nautical paraphernalia.

What to do:

Whale watching
"The world's largest and most successful Arctic whale-watching operation is Whalesafari Andenes," says the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

At no other place in Norway does the edge of the continental shelf, a primary feeding ground for whales, lie as close to the shore as it does near Andenes. In fact, so prolific are sightings with Whalesafari Andenes (96% of its trips encounter whales) that you're offered a choice of your money back or a second safari for free should you not catch sight of a blubbery behemoth. Several species can be seen in the area, including fin whales, minke whales, pilot whales, humpbacks, orcas and sperm whales, the largest toothed whales in the world.

Sea Safari Andenes works in tandem with Whalesafari Andenes, taking clients out in ribs (rigid inflatable boats) for a closer-to-the-water experience. Bouncing around on the Arctic chop, basking in the sun that appeared that day for the first time since November, we spotted no fewer than half a dozen humpbacks and at least a dozen orcas. Often just a boat length away, they hunted herring in fast-moving pods or rolled and played like dolphins in the zoo, waving their fins at our smiling faces. Except of course that this was nothing like a zoo - it was the untamed coast of wild and rugged Andøy and what we were seeing were nature's giants at their unimpeded best.

Trips can be arranged year-round although the main whale season runs from May to September. Trips also include a guided tour of the Whale Centre in Andenes, which provides information on the biology of whales, their place in the ecosystem and on-going research. To avoid disappointment it's best to book in advance. Your Wexas specialist will be happy to do this for you.  

Whale Watching

A diving humpback captured on film by our boat captain (credit: Daniele Zanoni)

Where to stay:

Fargeklatten Veita
Renting a room at Fargeklatten Veita's Alma House on the Andenes harbourfront is like spending a night in a museum. The typical North Norwegian fisherman-farmer property dates back to 1851 and boasts antique furniture, comfy beds and just enough mod cons to remind you 'when' you are. Two modern apartments, Kristina and Beathe, are also available to hire.

Elsewhere on site, other 19th century buildings are being used as a gift shop; a 'Christmas House', which local companies use to display their festive decorations; and even as a small but interesting peat museum. 

Andøy Friluftssenter

The Joanna Lumely moment I eluded to in the introduction happened here at Andøy Friluftssenter, ringed by snowy mountains and looking out across a glinting Arctic fjord. More specifically it happened while relaxing in the outdoor hot tub, a warm glass of gluvine in hand and all electrical lights turned off - a handy trick that the owners often do to maximise viewing of the dancing Northern Lights.

Andøy Friluftssenter is a self-contained wilderness resort, as idyllic no doubt in summer as we found it in winter. The Aurora guest house can sleep up to 12 people, and from here a collection of wilderness cabins - sleeping two to six people and complete with kitchen and living room - runs up the hillside towards a Sami lavvo, where melt-in-the-mouth moose was cooked before our eyes on an open fire.

Fantastic dining (reindeer and salmon are other specialities), guided hikes, moose safaris, cross-country skiing, Sami sleep-overs, snowshoeing and ice fishing are all popular activities when wintering here.

Andoy Friluftssenter hot tub

Relaxing in the hot tub beneath the Northern Lights (credit: Nigel Turrell, Andøy Friluftssenter) 

Inga Sami Siida

Inga Sami Siida is a Sami activity company that offers tourists a look at the lives of real Sami, Norway's indigenous reindeer herders. The couple we met were the real deal, not accountants by day dressed up to please tourists at the weekend. They welcomed us in to their lavvo and talked for some time about Sami traditions and life with the reindeer.

A few winters back, half of their herd had been killed in an avalanche and they've chosen since then to keep the reindeer fenced in during winter. Although primarily to protect their livelihood, it's been a goldmine for tourism - and one in which everyone benefits. Leaving the warmth of the fire in the lavvo, we were soon on the hillside, feeding lichen to the reindeer from the palms of our hands and even trying our luck at lassoing their antlers.

The visit concluded around the fire once more, wolfing down bowls of hot reindeer stew and listening to a series of Sami joiks. One of the longest living music traditions in Europe, joiks are the folk music of the Sami people. Each joik, or song, is meant to personify a person or place, with the singer attempting to transfer the 'essence' of her subject into song - a Sami would joik her friend, not about her friend. The effects were quite hypnotic.

Inga Sami Siida

Feeding reindeer at Inga Sami Siida

To enquire about our specially chartered holidays to Lofoten or to tailor a trip to either of these regions, call a Scandinavia specialist on 020 7838 5901.

See more photographs from this trip on the Wexas Facebook page.

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