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Just back from: The Lofoten Islands

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10 January 2013 by Luke McCormick

The Lofoten islands in northern Norway will tempt you with the Northern Lights, Midnight Sun, excellent fishing and natural attractions, small off-the-beaten-track villages, whale safaris and hiking.

This part of Norway - namely the counties of Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark - is known as the Ha Vagan Land, or high light land, thanks to the presence of the Northern Lights in winter and the Midnight Sun in summer.

A countryside of rugged snow-flecked mountains, wild coastline and abundant waterways filled to bursting with cod and other fish species make these some of the richest seas on earth.

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 a wonderful winter playground.

Here in Lofoten the Polar Night lasts from 08 December to 06 January - a period that coincided with our recent charter tour. With a full moon in the sky the landscape of snowy peaks and crystal clear lakes is lit up, the air so clear you can see for miles.

Narvik

From the civilian and military airbase at Narvik - the destination of our flight from London Gatwick - on the shore of the Ofotfjord, almost 400 km inside the Arctic Circle, the islands hook out into the North Sea.

Narvik is only 15 kilometres from the border with Sweden. It's the third largest municipality in Nordland, but feels like a polar outpost.

From Narvik, through seven tunnels and over two bridges, you arrive in the Lofoten Islands via a stunning road journey.

Until recently the islanders relied solely on ferries to travel between the various islands and the mainland, so the government's investment in new land links is a welcome development.

Svolvaer

The administrative capital of the Loften Islands features a harbour of modern, working fishing boats, yachts and other vessels that float against a backdrop of red waterfront 'rorbu' buildings, glass-fronted apartments and white-frosted peaks. At this time if the year the sun doesn't pass the horizon's threshold and instead casts beautiful pink and orange hues into the sky. By 2pm it's dusk, by 2:30pm, dark.

From Svolvaer you can take RIB (rigid inflatable boat) excursions out to sea to spot Sea Eagles or slower paced orca spotting trips tours on board a larger vessel.

The harbourfront is a pleasant place for a stroll, with a number of cafes lining it and the town's main square.

Military history

During World War Two Svolvaer became the most fortified city in Norway after British success during the ‘Lofoten Raid', with a large concentration of bunkers, fortresses and machine gun nests built by the aggressive detachment of SS troops stationed here.

Meanwhile Narvik served as a significant German port for exporting iron ore from mines in Sweden and it was here that British and French troops triumphed during the Battle of Narvik in April 1940, before being evacuated to France a mere ten days after their victory.

During occupation by the Wehrmacht forces of Nazi Germany, the islands were subject to significant bombing from British Bomber Command.

The Lofoten War Musuem in Svolvaer is a great place to learn more about the region's military history.

The Lofotr Viking Museum

The Lofotr Viking Musuem at Borg tells the story of a family forced to flee across the Atlantic to Iceland in the face of war from the south and an alliance between powerful noble families.

The Museum is a reconstruction of the 83-metre-long Chiefdom that was erected at Borg around 500 AD. A traditional Viking feast can be enjoyed in the log fire-lit banqueting hall, where mead wine and lamb roast are enjoyed in traditional costume.

The archeological excavations started here in 1983 uncovered a Chieftain's longhouse that was the largest building in the Viking realm anywhere in Europe.

The Vikten glass blower

In the middle of Lofoten, between steep mountains, and facing the harsh windy coast, is the village of Vikten. It's here you can meet the artistic couple Åse and Åsvar Tangrand.

Åsvar is one of the only glass blowers in northern Norway and produces his glass at the Glass Cabin. Here you can see him at work, turning lumps of salt into beautiful products with lovely sparkles. Take your time to enjoy the works on display and afterwards enjoy wonderful waffles and coffee.

Lofoten Aquarium

At the Lofot Akvariet, ten minutes outside Svolvaer, you can see otters and seals along with giant crabs and other North Sea fish species.


Winter activities in Lofoten

Sea eagle and orca excursions

Experience the spectacular landscape, wildlife and birdlife in Vestfjord.

Diving and snorkelling

The coastal currents of crystal clear arctic water from the Atlantic Ocean are filled with an abundance of marine life and coral.

View the Northern Lights

Visit the Polar Lights Center at Laukvik or head to the beach at Hov for some of the best viewing on the islands. The Polar Lights Centre features the world's only live Aurora Borealis forecasting service, giving you the best chance of the seeing the Northern Lights.

Right on the coast at Hov on the island of Austvågøy you can ride Icelandic horses on the beach and learn about photographing the Northern Lights. It was also here that a local storyteller spun tales about the Viking, Sami and Norse mythology surrounding the northern lights. Hov is one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights, as it's located on the northern coast in an area with very little artificial light.

How to maximise your chances of seeing the Northern Lights

Location

Travel to a location above the Arctic Circle and within the aurora belt. You'll find more information on specific locations in our Best Places to see the Northern Lights article. It is also important to travel to rural areas with no artificial light.

Research

Track weather, satellite and aurora forecast websites to find out the current situation. Download the aurora forecast app to your smartphone or tablet device. For a small fee you can have push notifications sent to you when the activity level rises above a pre-selected threshold.

On Lofoten visit the Polar Lights Centre and sign up to its SMS alert service, which will let you know when strong activity is occurring.

Preparation

Dress warm and be prepared to stay out late. Most aurora activity takes place around local midnight, generally from 10pm to 2am.

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