I TUCK into delicious fresh cod at a waterside restaurant.
Outside, gulls wheel noisily above brightly painted fishing boats,
and, beyond the harbour, rocky bluffs rise dramatically to the sky
as if emerging directly from the sea. The minute I step outside,
the tang of brine and seaweed invades my nostrils, as well it
might: this is Svolvaer, on the Atlantic coast, the main port of
the Lofoten archipelago in Arctic Norway.
Tired from feasting and a four-hour bus journey here from
Narvik, I head for the ox-blood-red-painted rorbuer
(fishermen's huts) fringing the harbour's edge - my base for the
next few days. I surrender to sleep to the lapping of the water
Next morning, the town slowly stirs to life: men tinker with
boats, and women stop to chat on their way to the shops. No one, it
seems, is in a hurry. After breakfast, a bus to Henningsvaer, a
fishing village a few miles south, delivers more photogenic scenes
of rorbuer clustered around another harbour in the shadow
of more sugarloaf peaks.
Tourist-office literature describes the Loften archipelago as
"the world's most beautiful islands"; and, for once, this doesn't
seem like hyperbole.
But there is more to Lofoten than exquisite scenery: the islands
have long been a place of industry, with strong links to the sea.
Fishing, once the islands' lifeblood, is still important, and cod,
in particular, remains a significant contributor to the local
I get a sense of this when I up sticks to the village of Reine,
which, surrounded by water at the head of a fjord, possesses
possibly the most stunning location of all the villages in the
Here, scattered on the rocks around the village, wooden racks
used to salt and dry cod in the summer months produce the
bacalao much loved by the Portuguese and Spanish.
From Reine, the village Å can be reached on another day trip.
With its Norwegian pronunciation ("Oh"), the village sounds almost
like a disappointment, but, even in the drizzle, Å, the westernmost
settlement in the Lofoten archipelago, does not disappoint.
A tiny fishing village with just a photogenic array of
rorbuer, a bakery, a shop, and a fishing museum, it
provides little to do out of season other than absorb the charming
end-of-the-world atmosphere. As the rain starts to get heavier, I
take refuge in the village's fishing museum, a converted boathouse,
and watch videos of fishermen talking about the fearsome
maelstrom (a Norwegian word meaning "grinding current"),
found in the waters south of the island chain.
The journey north continues along the coast by means of the
Hurtigruten coastal ferry, which plies between Bergen, in the south
of Norway, and Kirkenes, in the far north. I board MS
Nordkapp in the early evening from the port of Stamsund,
and sleep as the boat weaves between the islands through the night,
waking to blue skies early next morning at the port of Harstad.
After a brief 20-minute stop, there is an announcement on
leaving the port that there will be a "Neptune ceremony" on deck to
mark the crossing of the Arctic Circle. Half an hour later, I am
lined up with other volunteers, waiting to have iced water poured
down our necks by a beaming crew member. Our reward for the minor
indignity: a small glass of cloudberry wine.
After another brief stop in Finnsnes, where a statue of a tenth-
century Viking seafarer, Ottar, graces the harbour, we sail on
through more scenic fjords to reach Tromsø, the Arctic capital of
Norway, in the early afternoon.
In Tromsø, which has long been associated with Polar
exploration, a statue of Roald Amundsen, appropriately dressed in a
parka, has centre stage in the main square. And there are plenty of
reminders of the city's seafaring tradition, too: a statue depicts
whalers with harpoons, and concrete benches take the form of
We have already glimpsed the most famous building in Tromsø from
the boat - its Arctic Cathedral, formally known as Tromsdalen
Church, or Tromsøysund Church - and a local bus takes us across the
cantilevered Tromsø Bridge to reach it. Although not strictly a
cathedral, but a parish church, the A-framed concrete-and-glass
edifice is striking inside and out: its exterior mimics a pair of
jagged mountain peaks, and the interior is warm and welcom-ing,
filled with soft northern light filtered through modernist stained
As Scandinavian in spirit as Ikea, the Arctic Cathedral is a far
cry from the heavy Gothic architecture found in more southern
latitudes. And, with such an iconic, modern design, it is easy to
see why the building is sometimes likened to the Sydney Opera
In the late afternoon, we bid farewell to Tromsø to sail
overnight towards North Cape, which, at 71 degrees north, is the
northernmost point of mainland Europe.
At North Cape, on the northern coast of the island of Magerøya,
in northern Norway, deep-sea fishing expeditions trawl some of the
best fishing grounds in the world. They teem with cod, Atlantic
halibut, haddock, king crab, and others; and in winter it is
possible to ice-fish, or book an all-terrain vehicle, snowmobile,
or snowshoe safari.
Kirkenes, on the borders of Russia and Finland, is one more
night's sail away, but it is North Cape that captures me most. This
starkly dramatic place, like Lofoten, delivers an edge-of-the-world
feeling. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place to be.
Norwegian Airlines (www.norwegian.com) has daily flights to
Tromsø from London Gatwick for about £130 return. Hotels,
restaurants, and car rental can all be found in Tromsø. Thon Polar
Hotel (www.thonhotels.com), in the centre of the city, has double
rooms from about £80. In Svolvaer, the Anker Brygge offers rooms in
fishermen's cottages for £140. The Hurtigruten
(www.hurtigruten.com/uk) coastal ferry may be booked for
all-inclusive voyages between Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen, or for
shorter journeys with optional meals. All coastal services stop at
Svolvaer, Stamsund, and Tromsø. Classic 12-day round-trip journeys
start at £999; seven-day one-way journeys between Bergen and
Kirkenes start at £599 all-inclusive.