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Travel and retreats: Å to Z of Norwegian islands

30 January 2015

Laurence Mitchell explores Arctic Norway, with its striking scenery, photo­­genic fisher­men's huts, and stunning cathedral


Photogenic: the village of Reine, in the Loften Islands, with its red fishermen's cabins

Photogenic: the village of Reine, in the Loften Islands, with its red fishermen's cabins

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 outside.

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 economy.

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 archipelago.

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 upturned boats.

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 glass.

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 House.

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.

Travel details

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.


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