Elin & Bruce's Arctic
A panorama of the fjord on route to Nesland.
Our Summer Vacation in Norway.
The Arctic is perhaps the last place one thinks of going on vacation. That is, unless one is Norwegian. In which case it is likely to be the first place.
Elin and I first went to the Lofoten Islands briefly in 1996 at the urging of a Norwegian friend. We fell in love with the place and returned for two weeks in 1999. We returned again this year in 2003 and once again enjoyed a fantastic vacation in this sublimely beautiful arctic wonderland.
The fishing villages on the Lofoten islands, situated just above the Arctic Circle, are recognized to be the most beautiful in Norway. Remember that this is in the country renowned for its magnificent scenery and clean simple architecture. Lofoten is the best of the best. It is a dream destination. The landscape, which consists of craggy granite mountains jutting out of the Arctic Ocean, seems hardly to be of this earth. In addition it is a fisherman's paradise.
Most serious vacationers to the Lofotens want to remain for a while. To this end they rent rorbuer, little cabins built along the shore of small harbors sculpted into the mountainous coastline. The rorbuer traditionally stand on stilts as close to the water is possible. Since these cabins once served as barracks for cod fishermen, the idea in building so close to the water was to be able to lower the tackle into the open dorries directly from the buildings. The gear was lowered in a barrel from a window. Though this is hardly done any more the practice of building close to the water gives a dramatic effect to these clusters of spare, barnlike dwellings. And their proximity to the sea almost always leaves them with a fantastic view.
The rorbuer are seldom used any more as barracks, although in winter they are occasionally rented to fishermen. But nowadays most of the seasonal waterman sleep on their boats. Currently, these enchanting cabins, rehabilitated with pine paneling, electric heaters, potbelly stoves, kitchenettes, and comfortable furnishings are used by self-catering tourists who want to enjoy the pristine environment and fish for their dinner.
The waters of the Westfjord, enriched by the famously powerful tides of the Mosknes Maelstrom, teem with fish. All year long there are vast shoals of cod, halibut, coalfish, torsk, ling, mackerel, and more. Even a novice fishermen can land a bucket of these splendid restaurant-quality fish in an hour or two. With heavy tackle and a larger boat huge 30 or 40 pound cod can be caught at any time of the year. But tremendous fun can be had with light tackle reeling in codlings and other groundfish. For an additional fee most Rorbuer landlords make boats available to guests. But even fishing from a bridge or from the shore can be productive. Let's go!
Our first stop was London. We wanted to visit with friends, do a little shopping, and take care of a few personal chores.
From London we went to Oslo. It is a city that we enjoy, despite the fact that it is even more expensive than London or Tokyo. Our stay was very brief and after a couple of days we headed up to the Arctic Circle. We first flew to Bodo, a small city just above the Arctic Circle, and then along to Leknes, which is on the Lofoten archipelago. The flight from Bodo takes 20 minutes.
Once landed we picked up a small rental car at the airport.
A car is nearly essential if you really want to get the most out of
the vacation. We used it to shop for food, to sightsee, and to drive
to the trailheads of designated hikes. Once in the car the first thing
we did was to go grocery shopping in Leknes. Then we headed down to
the town of A. It is pronounced
The hour long drive from Leknes was magnificent. It was a gold coin of an afternoon. The mountainous scenery could not have looked more impressive in the sun. The chilly fjords looked a deceptive tropical turquoise. Puffy white clouds floated around blue skies. The well banked, narrow two lane road snaked invitingly through green valleys. It was all a little familiar, but, impossibly, seemed more beautiful than we remembered. We checked into our little cabin and cooked our first dinner. Okay, so it was hot dogs, I hadn't had time to go fishing. Besides, we knew we would be eating fish for the next two weeks so we were quite happy with them.
We lost the bright sunshine on our second day, the silvery clouds of morning deteriorated into an afternoon rain. Despite the weather I took my fishing rods and went out to a point of rocks at high tide just as it began to pour. I didn't care a bit. Within about 20 minutes I had caught two lovely coalfish and I brought them back to the cabin where I cleaned them and prepared a Norwegian fish simmer. This gently cooks the fish in hot saltwater and vinegar. After the fish cooled slightly I separated the meat from the bone. I used the lovely white fish to make an Indian vindaloo curry, which we had with yellow rice.
The weather cleared by late evening and we were able to enjoy a brief walk. We then returned to take in the view from our cabin as the sky slowly dimmed but never darkened. I built a fire in the stove and we read until it was time to turn in. For our first week we had white nights that far north. The sun set just before midnight but it never got completely dark.
We were blessed with exceptionally good weather for our entire stay. Only two days with any significant rain. (Unfortunately one of these was the day chosen to take a ride on a Zodiac that terminated in a soaking two-hour hike.) But the couple of bouts of bad weather was nothing to complain about. In fact we enojoyed the cozy comfort of our cabin.We were prepared with enough books and card games to weather any weather at all.
The average day time temperature was about 17 degrees. Sometimes it went above 20 when the sun was shining, but this was rare. It was never too cool, even out on the boat, which we used just about every day. We felt very lucky that we had not chosen this summer to do a tour of Western Europe since it was an oven. Indeed there were a lot of people, best described as refugees from the heat, who had come to Lofoten for a holiday.
The summer was warm enough so that the locals were actually complaining. We saw a number of people swimming in the lakes, but not in the Westfjord. However, we were told that at Nesland people did go swimming because the water was warm there. We gave it a try, but could only manage to get wet to our knees. Warm is a relative term. I dubbed Nesland the "Miami of the Lofotens"
Elin and I maintained a log of the fish I caught and the meals we produced. I won't bore you with a detailed day by day account of our stay, but there were a couple of highlights worth noting. Aug. 15th was a particularly splendid day. In the morning we drove down to Fredvang and walked an old highway along the shoreline fromYtresand to Mulstoa and back. This was designated in the guidebook as an easy trail and we found it to be so. The views were spectacular, of course. And there was a very picturesque summer house with grass growing on the roof in the traditional style.
I like to fish the high tide since I find it the most productive time. So after our walk we hightailed it back to the cabin where we made sandwiches of cream cheese and hot smoked salmon, purchased at the local fish delicatessen. These we planned to eat on the boat. The weather was absolutely gorgeous -- about 22 degrees Celsius (72 F). The fishing was also particularly interesting. I kept about four one-pound coalfish, a one-pound cod, a two-pound mackerel (boy was he a lot of fun on light tackle) and lastly a strange looking guy who turned out to be a ling, a very tasty piece of work indeed. After he was filleted I baked him with salt, pepper, lemon, butter and bouquet garni then served him with yellow rice and salad. Elin and I agree that it was one of those top-10 meals you never forget.
Then next item of particular note was our Zodiac ride. I have already alluded to it but we took a terrific tour that included a 60 km per hour sprint in a Zodiac through the famous maelstrom, which, if the truth be known, is undeserved of its terrifying reputation. It is more of a big rough tidal rip. It could be somewhat dangerous to a small sailboat or an underpowered skiff, but as for seeing a huge whirlpool that could swallow a Coast Guard patrol boat forget it. The myth far exceeds the reality. The zodiac skimmed over it like a well thrown stone. The boat ride took us to an abandoned fishing settlement known as Hell. Since it was on the seaward side (read: Arctic Ocean side) of the islands it was exposed to rough weather. In the 1950s the people there were resettled since the Norwegian government felt that it was not worth while to provide the inhabitants with either road or electricity. To this day there are still some settlements in the Lofoten's that are not accessible by road. We visited some.
From Hell we went on to another point that served as a staging area for a two-hour round-trip to see some Sami (Laplander) cave drawings that are about 3500 years old. The hike would have been far more pleasant in better weather, but the company was good and the tour guide knew his stuff. We managed to have a lot of fun despite the weather. The walk back from the cave and the ride in the Zodiac back to Reine, where the tour began, was done under dry skies. We got to wear Helly Hansen floating survivor suits in case the speedy boat flipped over.
Days in Lofoten are cast in three metals: gold, silver, and lead. During our visit most days began in silver and finished in gold. Our average day included a little shopping, a long walk on one of the interesting trails through the hills, a few hours on the boat to catch dinner (usually codfish), making dinner and cleaning up, playing cards, reading, and just generally relaxing around the potbelly stove smelling the woodsmoke. No casino, no internet, no TV, no disco.