Ex­plor­ing Nor­way’s Lo­foten Is­lands on a Princess V39

In the fi­nal in­stal­ment of his Arc­tic ex­pe­di­tion, John and Ce­ci­enne pass through spec­tral vil­lages and marvel at the beauty of Nor­way’s brisk wa­ters one last time

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents - Words & pic­tures John Boyle

Only if you have ever made a voy­age in your own boat will you un­der­stand the thrill, the sat­is­fac­tion, and the emo­tion of ar­riv­ing at your des­ti­na­tion. And the Lo­fotens are worth every minute of the jour­ney we have taken to get here.

As we travel fur­ther north, the weather im­proves and the sun­shine ac­tu­ally car­ries some proper warm de­spite the fact that we are a cou­ple of hun­dred miles north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. And in that clear clean sharp light, the is­lands look to­tally amaz­ing – every­thing we had ex­pected and hoped for. When we ar­rived in Nor­way it was snow­ing and I was wear­ing gloves; now sev­eral hun­dred miles fur­ther north, the gloves have gone and the sun­roof and canopies are open.

The tourism web­sites pro­mote the ar­chi­pel­ago as a great place to view the North­ern Lights in winter and play mid­night golf in sum­mer. Kayak­ing, hik­ing – and if you’re re­ally crazy they have some good surf breaks where, be­cause of the water tem­per­a­ture, you will never have to worry about crowds! But most of all, it is the stun­ning beauty of the is­lands that has drawn us here.

Still, no mat­ter how much re­search you do be­fore a trip, your ac­tual ar­rival brings its own sur­prises. And the only thing no guide­book or web­site can pre­pare you for is the all-per­vad­ing smell of dry­ing cod!

One of the world’s largest sea­sonal fish­ing catches takes place in Lo­foten – a fish­ery that has flour­ished for over 1,000 years. From mid-fe­bru­ary un­til the end of April, mil­lions of Arc­tic cod mi­grate from the Bar­ents Sea to their spawn­ing grounds near the is­lands, where they are caught and dried us­ing tech­niques that haven’t changed in many cen­turies. The freshly caught fish are gut­ted, then hung out­side on racks for around three months be­fore be­ing moved in­doors for a sim­i­lar pe­riod. Since the Mid­dle Ages, Italy has been one of the main

ex­port mar­kets for the dried cod,

known as stock­fish, where it re­mains a pop­u­lar del­i­cacy, although that mar­ket has now been eclipsed by sales to Nige­ria where it is re­garded as a sta­ple food. Noth­ing is wasted – even the heads and tails are dried and sold.

From the fish­ing vil­lage of Reine, we head into the Kirke­fjord, and prob­a­bly one of the most re­mote and strange places that we have ever spent a night. At the very head of the fjord is a small vil­lage and fish­ing quay. Cur­tains are in the win­dows, plas­tic flow­ers in vases, there’s a porch light burn­ing out­side one house, and look­ing in through the win­dows, the houses are all fur­nished. Yet the place is to­tally deserted.

It’s an eerie feel­ing walking around the grass paths be­tween the houses, ex­pect­ing at any mo­ment to be chal­lenged – but there’s not a soul around. A white moun­tain hare is graz­ing in a garden, an ea­gle flies low over­head, and in a loud rum­ble of sound, an avalanche, as the Arc­tic spring sun melts the high moun­tain snow. Apart from the birds, the only sound is of wa­ter­falls bring­ing the melt water into the fjord.

Maybe they’re hol­i­day homes? Or maybe the houses are oc­cu­pied by fish­er­men dur­ing the months of the cod fish­ing bo­nanza who have now moved on? As I lie in my cabin in the twi­light of the north­ern night, water gen­tly lap­ping against the hull, images of ghosts of an­cient fish­er­men run through my mind.

On an­other flat calm and sunny day, we con­tinue our ex­plo­ration of the Lo­fotens, head­ing fur­ther north up the chain of is­lands. An­other vil­lage, Nus­fjord, is like­wise de­void of all life. Here, what was once a busy fish­ing vil­lage has been frozen in time as a mu­seum to the in­dus­try, but the tourism sea­son only starts on May 15, and again we are alone here, like walking on to an aban­doned film set. As we cruise the Lo­fotens, nos­ing into fjords and vil­lages, one of those unforgettable en­coun­ters oc­curs. There’s a water spout, fol­lowed by the unique shape of an orca’s fin slic­ing through the water. And then, through the face of a wave, the black and white body clearly vis­i­ble as it hunts in the shal­lows. It all hap­pened too quickly to grab the cam­eras, but the im­age is one I’ll never for­get.

A white moun­tain hare is graz­ing in a garden, an ea­gle flies low over­head, and in a loud rum­ble of sound, an avalanche, as the Arc­tic spring sun melts the high moun­tain snow

It’s a cliché that all good things must come to an end, but in the case of this ad­ven­ture, the weather ends up call­ing the shots. The high pres­sure that we’ve been en­joy­ing for the past few days be­gins grad­u­ally inch­ing south, to be re­placed with un­set­tled con­di­tions and strong winds for as far ahead as we can see.

We’d an­tic­i­pated be­fore the trip that some­where along the way, we’d en­counter long spells of poor con­di­tions, and had fac­tored var­i­ous op­tions into our plan­ning. A few days of poor weather and we’d rent a car or jump on a train and go ex­plor­ing. A longer spell and we’d catch a flight home un­til it cleared. But as we’d achieved our goal of reach­ing Lo­foten, our think­ing changed.

So far, we’d not lost a day to the weather, but if we hang around any longer, it looks as if we’ll be trapped by a pro­tracted spell of storms and may have to leave the boat for a while. With Mark need­ing to open his surf school by Whit­sun, and Fionn’s baby’s due date get­ting ever closer, the chances are that they might not be avail­able to help me bring Ce­ci­enne home when the weather fi­nally clears. And though there are al­ways peo­ple who are keen to join a boat trip, on voy­ages as chal­leng­ing as this, I much pre­fer trav­el­ling with crew whose abil­i­ties and judge­ment I trust than folk along for a hol­i­day that I can’t re­ally rely on if we get into dif­fi­cul­ties. We even con­sider the worst-case sce­nario of bring­ing the boat back by road but the prices quoted are just too steep for my bud­get.

So faced with all th­ese op­tions, we de­cide re­luc­tantly to start head­ing back south, mak­ing the most of the con­di­tions to get sig­nif­i­cant miles un­der our belt. It would have been great to spend longer in the Lo­fotens, or even head fur­ther north to who knows where, but the re­al­ity check said it wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen.

With hind­sight, I wish we hadn’t played it safe and stayed longer. For our jour­ney back, a high-pres­sure sys­tem lodged it­self solidly over the whole of Nor­way, and any­thing could have been pos­si­ble. Every time we meet for a beer, conversation be­tween Mark and I sooner or later wan­ders back to the same lament – why didn’t we stick with our dream and travel as far north as we could, right to the Rus­sian bor­der? Or maybe at least to North Cape… I guess that’s an ad­ven­ture for an­other year.

Cruis­ing to Nor­way so early in the year could have been a weather dis­as­ter. As it was, we lost only one day at sea dur­ing the whole trip, and that was at Brix­ham less than 100 miles away from home on our very last day of the trip. And although most of the places we vis­ited were still ‘closed for the winter,’ that, if any­thing, en­hanced the ex­pe­ri­ence. We had whole fjords and har­bours to our­selves with not one other boat in sight, and lone an­chor­ages with only the gen­tly lap­ping sea and the birds as our com­pan­ions.

De­spite be­ing such a close and di­rect neigh­bour of Bri­tain – just over 200 miles across the North Sea from New­cas­tle to Tananger – there has been no ferry ser­vice for many years now link­ing the two coun­tries, so rarely is Nor­way on the radar of Bri­tish trav­ellers. And that dis­in­ter­est and lack of aware­ness of what Nor­way has to of­fer is re­flected in boat own­ers; few, if any of us, ap­pear to have ever even con­sid­ered a Nor­we­gian cruise.

For me, our spring ad­ven­ture has been a rev­e­la­tion. Much to my sur­prise, I have found what I con­sider to be the most beau­ti­ful coun­try on the planet. I will re­turn one day…

Ce­ci­enne moored at Nus­fjord

Thou­sands of cod fil­lets dry­ing on racks in the Lo­foten Is­lands

At this time of year, many of the vil­lages are still deserted

John and Mark en­joy the sights of Nus­fjord

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