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
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