Norway’s Lofoten Islands: Cod Only Knows Their Beauty

Enlarge photo

Enlarge photo

I just got a great report from Cameron Hewitt, lead editor/writer and guidebook co-author at ETBD, sharing his take on Norway, Switzerland, and Poland. As Cameron often does, he toured the fringe areas that I don’t get to as often as I’d like, and he’s made some great observations I’d like to share with you. To collaborate with travel writers of this caliber is one of the great joys in my work. Here’s the first of four blog entries by Cameron — reporting on an amazing bit of Norway I’ve yet to see.

I almost always enjoy the places that I travel to for work. But only a few special destinations thrill me enough to lure me back on my own dime. Norway’s one of them. After a week driving around southern Norway’s mountains and fjords to update our Scandinavia book a couple of years back, this summer I brought my wife with me to venture to an almost mythical pinnacle at the end of the earth: The Lofoten Islands.

The Lofoten are a chain of spiky islands way up at the northern end of Norway, well above the Arctic Circle…comparable to the northern reaches of Alaska. Why make the effort to travel so far? For years I’ve drooled at photos of astonishing scenery, like fjords on steroids cast away in the sea. In reality, it was even more astonishingly beautiful…the most breathtaking scenery we’d ever laid eyes on.

To reach the islands, we went to Oslo (already at Alaskan latitudes), then flew due north for about an hour and a half. For the final hop to the islands, we loaded onto a tiny propeller plane, making a brief stopover to pick up two passengers at a practically uninhabited hunk of rock halfway across the sea. The tiny plane had to jam on its brakes the second its wheels hit the tiny runway.

Even here in the northernmost point I’ve ever visited, the warm Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild. We had great luck with the weather: After a rainy first day, we enjoyed perfect sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s the rest of the week. While we were a bit late for the midnight sun, the sky glowed until well after midnight.

Things are casual in the Lofoten. When we picked up our cheapo rental car at the airport and asked about dropping it off before our return flight, the rental agent said, “You can yoost leave the keys above the visor with the door unlocked. Or give them to that guy,” pointing at the security agent. (Sure enough, a week later, “that guy” happily took our keys.)

We spent our first two nights in a charming little fishing village called Henningsvær, with a smattering of galleries and cafés. From there, we side-tripped into the main town of the Lofoten, Svolvær, where we took an RIB (rigid inflatable boat, a.k.a. Zodiac) high-speed boat tour bouncing across the waves to the surrounding inlets, fjords, and islands, at speeds approaching 50 knots. It was a thrill ride punctuated with incredible views.

Everywhere we went, we stayed in rorbuer, which are little fishermen’s cabins that stand on stilts above the water. These have been rehabbed to varying degrees to house tourists, and come with modern bathrooms and kitchens. The rorbuer were perfect for relaxing in a rustic environment, enjoying the scenery, and tuning into the pace of village Norwegian life.

Enlarge photo

Enlarge photo

Our favorite stop was the town of Reine, in the middle of a fjord immersed in the most spectacular stretch of Lofoten scenery. Our rorbu there was meticulously renovated, perfectly combining rustic charm and modern comfort ( We checked in, stepped in the door to our cabin, and immediately said, “Let’s stay here longer.” (Within minutes, we’d made arrangements to extend our stay.) We never got tired of staring out at the billion-dollar views from our rorbu. Basing in Reine, we took a fjord cruise, rented sea kayaks for a tranquil paddle, and went on intoxicating lakeside and fjordside hikes. It was just a 15-minute drive to the remote fishing village called Å (the last letter in the Norwegian alphabet, and the last town in the Lofoten), where we toured its humble museum and gagged down a taste of cod liver oil. And we strolled along also some fantastic, broad, white-sand beaches. While we saw a few brave swimmers go in the water (mostly kids), even in August we found it too cold to go deeper than our ankles.

The Lofoten feels impossibly remote. It’s improbable that this chain of islands is even populated. But those warm Gulf Stream waters flush schools of cod way up here in the winter, making local fishermen very happy. Rickety-looking wooden cod-drying racks are everywhere.

It’s clear that these days, tourism has eclipsed fishing as the main industry. Even this distant corner of Norway feels civilized — we paid for most everything with our credit card, and everyone we met spoke perfect English. And yet, amenities are sparse. Each village seems to have a catch-all store that combines the bare minimum necessities: convenience store, grocery, gas station, and post office. After stumbling onto a good latte on the first day of our trip, we never found one again. Missing were all the little trappings of a resort area…no ice-cream parlors, tacky trinket shops, Internet cafés, and so on. While this sounds idyllic, we were surprised to find ourselves wishing for some of those comforting little subconscious signposts that we were on vacation. One night, after wandering through a desolate village searching for an after-dinner ice-cream cone, we finally settled for an ice-cream sandwich from the convenience store’s freezer.

The few restaurants we splurged on ranged from excellent (a melt-in-your-mouth Arctic char) to…memorable. We were determined to try bacalao, the dried-and-salted cod dish that’s a local staple. Even dressed up in a flavorful stew, it was tough to swallow. Another night, one of the cheapest items on the menu was whale steak. Feeling adventurous — and despite the server’s description (“quite gamey, similar to elk or reindeer”) and the animal-rights controversy that the menu acknowledged — I went for it. It came out bleeding-rare and reeking of game…which I suddenly remembered makes me gag. In general, food is not the big attraction here. (When we got back to Oslo, we gratefully wolfed down a cheap Indian meal.) And food prices, like all other prices, are almost comically high. When a candy bar or a can of pop costs $5, you really have to do some soul-searching with each purchase: OK, do I really need this?

Enlarge photo

Even though it was the last week of August, and despite the perfect weather, the extremely short tourist season was already grinding to a halt. On several occasions, we were told that something had just closed “yesterday.” One evening, after having confirmed that the village’s lone tavern would be open for dinner, we showed up only to find they had just one dish available: fish soup with cracker bread. (We drove to the next town for something more appetizing.) We did run into several fellow intrepid travelers gasping at the scenery. However, in a full week in the Lofoten, we never once encountered a single other American.


12 Replies to “Norway’s Lofoten Islands: Cod Only Knows Their Beauty”

  1. Wow – thank you for sharing this great adventure. Makes we want to go to a place I had not thought of before. Love the pictures!

  2. one of my favourite british programmes, “coast”, recently detailed a bit about lofoten. quite a beautiful place, and one i’d love to visit…

  3. WOW!!!!!!! What stunning scenery and wonderful account of this remote place. Looks like a prefect ‘getaway’! BTW Rick, it’s nice to see Mr. Hewitt attribute the mild weather to the Gulf Stream (which is real), as opposed to spewing more ‘global warming’ propaganda!

  4. My favorite place in Norway! (I “discovered” it 20 years ago and still get excited about returning.) Some of the best of the Norwegian artists call this area home…check out Dagfinn Bakke as an example of the North Norwegian Artists.

  5. It’s clear to me that Cameron Hewitt covers the kind of travel that I enjoy. I don’t need another busy city full of dour, depressed, stressed people earning or trying to earn a living. I admire and respect that but have been there and done that. But villages, towns and hamlets with rural people who have little but happiness or relative contentment with their lot appeal to me more than museums and over the top churches, mosques, synagogues etc. So my suggestion is that Rick set up a boutique division that deals with specialized travel needs. What I don’t know is if it could be profitable. The masses want to go home and say they have seen the Taj Majal. I want to go home and relish my experiences. So my recommendation is: measure twice, cut once but Cameron Hewitt adds an extra dimension to RS Tours Company. bill kester

  6. I can’t get enough of reading Cameron’s travel descriptions — they perfectly capture not just the place itself, but also the experience of being a “traveler” there.

  7. Good heavens, those are some beautiful scenes! I absolutely love reading Rick’s stories (love the way you tell a story, the “voice”), but it was also very enjoyable to read Cameron’s piece. Lovely.

  8. Your photos of Lofoten look beautiful! My husband and I travel with 3 other couples (college friends). Next trip is Sweden and fjords of Norway and I’m the planner. This area looks like a place to relax before heading home. Many thanks for finding a “gem” to visit.

Comments are closed.