The scenic highlight of any trip to Norwegian Lapland, the Vesterålen (pronounced ‘vester-oh-len’) and Lofoten (‘loo-fut-en’) islands are a rugged triangular-shaped archipelago off Narvik. Though totally void of Sámi culture, these green, mountainous islands make a perfect antidote to the remote villages of the forested heart of Lapland, and are readily accessible from Narvik, itself linked to Swedish Lapland by train and road.
The Vesterålen Islands
The Vesterålen islands (‘western isles’), predominantly Hinnøya, Langøya and Andøya, are the less dramatic of the two groups. Naturally, this being Norway, there are mountains wherever you look, but they are set back from the islands’ towns and villages, often forming a backdrop to a view, rather than being the view themselves. From south to north the peaks become gradually less pronounced and craggy in nature – indeed, the north of Andøya is not mountainous at all but given over instead to enormous lowland peat bogs, cloudberry marshes and even coal deposits.
The largest town in Vesterålen with a population of around 21,000, Harstad’s central position in the archipelago has always been its selling point. During the late 1800s, when plentiful catches of herring fuelled a boom in the local economy, the town became the perfect base for landing fish and transporting it to markets throughout the north, thanks to its good road connections. As herring stocks dwindled, Harstad turned to shipbuilding and maintenance; the production of shipping and fishing equipment; and even the import of coal from Svalbard, to make a living.
In more recent years, oil exploration has played a significant role in the local economy and today the northern headquarters of Statoil are here, plus Norway’s national producer of milk products, Tine, is also stationed here. If the number of heavy trucks that trundle in and out of town today is anything to go by, Harstad is still a key player in the distribution of goods throughout the north of the country.
It is the chance to go whale-watching from Andenes, a small and rather attractive village, 100km north of Sortland, at the northernmost edge of Vesterålen, clinging to the very tip of Andøya Island, that brings most visitors to the islands.
There’s reputed to be a 95–99% chance of seeing whales on the safaris which leave daily from the harbour – sperm and minke whales are found in relatively large numbers in the waters off Vesterålen’s northern tip, but amazingly killer whales are also present, which are the big attraction, and good enough reason to sign up for a whale safari here rather than elsewhere. Sperm whales are seen on most trips though it is hard to predict whether other species will put in an appearance. However, Andenes’s secret is its proximity to the continental shelf and the nutrient-rich feeding grounds in the vicinity, which draw whales to the area. Incidentally, Andenes is the location of a research centre for marine biologists who are studying cetaceans in the waters of this part of the Norwegian Sea.
Stokmarknes, famous in Norway at least as the birthplace of Hurtigruten, is the home of the specialists. As you cross the second of two bridges that lead into town you will catch sight of one of the line’s former vessels, Finnmarken, standing high and dry beside the quayside currently used for Hurtigruten departures. Linked to the adjacent building, Hurtigrutens Hus, by a walkway over the road, the ship forms part of the main attraction in Stokmarknes: the Hurtigruten Museum, an engaging collection of nautical paraphernalia that recounts the life and times of Norway’s most famous shipping line.
The Lofoten Islands
The Lofoten islands (named ‘lynx foot’ by the Vikings after their supposed resemblance) really are something special. Overwhelmed by the 100km-long Lofotveggen (Lofoten Wall), a spine of sheer, snow-clad granite peaks and ravines that runs the length of the archipelago and quite simply takes your breath away, the extreme forces of nature have left their unforgiving mark on the geography of these islands.
Smaller, narrower and infinitely more beautiful than their northern neighbours, their rearing mountains finally splinter into the Norwegian Sea beyond the beguiling village of Å in the south. Travel here is relaxed and enjoyable – the climate is generally mild and it is not uncommon for Lofoten to be bathed in warm sunshine while the mainland is depressed by heavy blankets of grey cloud. Spending the afternoon catching the rays on the rocks or the odd sandy beach or wandering through the winding backstreets of idyllic fishing villages is part of Lofoten’s charm and it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t succumb to this endearing side of island life.
The charming, waterside town of Svolvær makes a great introduction to the Lofoten islands. True, it may not be as picture-postcard-perfect as the other small fishing villages to the south, but it is nonetheless an easy place to spend a couple of days simply chilling out in the harbour-front cafés and restaurants or heading out to the Trollfjord, if you missed it on your way here. In addition, Svolvær is one of the easiest places to reach in the entire island chain.
Not only is the town served by Hurtigruten, direct buses from Narvik and a handy car ferry across the waters of Vestfjorden from Skutvik (a straightforward and much shorter drive from Narvik than heading here along the E10) but there’s even an airport, 6km east of the town, with direct flights to the mainland.
The drive out to tiny Henningsvær is simply gorgeous. The village is draped over the last island in a chain of skerries and islets that lie off the southwest corner of Austvågøy. Skipping from island to island, the minor road leading to the fishing village weaves its way around secluded sandy coves and rocky bluffs before it arches over a final narrow bridge and pulls into town. At the centre of the village is the harbour, a tight U-shaped inlet lined with handsome, brightly painted houses and boatsheds and backed by jagged peaks rising precipitously from the sea. It is a scene from a postcard and really is as beautiful as you might imagine. However, in season, it attracts coachloads of camera-snapping visitors who swamp the little place and steal its charm. Try to time your visit to early morning or late afternoon and you should have the maze of narrow lanes and passageways pretty much to yourself.
Reine is a ravishing beauty of a village, 41km to the southwest of Nusfjord. Reine perches atop a narrow promontory, linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway, just off the E10. From the viewpoint just off the main road, at a spot known as Reinehalsen, you will be treated to one of the most gorgeous views you can imagine: the timber houses of the village tumble across the small island, surrounded on all sides by bony islets, angular skerries and towering mountains.
What’s more, Reine is also the starting point for one of the best hikes in the whole of Lapland: from the top of Reinebringen (448m) you will be treated to panoramas of quite breathtaking beauty.