On a whim one rainy day in the midst of a rainy Irish winter, we applied for a 2-week housesit in Oslo. Knowing we will be leaving Europe indefinitely in June, we thought we should try and see more of Europe while still here. And having booked Oslo, we thought we should see more of Norway whilst there. With 2 weeks available, and a long-standing desire from Daniel to visit some mountainous islands off Norway’s North West coast, that is how we came to be walking the Lofoten peninsula in early March.
The Lofoten peninsula is a series of islands, now connected by bridges and tunnels that stretches into the Norwegian Sea. They lie between the 68th and 69th parallel, so are well above the arctic circle. However, thanks to the gulf stream, they have one of the highest temperature anomalies relative to their latitude, and we read that the climate remains relatively hospitable even in winter. Encouraged by this, we planned to walk and camp our way around the peninsula during our two week trip there. This was partly driven by budget, given Norway’s expensive reputation, and partly by the need to get some walking & camping practice in ahead of our Iceland trip the following month. It had been 2.5 years since we had done any backpacking and camping, and we had well and truly forgotten the despair of the midnight nature call and the backache of a night in the tent.
We flew to Oslo, and from there on up to Bodo, before transferring to the small plane that took us to the town of Leknes, in Lofoten. On the flight to Bodo we had a window seat with a superb view over ridge after ridge of snowy peaks running right to the coast. It was breathtakingly beautiful and gave a taste of what was to come. We had a stopover in Bodo where we could size up the other people waiting for the flight to Leknes. Most looked like photographers, and one group in particular stood out – 10 Indonesians with thousands of dollars of camera gear hanging around their necks, brand new snow boots, jackets, pants etc. We felt like 3rd world citizens in comparison, dressed as we were in our 4 year old hiking jackets and boots. There were also a few local women flying, and as they waited for the flight to be called, they knit one purled one their way through various jumpers and hats. We left behind a coastline of high snowy peaks and 20 minutes later flew in over the Lofoten islands, to a miniature, but more dramatic version of the coast we had just left.
We didn’t know what to expect – would there be snow, would it be deep, would we be warm enough, would we find a place to camp? We had no idea, partly as information is hard to find, and partly because conditions are so variable from one year to the next. We had trained for the previous month or two in Ireland, gradually building up the kilometres we could comfortably walk, and slowly increasing the weight we were carrying. We were not as fit as we wanted to be, but who ever is? We tested our gear in the Irish weather and were confident that at least when walking, we would be fine. The big question mark for us was how would ourselves and our equipment perform in extreme cold or snow. We had super warm sleeping bags, but we hadn’t tested them below 0 degrees, and although our gear seemed warm enough in Ireland, would it stand up to a northerly wind in Lofoten? In packing, we struck a balance between bringing warm gear and having a total weight that we could carry for several hours a day. In the end, despite counting every gramme that went in the bag, Daniel had 23kg on his back while Clara had 17kg. We knew the bags might feel heavy, or we might be cold, but that is why we were there – to do what we really enjoy doing, being out in nature and challenging ourselves in a new environment.
On landing, we were excited to see deep snow all around, and although the roads and paths were cleared of the heaviest snow, the path from the airport into the centre of Leknes was slippery, and slow-going. We weren’t going to get far in 2 weeks at that pace! The first thing we did upon reaching town was to purchase crampons; and these changed our lives in a way a 50 euro purchase rarely can. After some grocery shopping, we set off for the room we had booked in a B&B, a few kilometres outside the town. We had booked this room for the first and last nights of our trip, so we could leave our computers / city clothes somewhere while we walked. We arrived at a picture perfect Norwegian house, with numerous outside welcoming lights and a level of warmth and comfort inside that befits a country with one of the highest GDP per capitas in the world. While showing us around, Ingrid, our host, pointed us in the direction of the sauna, and after a turn there, we were well refreshed from the travel and hauling of our heavy packs.
The next morning was to be the start of our big adventure; heading out into the snow to walk and camp our way around the islands. We had an initial plan for the first 2 days, touring a nearby peninsula, before passing again through Leknes on our way further down the chain of islands. Our lovely host, Ingrid, was horrified at our plans, concerned we would be cold and insisting we come back and stay with her if we needed to, for free. We rose the next morning to a snowstorm, but undeterred, we loaded up with our packs and headed out, making our way through the ankle deep fresh snow on the road. We were surprisingly comfortable walking, warm, dry and very excited to be out in such beautiful scenery. A few hours later, after we had turned inland to climb a minor pass to the other side of the peninsula, the snowstorm had turned into a blizzard, and we could hardly see each other, let alone watch for oncoming traffic. It was exhilarating to be out in that weather, well equipped, and comfortable, and the conditions didn’t concern us for
walking. However, we reasoned that if we couldn’t see them, any drivers peering out through snowy windscreens also wouldn’t see us. We debated turning back, but figuring we were close to the saddle, kept going, and minutes later began the descent. We strode into the village on the other side of the peninsula, happy to have made it, but concerned about the rest of the day. We had reached our destination for that day, but it was barely noon! We wanted
to stop and enjoy the scenery – snowflakes were
softly drifting down around us – but the minute we stopped walking, we froze. An all-over cold, from shivering scalp to numb toes. Although the temperature was around 0 degrees, with the wind chill it felt more like -10. We wandered for a bit, searching a suitable place to pitch our tent and found a clump of trees in which we could pitch away from the road. We set up camp and lunched, and thoroughly frozen from the inactivity, we climbed in. We lay frozen stiff in our sleeping bags, wearing 5 or 6 layers, and only after a few hours were warmed sufficiently to head out again. We explored the coast until sunset, before returning to base and the eventual warmth of our tent. The idea of collecting and melting snow to cook with was almost too much, and we surely burned more calories doing that than we received from the noodles we finally ate. It was a long night, broken by regularly dislodging fresh snow from the tent roof, and the morning seemed even colder.
We woke early, but decided there was no point getting started yet, and facing the same dilemma as the previous day. We had come all this way and didn’t want to spend our afternoons hibernating in a canvas cell. While lying there that morning we discussed a Plan B. We love seeing a place at walking pace, and were enjoying the exercise and exertion of carrying our bags. But our legs can only carry us and the bags for so many hours a day, and so we had an issue in how to spend the rest of the time. We decided to return to the comfort of Ingrid’s house that evening, and look at booking more accommodation around the peninsula for the remainder of the 2 weeks. We figured that if we had a warm base to return to in the evenings, we could walk during the day, and still enjoy the beauty of the place.
We completed our loop of the peninsula to arrive back at Ingrid’s, who confessed that she had almost come to get us the previous evening in the storm, but didn’t know where to start looking. We spent a wonderful evening there with her, warm and comfortable, and chatting for hours. That evening she offered us the use of her house for the entire two weeks, for nothing. She was leaving the following morning for 10 days and claimed we would be doing her a favour if we stayed whenever we liked, and kept an eye on the place, and the handful of other B&B guests arriving in her absence. An amazing lady, incredibly kind, and so at ease with everything.
Next morning we booked a hostel in the active fishing village of Ballstad in a neighbouring peninsula and set out for there. We walked several kilometres on a minor road, and eventually came onto the main road. It was snowing, cars were racing past, and we were considering finding a spot to hitchhike from, when a car pulled up and offered us a lift. We gratefully accepted! This was not the only time we were offered a lift while walking, and when we did actually stick our thumbs out, we generally got a lift within 10 or 15 minutes. Most of the time we were hitching less than 10kms, and were just hitching as the road was too busy for safe walking, but on 1 occasion we got a ride for nearly 30km. Mostly it was local residents who picked us up, but a few times we got lifts from tourists – Norwegian and foreign. We didn’t see anyone else hitching, and when we did hire a car later in the trip, we were itching to offer a ride to someone, but there was no-one!
We spent 2 nights in Ballstad, in a picturesque wooden fishing cabin, along the water. Upon checking in, we were told that just that morning 100 refugees had checked out, having been housed there for several weeks. Really, we thought?! Here, above the arctic circle, almost at end of the road, in a tiny village of less than 1000 people? It seems they are sent anywhere that can house them. And that reminded us of the couple of families we had seen at Bodo airport who looked out of place, not warmly dressed, and we wondered whether they may have been refugees. Indeed every time we were at an airport here we saw what we took to be refugees, in small family groups or lone males, looking somewhat uncertain and carrying no baggage. We felt for them, these individuals, at the mercy of some logistics schedule managed by a distant authority, incredibly far from wherever they began their journeys. A few faces from the million that have been the news headlines in Europe for the past year.
It was in Ballstad that we first saw the fish hanging out to dry. The Lofoten area is know for its fishing and drying of Arctic cod. Fishing is big business on the islands, and cod is the most valuable catch. They fish the cod in winter, after the adults have made their way 800ks south from the Barents Sea to spawn in the Norwegian Sea. Once fished, they are gutted and hung out to dry … until mid June! Every knoll and hill-top was either laden with racks of drying fish, or being prepared to receive fish as they were caught. The result is a speciality called stockfish, which is only produced in any great quantity in Northern Norway. Many other countries have tried, and failed, as a unique combination of temperature – not too warm that flies are a problem, but not too cold that the fish freezes – wind and salinity is needed to preserve the food in this way.
The result is an incredibly nutritious food, with 1kg of stockfish having the equivalent nutritional value of 5kgs of fresh fish. We can report that it is also delicious! Ingrid’s husband cooked it for us one evening and the texture and taste were unlike any other fish we had eaten. Not only is it fished commercially, but also by individuals, and a small rack of fish can often be seeing hanging in the porch of houses, even in the centre of town. Not sure how the neighbours feel when they are downwind of it! One man who gave us a lift one day told us that he catches 500 to 600kg of fish every year, some of which is dried, some frozen, some cooked fresh, some given away. No big deal, just a regular guy catching 600kg of fish. Ingrid’s trip while we were there was to visit her daughters who live on mainland Norway, and before her trip she went to the harbour and bought 20kg of fresh cod. She had the lot gutted and boned, and paid 40 euro total – 2 euro a kg! She then froze this and packed it in her bags for the trip. To those of you reading from Ireland, sorry, we had no room in our rucksacks!
After our Ballstad trip, we headed further down the peninsula, visiting the town of Ramberg where we had booked a B&B. It is a mere 30ks outside Leknes, but is on the outer shore of the islands facing the Atlantic, as opposed to the inner shore facing Norway. With its open views, more dramatic peaks and beautiful beaches, we savoured the long walk we had to reach it. The rigours of our first few days in Lofoten caught up with us in Ramberg and we were both sick, a nasty cold, our first in almost 3 years. We retreated gratefully to Ingrid’s house, feeling charmed to have such a lovely base to rest in. After a few quieter days there, recovering, and doing shorter day walks, we hired a car and toured north to the village of Henningsvaer and south to the end of the road, at the village of Å. Henningsvaer is a pretty town, with one of the busiest fishing fleets in the region, and the added bonus of 2 nice cafes. Along the way we visited some of the beaches of Lofoten – Utakleiv, Hauksland and Vik – which lie about 10kms from Leknes. They are justifiably famous, and regularly feature on lists of Europe’s best beaches (think long stretches of pure white sand, with crystal clear water and backed by steep rocky peaks. And think less sun loungers, more coat and hat!). Further south, the neighbouring towns of Reine and Hamnøy are the star attractions in the peninsula – if you google Lofoten, almost all of the pictures that appear are from here. It is the quintessential Lofoten scenery of high mountains cut by fjords, with tiny villages of colourful fishermen’s cabins built on stilts over the water. While touring here we encountered another quintessential Lofoten sight: minivans full of photographers desperate to get that famous google shot. They are on a fixed tour typically for 2 or 3 days, visiting well-known spots at fixed times of day to maximise light conditions, disgorging their load of photographers, who line up with cameras and tripods (sometimes one in each hand) and snap the same image. Half an hour later they are off to the next beauty spot on their whirlwind tour. They dashed about, with an all consuming desire to have THAT shot of Lofoten, and seemed oblivious to all the other beauty all around. Being in the midst of that was jarring after the slow pace of our first week there. For us, the car is a great way to quickly see a lot of the landscape, and a great shelter from the elements, but we prefer the slow and satisfying appreciation of the scenery that comes with walking. So after 3 days of touring, we were content to hand the car back.
Incidentally, the car was a hybrid, one of many hybrid or full electric cars we saw in Norway. In fact, 25% of new car sales are electric, thanks in part to huge subsidies from the government to reduce their carbon emissions (their electric cars are almost carbon free given 99% of Norway’s electricity come from hydro power). These subsidies include no VAT, no registration tax, free public parking, free charging, free tolls on bridges and tunnels, free ferries and in some places permission to use the bus lanes! With all these incentives it would seem remiss not to buy an electric car! When we reached Oslo, it was not unusual to see 3 Teslas in a row charging on the street. In Lofoten, despite the snow, the roads were a pleasure to drive on, and thanks to a huge fleet of graders, were regularly cleared of snow. The cars all have studded tyres which provide good grip, even on ice, allowing those brave enough to drive as if on dry roads. We first learned this on one of the rides we hitched, where our driver, in response to a question about the area, steered with his elbows as he unfolded a map and pointed to various parts of it, all the while cruising at 80km/hr on an icy road. On another ride, Singaporean tourists picked us up, and nervously steered at around 30km/hr. When it came to our turn, with the experienced-winter-driver-Daniel still in licence limbo-land, Clara was driving, and reassured by the grip, ventured forth at around 70km/hr, hands in the 10 to 2 position!
The other fascination for the Lofoten winter tourists is the Northern Lights, with a view (or a photo!) of these being the ultimate goal of many. Most check constantly the apps on their phones that forecast solar and geomagnetic activity, as well as cloud cover, to predict the hour by hour likelihood of seeing the aurora borealis. In a B&B one night, some excited German tourists told us that tonight was the night, and we duly headed to the porch to look up. There was “something” visible, a sort of series of white flashes, but nothing like the aurora borealis as we know it from pictures. However …. having left Daniel’s camera outside for a few hours to photograph it, it turns out that the camera sees it differently to the naked eye, with green streaks clearly visible. Locals told us afterwards that the full array of colours is visible to the eye when the activity is strong, and is mesmerising to
watch, even after a lifetime under it. Maybe another trip, another time …
We were expecting Norway to be frightfully expensive, but were pleasantly surprised. While fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive – maybe double what we pay for them in Ireland and France – non perishables were similar or just a fraction more expensive. There are cheap options for most products, and we chose one such block of hard cheese on our first grocery trip. The packaging was brown and when we opened it, the cheese was brown. Brown like butterscotch. And somewhat rubbery. Very bizarre, and very hard to believe it was not solid caramel we were having on our wholewheat crackers. Even with our aversion to throwing food away, we never reached the end of that block! Alcohol and meat are notoriously expensive, as is fast food, but we weren’t in the market for these (on this trip anyway!). Early in the trip Daniel caught conjunctivitis, necessitating a trip to the doctor’s. The bill? A mere 20 euro. What was even more astonishing than the price was the process. Having taken a ticket at the dispensing machine in the waiting room, and waiting an hour, the first question he was asked when his turn came was … the month of his birth.
Thrown, he confessed to March – a big no-no. He was dispatched to another practice (and another hour long wait), where the doctor he did see explained that residents are allocated to a practice according to month of birth. Tourists are supposed to be seen wherever they turn up, but clearly the first lady didn’t like the look of his weeping eyes! The next surprise was that the doctor refused payment, telling him instead to pay at an unsupervised machine in the lobby on the way out. There was more evidence of an honest society everywhere we looked, from unlocked bikes left outside, garage doors wide open, honesty systems to pay for coffee in garages etc. What a cool way to live!
And what a cool place, in every sense of the word. The incredibly beautiful scenery, and friendliness of the people were highlights, and although visiting in winter limited us to exploring by road, we saw enough to inspire us to return. A summer trip maybe, with the option to hike the peaks for a view from above. We stayed in Ingrid’s for our last few nights, and took pleasure in preparing a dinner to welcome her back from her travels. What a difference she made to our trip! Even more appreciated than having a lovely house to call home, was her kindness and generosity. Something that will stay with us for a long time.
Following Lofoten we spent 2 weeks housesitting in Oslo, and will now have a 2-week stint in Ireland. After that we fly to Iceland in mid-April with Canada following Iceland. So see all you Canadians in June!
TIPS FOR A TRIP THERE
Some practical information on visiting Lofoten …
How to get there:
The locals, and savvy visitors, fly into Evenes on the north of the peninsula, from where it is a 4-hour drive to Leknes. A good option if you will be renting a car. Otherwise, there are (slightly more expensive) flights into Leknes, via Bodo. The main airlines are Widerøe, SAS and Norwegian air shuttle. Ferries from the mainland are an option too – even in winter – and a car ferry runs from Bodo.
Lofoten is a series of islands connected by bridges or tunnels. The most scenic section stretches from the capital of Lofoten, Svolvaer in the north to the town of Å in the south. This stretch encompasses the islands of Austvågøya (where Svolvaer is), Gimsøy, Vestvågøy (where Leknes is), Flakstadøya (where Ramberg is) and Moskenesøya (where Hamnøy, Reine and Å are). There is one major road that traverses these islands – the E10. The distances are short: Svolvaer to Leknes is around 70km, and Leknes to the end of the road at Å is a further 65km.
The southernmost part of the peninsula is the most scenic, from Ramberg to Å. Reine is the most famous village here, followed by its neighbour, Hamnøy. The town of Ramberg is also lovely; although it lacks the traditional fishing huts on stilts, it has a beautiful beach and gorgeous views of the mountains.
Some great beaches are Ramberg, Flakstad (just a few kms from Ramberg) and in the Leknes region: Utakleiv, Vik and Haukland. Beautiful white sandy beaches, with a view to the dramatic peaks further up or down the coast.
North of Leknes, the town of Henningsvaer is pretty, and as an active fishing village is a good place to watch the trawlers returning with their catch, and the cod hanging up to dry.
Ballstad, although not particularly pretty, is another working fishing village with fish a-plenty!
The larger towns of Svolvaer or Leknes are the places to stock up on groceries. We weren’t in Svolvaer, so can only speak for Leknes. In the centre of town there are several supermarkets, in the following ascending order of price: REMA 1000, Bunnpris and Coop. We found REMA considerably cheaper for many of the same products to be found in the other two. Coop is a bigger shop, so more suitable if you need a large variety. By law, all large supermarkets are closed on Sunday, but the Bunnpris opens a small portion of the shop, selling essentials.
There is a good Bunnpris in Ramberg too, with prices fairly similar to those in Leknes.
Reine has a Coop, but for our small sample of groceries it was a whopping 50% more expensive than the prices in Leknes. Emergencies only!
Another decent small chain is Joker, which aswell as groceries, supplies table and chairs and a large thermos of coffee, for around 1 euro (the one in Ballstad has free refills for any of you caffeine addicts out there).
We struggled to find nice cafes that were open when we wanted coffee. Leknes has what looks like a lovely cafe, called Huset, but it was undergoing refurbishment while we were there. We heard from other tourists about a nice cafe in Reine, but we couldn’t find it when we visited. The Statoil garages have machines dispensing ok coffee, and the Joker supermarkets are handy if you are stuck. But don’t count on finding coffee before 8 or 9am in the morning; even the Statoil doesn’t open until 10am (on a Sunday). Further north there are lovely cafes in Henningsvaer, a town that looks very well set up for tourists generally, with nice looking restaurants, galleries etc.
With the high cost of dining out, we didn’t sample the restaurants. And for this reason most accommodation options seem to be self-catering. Several locals, as well as Norwegian tourists, told us that the dining out in Lofoten is generally disappointing, with most restaurants offering pizzas, burgers and kebabs. Incredibly, fish is hard to find, and (in their view) poorly prepared. The one exception is Johnsen’s Fiskerestaurant in Leknes.
Everyone we met spoke English well, so no problems on that front. (The only exceptions were Daniel’s doctor and the pharmacist who filled his prescription – the pharmacist wanted to explain that he should put cream on his lower eyelid, but lacking the vocabulary, instructed him to put it on the edge 🙂
Walking in Lofoten:
Lofoten is really a wonderful place to walk, and we can’t recommend it highly enough. The scenery is stunningly beautiful, and with the short distances from one bay to the next, you are richly rewarded with new views for every few kilometres walked. Indeed, the scenery is so stunning, and the distances so short, that is hard to appreciate it fully if you are whizzing around at 80km/hr. Outside the E10 (and a couple of other routes listed below), the roads are quiet, and pleasant to walk on. Drivers on these roads are courteous and may even offer you a lift as you walk. As a glance at the map will reveal, there are numerous peninsulas off the main road (the E10), with local roads giving access to these areas. The roads follow the coast and the views here are beautiful – ideal places for walking. Getting to these peninsulas will mean short stretches on the E10, and we recommend hitching these stretches, as it is both unsafe and unpleasant to walk on. Hitching should be no problem, and as well as saving you from walking on busy roads, is a great way to meet the locals. We hitched around 10 rides, and never had to wait long. The roads to avoid are: the E10, the 815 between Leknes and Stamsund, and the 818 from Gravdal to Ballstad. Note that Sunday mornings are very quiet, so if you start early, you could even walk on these roads.
Wild camping was easier than we thought. Once you are not on the E10, or in a town, finding a quiet place to pitch your tent should be no problem. This is particularly true the further off the E10 you wander. The locals on Lofoten seem very welcoming of tourists, and as nature lovers themselves, enjoy seeing others walking, camping and appreciating the magnificent scenery. We didn’t need to ask to camp on anyone’s land, but imagine they would be more likely to say yes than in many other countries!
Our experience here was in winter, and walking in summer should be easier. The numerous hiking trails will be accessible then, and with even more visitors, there will be more potential lifts.