March 2020 The Remote Norwegian Islands Well Worth the Trip

The Remote Norwegian Islands Well Worth the Trip

Find your lane in Lofoten: A Nordland fjord scene.
Find your lane in Lofoten: A Nordland fjord scene.
Photo by Ulf Svane
The Lofoten Islands are a must for outdoor, art, and history enthusiasts. 
The silver cube came into view as the road rounded the inlet from Sydalen. Drawing near, I assumed it was a one-room cabin; after all, rural Norway is known for innovative lodging. I was wrong – I’d happened on American artist Dan Graham’s Untitled sculpture (unofficially known as The Showercabinet), a curved mirror that reflects water, mountains, and whoever is standing before the eight-foot-tall glass-and-steel frame.

I was exploring the Lofoten archipelago, solidly within the Arctic Circle in Norway’s Nordland County, where human settlements date back 5,500 years. The area is home to a mosaic of verdant mountains, outdoor art, fishing villages, and deep history. In fact, just 37 years ago, archaeologists unearthed the world’s largest Viking chieftain house about a 30-minute drive from where I was standing.
The back side of Dan Graham’s Untitled sculpture in Lofoten.
The back side of Dan Graham’s Untitled sculpture in Lofoten.
Photo by Ulf Svane
This far north, in spite of winters devoid of sunlight, residents maintain some of the world’s highest happiness quotients. Case in point: the Bathing Angels, a group of women who swim in the Norwegian Sea every month of the year except July, when “everybody swims” in midsummer’s balmy 45- to 60-degree water, as one of the Angels told me. Something special has been going on in Lofoten for more than five millennia, and, like other visitors creating a recent tourism surge, I wanted to check it out.

To get there, I flew from Oslo to Bodø, then boarded a ferry for the six-hour crossing to Moskenes, near the archipelago’s southeast end. Tour operator 50 Degrees North organized my self-driving itinerary and arranged a meeting with Havard Lund, a jazz clarinetist and unofficial Nordland ambassador known throughout Norway’s artistic community for his musical collaborations and colorful insights. “The sea is calm on the inside, but rough on the outside,” he told me. “I guess the locals are the same.”
Stamsund’s red cottages. 
Stamsund’s red cottages. 
Photo by Ulf Svane
I stopped in Stamsund, a town at the base of Mount Steinetinden. It’s lined, like many coastal towns in Lofoten, with fire-red quayside cottages once occupied by cod fishermen and now mostly available to let. A bartender at Live Lofoten restaurant recommended a visit to Henningsvær, a fishing village strewn across several islets an hour east that doubles as an outdoor recreation hub and artists’ hamlet.
An actor in character at the Lofotr Vikingmuseum.
An actor in character at the Lofotr Vikingmuseum.
Photo by Ulf Svane
At the Lofotr Vikingmuseum in Borg, bands of light darted across a tethered Viking ship that floated in a body of water across the way. The Chieftain’s House, where the museum resides, is a replica of the one unearthed here during the excavation in the 1980s. The interactive exhibits transport visitors back 1,000 years, with cooking, sewing, and craft demonstrations by historically appareled actors among actual artifacts (sorry, Brunhilde, Viking helmets do not have horns) and other opportunities to embrace the Viking-age lifestyle. Old Norse staples such as fish soup, mutton broth, leg of lamb, and hearth-baked bread are served in the Chieftain’s House for lunch or during Viking feasts in the evenings, when actors perform traditional songs and share Nordland fables.
Cecilie Haaland shaping a ceramic piece at Engelskmannsbrygga studio. 
Cecilie Haaland shaping a ceramic piece at Engelskmannsbrygga studio. 
Photo by Ulf Svane
Walking through the narrow harbor streets of Henningsvær, I found Engelskmannsbrygga, the studio of several artists, including Cecilie Haaland. It was filled with displays of bone-white ceramics; a trio of potted daisies and a slumbering border collie were on the stoop. Kafé Lysstøperiet, a patisserie, brimmed with cinnamon buns; meringues; a forest of coconut-lathered bouchons; and berry, dark chocolate, and lemon tarts. A gaggle of fresh-faced hiking guides were receiving an orientation around its community table.
The Kavi Fac Ory gallery.
The Kavi Fac Ory gallery.
Photo by Ulf Svane
Henningsvær’s Kavi Fac Ory gallery (aka KaviarFactory) takes its name from the remaining letters on the sign of the former caviar factory that occupied this site. A striking three-story contemporary art space established by Oslo-based curators Venke and Rolf Hoff, the gallery supports young artists and has evolved into an international destination. Ai Weiwei has exhibited here; Yoko Ono was an artist in residence.

A Lofoten Islands-hopping guide.

50 Degrees North’s seven-day journey lays out a self-driving tour across Norway’s Lofoten Islands, just north of the Arctic Circle. Take the 90-minute flight from Oslo to Bodø, then connect to Leknes in the center of Lofoten or catch a ferry to Stamsund. The weather during spring and fall can quickly turn chilly and wet; summer remains cool under the midnight sun. Departures: Any day, May through September.

Lindblad Expeditions sails through the Lofoten Islands on its 17-day Norway, Iceland, and Greenland itinerary. The cruise, in coordination with the World Wildlife Fund, travels from Reykjavik to Tromsø on the recently launched 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance. The ice-cutter-class vessel has all outside-facing cabins and an onboard spa. Departures: April 30 and May 29.

The northern lights reliably sparkle in Norway’s Arctic Circle. G Adventures takes travelers round-trip from Tromsø on a seven-day winter tour that features dogsledding, a visit to a reindeer farm, and an introduction to the indigenous Sami culture. Guests also explore a historic fishing village in the Lofoten archipelago. Departures: Multiple dates through March 14, 2021.

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