Draped across the turbulent waters of the Norwegian Sea, far above the Arctic Circle, Norway’s Lofoten Islands are, by any standard, staggeringly beautiful.
In a largely tamed and heavily populated continent, the Lofoten are a rare wilderness outpost, an untrammelled landscape of rearing mountains, deep fjords, squawking seabird colonies and long, surf-swept beaches.
This was never a land for the faint-hearted, but, since Viking times, a few hundred islanders have always managed to hang on here, eking out a tough existence from the thin soils and cod-rich waters. Many emigrated, while those who stayed came to think they were unlucky: unlucky with the price of the fish on which they were dependent, unlucky to be so isolated, and unlucky when the storms rolled in to lash their tiny villages.
Then Norway found tourism. The first boatloads turned out to be English missionaries bent on saving souls, but subsequent contacts proved more financially rewarding. Even better, the Norwegians found oil in the 1960s, lots and lots of oil, quite enough to extend the road network to the smallest village, and thereby end rural isolation at a stroke.
The islands’ villages have benefited from this road-building bonanza and yet kept their erstwhile charm, from the remote Å i Lofoten in the south through to the beguiling headland hamlet of Henningsvaer, extravagantly picturesque Nusfjord and solitary Stamsund.
Today, the Lofoten have their own relaxed pace. For somewhere so far north, the weather can be exceptionally mild: you can spend summer days sunbathing on the rocks or hiking around the superb coastline.When it rains, as it does frequently, life focuses on the rorbuer (fishermen’s huts), where freshly caught fish are cooked over wood-burning stoves, tales are told and time gently wasted.
If this sounds contrived, in a sense it is – the way of life here is to some extent preserved for the tourists. But it’s rare to find anyone who isn’t enthralled by it all.
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