Thursday 14 December 2017

Can't Afjord to miss it

Island-hopping gets a whole new meaning in Norway, Joe O'Shea discovered, as he explored the Lofotens and enjoyed dramatic fjordal scenery in never-ending daylight

fjords of the Lofoten Islands offer spectacular scenery
The fjords of the Lofoten Islands offer spectacular scenery

Joe O'Shea

The problem with going whale-watching inside the arctic circle is that sometimes the whales just don't want to play ball. Sure, you can fly to the spectacular Lofoten Islands, get kitted out like a techno trawlerman and spend hours bouncing across the fjords in a high-powered RIB with a man called Knut.

But if the whales are having a Greta Garbo moment, there's very little that Knut or anybody else can do.

In the long hours waiting for the beluga and northern minke to get with the programme, you can bob around enjoying the awesome scenery of the far Lofotens, an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands within the arctic circle off the north coast of Norway.

The far north of Norway is famous for the Northern Lights of deep winter. But as a summer destination, when it boasts 24-hour sunshine, temperatures in the low 20s and pristine, spectacular islands, fjords, mountains and beaches, it makes an enticing alternative to the sun-traps of the Med or the more established back-packer trails of Europe and further afield.

The sheer drama and majesty of the Lofoten Islands, dotted across the immense Vestfjord, almost defy description, especially for Irish people used to a tamer, more homely coastline.

They are the Irish Atlantic coastline as filmed by Cecil B DeMille, the Aran Islands in Digital Widescreen and HD.

The Lofoten Islands and the

Helgeland coast have one of the most unique climates in the world. In island towns such as Svolvær, the sun is above the horizon from May 25 to July 17. That's 24 hours of sunshine daily.

Even into mid-August, the sun remains just above the horizon through to midnight and the 'night' retains an eerie half-light, with rays of sunshine streaking across blood-red, high cirrus clouds.

But what makes the weather really special is the influence of the Gulf Stream on one side and the stable weather systems of far northern continental Russia on the other.

These systems virtually park themselves over the Lofoten Islands from mid-May through to mid-August, meaning (usually) very little rain or cloud. Temperatures in mid-summer can rise to around the low-to-mid-20s and the sun shines for hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

In the short window of the Midnight sun, the long, golden beaches play host to campers, backpackers and holiday-home-dwelling families splashing about in the cleanest seas in the world.

Picture a fine summer's day on a beach in Connemara or west Cork then remember that you are inside the arctic circle. And the sun won't be going down until August.

In high summer, the Lofoten Islands are Kerry or Donegal without the threat of clouds and rain and with added mind-boggling scenery. The vast fjords and endless sky actually begin to play tricks with your senses.

You can feel disorientated and overwhelmed.

A sit down and a cup of coffee usually helps. It's often quirky.

At Gimsoysand you can play golf on the spectacular Lofoten Links course at 3am then cool down with a swim at the nearby beach, with only the sea and a bit of ice between you and the north pole.

It's no wonder that their fastest-growing tourism market is with discerning Spanish, Italian and French travellers looking to escape the crowded beaches of the Med for an unspoilt and spectacular sunny seascape.

They come for the whale watching, mountain climbing, trekking, cycling and fishing. Surfing, sea-kayaking and diving are also popular; there is even a winter arctic surfing festival for the truly fearless.

My own journey began, after a flight from Dublin to Heathrow and on to Trondheim, in the town of Bodo. Bodo is a nondescript fishing town on the mainland that's a jumping off point for the boats and planes that act as the bus service for the Lofotens and further north.

The regional airline, Wideroe, is the Norwegian Aer Arran, connecting all of the islands to each other and the mainland via short-hop flights in twin-propeller planes over some seriously spectacular scenery.

The next five days were spent hopping from one island to another. One flight was just 12 minutes long but still took in the incredible scenery of the famous Trollfjord.

We went walking along empty, white-sand beaches and climbed high above the sea cliffs, watching the wildlife on land, sea and in the air (giant sea eagles are a common sight in the fjords).

Almost all of the islands are also linked by road, tunnels and bridges and renting a car is a real option (as is cycling for the more active).

The bridges span entire fjords and the tunnels link even the smallest islands -- an amazing feat of engineering made possible by Norway's immense oil and gas revenues.

In some countries, oil money is spent on gaudy seven-star hotels and solid gold Lamborghinis for the guys in charge.

The sensible Norwegians have invested their vast wealth in public services and the National Wealth Fund, a national pension scheme worth €280 billion that owns one per cent of the world's total stocks and shares.

The fund has taken a hit in the current economic downturn but is still worth €70,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. With just 4.6 million Norwegians living in a vast country with immense natural resources, this is a pristine, quietly wealthy country, dotted with little towns and fishing villages of identikit red, yellow and white wooden houses that were apparently assembled by Ikea.

The downside to all of this prosperity (and Norway is not in the EU) is that it can be expensive. A pint of Arctic Beer can cost around €10 and a meal in a mid-range restaurant for two people will not leave you with much change from €80.

One night for two in one of the local Rica Hotels chain -- in Bodo or in an island town such as Stokmarknes -- will set you back around €160 in mid-June.

But you can travel cheaply. The Lofotens offer budget accommodation in youth hostels, camp sites and converted fishermen's cabins (known as rorbu) and there are plenty of supermarkets and snack bars that will allow you to eat on the cheap.

The high season coincides with the weeks of the Midnight sun, but there is also a growing winter travel trade. Trips to watch the Northern Lights on the Lofotens are increasingly popular -- especially with the Japanese -- and the gulf stream means that winter temperatures rarely fall far below freezing.

But be warned, the winter sun does not rise between December 4 and January 7 and for much of the time around those dates you are virtually in 24-hour darkness.

The high summer is the time to go and if you are into the great outdoors, looking for spectacular, unspoilt scenery far off the beaten path or just want an epic version of our own Atlantic coast with guaranteed sunshine, the Lofoten Islands are well worth a look.

Irish Independent

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