Monday , September 25 2023

Arctic adventure: kayaking in Viking country

We arrive by night, the wind and rain battering Svolvaer harbour, the last stop on a 3½-hour ferry journey from mainland Bodø through the ink-black Arctic waters of northernmost Norway to the Lofoten Islands. My girlfriend and I have come here to kayak in some of the world’s most dramatic and remote scenery – an ancient land of sawtooth peaks, ghost-white coral beaches, and a remote beauty unlike anywhere else on the planet.


We awake to lashing rain the next morning: the elements, with a violence akin to Thor’s hammer, are continuing to stamp their authority on the islandIn misty daylight, Svolvaer, the main settlement and transport hub, reveals a jaw-dropping natural drama of vertiginous mountains towering over a blend of low red rorbuer (timber fishers’ huts) cheek by jowl with modernist Lego hotels. It should be architecturally discordant, but the little town, with its confection of galleries, gift shops and cafes has a lo-fi charm that quickly grows on us.

red walled cabins
‘Rorbuer’ fishers’ cottages at Nusfjord” Photograph: Richard Waters

It’s not only humans like us who are attracted by these waters: for some of the largest carnivores in the ocean, among them sperm whale and orca, the Lofoten archipelago is a regular fixture in their migratory diaries. And let’s not forget the reason there is a rosy red fishing cabin at every turn: cod fishing is what built Norway, and right here is where it started. Every winter for centuries, giant skrei (cod) have migrated from the Barents Sea to the Lofoten Islands to spawn. In the absence of salt to preserve it, the canny Vikings dried the gutted cod on hjell, wooden triangular racks built on the shore, and let the cold air and wind turn it into stockfish. The dried fish is packed with nutrition, and its keeping qualities allowed the Vikings to sail vast distances; it is one of the primary reasons, aside from their seafaring brilliance, that they “discovered” America 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

We get our first go at kayaking here with a loquacious guide who introduces himself as Odd. “You’re pulling my leg,” I say. “No, really,” he smiles. Odd’s a true islander, a waterman who knows every skerry and lump of rock here. After running us through how to capsize gracefully, he says: “Lofoten means ‘lynx foot’ in Norse – that’s what the Vikings called it. And don’t worry about the weather: there’s a microclimate here, so while here we have fog and rain today, it can be clear further north. Come on, we have a small window to cheat the weather.”

Half an hour’s drive later – and with the cunning of Loki (god of mischief) – Odd has taken us from omnipresent mist to clear skies. He even conjures a low-flying sea eagle into the mix. We pull up beside a coral beach overlooked by serrated mountains and climb into neoprene dry suits. Soon we’re kayaking across a watery landscape lifted from the pages of an Icelandic saga, the 3million-year-old mountains swathed in ice, the clear sky turning into a low canopy of glowering clouds. As we paddle round the corner of an islet to another white ground-coral beach, a jet-coloured seal pup surfaces to say hello, and is shortly joined by an otter. The mercurial light is extraordinary, with golden shafts streaming biblically through clouds, alighting on sandy shallows and firing them a rich verdigris; no wonder artists from all over the world are drawn here to paint.

A white ground-coral beach north of Svolvaer
A white ground-coral beach north of Svolvaer

That evening we seek shelter from the rain in the excellent Lofoten War Memorial Museum, with its military uniforms, weaponry and snapshots of the second world war. For a brief time, a brave Norwegian resistance operated against the Nazis in the Lofoten archipelago and parts of the nearby mainland.

Arms aching from yesterday’s paddling, we jump in a hire car and set off for the far south of the archipelago. Passing a black fjord on the island of Vestvågøya, I imagine a fleet of dragon-prowed skeið (warships) setting off for distant shores. Right on cue, an enormous upturned ship looms into view on a hill. It is in fact a former chieftain’s home, excavated in 1983. Now fully restored, it is the largest longhouse in the known Viking world. Lofotr Viking Museum, which sits beside it, presents these infamous people in an altogether different light: Vikings filed their teeth, produced fine filigree jewellery, celebrated the woman as a warrior and even ironed their clothes with hot stones. Yes, they took hallucinogens and raped and pillaged on raiding missions, but they were also skilled navigators and sailors, farmers and, for the time (ninth to 11th centuries), pretty hygienic: bathing weekly and taking fastidious care of their glossy plaits.

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It’s dusk as we arrive at Nusfjord Arctic Resort, where rorbuer huddled around an icy harbour in the skirts of a mountain have been converted into apartments combining Scandi-chic minimalism with home comforts. Chris Hemsworth filmed part of his Limitless TV series here, plunging into the icy waters under supervision from explorer Ross Edgley – the man who swam 100km in the Caribbean towing a log. We opt instead to marinate in their spa’s outdoor hot tub beneath a web of stars, pretending we’re not desperate to see the northern lights.

Blond woman with kayak and paddle
Kayaking guide and hotelier Runhild Olsen at Reine village

The next morning we head to Reine, 45 minutes’ drive west. With its stilted cabins and turquoise bay ringed by fang-shaped mountains, it is known as one of the most photogenic villages in the world. Our kayaking guide today is the effervescent Runhild, who runs Reine Paddling out of her boutique hotel, Catogården. The water furrows and darkens as we head in the direction of Sakrisøy, the dinky village where the TV series Twin was filmed. Beyond the harbour, the weather twitches and wind stipples the now ink-dark waters as we paddle, and Runhild talks of her past as an actor and fisher: “I used to fish with my dad but the sea took him.”

There is something stoic and accepting in her disclosure, because, for all its beauty, this remote string of jewels at what seems the edge of the world is a place that can so easily take away as well as give. There is only one boss here, and the Vikings called it flœðr (the sea).
The trip was organised by Destination Lofoten. The express boat from Bodø to Lofoten’s Svolvaer takes 3½ hours and costs £63 each way. Thon Hotel Svolvær has doubles from £120 B&B; Nusfjord Arctic Resort has converted fishers’ cabins from £184 for two. Half-day kayaking trips from Svolvaer with Experience Lofoten cost £76pp, and from Reine with Lofoten Aktiv £10pp. More information from

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