Norway’s Lofoten Islands are a spellbinding mix of fjords, whales and Viking legend – and the drive there’s not bad either…
"The captain will be the last one to give up.”
Our guide’s words were whipped away by the Arctic wind and scattered across the lumpy hide of the Norwegian Sea where fulmars free-styled in our wake and, somewhere deep below us, sperm whales waged war with giant squid.
A succession of bruising swells slammed into the hull of the trawler-turned-whale-watching-boat.
There goes another one, I noted grimly as an ashen-faced passenger rushed to the rail.
Four hours earlier, we had picked up the sonar clicks of hunting whales on the ship’s hydrophones. But the 75-ton cetaceans were proving elusive — unusual for trips that boast a high success rate for sightings. The Bleik Canyon, a kilometre-deep rent in the seabed off the northern tip of Norway’s Vesterålen Islands, is prime hunting territory for bull sperm whales. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that it would take more than a fluke to lift the spirits of our green-gilled crew.
After another hour of fruitless searching, we headed back to Andenes. As the M/S Reine slipped into the lee of the harbour’s breakwater there was an almost audible sigh of relief. “At least we heard the whales,” I proffered to some fellow passengers. The more stoic were enquiring about a return trip (Whale Safari offers a free tour if your first is unsuccessful), but I already had my car keys in hand. Never had four wheels and terra firma seemed so inviting.
Besides, the whale-watching tour was just a side trip, a diversion, I told myself as I weaved across the car park on legs that were still grappling with an unruly sea.
The central locking on my rental car chirped happily; I slid into the driver’s seat and unfolded the map lying pristine and full of promise on the dashboard. And there it was: a road unravelling from Andenes all the way through the Vesterålen and Lofoten Islands, linking the twinned archipelagos like a strand of dental floss wound through the wonky jaw bone of a sperm whale.
I could imagine mountains rearing on all sides; forested slopes, rocky scree and glacier-polished cliffs mirrored in the silky waters of fjords and inlets. Ahead lay truly epic scenery: a road trip through the Middle Earth of Scandinavia.
About 13 years ago, I travelled from Bergen to the North Cape on a small cruise ship. Don’t get me wrong. I love a Norwegian cruise as much as anyone, especially if it’s on one of the local Hurtigruten ferries – lifelines to ports and settlements the length of the fjords. But when we dropped anchor in a bay hemmed in by the jagged peaks of the Lofoten Islands, I knew a day’s shore leave was not going to be enough. I’d been plotting a return visit ever since.
Driving south from the whale-watching port of Andenes, I skirted the shoreline of Andfjorden, its bays and inlets drizzled with honey-coloured kelp and daubed with brightly painted boathouses. It was early September and the Vesterålen Islands were on the cusp of autumn – birch forests gilding mountain flanks with a flush of ginger stubble. The mountains may have had their heads in thick cloud, but nothing could suppress a glowing Scandinavian fall.
The Vesterålens nuzzle the Norwegian mainland near Narvik, big brooding islands cleaved by fjords and deep bays, while the neighbouring Lofotens curve south-westwards — all pointy and improbable, like the tail of some enormous dragon.
For the most part I would be following the E10 — one of the most scenic roads in Europe — which fizzles out in a fishing village called Å (the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet and pronounced ‘or’). Before I even reached the E10, however, I was lured north on a side road and the promise of some fine hiking.
A short drive north from Sortland (the largest town in the Vesterålens), the tiny port of Stö cowers between austere cliffs and the Norwegian Sea. I had barely parked the car before a fleeting glimpse of a sea eagle had me fumbling for my boots. It flew west on broad, finger-tipped wings, following a coast dimpled with sandy coves and boulder-strewn beaches – the setting for the Dronningruta, or Queen’s Route.
To begin with, the eight-hour, 15km round trip (named after Queen Sonja of Norway who hiked it in 1994) weaved through coastal tundra, a richly textured tapestry of mosses, lichens and berries. My trail map was marked with intriguing annotations such as ‘Eagle Rock’ and ‘Resting place for eagles’ but I saw nothing more of the magnificent raptors with their 2m wingspans. Instead, I focused on the path as it switchbacked through birch forest, climbing to a mist-smudged pass before descending to Nyksund. Largely abandoned in the 1970s, this once-thriving fishing village marks the halfway point of the hike before it loops inland, tracing mountain ridges back to Stö.
Around 1900, Nyksund was the hub of the Vesterålen’s cod fishery. Now, stilted shacks and clapboard houses teeter above a largely empty harbour – a sad yet serene monument to a port stifled by inadequate infrastructure and cut off from the outside world.
Even today, Nyksund can only be reached by the Queen’s Route or a rough gravel road. Had it not been for the construction of the E10, fishing settlements in equally remote parts of the Lofoten Islands might have faced a similar fate.
Cajoling a surfaced, two-lane road through the formidable terrain of the Lofotens was no easy matter. Backtracking to Sortland, then south to Gullesfjordbotn, I joined the legendary highway and immediately began to appreciate just what an incredible feat of engineering the E10 was.
Driving westwards, I steeled myself for a first glimpse of the snaggle-toothed mountains I remembered so vividly from my first visit to the islands. But the road burrowed into the first of several long tunnels; the views were blacked out and I was left counting down kilometre marker posts before bursting back into the open.
Each tunnel was a big tease, snatching away views, then opening, like a magical portal, on a new, more stupendous landscape than the one before. At other points, the road arched across narrow inlets on whale-back bridges or cut a fine line between sheer cliffs and kelp-wrapped shore.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached Svolvær, the main town on the island of Austvågøy. I checked into the waterfront Anker Brygge Hotel, a cluster of red-painted, stilted fishermen’s huts, known locally as rorbu, which had been converted into cosy self-catering accommodation.
Svolvær is the transport hub of the Lofotens – a Hurtigruten liner sidles into the harbour most evenings (accompanied by a blast of its horn, which echoes through the surrounding peaks) and there’s an airstrip on a rare piece of flat ground on the town’s outskirts. I settled into my wood-panelled rorbu for a few nights, venturing out each day to explore nearby attractions.
A short drive south-west, picture-postcard Henningsvær clings to the coast, its wooden houses strung with garlands of dried Arctic cod. Further afield, at Borg, the Lofotr Viking Museum has reconstructed – in astonishing detail – an 83m-long chieftain’s longhouse.
“When archaeologists found the remains of this longhouse, they were ecstatic,” enthused one of Lofotr’s guides. Excavations began in the 1980s, she told me, when a local farmer’s curiosity was piqued after he ploughed a field a little deeper one year and uncovered some unusual black soil. It turned out to be the foundations of the largest building known from the Viking world.
Inhabited from around AD500-900, the longhouse once more stands proud above the windswept hills of Borg – one of the dozen or so Viking chiefdoms from Iron Age north Norway. It’s thought that Borg’s last chieftain may have been Olaf Tvennumbruni, who relocated to Iceland due to conflict with other chiefs. Whoever it was, however, modern-day historians at Lofotr – dressed in authentic garb – help to keep the Viking spirit and traditions of the place alive.
Ducking inside the longhouse, with its open hearths and Great Hall, I was greeted by a woman who took me far beyond the hackneyed image of Vikings as plunderers and pillagers. “Vikings were adventurers, traders, farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters, hunters,” she explained. “Artefacts found here include beads and glass from as far as the Mediterranean.”
And, no, they didn’t have horns on their helmets, she told me, but they were highly superstitious, shape-shifting into the spirit worlds of bears, wolves and eagles.
Pagan beliefs were also evident the following day when I joined a sea kayaking tour in Trollfjorden. Accessible only by sea, this deep gash in the rocky mêlée of the Lofotens has sheer cliffs over 400m high.
If you believe the myths, the fjord was hewn by an axe thrown by quarrelling trolls. But my guide, Sigurd Schultz, had another explanation. Paddling into the narrow cleft, granite walls looming and trolls hunkered down on the peaks above, he described how Ice Age glaciers carved the fjord and polished its sides but couldn’t quite consume the summits of the surrounding mountains – leaving their ragged outlines rasping the skyline.
Trollfjorden wasn’t the last of the diversions on my E10 pilgrimage. The following day, probing ever further west, I took an impulsive right turn and found myself in the village of Unstad, its houses scattered like confetti flakes at the end of a wide U-shaped valley. Born and bred in the Arctic Ocean, breakers strafed the nearby pebble shore – one of Europe’s latest surfing hotspots for neoprene-clad adventurers.
Returning to the E10, I drove on past Leknes. Mountains pressed closer and the road seemed to be losing its battle to tame the landscape. It became narrower and less smooth; the cuttings more roughly chiselled. But it took a deep breath and disappeared into an undersea tunnel, 50m below the surface of the Nappstraumen, to emerge on the island of Flakstadøya. Sweeping bays of white sand added to the repertoire of coastal scenes and I found myself pulling over every few minutes to gaze at the views.
Finally, at the end of an easy day’s drive, I crossed a bridge to the island of Moskenesøya, passing fishing villages such as Hamnøy and Reine before reaching an emphatic full stop at Å.
A path led onto the headland just above the village where I could see the mighty Lofotens marching onwards for a few more kilometres before abruptly halting, teetering over the sea. I could just make out the islands of Væroy and Røst — beyond the reach of any bridge or tunnel that even the E10 could devise. Ferries, however, do run to these Lofoten outliers, but I was content to stop at Å. The village has an atmospheric old museum, crammed with creaky floorboards and fishing paraphernalia.
And then, of course, there’s always the return journey...
One of the big pluses of driving the E10 to Å is that you get to do it all over again, west to east, feasting on views that had previously been cropped to the dimensions of your rear-view mirror.
Be warned though: the E10 isn’t restricted to the Lofoten Islands. Retracing the road east I eventually found myself crossing onto the Norwegian mainland. It suddenly struck me how close the Swedish border was and, beyond that, Abisko National Park. With more time, I could have driven the entire 850km length of this extraordinary road, linking the Lofotens to Lapland, going from Å to Luleå on the Gulf of Bothnia.
Dropping off the car at Evenes airport for my homeward flight via Oslo, I carefully folded my E10 road map and slipped it into my hand luggage. I had a strong feeling that some day I’d be needing it again.
William Gray is an award-winning travel writer and photographer, and author of many guides including Travel With Kids and Wildlife Travel (both Footprint). He is also a Wanderlust Contributing Editor.
The author travelled with Discover the World on its Around Lofoten self-drive trip. The nine-night itinerary operates from May to September and costs from £1,374 per person based on two sharing. The price includes: return flights from London Heathrow to Evenes via Oslo (around four hours); three nights at Hotel Sortland, two nights at Thon Hotel in Svolvaer and one night at Thon Hotel in Harstad (all in rooms with private facilities on a B&B basis); three nights at Eliassen Rorbuer on a self-catering basis; nine days car hire; airport taxes.