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Arctic Cycle

Remote and unspoiled, sunlit day and night, the Lofoten archipelago is quite a ride in summer

The midnight sun on the Norwegian Sea off Ramberg.
The midnight sun on the Norwegian Sea off Ramberg. (Wessel Kok for The Boston Globe)
By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2008
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VOLVAER - The minute our small propeller plane stopped on the runway, a young man ran up to roll out a red carpet.

Alas, the royal treatment was not for us but for Queen Sonja of Norway, 70, who with her four-person entourage had sat in the front of the plane on the 25-minute flight from the mainland to Lofoten, an island chain above the Arctic Circle. For the queen, the flight attendants had donned white gloves and the pilot had addressed his remarks to "her majesty, ladies, and gentlemen."

Our brush with royalty was a thrilling start to what turned out to be an exciting week on this Norwegian archipelago famous for its beautiful scenery of rocky shorelines and jagged snow-capped mountains that seem to shoot out of the deep blue ocean. Famous, at least, among Europeans.

Only about 1 percent of visitors to Lofoten are American, though that's likely to grow. Last year, National Geographic Traveler magazine ranked the islands as some of the world's most unspoiled.

Once reachable only by boat, Lofoten's four main islands are now connected by tunnels and bridges and have 23,500 residents. The islands are separated from the mainland by a 100-mile fiord that, from January to April, is packed with commercial fishing boats going after spawning Nor wegian Arctic cod. The cod, which is later salted and dried, is known as stockfish.

For centuries, cod has played a huge role on Lofoten. Not only does cod remain an industry, but also the islands' quaint fishing villages and updated brick-red fishing cabins, called rorbu, attract a growing number of tourists.

Surprisingly, we found stockfish on only a few menus. Most of it is shipped to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where it is a staple.

We did see stockfish all over on handmade wooden racks, where they hang drying for months, usually February to early June. Some racks held 50; others held 5,000 or more. Locals even decorate the outsides of their houses with them. They were an impressive if unappetizing sight.

Because Lofoten is relatively compact, only about 110 miles end to end, with striking views around almost every corner, it's a popular destination for bicyclists. It's also a magnet for tour groups traveling by bus and Europeans driving recreational vehicles. While we found that most drivers were polite, the main highway, E10, is narrow, often curvy, sometimes hilly, and has few shoulders.

We traveled in mid-June, during the time of midnight sun but before tourists swarm in July and August. Despite Lofoten hosting about 280,000 tourists a year, many of the villages remain remote and working class.

We had brought cycling gear and arranged to rent bikes through Lofoten Aktiv, a company run by Jann Engstad, 54, who specializes in kayak trips. "When I was young, we couldn't understand each other island-to-island because of the dialects," he said. "They didn't have bridges then; we had to row across."

Our first night was in Kabelvag, 3 miles from Svolvaer, Lofoten's largest city and administrative center. In Kabelvag's quaint center, adjacent to its tiny harbor, we tasted two firsts at the bar-restaurant Praestengbrygga: a beer brewed by Mack, "the world's most northern brewery" (in Tromso) and whale meat. Eating "hval" here is commonplace, but I couldn't enjoy it with a clear conscience. It was only a little easier swallowing a $12 beer.

Kabelvag was once home to the medieval town of Vagar, said to be the first settlement in northern Norway. An important fishing village thrived here in the 19th century, and its buildings now make up the Lofoten Museum, which is worth a visit.

Exhibits include two traditional waterfront rorbuer (the plural), or "rowers' dwellings," the red cabins that are sprinkled along Lofoten's shoreline and its sheltered inlets. Some are on hills overlooking the water, some are set back from the water, and others are on stilts over the water. Nowadays, many have been updated or rebuilt as midrange and upscale lodging.

Deciding to travel south to north on our make-it-up-as-you-go zigzag route, we took a public bus, stashing our bikes underneath, to the southernmost tip of Lofoten and a village called A (pronounced ah). The ride, winding along the coastal highway, was breathtaking as the 10 p.m. sun cast long shadows on the mountains and valleys.

Once a working fishing village, A is now a living museum. With a cluster of perfectly preserved rorbuer and several interesting museums, it's a favorite stop on the tour-bus circuit.

Hugging the ocean on our bikes, we soaked in panoramas of several fishing villages, the most scenic being Reine, perfectly situated on a lagoon and filled with colorful wooden buildings.

Along the way we stopped at Galleri Krysset, an offbeat little place run by painter and Oslo defector Tor Esaissen, who looked the role of eccentric artist with his white hair and beard and wildly embroidered jeans and shirt. He moved here, he said, because "I like very much silence. This is my paradise." He urged us to get off our bikes and hike. "You must go to the mountains, then you get all the Lofoten into your bodies."

On what turned out to be our last cloudless day, we were lucky enough to land in Ramberg, a beach town, and rented a tiny cabin facing the sea. At the witching hour we hit the beach, as did several other tourists, to snap photos of the still-shining sun.

That night and every night, we went for a bedtime stroll, marveling at the light sky, though waking up at 3 a.m. in a bright room was always disorienting.

In order to avoid cycling through Lofoten's longest tunnel, we decided to take the "bike boat" we had read about. It travels from Nusfjord, a privately owned, preserved village on the tour-bus circuit, to Ballstad, a working fishing village.

Expecting a small ferry, we were shocked to be greeted by a 20-foot-long aluminum boat. "This is the bike boat?" I asked Captain Harald, who works at Kraemmervika Rorbuer, which operates the $60 taxi service. He nodded, adding, "Here, you'll need to put this on," and handed us two thermal flotation suits - just in case we were tossed overboard.

I started off near the bow, but had to switch with my husband, Wessel, at the stern, after my stomach had flipped one too many times. Still, we laughed uncontrollably during most of the 45-minute ride.

After that rousing trip, it was time for a more sedate activity. At the Lofoten Viking Museum, a first-rate place that re-creates life during Viking times, we spent much longer than planned. A replicated ship and a chieftain's 272-foot-long house, spread over expansive grounds, make this Lofoten's top tourist attraction and a fascinating stop.

For culture, fine restaurants, and a more cosmopolitan setting, Henningsvaer was the place. While it's known to be one of the most beautiful villages on Lofoten, we were unprepared for the spectacular 8-mile oceanfront road leading there. Boulders and giant slabs of rocks melted into the bright blue sea, making the area a favorite of rock climbers and picnickers. While Henningsvaer has become a draw for pleasure boaters, it remains an active fishing port, and a walk up the hill above town will take you to a few thousand drying cod.

After spending a week cycling through mostly small villages, some without services or paved roads, Svolvaer, our final stop, seemed like a metropolis. It even has a little mall, where it seemed half of the city's 4,300 residents were shopping.

We splurged at Svinoya Rorbuer, an upscale collection of rorbuer. But instead of renting one of the facility's traditional cabins, we chose its five-unit ultramodern hotel. Pulling back the curtains hiding floor-to-ceiling windows, we gasped as the rugged coastline, sparkling sea, and pointed mountains revealed themselves, framing an extraordinary view.

The following day, waiting at Svolvaer's two-room airport, we chatted with a Norwegian woman who was returning to Bergen after a weeklong sailing trip. "For me, Lofoten is the most beautiful place in Norway," she said. "I don't want to leave."

While there was no red carpet rolled out for our departure, we felt privileged to have spent even a week on islands fit for a queen.

Diane Daniel can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

Related

If You Go

Where to stay

Ramberg Gjestegård

Ramberg

011-47-76-09-35-00

ramberg-gjestegard.no

Cabins $140-$200, tent and camper sites $20-$30.

Svinoya Rorbuer

Gunnar Bergs vei 2

Svolvaer

011-47-76-06-99-30

svinoya.no

Upscale rorbuer and hotel rooms. Doubles $200-$400.

Where to eat

Ramberg Gjestegård

Ramberg

011-47-76-09-35-00

ramberg-gjestegard.no

Dishes focus on local meat and seafood, including lamb, halibut, and whale. Lunch $18-$32; dinner $34-$45.

Finnholmen Brygge

Henningsvaer

011-47-76-06-99-60

finnholmen.no

Fresh-from-the-sea fish casserole is a must. Lunch $26-$34; dinner $33-$53.

What to do

Lofoten Aktiv/Lofoten Kayak

Kabelvag

011-47-922-31-100

lofoten-aktiv.no

Bicycle, kayak, and hiking rentals and guided tours. Bikes $40, single kayak $84 a day.

Saddle Skedaddle

011-44-1912-651110

www.skedaddle.co.uk

Offers tours on Lofoten every summer.

Lofoten Museum

Storvagan/Kabelvag

011-47-76-06-97-90

lofotmuseet.no

A museum built around an 1800s farm in a fishing village. Adults $12, seniors $9, children ages 7-15 $5.

Lofoten Viking Museum at Borg

011-47-76-08-49-00

lofotr.no

Reconstructed long house. Adults $20, seniors $16, children 6-15 $10.

Norwegian Fishing Village Museum

011-47-76-09-14-88

lofoten-info.no/nfmuseum

Displays on the history of stockfish. Adults $10, seniors $8, 8-15 $5.

Nusfjord

011-47-76-09-30-20

nusfjord.no

Privately owned well-preserved 1800s fishing village. Adults $12, seniors $10.

Engelskmannsbrygga

Henningsvaer

011-47-76-07-52-85

engelskmannsbrygga.no/

Artist studio and retail gallery.

Lofoten House Gallery

Henningsvaer

011-47-76-07-15-73

galleri-lofoten.no

Exhibit of paintings by Karl Erik Harr and other Lofoten artists. Adults $15, seniors $12, under 14 $7.

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