The Lofoten Islands

A 50-year wait to see the Scandinavian archipelago ends

The bus’s motor can be felt as the driver steadily increases its hum, pulling us higher and higher into Norway. Finland’s myriad trees begin to dot the landscape rather than line it as the earth yields to Norway’s rock formations. Each curve on the road brings another, even more stunning view. I sit up higher in my seat.

Someone once told me—I neither know nor care if it’s true—that the Lofoten Islands were once voted the second most beautiful archipelago in the world. They are stunning and the reason for this trip.

Rovaniemi, Finland

My journey to the Lofoten Islands begins in Oulu, Finland, home to Nokia and the Air Guitar Championships. I kick myself for not coordinating my visit with the 20th annual event in late August 2015; I miss it by five days. Although disappointed, I eagerly await my train’s departure to Rovaniemi, which sits a few kilometers from the Arctic Circle and is the city considered to be the official home of Santa Claus. He and his elves remain busy year-round in Rovaniemi at the Santa Claus Village, a town within this city dedicated to his work and spirit. It’s September, and Santa welcomes me to sit on his lap and I tell him my Christmas wish list and assure him that I’ve been nice this year. Later, I overhear him speaking to children (and adults like me) in other languages: French, German, Arabic, Mongolian, and of course Finnish, among others. I even meet Rudolph.

As a history buff, I make my way over to the Arktikum Museum. The exhibit “Northern Ways” recounts the history and culture of the Sami (Lapp in English), the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. While perusing the photos and artifacts, I transport myself into this culture and wonder if I could raise a herd of reindeer, live in an igloo, wear traditional Laplander clothing rather than my Levi’s, endure a sunless winter. I tell myself I can.

That evening I eat at Restaurant Nili, a local favorite. Having just met Rudolph, I hesitate when the waiter recommends reindeer meatballs and I recall my daughter pleading with me not to eat Rudolph on my trip. Instead, I eat a cousin. The dish is served with boiled potatoes with melted butter, pickled cucumbers and homemade lingonberry jam, and I wash it down with olut (beer in Finnish) and say, “Kiitos” (thank you). Rovaniemi isn’t large, and I walk around the city, meeting people and taking note of the summer and winter activities to do here—camping, hiking, skiing, fishing, dog sledding, and kayaking. Excuses to come back.

Tromsø, Norway

As the bus traverses the highway between Rovaniemi and Tromsø, it occasionally slows or stops to allow the moose and reindeer to cross. It’s sweet, and I’m reminded of last night’s meal. I am amazed at the beauty that peppers the landscape of a place in such a seemingly inhospitable location: pristine waterways, splendid mountains, picturesque fjords, and quaint villages. After nine hours, the bus makes its final push up the mountain to the city’s center. Tromsø is the capital of the Norwegian Arctic. A local tells me that during the winter residents line the city’s steep roads to watch in good humor as buses and cars maneuver up and down the icy slopes, miraculously missing the spectators and parked cars. It’s clear this is more lore than fact, but it is true that the Aurora Borealis can be seen about 200 days out of the year.

I visit the Polar Museum (Polarmuseet), which while a bit graphic provides a fascinating history of whaling and polar bear hunting in the region and Norwegian explorers; the Arctic Cathedral to listen to the daily organ recital; and Polaria, the world’s most northerly aquarium, which features lots of exhibits for children (or adults who are really just big kids) and is the home of three bearded seals. Across town is the Arktisk alpin Botaniske hage, the world’s northernmost botanic garden. Its location, which corresponds to the north coast of Alaska, would suggest that the harsh arctic conditions  would freeze the life of any plant that dared to flower. Not so; a branch of the Gulf Stream sweeps up the coast to moderate the Arctic’s reputation for unforgiving conditions. The garden’s colors resemble the rainbow and the earth feels fertile underfoot, a welcome home for several species of rhododendrons, poppies, asters, Jacob’s ladders, among many others.

As I watch the sun sink toward the horizon, I hurry to the Fjellheisen cable car for a ride that takes me from sea level to more than 1,300 feet. The five-minute ride is exhilarating as I watch the town shrink below. I can see the surrounding islands and fjords and Tromsdalstinden, a 4,062-foot peak at the valley’s southern end. My busy day ends at Emma’s Under, a popular walk-in eatery for Scandinavian food. I eat the herring platter.

Lofoten Islands, Norway

That night, I dream of being a Viking. I wake with dawn and head out for coffee and pannekaken (Norwegian pancakes). There is solace to be found at this hour. I stand on the wharf waiting to board the Norwegian cruise ship that will navigate the fjords to the Lofoten archipelago. My mind drifts back a half century to when, at 21 and on leave from the U.S. Air Force, I stood on this same wharf only to be forced to turn away and return to base as my leave was up. Today, I board the MS Richard With of Hurtigruten cruise lines, take my post on the boat’s deck, and stare in awe at the landscapes of the “second” most beautiful archipelago as the enormous cruise liner navigates south through the islands. A day and a half later, the Richard With docks in Svolvær, the capital city of the Lofoten island chain, and I disembark grinning widely. I’m here…finally.

I love driving through unfamiliar and familiar places alike so I rent a car to acquaint myself more closely with as much of Lofoten as possible. Many of the islands are connected with bridges. From Svolvær, on the island Vestvågøy, I head south taking short off-road detours to mountain peaks, sandy beaches, hidden fjords, and petite fishing villages. Many times, I am alone, walking barefoot along a beach with nary another soul to startle me. I stop in Leknes to see the Viking Museum, where there is a reconstructed Viking longhouse, the world’s largest. I’ve long admired the accomplishments and culture of the early Vikings. The name of my day’s final destination begins with the first letter of the alphabet, the southern city of Å (pronounced like the double “o” in “floor”). That night, I return to Svolvær to rest before heading to Andenes in the north; again, I take the long way. I investigate the robuer, or fishing houses that have been converted to overnight sites. Each place is an Eden. A perfect place.

As I wait to leave Lofoten, I am anxious, having loved my time here yet lamenting that there isn’t more of it. As I promised myself fifty years earlier, I swear to return—next time with more time and a fishing rod.