Discovering Norway’s Lofoten Islands

Hugging the Norwegian coastline in the high latitudes above the Arctic Circle, the Lofoten Islands abound with rugged scenery and an extraordinary quality of light that have long drawn artists and more recently filmmakers to this remote archipelago of fishing villages. Isn’t it time you had a look for yourself? 

A scenic bridge connects the neighboring Lofoten islands of Flakstadøya and Moskenesøya.

A scenic bridge connects the neighboring Lofoten islands of Flakstadøya and Moskenesøya. All photos by James Morgan.

Uncle Hans is wrapped in a shroud and laid out in a funeral canoe strewn with Arctic flowers, his bearded face pale beneath its snowy mane of hair. A solemn group of mourners is gathered around him on a beach that recalls the Pacific more than it does northern Scandinavia. 

“A wolf pack is most vulnerable when it loses its leader,” declaims Trond Teigen in the local dialect. He stands at the head of the canoe holding a heavy Bible. “Now more than ever we must unite as one.” His face is as chiseled as the rocky promontories that rise precipitously on either side of the bay. Dagny Johnsen buries her face in Uncle Hans’s chest, sobbing.

Suddenly, the dead man coughs and opens his eyes. “Sorry,” he says, “I couldn’t hold it in.”

“And cut!” shouts director James Morgan. Our production designer, Solveig Elton Jacobsen, runs in with a big puffer jacket to cover Uncle Hans’s feet, which are starting to turn an authentically corpse-like shade of blue.

Ramberg Beach, Flakstadøya.

Ramberg Beach, Flakstadøya.

It’s late August in Norway’s Lofoten Islands, 80 kilometers above  the Arctic Circle, and we’re shooting a pivotal scene in a British Film Institute–backed short fiction film that I’m producing. As is usually the case with short films, the budget is tiny and almost everyone is working for free. Fortunately, we struck gold with our Norwegian  crew. The extras are friends and relatives of Gisle Normann Melhus, a talented local producer and screenwriter (he has just sold an animated TV series called Viking School to Disney) who we chanced upon and recruited as our fixer. Hans, Gisle’s uncle, built his own funeral canoe over a couple of days. Soon he will set it alight, together with an effigy of him that I’ve made from dried seaweed. Gisle’s girlfriend, Åshild Elton Jacobsen, is, like her sister Solveig, a successful fashion designer; now, she’s taking some time out from city life in Oslo and has offered to help with costuming, makeup, and set design.

That’s the thing about the Lofoten archipelago: its beauty is a magnet for creatives. And what beauty it is. Connected by narrow, sinuous bridges, each of Lofoten’s six main islands (including Vestvågøya, where we’re shooting) presents nature at her most majestic. Roads snake along green valleys and mountainsides that soar upward to form craggy peaks that resemble trolls. Drive round a bend and there’ll be a placid cove dotted with fishing boats, rust-colored cabins clustered around it at varying elevations. Vertiginous cliffs give on to bone-white beaches lapped by turquoise water that you wouldn’t readily associate with the Arctic. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the islands are remarkably temperate considering their northerly latitude.   

Yngvar Aagaard brandishing a whaling harpoon at Kræmmervika Rorbuer.

Yngvar Aagaard brandishing a whaling harpoon at Kræmmervika Rorbuer.

Theodor Kittlelsen, one of Norway’s most beloved artists, drew early inspiration for his famous nature paintings from a two-year stint in Lofoten in the 1880s. Today, the islands are home to a well-established artist community as well as a high-profile biennial art festival, the next edition of which takes place this September. Scores of writers, poets, filmmakers, thespians, and sculptors have made their home here: Lofoten is one of those places whose frontier grandeur draws bohemian sorts in search of nature’s muse. 

Art stands side-by-side with more traditional pursuits, of course. Chief among them is fishing. After we’ve finished shooting the funeral scene, we head back to Stamsund, the fishing village where we’ve based ourselves largely because all our local crew hail from here. At the village pub that has become our unofficial office for production meetings and meals, we find the regular huddle of burly-looking men seated at the bar drinking frothy pints of lager. Most of them are cod fishers and whale hunters. Norway is one of the few countries that still maintains a whaling industry, albeit a highly regulated one. 

Dried codfish is the islands' main export.

Dried codfish is the islands’ main export.

Øystein Pettersen, the proprietor, is another friend of Gisle’s, a gruff but sensitive sort who bought the pub on something of a whim a year ago. “I suggested it actually,” Gisle confides as we all sit down to a hearty chicken stew. “He’s not really into it though—I think he plans to sell,” he adds with a rueful smile. Reluctant publican Øystein may be, but his food hits the spot after a hectic day’s shoot. 

We’ve rented three self-catering wooden holiday cabins built around a jetty in Stamsund Harbor. These are the most popular type of holiday accommodation in the islands; the only conventional hotel is the glaringly modern Thon in the harbor town of Svolvær on Austvågøya. There are plans to build a five-star design hotel called the Lofoten Opera, but it’s not set to open for a few years.

Stamsund village.

Stamsund village.

The next morning, we drive down to Moskenesøya island at the southwest end of the archipelago and stop at a village called simply Å (pronounced like a Scot saying “awe”). Å is home to the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, which has allowed us to use one of its antique fishing cabins for our opening scene—a tense exchange between Dagny Johnsen and Nick Boulton, the English actor playing the oil prospector who kills Uncle Hans’s character. I also borrow a set of scales from the on-site bakery (a visual nod to the film’s theme of justice) and take the opportunity to clear them out of their famous—and prodigious—cinnamon buns to keep the crew happy.

The cabin itself is filled with 19th-century fishing paraphernalia: sheepskins and thick woven blankets, glass fishing floats, nets, and nautical maps. Accommodation like this would have once been a relative luxury, though. According to Gisle, most fishermen in the 1800s were indentured laborers. “They were men from the mainland working for wealthy fishery owners who charged them extortionate rates for food, lodging, and booze,” he tells me. “They’d often head home poorer than when they left.” Many chose to sleep beneath their upturned boats to save money—and this during winter, which is when millions of Arctic cod migrate southward from the Barents Sea to spawn in the relatively warm waters of Lofoten.

Outside an old fishing cabin at the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum in Å.

Outside an old fishing cabin at the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum in Å.

I’m keen to learn more about the islands’ 1,000-year-old cod fishery, so Gisle takes me to a processing factory on the outskirts of Stamsund. The smell as we enter is so pungent it stings the back of my throat. We make our way past head-high stacks of wooden pallets laden with codfish, 100 tons in all. At the back of the warehouse a man is standing in front of a table working his way through a large pile of fish, smelling and pressing each one carefully with his fingers before placing it in one of 10 different boxes.

“He is one of only five codfish selectors in the whole of Norway,” says Tom Olavsen, a co-owner of this family-run business. “They grade the fish based on smell, feel, traces of blood. The top-quality fish goes to Italy and is worth 20 to 24 euros a kilo. The lower-grade stuff is popular with Nigerians who grind it and add it to flour. It’s an important source of protein for them.” Italians, he adds, have had a taste for Lofoten stockfish—air-dried cod—ever since a shipwrecked Venetian sea captain named Pietro Querini brought some back after washing ashore on the island of Røst in 1432. “We have always had a good relationship with Italy. They’re a big part of the tourism industry here.”

A bird's eye view of the south coast of Vestvågøya.

A bird’s eye view of the south coast of Vestvågøya.

Olavsen’s business also handles a far more controversial catch—about 40 tons of minke whale each year. The whales congregate in the waters around Lofoten to feast on the migrating codfish. Norwegians have hunted whales since as far back as the 10th century, and by the end of the 19th century they had decimated local populations. These days, commercial whaling continues, but it’s highly regulated—the maximum quota last year was 880 whales from a 100,000-strong population in the northeast Atlantic. Hunting is far more humane now too, if gruesome, as I learn later that evening at Kræmmervika Rorbuer.

I stumble upon the place quite by accident, thinking it’s a restaurant. It is, in fact, more of a homestay-cum–community center, comprising a group of 19th-century fishermen’s cottages (rorbu) in a pretty harborside village called Ballstad. The owner, Yngvar Aagaard, seems unperturbed by our arrival and gamely cooks up a creamy and delicious codfish stew. 

Yngvar turns out to be something of an advocate for whale hunting in Norway, claiming that the fishery is both sustainable and humane. “Look,” he says, grabbing a hefty harpoon that’s leaning against the wall, “this is how we hunt whales nowadays. There’s a grenade in the tip so the whale dies almost instantly.” And probably quite messily too, I’d imagine. 

The Lofoten Islands' rugged landscapes have attracted artists--including Trondheim-born painter Thomas Falstad, pictured here at his Lofoten studio--for decades.

The Lofoten Islands’ rugged landscapes have attracted artists—including Trondheim-born painter Thomas Falstad, pictured here at his Lofoten studio—for decades.

He continues to explain that whalers do double duty as research vessels and that the minke whale population is carefully monitored to make sure it remains stable. “Humans have been part of the ecosystem here for a long, long time. Yes, Norwegian whaling used to be incredibly destructive, but now there is a ban on exports and quotas are really low.” The formidable international consensus against whaling suggests the fishery will decline still further, though it is unlikely to disappear altogether any time soon—the tradition is fundamental to Norwegian culture, and you find whale steaks in the fish aisles of most supermarkets in Lofoten. Greenlanders have indigenous rights to hunt whales and the mammals provide an important source of protein and fatty acids. “There’s no heart disease in Greenland,” says Yngvar with a chuckle.   

The next day we are back on Bøstad Beach trying to coordinate a complicated scene in which our oil rig worker is trussed up and thrown off the back of a rowboat, attached to a rope. We’ll shoot the underwater sequence later in Malta, but we need the shot of Nick going into the water. We also need to set Uncle Hans’s canoe alight and pray that it actually burns and doesn’t just sink. Uncle Hans is looking worried. He’s never built a canoe before. 

Kvalvika Beach on the northern side of Moskenesøya.

Kvalvika Beach on the northern side of Moskenesøya.

Playing the vengeful villager, Trond Teigen pushes Nick off the boat, his face twisted in a rictus of hate. It’s hard to believe this is the same man who voiced Aladdin for the Norwegian version of the famous Disney film, not to mention SvampeBob Firkant, as SpongeBob SquarePants is known in the cartoon’s local dubbing. Nick, wearing a thick wetsuit underneath his costume, is none the worse for his dip and we quickly get him dry and into a bright yellow survival suit.

All that remains is the canoe conflagration. Uncle Hans tows the boat gingerly out to sea, but his fears are unfounded: its flimsy frame, filled with firewood, kindling, and the seaweed corpse, sits prettily in the water, offering a suitably Viking-esque spectacle for our drone as it burns.

Angela Grav at Stamsund Rorbuer, a clutch of holiday cabins that she runs with her Lofoten-born husband Kenneth.

Angela Grav at Stamsund Rorbuer, a clutch of holiday cabins that she runs with her Lofoten-born husband Kenneth.

Afterwards, Uncle Hans tows the wreck ashore and I help him break it apart and build a bonfire. He looks at me and sheds a mock tear as all his hard work goes up in flames. “Ah well, at least it was a good death,” he quips. It’s our last afternoon here and nature is at her most resplendent, the horizon awash with golden light that reflects back off the cloud-capped mountain beside us. For a few precious moments, there’s nothing I need to do but take it all in. 

By 3 a.m., Gisle, James, our director of photography Benjamin Sadd, and I are sitting in a giant wooden tub on the veranda of our cabin as the wrap party starts to wind down. These traditional tubs are wood-heated, but despite a covert mission to purloin some pallets from the fish factory next door to stoke the fire, the water is barely lukewarm. Fortunately, we’ve drunk enough aquavit (a surprisingly potent liquor made from potato and various herbs) not to care. “Well, I think that’s the most chaotic shoot I’ve ever worked on,” Gisle tells me solemnly. You know you really needed 15 more people to do this, right?”

“Gisle,” I say, looking at him blearily. “Pour me another drink.”   

Locally brewed beer at Himmel og Havn.

Locally brewed beer at Himmel og Havn.

We weren’t the first filmmakers in Lofoten that year. Matt Damon had been in town a few months earlier shooting his new sci-fi comedy Downsizing. I’d heard the producers had visited a restaurant called Himmel og Havn (“Sky and Heaven”) and raved about it, so after we’ve sent the rest of the crew on their way, James and I decide to check it out.

It’s well after 9 p.m. when we arrive and the shabby-chic dining room, outfitted with an assortment of antique furniture, is packed. Word has clearly gotten around. We pick out a couple of craft beers (Lofoten has caught the craze for microbreweries) as the young tattooed chef Frida Haugen Utne comes out of the kitchen to greet us. We’re lucky we caught her; it’s the end of the season and she and her girlfriend are heading off to Southeast Asia on a backpacking adventure next week.

Cod in orange jus with new potatoes, pickled onions, and house-made pesto at Himmel og Havn.

Cod in orange jus with new potatoes, pickled onions, and house-made pesto at Himmel og Havn.

“Fine dining is new here,” she tells us. “It used to all be fiskesuppe [fish chowder] and dried cod, so it’s really fun creating new dishes with local ingredients. We have a daily menu depending on what’s available, and all our vegetables are organic from local farms.” The dinner service is almost over, but she promises to make us something special.

Something special turns out to be minke whale, of course. It is served—à la hipster—in a tin pan, a muddle of caramelized onion, hazelnuts, new potatoes, and chunks of whale meat. And it’s undeniably delicious: the meat has a tender steak-like consistency and a faintly fishy aftertaste.

“You have to catch them at the right age,” Frida tells us. “With the older whales, you can really taste all those countless tons of cod they have eaten.”

Mountainous terrain.

The islands’ mountainous terrain

I work in marine conservation, so eating whale meat felt well, wrong. Yet I know that were I to order tuna sashimi in a Japanese restaurant, few would bat an eyelid, even though bluefin tuna are critically endangered and yellowfin are not faring much better. And all my research had confirmed that Norway’s minke fishery is genuinely sustainable.

We spend our final night in another “authentic” fisherman’s cabin overlooking a calm inlet where Gisle’s mother, a psychiatrist, likes to swim laps, especially in the winter. It’s one of a group of cabins run as a hotel—Stamsund Rorbuer—by former journalist Kenneth Grav and his Chinese wife Angela. Angela used to be a tour guide in Beijing and betrays an entrepreneurial spirit that suggests she’s very much the driving force behind the business. “I tried a few things before hospitality,” she tells me. “I even went back to China to study traditional Chinese medicine. I want to set up a practice here some day.”

Flying over the cillage of Sennesvik en route to the Norwegian mainland.

Flying over the cillage of Sennesvik en route to the Norwegian mainland.

Remote as it is, Lofoten is far from your typical backwater. Increasing press coverage plus the attention of Hollywood has seen tourism numbers swell in the last few years, but its cosmopolitan character was established long before this, as evidenced by the surplus of theaters, galleries, artist communes, and even a film school. What doesn’t change, though, is the natural grandeur that draws people here, save for the seasons that swing from December darkness lit by northern lights to the endless days of the midnight sun. Nature in the Lofoten Islands offers every kind of spectacle.

The Details

Getting There

It takes about three hours by air to reach Lofoten from Oslo, with many of the flights stopping at the mainland town of Bodø en route. Once there, touring the six largest islands is easy as they’re connected by the E10 roadway—which extends to mainland Norway and Sweden—via a series of bridges.

Where to Stay
Thon Hotel Lofoten
Torget, Svolvær; 47-76/049-000; doubles from US$182.

Stamsund Rorbuer
J. M. Johansens Vei 47, Stamsund; 47/952-38072; doubles from US$190.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Northern Exposure”).

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