NORWEGIAN islands offer a change of pace, scenery and amazing wildlife, but it’s the people you’ll remember
With the first piercing whistle, the massive white-tailed predator slipped casually from its icy perch into the winter air. A crew member threw more fish overboard and suddenly the most powerful airborne killer in the Arctic was diving towards our boat. An instant later the white-tailed sea eagle had shifted shape – from a serene, gliding, outstretched giant into a crouched, dive-bombing bundle of muscle, feathers and claws. The eagle swooped, clasped its prey and soared back to its hilltop eyrie without appearing to wet a single, spectacular feather.
Siv – the eagle whistler – turned and smiled at the stunned boatload of survival-suit-wearing passengers. “Would you like me to call down another one?” She did. Another five in fact – including a massive 45-year-old female eagle whose sudden proximity sent every amateur photographer reeling.
Norway’s remote Lofoten and Vesteralen Islands have always been close to the edge. Now 55,000 locals have learned to share nature’s abundance with a million annual visitors.
Siv used to go on fishing trips with her dad from the busy Lofoten capital of Svolvær. She noticed mother eagles whistled to their young to prompt a rapid descent in search of food. On her first safari as a passenger she copied the eagle whistle – to stunning effect. Now she’s a regular part of the crew.
“Every day we watch nature win over people who hardly wanted to get on board. It’s inspiring, every time.”
It’s the same story at the Whale Centre in Andenes, 40 miles and several islands north of Svolvær. Here, at the tip of the Vesteralen Archipelago, the edge of the continental shelf is closer to land than anywhere else on the Norwegian coast. Bleik Canyon is a deep chasm which provides a year-round diet of deep-sea squid for sperm, humpback, minke, pilot, killer and fin whales. The result is Northern Europe’s most convenient whale-watching zone, one hour’s sailing from tiny Andenes, where tour-boats guarantee whale sightings − or your money back. We saw nothing. It was only later, sifting through photographs, that an unmistakeable tail was seen protruding from a grey island beside our high speed RIB. We were too busy looking the other way, vainly scanning the soaring cliffs of Bleiksoya (literally bird island) where 80,000 pairs of puffins nest each summer, appearing every 15 May and departing on 15 August. Precisely.
Happily, the creature comforts of Vesteralen and Lofoten are just as dependable with very individual hotels such as the restored fishing cabins at Svolvær, excellent seafood, comfortable thermal bubble suits for outdoor trips, and perfect English everywhere.
Tourism is the focus on Lofoten while Vesteralen life still revolves around fishing. Both offer a change of pace, scenery, and larger-than-life Vikings.
Like Sveinung Tangstad, the kilted owner of the Marmelkroken restaurant who is also a regular Highland Games competitor in Scotland. Mikal Jacobsen owner of the Sortland Hotel who conducts personal tours round an art collection inspired by the controversial Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun. Nigel Turrell, an ex-Marine whose Andoy outdoor centre offers snowshoe expeditions, ice-fishing, hot-tub-northern-light-watching and the best meal of our trip – roast moose cooked by the man himself on an open fire inside a traditional lavoo (Sami wooden tent). Local tour operator Frode Hov laid on an impromptu midnight Icelandic pony tour and Laila Inga sang memorable joiks (song chants).
But none of these is the biggest tourist draw on Lofoten. Joanna Lumley and the Northern Lights will be forever connected since the Ab Fab star’s “trip of a lifetime” became a worldwide TV hit last year. Filmed around Lofoten, it sparked such interest in Aurora chasing that charter flights now arrive throughout winter. Between the winter solstice and spring equinox, at 8:30pm and 10:30pm (usually) the eerie fingers of light shoot across northern skies. And yet, it’s the warm, eccentric, outgoing people of these islands who create the longest lasting impression.
Northern Lights Photography, oysteinphoto.1x.com, www.whale safari.com (£94); Nigel Turrell, www.andoy-friluftssenter.no, £78 for two-person cabin; Sveinung’s restaurant (£17) www.marmelkroken.no; fishing cabins in Svolvær, www.anker-brygge.no, £136; Sea Eagle Safari, www.lofotencharterbat.no, £125; Viking Museum at Borg with dinner, £68; horseriding at Hov, www.68lofoten.no; fly SAS, BA or Norwegian.com to Bodø via London or Oslo and Wideroe to Svolvær or take the Hurtigruten Coastal ferry. Sample price, London to Bodø return, E448, www.flysas.com;
See visitnorway.co.uk for more.