Hooked on Lofoten

Tourism may be poised to overtake fishing as the main industry in Lofoten – but it’s still fishing that forms the heart and soul of this beautiful Arctic archipelago

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, July 2015. Photography by River Thompson)

It feels like an epic battle, a slow wind from the depths that Hemingway might have written. My left forearm feels shredded, but the slow appearance of a silvery, body-length cod is a pure adrenaline rush.

Nigel Hearn is less euphoric. He’s an English competitive fisherman and former Nordic fishing champion, who’s lived in Lofoten for two decades and runs daily fishing trips on his small boat from the main town of Svolvær. “Six kilos, not bad,” he says plainly of our oceanic beast. “Hopefully we’ll get a few more like that.”

When you live in Lofoten, it seems, you get spoiled. In the middle of March, a normal punter with a fishing rod might haul in 100kg of Arctic cod in an hour. Earlier this year, one of Hearn’s customers got a 31.5kg cod, and a few years ago another brought a 60kg halibut onboard. “I got really excited then,” he says. “I was dancing about like an idiot.”

Even with our haul of roughly 40kg – with some ling, tusk and coalfish – we have to choose a few of the smaller cod to wrap in foil and dump on our hastily-put-together midnight barbecue, consumed with a few Mack beers cooled by the Svolvær harbour.

Sitting by one of the Anker Brygge hotel’s homely fishing cabins, as the seagulls squawk overhead in the broad daylight, it’s a magical experience – though the locals we tell the next morning seem largely unimpressed. “You have to go further west,” they sniff. “Then it gets really beautiful.”

Hearn first came to Lofoten 20 years ago, and fell in love in his low-key way. “It just clicked. I thought: Yeah, I can stay here. The mountains, the fishing, the peace … though I do miss English pubs. No one here goes out until 10pm; they think you’re an alcoholic if you have a pint in the evening.”

After 16 years that has taken in competitive fishing (Hearn has won five team gold medals in European Championships), working in fish factories and as a boat mechanic – four years ago Hearn saw a gap in the market for more intimate daily fishing trips with smaller groups.

“I’d just ordered the boat when the financial crash hit Norway, and I thought: Oh no. But people had already booked trips, and they kept booking… and booking. Tourism here has exploded.”

Hearn is part of a new breed combining Lofoten’s traditional industry with its new one: tourism. Fishing, especially for cod, has been the archipelago’s lifeblood for 1,000 years – and after Italian sea captain Pietro Querini was shipwrecked on the outlying island of Røst in 1432, Norwegian stockfish became Norway’s main export.

Tourism, by contrast, didn’t exist until the 1960s. According to Kristian Nashoug, the marketing manager at Destination Lofoten, that’s when the first rorbuer fishing cabins opened up to guests. “It was only really in the late 1980s and ’90s that tourism started to grow here,” he says. “Before that, it was mainly traders and fishermen.” Now, says Nashoug, the size of the tourism and fishing industries is “about equal”, and it’s the former that’s set to grow to become the area’s biggest.

It’s amazing that it took so long, given Lofoten’s natural advantages. If you drive the E10 road across the archipelago, there’s a jaw-dropping view round every corner, with craggy peaks rising from impossibly turquoise seas. Suitably, given the area’s Viking history (Vågan is the first known town formation in northern Norway), it looks like the setting for a Viking TV drama.

The towns and villages are still mostly model railwayesque little collections of traditional fishing boats and rorbuer cabins, which get more picture-perfect the further west you go (Moskenes has a decent claim to the title of the most beautiful municipality in Norway).

Signs of development are still modest. New modern hotels, including Thon and Scandic, line the Svolvær harbourfront, and assessments are being made on a new airport at Gimsøy, in the heart of the archipelago. At the moment, whether you fly to Bodø or Harstad/Narvik airports, you still need a car and a few hours to get to Lofoten proper. Many come by motorhome.

While Nashoug welcomes the new airport, Hearn is more sceptical. “I’m already booked up with fishing trips for a few months. I don’t need more people, and I don’t want jets flying overhead.”

The merits of a new airport notwithstanding, the growth of tourism is making new things happen in Lofoten. Unstad is a village and beach at the end of a gorgeous glacial valley on the north of the archipelago. It’s also blessed with steady surf breaks across its length, and is home to the slightly unlikely success story that is the Unstad Arctic Surf Camp. The camp was opened in 2003 by Thor Frantzen, who – along with his friend Hans Egil Krane – was the arguably the first person to surf in Norway, in 1963.

“We were teenagers at the time,” says Frantzen, a real character with a deep voice and an even deeper well of stories.  “Hans Egil had been to Australia on a ship and got to know some surfers on Bondi Beach. He came back and said: ‘We have to try this.’ We made the first surfboard in Norway, using foam from a refrigerator and the cover of the Beach Boys album Surfin’ Safari as a reference. When we got it made and got to the beach, I said to Hans Egil: ‘You go first.’ We managed to get up on the board, but it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride, and we learned pretty fast that you needed a leash.”

Four boards and a lot of experimentation later, Norway’s first surf scene came and went, as Krane became a commercial diver and Frantzen became a big engine driver.

But in the 1990s, surfers from down south began to rediscover surfing in Lofoten, with 1999’s E2K surf movie shining a new light on Unstad, which has a mix of sand and reef breaks, and where the waves can reach 15m. On this new wave of interest, Frantzen opened the surf camp with his wife Randi, hosting visitors in a few cabins. He’s still involved, but has handed control of the camp to his daughter Marion and her husband Tommy, a former windsurfer who moved to Unstad and switched to surfing.

They’ve grown the camp to include six cabins, for from two to eight people, and portable hot tubs and saunas, as well as a camping site. “In terms of numbers coming, it’s getting better and better every year,” says Tommy Frantzen. “This is the best surf spot in Norway, and we’ve had international pros like Tom Curren, Chippa Wilson and Dane Gudauskas come out here.”

And us. It turns out that surfing in the arctic is not what we expected at all – with the sun blaring down and bouncing off the sea, we’re genuinely too hot in our full-body wetsuits, with gloves and booties. Surrounded by glowing glacial mountains, it’s another beautifully surreal experience.

As for old surfer Krane, another interesting character, he’s moved into tourism, too, opening up a RIB company in Svolvær that will take you – at slightly shocking speeds – to see the famous Trollfjorden, sea eagles and the island town of Skrova, that 20 or so years ago hauled in so much fish that it was named the richest place in Norway.

Just up the road from Unstad is another thriving local business, Lofoten Gårdsysteri, run by a Dutch couple who make organic artisanal goat’s cheese. Marielle de Roos and Hugo Vink met working on development projects in Africa and, both having degrees in tropical agriculture, decided to do “something down to earth, and to make the purest biodynamic product possible.”

They’d decided on goat farming in Norway when they arrived at a spot between Unstad and Saupstad. “We saw this place and knew straightaway,” says Vink. “It was magical – mountains, sea mist, this incredible green colour, and the perfect landscape for goats.”

Today, they have 160 healthy and happy-looking goats, which produce some of the archipelago’s most renowned cheese, used by some of Norway’s best restaurants, like Maeemo and Arakataka in Oslo.

“Before we came here, there were just a couple of local speciality cheeses,” says Vink. “Now, there are almost 200, and there are so many high-quality producers in the area. Give it 15 years, and Norway could be the new France.”

Lofoten’s got some culture, too. There are interesting galleries and museums across the archipelago, from the  elegant Kaviar Factory gallery in picturesque Henningsvær to the evocative doll museum in stunning Sakrisøy and the Lofotr Vikingmuseum in Borg (see sidebar overleaf). In Svolvær, we stopped by at William Hakvaag’s remarkable and quirky personal collection of World War II memorabilia, including a watercolour landscape and a set of Disneyesque characters allegedly painted by Hitler.

“The war is endlessly fascinating to me because it’s just this crazy terrifying story about human beings,” says Hakvaag, who says that one of the rooms in his museum is haunted. “Sometimes when I’m in the Gestapo room I can feel this energy – it’s like thousands of needles on your arm.”

Nevertheless, while tourism is overtaking fishing as the archipelago’s main industry, everyone accepts that fishing still forms the soul of the archipelago.

For fishermen, the main time of year is the skrei bonanza from late January until mid-April, when up to 1.7 million tonnes of muscular Arctic cod – a prime delicacy – come to spawn here, and many make up to three quarters of their annual income. After a few lean years, the skrei are back, and the industry around them is so lucrative that kids who cut off cod tongues, a local delicacy, can make NOK100,000 a season.

In the first quarter of last year, Norway exported NOK917.4 million worth of cod around the world, especially to Spain, Portugal and Italy, where various versions of dried cod are staples; and to Nigeria, where the cod head is the main ingredient in local delicacy okporoko, also known as panla.

This year has been even better, according to Geir Larsson, a commercial fisherman who’s probably better known as the world’s northernmost Ipswich Town fanatic. “The Codfather”, as he’s known by Ipswich fans, was invited by the club to present this year’s player of the year award, and he shows us a letter from team manager Mick McCarthy thanking him for his support and wishing him a good cod season. “That’s our equivalent of the football season,” he says.

Larsson has a small 8m boat, with a relatively modest quota of 30,000kg of cod. But with cod going for NOK18 a kilo during good seasons, it’s not bad for a few month’s work. “We’re lucky to have this exclusive product that the world loves.”

Culturally, skrei is important too. The skrei world championships in Svolvær in late March are a key event on the calendar, and the fish-drying racks dotted across the island have become iconic.

In Å, at the south-western tip of the E10 road that runs through Lofoten, there’s a Stockfish Museum and the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, as well as fishing boats for rent by the rustic Smaken av Lofoten cabins. Cod is also a key ingredient in the Smaken av Lofoten restaurant, as it is across the archipelago, like the highly-rated Fiskekrogen and Lofotmat in Henningsvær, or the Anker Brygge restaurant in Svolvær.

According to Kristian Nashoug of Destination Lofoten: “Fishing forms the soul, the culture, the history of Lofoten. It runs deep, and the fishery is a tourist attraction in itself – not just fishing itself, but the smell in the air, the fish on the drying racks, the whole sense of the place.” The tourists may be coming, but it was the fish that discovered Lofoten first.

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