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Svølvaer – Lofoten Islands

Brutal Arctic beauty

Svølvaer is located in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago in Norway, 700km north of the Arctic Circle. It is famous for its arresting fjord landscapes, Northern Lights and postcard-pretty villages-turned resorts, known as Rorbuer.

I am staying at Svølvar, on the island of Austvågøya. I am staying at the resort, Svinøya Rorbuer.  My host, Ragnar Palsson, receives me with a big smile and a bear hug. “Welcome to the Lofoten Islands, Julia.” Svølvar is known as the “smallest big city in the world”, with a population of 4,720 humans, 450 moose, an unaccounted number of reindeer and millions of fish – many of which of the dried variety. Lofoten Skrei (stockfish) is a much-prized product and like champagne and Reggiano Mortadella Bologna, has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.  

All the resorts in the Lofoten islands were once fishing villages run by individual families. They would own everything within them, from the tiny houses to the supplies and food stores. Most are wonderfully preserved and still feature centuries-old original features. The resorts’ names all include the word “Rorbuer”, which means “rowboat house”, and their fishermen’s cabins are now often used as guestrooms. Dominating each village is a large manor house, where the village’s “ruling” family once lived.

From the left: A Taste of Lofoten – the most popular starter at Børsen Spiseri – and Stockfish Royal.

Ragnar had reserved an apartment for me in a building that used to be used as a telegraph house. Beautifully restored and decorated in a mixture of traditional styles and contemporary elements, I find the place welcoming and cosy. Light floods in from its large windows, through which I can see the town and Svinøya’s sauna, where you roast for 15 minutes before jumping into the icy-cold water. Apparently, if your heart survives the shock, it triggers a reaction in your lymphatic system that helps your body flush out waste.

The resort has its own restaurant, Børsen Spiseri, housed in a former warehouse on the quayside. Its exposed wooden beams, soft lighting and fading local photographs from the early 20th century decorating the walls, combined with the inviting smell of its open fire, make it a hard proposition to resist. The menu showcases the best of local ingredients, perfectly represented by Taste of Lofoten, a starter with local specialities such as gravadlax, cod roe – tiny spheres of bright orange fun that pop in your mouth – boulinho, a deliciously fluffy cod croquette, smoked Vågehval whale; ham from a local farm and locally produced cheese.

Small lounge and living room of the Manor House at Svinøya Rorbuer. The whole mansion can be rented out privately.

After a restorative long night’s sleep, I am ready to explore the archipelago with the help of guide Dave Williams. He politely puts me right on several wrong assumptions I have about this part of the world. Number one on this list is a hunch that it can get mighty chilly. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, he explains, temperatures in winter are not nearly as bitter as one might fear, ranging from -5oC to -10C, and in high summer, when there is no dusk, they can even rise to 35oC.

We drive west. As we sneak around the fjords, Dave explains that these mountains are some of the oldest on Earth, dating back 300 million years to when the prehistoric supercontinent Pangaea formed. These hard granite natural structures are phenomenally steep and possess some seriously sharp edges.

At Haukland beach, in Vest Vågøya island, Dave dares me to dip my toes in its crystal-clear waters. This sounds like a crazy idea until I make out in the distance a group of surfers bobbing about in the sea. When I ask Dave about killer whales, he laughs before putting my mind at rest: “Orcas in this part of the world don’t eat meat, only fish, so they don’t go for humans. Actually, in the winter months, they gather off the coast further north, feasting on herring, and people swim with them. It’s an amazing experience.”

Sakrisøy Rorbuer - Lofoten Islands

The mustard yellow colour of the cabins at Sakrisøy Rorbuer, together with its unparalleled views of the surrounding fjord, make it a unique resort in the Lofoten Islands.

My trip takes in five of the seven Lofoten islands accessible by road. My favourite is tiny Sakrisøy. Our host here is Michael Gylseth, whose rorbuer has been in his family for five generations. Michael and his mother, Dagmar, opened it as a tourist resort in 1992. He welcomes us with hot tea and a fabulous cake.

The first thing that you notice are its mustard-yellow cabins, which stand in stark contrast to the red dwellings found elsewhere in the region. Michael explains that in the late 19th century, his great-great-great grandfather fell in love with a girl, and to prove he was financially secure while courting her, he ordered the most expensive paint he could find for his rorbuer – which came in this shade of yellow. Red paint here, he says, is the cheapest because it was made from oil, rust and fish blood. Sakrisøy is now officially a protected area and has had Eco-lighthouse environmental certification since 2022. “We choose to focus on sustainability and the future of the environment to contribute to a greener future,” Michael points out.

The resort has two restaurants, one of which, Underhuset by Cazuelas, is run by Mexican Tomás Morales, who greets us with full-blown Latin enthusiasm. Between sips of local Lofotpils beer and mouthfuls of dishes created according to his family’s recipes but adapted to include local ingredients (guacamole and reindeer being a good example), Tomás explains how he ended up in northern Norway. “My girlfriend got a very good job offer here and I was so in love that I didn’t hesitate for a second. I followed her.” We toast to love and by the time Dave and I get up to leave, we feel we’ve made two new friends.

From the left, Tomás Morales, Manager at Underhuset by Cazuelas with a plate of Lofoten /Mexican quesadilla assortment; and reindeer with guacamole, two dishes that you’ll never get to taste anywhere else.

The next day it is Ragnar’s turn to be my chaperone. At the port, we jump in a Zodiac supplied by XX Lofoten, a company that specialises in outdoor activities in the area. We are heading out on a white-tailed eagle safari, the eagle with the widest wingspan of them all (average: two and a half metres). In the same outing, we visited Trollfjord, which, according to legend, was formed when a troll threw a hammer but missed his target and the force of the flying object created this narrow two-kilometre-long tongue of water into the island of Austvågøya, with steep mountains on either side.

Trollfjord - Lofoten Islands

View of Trollfjord, which, according to legend, was formed when a troll threw a hammer but missed his target. Photo © XXLofoten.

As the end of my trip approached, I started to feel a little depressed. I am yet to see the Aurora Borealis, a long-held dream. Dave calls me, announcing: “Get ready, we are going Aurora hunting.” I almost fall off the sofa in excitement. Dave is one of the world’s few true Aurora experts, having studied the Northern Lights for more than a decade. His book, The Complete Aurora Guide, explains in detail the best way of finding them and all the best techniques to shoot and process photographs of this wonderful natural phenomenon.

We park in a huge open field. “The first thing you need is to see as much sky as possible,” he says. It is still before dusk, but Dave points at the horizon line and says, “There, can you see?” My eyes take a few seconds to adjust and then I did see them.  It is a moment I will never forget. As my “Aurora beginner” vision adjusts, I notice a column of green light ascending from the ground. A few minutes later Dave points out another display right over our heads, a huge brushstroke of green on the night sky canvas. And then the cloud rolls in and we are back in the car, looking for another “hole in the sky”. He takes me to different spots where we witness yet more stunning displays of dancing lights. At one, we even marvel at an underlying band of pink, festooning the green masses. I am so excited I jump up and down on the spot like a small child.

Aurora Borealis - Lofoten Islands - Dave Williams

Northern Lights at Lofoten Islands. Photo © Dave Williams

As the weather closes in, Dave drops me back at Svinøya. But he tells me to keep my eyes peeled “because the Aurora is everywhere”. And he is right, from the balcony of my apartment, just beneath the cloud, the sky in all directions turns bright green.

I leave having fallen in love with the beauty of this little corner of the world and the hospitality of its people. I promise Ragnar and Dave I will be back. It’s a vow I intend to keep.

Words: Julia Pasarón

Opening image: Svinøya Rorbuer, Lofoten Islands.

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