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Loafing around the Lofoten Islands

On 11th August, Hazel, my 85-year-old friend from schooldays, Mike, my 83-year-old husband, and I, the oldest at 86, set out at 10am by taxi to travel to Gatwick where we were due late that afternoon to board a Norwegian airlines economy direct flight to Tromso in Northern Norway. Meanwhile, my daughter, Anna with her husband, Pasi, and their 4-year-old son, Eliel, and Pasi’s parents were driving from Enontekiö in Finland to meet us. Once in Norway, we put our watches forward while they put theirs back one hour. Greetings over, we boarded their people carrier, and set out for our first night’s cabin – a traditional red stilted cabin over-looking the harbour in Sommaroy, two hours’ drive west of Tromso. The view across the water was so breathtaking.

Next morning we went for a walk over a raised grassy land towards the sea. There were masses of wild flowers – purple loosestrife, clover, vetch, harebells, birds’ foot trefoil, saxifrage – all familiar to me from childhood. Everywhere we went during the week these flowers brought joy to my heart and we picked and ate wild raspberries and bilberries in many places. Eliel found some seashells which he shared with me – another happy memory from long ago.

1209142014-08-15 16 33 09 (3)After a slight hiccup in plans (we heard on the radio that the boat we had planned to take from Senja to Andenes, and which we had deliberately chosen accommodation near to, had suddenly been cancelled that day and the only alternative route by car involved backtracking almost to Tromso and a few hundred kilometres of extra driving), we headed south.

Our destination was Stave Camping in Northern Norway where we were to meet up with Emily and Gemma (an American and an Australian girl) who were family friends from having worked seasons on the husky farm, Hetta Huskies, Anna and Pasi run in Finland. They were hanging out waiting for the dog sledding season to start again by working in Norway at the campsite for the summer. They handed over keys to three side-by-side cabins to us and we settled in whilst the men went for a seaside sauna.

Unfortunately, a trip on a Whale Safari was cancelled due to the weather and, since the operators had failed to notify us, we were already in Andenes in the very far north of the northernmost Lofoten island, so we cut our losses and booked a puffin safari in a nearby village instead. It was a 90-minute boat trip to the seabird colony on the island of Bleiksoya, one of Norway’s most famous bird cliffs, where we saw many puffins, razorbills, guillemots and black sea-eagles. The Norwegian guide had taken a bucket of fish on board and he periodically threw a fish to lure the eagles away from the puffins. The waves were quite big for the small boat we were on and that, combined with the authentic gruff old sea captain, made the trip exciting enough.

That evening the Hot Pools were booked for us for an hour and a half but only Eliel and I agreed to get in. The pools were situated on top of grassy mounds facing the sea and it was with apprehension that I walked out in my swimsuit to climb the steps and lower myself into a pool. It was wonderful and the time passed so quickly as my grandson and I played make-believe games in the hot water. It wasn’t so good walking back to the cabins in the cold rain but it was a highlight of the week for me.

The next morning we made a spontaneous trip to ‘Spaceship Aurora’ – the tourist side of the Androya Rocket Range Institute, just up the road from where we were staying. It provided an unexpectedly fun family adventure. First we watched a film about the Northern Lights and learned how Androyan rockets are used in the investigation of the Aurora Borealis. Then we dressed up in overalls and lab coats to take part in a virtual mission, wearing badges to identify our roles. Eliel, Gemma and Emily were the pilots; Pasi was chief navigator and the rest of us were either scientist tasked with ‘collecting’ atmospheric samples or ‘communications specialists’. Each of us had individual tasks and scientific and engineering problems to solve to simulate those faced by real astronauts. It was fun rather than scary (except for when there was a ‘break down which had us spinning out of control into space’ to rectify and we each received a badge and certificate at the end. The best thing was watching my grandson cover his eyes upon ‘re-entry’. He truly believed that he had visited space.

120914DSC00817 (3)Back on terra firma once more, it was time to head south to Svolvaer to a campsite with a big enough cabin for all 10 of us to fit under one roof. En route we visited the 50-dog husky farm of a family who had checked out the Hetta Huskies farm when they had been driving through Finland a few weeks earlier. They welcomed us warmly and sat us down in their spacious dining-room and served coffee and cinnamon buns to ten of us!

Somehow Emily and Gemma had managed to squeeze into the car too and were hitching a lift the following day to the very southern tip of Lofoten from where they were to start a 1-week hiking trip across the mountains back towards Svolvaer. Our cabin looked out on a lake from the rear and on our first night Anna, Eliel and I went kayaking before exploring the surrounding woods with the girls. We found a high ropes course, an accessible adventure playground for Eliel and a via ferrata rope way across steep rocks high above a second lake which even Eliel attempted – but that was one thing I was content to just watch! It was so fun that the following night we took the rest of the group with us on our evening scrambling adventure although on that occasion, Eliel caused our hearts to race for a different reason. Confident as a mountain goat, he helped me along the roughest patches for a while but when he deemed granny too slow, we had a few panicked moments before we found him again, already hanging out back at our cabin with a kitten for company.

We had some wonderful outings over our three days there but the first day was all about getting an overview of the whole length of the island chain as we drove to the very southern tip and dropped the girls to hike, en route, in Reine. Reine lived up to its reputation as the prettiest village in Norway with its spectacular fjord and mountain backdrop but to be honest, nearly everywhere we looked, the scenery was spectacular. The day passed quickly as we pottered around from one fishing hamlet or village to the next seeing cod hung drying on never-ending racks beside the road and salmon beds regularly punctuating the sea. A doll’s museum containing hundreds if not thousands of toys dating back to the mid-19th century and some very intricate glassblowing in a glass studio were highlights but we ran out of time to visit the popular Viking longhouse, opting instead for a very high-end meal in a small boutique restaurant serving the locally caught fish which were everywhere we looked. The prawns, mussels, cod and salmon were all delightful.

We kicked the second day off with a visit to the Lofoten Cathedral where Eliel lit a candle and enjoyed the play area on a mat showing children from around the world and then a visit to a quaint nearby village called Kabelvag from which we set out on a unexpectedly challenging walk (for 80-year-olds) across to the nearby Lofoten Aquarium.

The walk – which ended up being more like 2km than the couple of hundreds of metres described – was in two sections. The first stage took us to the top of a nearby look-out where we admired the view in the company of a statue of King Oystein. The whole region was full of past history and spectacular scenery but the path was narrow and rocky so after a quick lunch break only half of the group continued on the second half of the track and the others opted to go around to the Aquarium by car.

At one point I spotted Anna sitting on a high rock waiting for us, so I said to my grandson, ’Look. There’s Mommy’. A rather dismissive reply came: ‘That’s not Mommy!’

‘Who is it, then?’

‘It’s a troll!’

We had seen statues of these supernatural Norse creatures and we believed them to be cruel, troublesome beings.

120914DSC00815 (3)Finally at the Aquarium we enjoyed watching seals and otters outdoors on the rocks and moved on from there to more art studios and glassblowing exhibitions in the quirky outdoorsy village of Henningsvaer. There were many works of art by well-known Norwegian artists available for purchase but we found everything expensive. Having got 10 kroner to the pound, we thought we had lots of money in 10,000 Norwegian kroner but it all went quickly!

Anna had offered us a boat trip through a well known and very narrow fjord called Trollfjord in which the you are hemmed in by towering walls of rocks on either side but only Eliel and I showed enthusiasm for either the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) or standard boat option. They didn’t fancy the thought of donning dry suits for two hours or being out on the slower boats for the five hours they needed – particularly at the 600 and 750 kroner per person price tag.

Easily satisfied with small adventures, Eliel, Anna and I went for another paddle on the lake on our last night in Svolvaer and in the process incurred the disapproval of both Pasi and one of the campsite staff when we began fooling about in the middle of the lake and calling out ‘Help! Rescue!’ since they both thought that we actually might need rescuing. I could see in their faces that they didn’t think it was behaviour befitting a woman of my age!

It was time to start retracing our steps in the direction of Tromso, stopping at the ‘Polar Park’ – the most northerly Wild Life Reserve, en route. There, feeding and playing with the Arctic foxes was a highlight since they were trained to jump on our backs for photos. So too was meeting four-month-old wolf pups who greeted us by sticking their tongues in our mouths! The park was set on a hill and the animals were in very large enclosures so walking around the steep paths between them left me breathless but it was worth it to see the native Arctic animals like moose, reindeer, deer, brown bears, and lynxes in their natural habitat. None of us dared to go on the zip wire near the entrance but we watched others do it and a lot of fun was had by all.

Our last night was spent nearby on another husky farm, about two hours’ drive from Tromso. This, with c. 50 dogs, was again a far smaller farm than Hetta Huskies’ 150 dogs, but they also had three reindeer and some pigs and goats and the setting was beautiful – on a quiet backcountry road, beside a rapid in a burbling river and nestled at the end of a valley with mountains rising up behind us on three sides. It was run by a German man from the Black Forest and his Norwegian wife and we stayed in cabins that they had built and furnished themselves.

The craftsmanship in them was wonderful but the only drawback was that their communal toilet and shower were down the hill and we had to descend four very steep steps without railings to go to the toilet in the night. We were apparently the oldest guests they had ever had (by a long way) and they hadn’t really thought about the steps since it was the first year they were taking summer clients and in winter the steps are normally under the snow. It was a great experience but I was glad it was just for one night.

120914DSC00823 (3)As we travelled on to Tromso the next day, for the end of our 2200km road trip, I began to feel sad at the thought that we soon would have to leave all the beauty and peace, the drives through tunnels cut through the rocks or underwater, ferry crossings and bridges linking island to island. However, a quick stop at Norway’s National Rapids showed me that there were still more things to see and enjoy and it was fun to pick raspberries and take photographs on the way down the gorge.

Our last hours were spent in Tromso itself where we took the cable car to the top of a mountain and looked down on familiar landmarks in the city below. We enjoyed our last meal of open prawn and salmon sandwiches together in the good restaurant on top and before descending, Anna, Pasi, Eliel and I wandered around the cliff-top paths outside whilst the others chatted beside a cosy fire.

1209142014-08-18 11 49 42 (3)We still had time for a quick visit to Macks Brewery Pub, the most northern brewery in the world where we sampled the beers and ciders they had been making for over 20 years. Eliel was intrigued with the huge stuffed polar bear and he placed my finger on the fur to test if the bear were alive! It’s a massive animal and scary, even in its stuffed state.

Parting at the airport was so sad and I broke down in tears as I took my leave of my daughter and my amazing four-year-old grandson. It was such a wonderful action-packed holiday. Two things I found myself wishing for – firstly, that I was young again and able to enjoy all the outdoor activities which had been on offer; horse-riding, snorkelling, diving, fishing, trekking, climbing, cycling and swimming, and secondly, that I was a good photographer so that I could take pictures of the amazing landscape. I am just happy to have been able to enjoy so much.

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