Or the Lofoten Islands, to be precise.
Lofoten is firmly in the Arctic Circle, but thanks to the Gulf Stream, has the largest positive temperature anomaly in the world relative to latitude. Combined with the stunning scenery and low population, it seemed the perfect place to take the bike for a week of exploration.
In retrospect, my research should have involved a little more than staring at pictures and trying to decide which camp sites would get the most impressive sunrises and sunsets. It turns out ‘warm for the Artic Circle’ doesn’t necessarily mean warm. No one mentioned the prevailing wind either – it seems to blow North East and on windier days, progress toward the end of the archipelago can be incredibly tough.
The plan was simple. Fly into Tromsø, build the bike, ride down to Å at the far end of the Archipelago and then ride back to Tromsø covering any roads I’d missed on the way down, giving around 1,400km over 9 days.
DAY 1 – TROMSØ TO BALSFJORD (90km)
My flight arrived at midday, so I’d planned on a short ‘calibration’ ride – a quick 90km to escape the hustle and bustle of Tromsø and get a taste of what lay ahead over the coming days. I didn’t really have high expectations for the ride, assuming it wasn’t long enough to reach the magnificent scenery and would be something of a ‘wasted’ day.
Turns out I needn’t have worried. Within a few miles I’d ticked off my first bridge and tunnel and was struggling to contain my excitement as new peaks, lakes and dramatic coastlines appeared around every corner. If the ‘boring’ day was this good, the rest of the week was going to be pretty incredible!
I was riding in just shorts and a jersey and feeling pretty comfortable until it started to rain shortly before the campsite. Gently at first, but being a cautious type I got the jacket out early and sure enough, the heavens soon opened. Luckily the campsite owner offered a fire and I was able to start the next day with dry (but smokey) kit.
DAY 2 – BALSFJORD TO HARSTAD (197km)
The day started beautifully – the sun was shining and while the night had been chilly, it was pretty bearable. I rode down the road to a Circle K to get breakfast. Food in Norway is expensive (particularly anything imported, meaning all the brand names you recognise), but the better petrol stations have bakeries and quite often burger joints inside and offer fairly good value for money. It’s not glamorous, but it’s still pretty special sitting on a bench behind a petrol station in the shadow of the mountains eating freshly baked goods!
A little further down the road was an incredibly clear lake, reflecting the dramatic and moody skies above and I simply had to stop to grab a picture. I’d gotten a soaking the day before, so wasn’t concerned by the skies – skin’s waterproof after all.
After hugging the coastline for the entire morning, my route began heading inland and upward. I was excited to be heading into the hills and feeling strong, not realising there was 40km of up to come (admittedly most of it not steep) and that I was about to get my first taste of proper weather.
As the climb ticked away, it began gently raining and I put on my waterproof, expecting another benign but sustained soaking. Then the rain started getting harder and colder. Looking around, I realised I was pretty much level with the snow line in the mountains (only around 400m or so!) and was now engulfed in cloud.
Within minutes I was soaked through and absolutely freezing. Unsurprisingly, the Norweigans also seemed to have neglected to build any towns on top of the hill in deepest darkest nowhere and there was absolutely no shelter to be had. The wind and gradient were making progress slow and my spirit was quickly waning. I eventually found a concrete bus shelter, stripped off as much of the wet gear as I could and then put on every item of clothing I had with me.
After half an hour running on the spot and jumping up and down I’d stopped shivering enough that I felt confident getting back on the bike. I’d checked the map and there was a long descent coming up and a town with plenty of shops, so I was pretty keen to get going.
Sure enough, the rain fizzled out by the time I’d dropped down to Bjerkvik. The descent was incredible fun to ride and I suspect is rather pretty when you can see further than 10 feet ahead of you. Bjerkvik itself felt a touch industrial, but was on the coast and a good few degrees warmer than my bus stop had been.
After a good feed, it was back to climbing as I joined the E10 for the first time and ascended back into the clouds and rain. The highlight of the day was supposed to be a rather impressive bridge joining this island to the next. I’d even researched a short detour to get a good angle of it for photos. I’d been chasing squalls all the way up the coast and the weather was quickly closing in, so there’d be no picture and I was very worried looking over the fjord that my campsite was currently being absolutely pissed on.
Luckily the weather was moving faster than I was and the rain had stopped by the time I approached my home for the night. I even got to see a couple of moose hanging out in someone’s garden. Even better, the campsite was completely empty, pan flat and stuck out into the sea, giving an incredible view. Less good – they weren’t serving any food and I’d exhausted my supplies.
I was pretty done in at this point. I wrestled the bathroom key off the camper van that had decided it should be in charge of them, had a long warm shower and wrung out as much of my kit as I could before ramming it down the end of my sleeping bag and passing out cold, wet and hungry.
DAY 3 – HARSTAD TO LEKNES(ish) (199KM)
Thanks to the weather and low visibility, day 2 had taken the crown from day 1 as the ‘boring’ day and I’d woken up feeling pretty low. That is, until I opened the tent and saw the sun shining and took in the ridiculous landscape surrounding me on all sides. Norway being Norway, it didn’t last. Just as I’d taken down the tent outer, the rain started again and all the kit I’d laid out to dry got a fresh soaking.
Breakfast was 10km away at Kongsvik, so I loaded up the bike and trundled off down the road into the rain. Entering Kongsvik, the mountains and weather clashed to create endless rainbows and sudden showers – literally every corner revealed a new rainbow, including a double one over the road. It was pretty stunning and by the time I’d refuelled at the petrol station, I was feeling pretty good about the day. It certainly helped that there was just enough visibility to make out the mountains today…
A few miles down the road I hit Fiskefjorden – my first ‘real’ fjord of the trip. It was very nearly an existential experience… the high mountains surrounding the fjord kept the weather out and created shelter from the wind. I rode around with the biggest grin on my face and quickly forgot about the trials of the previous day.
Of course, all good things come to an end and once out of the Fjord, the headwind reappeared and squalls of rain passed through every few minutes. Fortunately, the views stayed and I just couldn’t stop smiling as the endless views unfolded before me.
I had a bit of a panic when a steep and long climb appeared on the horizon with signs advising to use snow chains, and layered up… so of course ended up sweltering over the next 4-5km, riding past two beautiful lakes and dropping down to the far side of the island.
Approaching Hinnøya, the wind and rain intensified. The mountains were funnelling the wind straight down the road and forward movement stalled. I ended up stopping at Gullesfjordbotn to catch my breath and take in the views (such as they were with the heavy rain and cloud cover). This is an area I intend to return and explore properly one day – it was stunning and I’d love to explore this side of Møysalen and hike up some of the incredibly peaks.
Continuing down the E10, the road rises steadily toward a 6km long tunnel. The wind was roaring down this climb so ferociously I was forced to stand on the pedals, screaming into the wind and barely moving forward. The rain was so heavy I could only look down and I was following the road by looking at where I had been, rather than where I was going. It felt like an eternity, but eventually the road levelled and the tunnel loomed large.
Suddenly the wind and rain stopped. My GPS couldn’t tell speed underground, but looking at the gears, I was pretty sure I was doing at least 40kph. The eerie silence of the tunnel, broken by the roar of car engines and the transition from light to darkness every few feet was incredibly trippy and called to mind a scene from Willy Wonka that used to terrify me as a child:
Leaving the tunnel was like being shot out of a cannon into a distant land. The sky was blue, the wind had died down and the landscape had changed once more. Endless mountains, fjords and picturesque views made the miles fly by. Every turn in the road brought another view that took my breath away and I was buzzing all the way to Laupstad.
At Laupstad, the headwind found me once more. I made slow progress down to Svolvaer and the peaks around me were lost into cloud. At Svolvaer, I hid in a petrol station for an hour to refuel and prepare for the final push down to Leknes. I ended up having a long chat with a local about my plans and his wife assured me I was completely insane. She might have had a point.
All too soon, it was time to brave the headwind and head toward Grimsøya, where there was an incredible bridge I was looking forward to crossing, despite the weather. Admittedly that excitement turned to nerves when it came into view and I felt the 17m/s winds side on for the first time and saw just how high and long the bridge was.
At first it was fine, I was leaning heavily to my left (into the wind), traffic was light and I felt in control. Then I reached the middle of the bridge and nearly got blown straight over the guard rail! I spent the rest of the bridge steering hard to the left and pushing hard into the wind just to stay straight, and coming off the bridge straight into the headwind, the gusts were strong enough to bring me to a complete standstill when the blew through every minute or two.
Luckily Kaljord wasn’t far and I set up my tent alongside a small lake, watched the sunset, ate far too many sweets and passed out, ready for an early start the following morning.
DAY FOUR – LEKNES TO UTTAKLEIV BEACH VIA Å (155km)
I had, rather foolishly, completely ignored elevation profiles whilst planning my route, so day four began with an unexpected and unwelcome climb for the first couple of km. The weather was ‘close’ and rain kept rolling through, but largely the morning was quite pleasant – not too cold, dry enough and the headwind was bearable.
Heading down the archipelago, the mountains just got more and more beautiful, with incredible shapes piercing the clouds and it was impossible not to keep stopping to take pictures every few minutes when the clouds shifted or a new view hove into sight.
Around Flakstad, the now customary soaking was delivered as it rained just long enough to thoroughly soak all of my kit for the day ahead. It was hard to care though, following roads twisting around the base of incredible mountains and hugging beautiful coastlines.
From Moskenes onward I was pretty much taking pictures constantly, recognising peaks from my research before the trip and spotting new details you just can’t find in the pictures. I had planned on doing some hiking around here, but it was just too wet and grim to be safe – not to mention I hadn’t realised quite how intense Norweigan hikes are (steep, poorly marked… terrific fun though!) and there simply wasn’t enough time in my ride schedule to fit it in. I’ll just have to come back to do them!
Å itself was a bit of a let down and after days of rain, being cold and covering big miles, my mood had taken quite a hit. I was quite down in the dumps and just didn’t make the most of being there. I got myself fed and started heading back up the islands.
Next on the list was Nusfjord. The town itself is very pretty, but the main attraction was going to be the ‘wall’ on the road in. An imposing mountain range that had captured my imagination when I spotted it on Streetview.
The entire road into Nusfjord is sheltered and a delight to ride – to my mind, it’s an absolute ‘must do’. It actually came at the expense of attempting to reach Kvalvika Beach (the hike there would simply have taken too long anyway). The town is small, but incredibly picturesque and it’s easy to while away an hour or two taking in the sights and exploring.
After Nusfjord, all that was left was scoping out beaches to camp on. I was pretty convinced it would be Haukland, but the sunset was hidden behind the headland and Uttakleiv got the final vote. On the road in, there was a beautifully still lake and the evening sun created one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen:
It’s perfectly set out for camping (you have to pay, after all) with flat pitches and plenty of benches and fire pits dotted around. There’s a lovely walk around the headland to Haukland beach and as my first night on the North of the islands, this was my first experience with quite how long a sunset lasts in northern Norway at the end of August. I left the tent door open until it got too cold and watched the colours on the horizon, gently worrying about the clouds gathering by the mountains surrounding the beach.
DAY FIVE – UTTAKLEIV BEACH TO EGGUM BEACH (155km)
Waking up on the beach was magical – the day was still, the sun was shining and the waves were gently lapping against the shore. Two locals wandered past in bikinis and I knew it was finally going to be a warm day. The route for the day was pretty much a lap of the island, so hopefully no straying into surprise weather systems.
The day started with a trip down to Balstad, which in hindsight I wouldn’t bother with again. It was a pretty enough town, but I’d added the loop purely to bump up the miles for the day and the time it took for this ride would probably have been better spent on the beach in the evening. On the plus side, the return leg coincided with a school outing on bicycles – a never ending stream of kids on bikes being shepherded down the road by adults. It reminded me of when I briefly worked in Amsterdam and was wonderful to see.
Next on the agenda was climbing the other side of the mountain that had surprised me two mornings ago. I’d descended in rain, with limited visibility and had no idea quite how special this was going to be. It’s one of only a couple of switchbacks in Lofoten and on a clear day like today, the view was breathtaking. I was riding up whilst looking back over my shoulder and just had to stop above the switchback to take a panorama of the view and drink it in.
I continued retracing the 815, failing to recognise anything I’d ridden past a few days ago and marvelling at the sights. You could see straight across the sea to the adjoining islands and none of the towering peaks surrounding the road were lost to cloud. It felt like I was seeing this part of the island for the first time and is a strong argument in favour of riding both down and back up the peninsula – with such changeable weather, having two chances to hit as many locations as possible seems pretty sensible and you can mix and match the E10 and smaller roads to build in enough variation to keep it interesting.
At the end of the island, I turned back, this time taking the E10 along the North coast. It was beautifully scenic, but definitely busier than the 815. It was also quite hard going, whereas the 815 hugged the coast and was quite flat, the E10 followed a rolling route through the foothills, occasionally climbing quite steeply.
After a quick stop at the Viking museum (shut, boo!), I headed for Unstad – the ‘Arctic Surfing Beach’. Although the beach was supposed to be the highlight, it was actually the road leading to it that took my breath away. After a brief stop to give a local one of my spare tubes and pump his tyre back up, I followed the winding road past lakes, the stunning Tangstad beach and a magnificent waterfall, before it climbed sharply, passed through an unlit tunnel and dropped down toward the beach.
The beach itself was quiet – it was pretty late and the water was fairly still, so everyone had headed home for the night. I got a touch of beach fatigue, stayed long enough to take a photo and then decided to push on to my home for the night – Eggum beach.
Eggum was ridiculously quiet and I got nervous that there might have been bad weather forecast or something I’d missed keeping other campers away (I’m now pretty sure it was just because it was the end of the season). I found a quiet and flat spot next to a bench, set up the tent and went for an explore. There’s a cafe and toilet block built into the base of an old WWII radar tower, but the real fun is to be found heading out the other way and following the path down the coast. Perhaps do this with a little more daylight remaining than I did – the path gets quite technical and I had to turn back before it got dangerous in the dark.
DAY SIX – EGGUM BEACH TO SVOLVAER (and some backtracking 124km)
This day did not go to plan. It started very windy and there was a deadline to get to the last food stop of the day and a ferry onto the next island… which was missed and resulted in a retracing of steps back to Svolvaer to take advantage of a cheap hotel.
Hitting the road up through Svolvaer in bright, but windy weather meant I finally got to spot the ‘goat’ from the road, but quite honestly, very little else of note happened today.
That said, the unplanned hotel stay was a god send. After five days of wearing the same kit and getting quiet smelly through a combination of rain, sweat, mud and god knows what else, a chance to wash out all the kit and, importantly, also get it bone dry on a radiator really raised my morale.
It’s strange how the constant ups and downs of beautiful sights, followed by being absolutely soaked and frozen can damage your mood. It happens slowly and imperceptibly, but constantly going to sleep wet and cold and waking up wet and cold had definitely been draining me and a night in a hotel was the perfect opportunity to reset and put my head back on straight for the last few days of my journey.
DAY SEVEN – SVOLVAER – SORTLAND (139km)
Finally, some new terrain to explore! Albeit, with a huge serving of Arctic weather.
The ferry I needed to catch today only sailed twice per day and the first sailing I’d be able to make would be 5.30, so there was no rush to leave the hotel. I waited for the rain to ease – having just got my kit dry, I really didn’t want to soak it through again just yet!
By around 10.30, there was a break in the weather and I started heading back up the coast toward Hanoy, where I’d catch the ferry. On my fourth journey along the E10 to Vestpollen, I finally stopped at a viewpoint I’d been looking forward to. I’d hoped there’d be good weather at least once, but it wasn’t to be and the only picture I got felt pretty appropriate for my experience of Norway thus far:
By the time I’d reached Laukvik, it was pissing down once more. Proper ‘head down and get it over with’ weather. You could tell that the coastal road toward the ferry was beautiful, but it was just too miserable to enjoy and most of the time you could only see a few feet ahead. The fjord between Sanden and Stronstad added the excitement of a killer headwind followed by no tailwind. To make matters worse, I got to the ferry several hours early, expecting there to be somewhere warm to wait.
There was a bench. In the open. By the water. I put on all my gear and hunkered down, eventually spotting a group of hikers, who huddled in a corner and another cyclist who introduced himself before doing star jumps and running on the spot.
I toyed with hopping back on the bike and cycling the long way round through Moysalen… but I remembered the brutal winds a few days ago heading the other direction and the heavy, freezing rain and decided to stick with the ferry. In retrospect, I think I’d have gone with Moysalen – the road from Hennes to Sortland is uninspiring and quite industrial. I’m sure in better weather it’s much nicer, but I’m also sure the E10 past Gullesfjordbotn is far more beautiful.
The run into Sortland took an age as I kept ducking under cover when the bigger squalls blew in from the sea. At times, the world would turn grey and the air just became wet in every direction. Somehow, I largely kept dry and dodged the bigger storms, finally making it to Sortland and emptying the Circle K of supplies.
DAY EIGHT – SORTLAND – STAVE (90km)
I was determined that this would be the day I finally did a hike. The weather was looking good and there was a hike at Stave that I was desperate to do. I cut the day’s ride short and made sure there was a full afternoon and evening to go exploring.
Andoya itself was pretty uninspiring and the campsite at Stave was nowhere near as good as the pictures had looked (not to mention the unfriendly staff). If you’re not going to hike here, I’d keep rolling and camp somewhere nicer!
The hike I had in mind was at the far end of Stave and would bring me to the highest point around, with a stunning view of a hidden beach and the surrounding landscape. I’d assumed it would be a few hours of quite strenuous walking, but nothing outrageous… holy crap, I was wrong.
At the base of what looked like a large rock fall was a sign – pointing right, straight into the boulder field was a sign for the peak I was heading for. Heading left was a nice coastal path (that according to my map, would also reach the peak above the beach). I chose left.
The path very quickly became technical and hard to follow. Where it passed over rocks, it was impossible to discern direction and I ended up pretty much just scrabbling in the general direction I thought it was heading. Then another boulder field came into view. With people slowly making their way up it. “You have GOT to be kidding me!”. Sure enough, there was a sign at the base of the boulder field, pointing straight up.
Surprisingly, as you got closer to the boulders, it became possible to just about make out an established path. Plenty of scrambling followed, but it was fairly straightforward and my confidence started growing. At the top, I met two locals coming down from what looked like a sheer wall. Both easily in their 60s, whistling and chatting away. They recommended popping up where they’d come from before heading off to the beach and I gladly complied, stopping at the summit for a beer.
The path down to the beach was much simpler, but finding the route off the beach and up the mountain was proving difficult. Eventually I spotted the faintest of scars on the side of the mountain, winding up an impossibly steep path between a boulder field and a waterfall. According to my Garmin, the ascent averaged about 44%. In places it was extremely technical and I slipped badly at one point, nearly tumbling off the face of this insane wall. Some of the stones were loose, so I’d grabbed a thick plant for support… only to find that it wasn’t very firmly attached itself. I fell a couple of meters before managing to arrest my fall and took the rest of the climb much more steadily.
Eventually the gradient eased, becoming a steep walk along the ridge and up to the summit above the beach. Once again the path faded in and out of existence and I ended up just making a beeline for the summit. Nearer the top it became clear there was a well trodden path heading in the other direction, but seemingly few people bothered with the route I’d chosen.
It was worth it though… the views were incredible and eating my dinner on a remote peak, watching the sun set was an experience that will stay with me forever.
Heading back down, I managed to find the path that had been signposted from Stave. It was still insane, but much easier and safer than the route I’d taken out. It took a further 2 hours or so to make the trip down before showering, setting up the tent and passing out.
DAY NINE – STAVE – TROMSØ (190km)
I had originally planned to do this over two days, but was worrying about being able to find packing supplies in Tromsø on Sunday (when everything is shut), so decided to give it one big push and get to Tromsø early.
As it was the end of the season, there were very limited ferries from Andenes to Gryllefjord, so it was an early start and a speedy ride up the remainder of Andoya’s coastline (including passing the Norwegian Space Agency!).
After a long ferry ride, I arrived in Senja and immediately understood why it’s referred to as ‘little Lofoten’. Senja might be relatively small, but it packs one hell of a punch. The weather had also decided to play ball again for the day, making for a perfect end to my Norwegian adventure.
With a lot of ground to cover and another ferry to catch before the end of the day, there wasn’t much time for tourism and I’ll never know what I missed out on at the Troll Park! I made an exception for the viewing platform at Bergsbotn, however, and couldn’t help lookign ridiculously smug stood in front of such an incredible view.
I made good time to Botnham, arriving a few minutes before the ferry and then proceeded to make my way back to Tromsø from Brensholmen. After my journey out from Tromsø, I was expecting the landscape to gently tail off, but the route back was stunning. I don’t regret my route further inland on the first day, but my advice would definitely be to head from Tromsø directly to Senja – it’s rather stunning!
DAY TEN – HOME!
A brief search of Tromsø revealed no good packing materials, so I bought some clingfilm and prepared to simply wrap the bike and send it through with no protection. I’d checked the airport on the way to Tromsø the night before in case there were any boxes (no joy), so was surprised to find one today when I arrived. Success! There were plenty of people arriving and leaving on/with bikes, so I’d definitely suggest not panicking and wrapping your bike poorly before you’ve checked the airport the day of your flight.
ADVICE AND ASSORTED MUSINGS
- Take suitable clothes for ALL weather
- Watch out for the prevailing wind
- If you want to hike, ride half a day or even take a day off to make time for it
- Keep coins for showers at campsites
- Be creative with your route – the E10 is fine, but some of the smaller roads are incredible
- Bring lights for the tunnels
- 99% of drivers are incredible and give loads of room, watch out for the 1% who drive like total lunatics
- Stop at the roadside loos (particularly the big concrete one by the sea)… trust me
- Eat local brands and avoid eating out if you want to keep costs down
- If you’re camping, bring a warm sleeping bag!
- Don’t get obsessed with your route/plan. Go with the weather and take it day by day
- Camping is a LOT cheaper than hotels, but there are actually a lot of reasonably priced options if you need an easy night (or at least there were when I was there, I guess peak season could be different). Wild camping is, of course, free, but more of an effort and unlikely to have a convenient shower nearby.
Rides/routes can be viewed here