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Sweden and Norway in a Volvo XC40 – 2/3: Lofoten Islands

Our Volvo XC40 photo bombing the perfect picture of the Lofoten Islands.

This is Part 2 of our adventure in Sweden and Norway with a Volvo XC40, you can check out Part 1: Kustvägen here. During this section we explore the main attraction of this entire trip: the breathtaking Lofoten Islands in Norway. We’ll have ample time to visit all its nooks and crannies given we had to completely retrace our steps back to the mainland as the successive ferries we were aiming for in both Moskenes and Lødingen were cancelled due to agitated seas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Welcome to snowy Norway! Bottom: Bjerkvik

Our itinerary for this Part 2 is simple: from the Sweden-Norway border to Bjerkvik where we stay for the night, progressing on the peninsula then hopping onto the Hinnøy and Møysalen Islands before reaching Lofoten proper with the Austvågøy, Vestvåhgøy, Flakstadøy and Moskenesøy Islands. The Westernmost town is Å, which turned out to be a letdown. Then we do it all over again in the opposite direction. First, as we cross the border into Norway we are met with a rather epic snowstorm and temperatures plummeting down to -4°C (25°F), which took us by surprise as I had never encountered any snow when driving much further north in my 2016 North Cape expedition. Nothing some polar beanies and gloves won’t fix as we frantically top up on our winter supplies in Bjerkvik.

From top to bottom: Hinnøya, Hadsel and Laupstad on peninsula leading to the Lofoten Islands.

As we approach the Lofoten Islands by land from the east, the landscapes progressively morph from green and relatively flat pastures to more mountainous terrain, but we’re not in fjord territory just yet. The roads seem deserted, the villages we cross appear inhabited but surely aren’t, and the wilderness quietly powers its way through the landscape. For example the bay across the jetty in Laupstad (picture just above) is so silent we can hear the wing flap of the seagulls around us.

Car landscape in Svolvaer.

Austvågøy is the easternmost of the Lofoten Islands and the harbour town Svolvaer is its biggest city with an oversized population of 4460… It’s as busy as it gets on the Lofoten, meaning actually pretty sleepy and the town in itself is rather uninteresting but the backdrop of high mountains is starting to verge on the spectacular. A good opportunity to update you on the car landscape in this region of the world. The most popular new car here is the Toyota Yaris but this is due to rentals as most tourists either fly or ferry to the Lofoten, then rent a car to drive around. I noticed a fleet of electric VW Up in town (pictured above) as well as a handful of Volvo V90 and XC60 acting as luxury taxis and a peppering of Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Stonic.

Top: Kleppstad, middle two: Henningsvær, bottom: Stamsund

Still on Austvågøy, an 8km drive southwards off the main road leads to the fishing village of Henningsvær, located at the very end of a promontory beyond a couple of bridges. Here the landscapes become truly grandiose with mountains up to 1000m high jutting down directly into the sea. The wavering of the road along cliffs, tunnels and bridges reminds me of the approach towards North Cape further north into Norway. Henningsvær has one striking feature: probably the most spectacular football stadium in the world (see above), taking most of the very last island forming the town. Further west on the island of Vestvågøy, Stamsund is (yet another) delightful fishing village. Elevating the drone well above the boats unveils a spectacular backdrop as shown in the bottom pic above.

Hamnøy is the perfect picture of Lofoten.

Moskenesøy, population 1225, is the southernmost island in the Lofoten and also its most striking: this is where the mountains are at their highest with Hermannsdalstind culminating at 1029m. Their spiky edges seems like they could cut and rise almost vertically from the sea in a majestic way. This impossible relief really does look like the imagination of an overzealous fantasy writer, but no: it does stand right in front of you in one of those moments in life where you literally don’t believe your eyes. Hamnøy in particular has a handful of red fishing cabins perilously perched on the rocky shore that often stands as the picture of the Lofoten. The funny/sad part of this picture (featured at the very top of this article) is that in front of these houses is the main road connecting these small islets over a very ugly and elevated bridge. The perspective from the high bridge enables the perfect photo but these houses ironically have the worst possible view.

Reine and its fish flakes.

The history of Lofoten is closely linked to its cod fishing industry. In 1120 King Øystein built the first church and fishing cabins and therefore took control of the region and its fishing economy, the start of numerous battles fought over these seas. The type of traditional fishing houses here are called rorbu and sjøhus, and ancient method Lofoten is famous for is stockfish. 15,000 tonnes are decapitated each year, paired by size then tied together and hung to dry over huge wooden A-frames – called fish flakes – you see everywhere on the island, a great example of which is the ones near the town of Reine pictured above. The fish lose 80% of their weight and stays edible for years, often eaten raw, salted or reconstituted with water. Cod liver oil is also consumed and is said to assuage the depression brought on by the long and dark Arctic winters. Reine is the touristic hub of the Lofoten where most hotels and restaurants are located, they tend to be overpriced but really cute so all is forgiven. Nested on a small islet in between Reine and Hamnøy, Sakrisøy has the distinctive feature of only sporting yellow houses instead of red (see below).

Top: Sakrisøy, middle two: Ramberg, bottom: Valberg

After pushing all the way to Å, the westernmost village, our plan was to take the ferry to the isolated island of Væroy. However stormy seas meant it got cancelled right before we were scheduled to board. We tried to save some time by booking another ferry from Lødingen to the mainland but this one also ended up cancelled. So tracing back our steps we go, and if this doesn’t look like a long trip on the map, the coast rugged to the extreme added with intermittent but violent rain means our progress is rather slow, which I use to deepen my review of the XC40. One disappointment is the automatic high beams: they take a smidge too long to cancel when a car gets close, forcing you to always be on alert to cancel them manually, and point blank don’t recognise faraway cars on straight lines, ending up blinding them repeatedly in a surprising fail for such a sophisticated brand, where the Peugeot 3008 was faultless. Auto high beams are a case of either perfect or useless (if it fails once they are of no use), and in this case unfortunately they are useless. But that is pretty much the extent of my disappointment with the XC40. The cruise control however is brilliantly set up: I was able to slow down to 17 km/h on a few roundabouts while still keeping the cruise control active and automatically back up to 60 km/h which is a good surprise (the 3008 would cut it from a much higher speed), and in deep descending slopes the cruise control actually brakes to maintain the car at the set speed.

Stay tuned for the last part in this exploration back in Sweden on the Vildmarksvägen (the Wilderness Route), rated as the most beautiful road in the country…

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