We’re taking our first good look at the hamlet of Unstad when the scattering of red wood houses disappears behind a mist of freshly laid powder, whipped across the deserted street by a blast of chilling Arctic air.
The snow storm that we’d driven through the previous night, while now abated, has coated our makeshift campsite with a thick layer of the white stuff. Jumping out of the Volkswagen California, our feet hit the surface and keep sinking until spotless ground sits well above our ankles.
Apart from the distant crash of waves from the bay behind us, there’s barely any noise. Until, that is, another 50mph shot of wind rips onshore.
“We won’t have any dinner tonight unless we get to the picturesque fishing town of Henningsvær”
For 60 seconds, it’s like standing behind a jet engine in a hail storm, our faces blasted with a coarse dust of heavily frozen snow. This miniature maelstrom causes Unstad, once again, to briefly disappear from view.
Our original plan was to start the day with a spot of stick sliding in the bay’s frigid waters. Heading all the way to 68.2 degrees North without sampling the local surf with guys and girls from the Unstad Arctic Surf would’ve been a massive missed opportunity, after all.
However, dreams of Arctic logs shadowed by the snow-capped mountains on either side of the bay are to remain just that. The ripsnorting onshore squalls have turned the Norwegian Sea into a tumultuous mess of five-foot mush.
Unfortunately we don’t have time to wait around for conditions to improve. Our first full day on the Lofoten peninsula features over 200km of driving, 60km of which needs to be completed by 11am.
The reason? We won’t have any dinner tonight unless we get to the picturesque fishing town of Henningsvær and hook our own cod straight out of the Norwegian waters.
Right then. We better hit the road.
A world in high definition
While the wind is still, at times, ferocious, the weather this morning couldn’t be more of a contrast to the bleak blizzard that greeted us on our arrival in Stamsund yesterday evening.
Even still, the hill out of Unstad – caked in hard ice – looks almost impenetrable. However, despite a few nervous mutters on the approach, our VW California eases its way up ascent before the incline levels out some way before the summit and we disappear into the darkness of the tunnel where, last night, we were busy setting up our beds.
Emerging from the other end is like arriving in a whole new world.
Apart from a few remaining patches of grey cloud, the sky is a sharp sapphire blue, bathing the myriad mountains in a crystal light that only Scandinavia seems to possess. It’s almost as if the landscape is rendered in high definition.
While Unstad sits isolated in its own little valley, the other side of the tunnel provides a panorama like no other over the rest of the Vestvågøy island.
It’s a concentrated visual shot of all that Arctic Norway has to offer. Snow-crusted, craggy mountains, glass-like lakes and a smattering of those idiosyncratic red, wooden lodges. Having the rare advantage of height only helps to make the view that little bit more spectacular.
WHAT TO DO
Surfing? In the Arctic Circle? You must be mad! Yes, we know that’s what you’re thinking but trust us. The bay at Unstad gets some world-class waves (it’s the home of the Lofoten Masters competition) and, despite the local Unstad Arctic Surf school, it’s a remote stretch of coast that most of your mates will likely never have heard of.
Predominantly a white sandy beach, the bottom of the bay is also made up of some large, rounded boulders but, despite this, it’s a spot that is ideal for both beginners and serious surfers alike. On the right day, the swell can come in big and barreling, while on smaller days it’s a prime spot for a bit of long stick sliding.
The surrounding scenery is unlike anywhere else too and, in the winter, you may just get lucky and surf underneath the Northern Lights. Make sure you wrap up warm though. Fleecy, 5/7mm wetsuits are the order of the day when water temperatures can be as little as five degrees Celsius. For more information, head to Unstad Arctic Surf’s site.
After retracing our tracks along the Saupstadvein, we rejoin the E10 just south of Bøstad, turning left this time to take the European arterial route east across the top of the island.
While we’re now roughly back at sea level, the views seemingly get ever more incredible with each passing kilometre. It’s a struggle at times to know which way to look.
“We realise we haven’t really seen any sort of town or village in about 30 minutes.”
The 80kph national speed limit may be there to stop you from careering off the frozen tarmac but it seems like the Norwegian authorities also want you to just slow down and enjoy the view.
And, from the elevated driving position of the Volkswagen California (surrounded by the eight large glass windows), there are few better places to soak up the scenery. It’s further proof that you don’t need a supercar to make a memorable road trip.
If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the hustle and bustle of modern civilisation, Lofoten is quite the remote tonic too. Already half way to Henningsvær, we realise we haven’t really seen any sort of town or village in about 30 minutes.
The only reminder that people do brave it out all year round up here in the Arctic Circle comes when one of the few locals overtakes us down a hill. On a sweeping bend. On compacted ice. At 100kph. They’re made of sterner stuff up here in Nordland…
Having crossed onto the island of Gimsøya, we quickly hop across onto our third island of the morning: Austvågøya.
Hook, line and sinker
It’s here that we’re given a very real reminder of Lofoten’s interconnected landscape, a one-kilometre roadway just south of Barstrand ferrying us across a stretch of the Norwegian Sea.
Soon after we turn from the E10 and join the 816, a twisting ribbon of ice and snow-covered tarmac that hugs the rocky coastline all the way to Henningsvær. As we enter the fringes of the port town, we’re greeted with the sight of two massive ‘hjell’, triangular wooden frames used to dry (and, therefore, preserve) the locally caught whitefish.
During our journey across to the south coast, the morning’s wind has dropped to a mere breath and, while the sea is far mirror-like, conditions are pretty much ideal for a spot of cod fishing.
“All the time, a snow storm is rolling in from the north, the mountains surrounding Henningsvær disappearing one-by-one”
A quick introduction to our captain, Rudi and we’re soon under way in his small trawler, navigating our way out of the harbour, edging towards open water between a plethora of uninhabited islands, each jutting out of the navy surface like the back of some great whale.
The horizon is dotted with myriad fishing boats, all setting or collecting their nets. Meanwhile, we’re dropping our metaphorical anchor slightly closer to shore. The water is no less abundant with fish though.
A matter of minutes after the first line is dropped it’s brought back up straining under the weight of a huge cod. Great! But soon the rod is thrust into our hands and we hardly make an auspicious start.
Having never fished before (let alone in Arctic waters for some pretty meaty, mature cod) we think we’ve got one early doors, only to discover that we’ve gone and “caught the bottom”. Even Rudi can’t free the hook from the silty seabed and, after a few muttered Norwegian expletives, the line is expelled into the deep blue.
We commandeer a fresh rod, with Rudi imploring us to keep the heavily-weighted hook off the bottom.
While our colleagues on the starboard side seem to have hit aquatic gold, reeling in cod after cod, we’re not have much success off the port side. Even a quick readjustment of the trawler’s location by Rudi doesn’t bear fruit (or fish).
All the time, a snow storm is rolling in from the north, the mountains surrounding Henningsvær disappearing one-by-one behind the angry grey clouds.
Just as we’re about to motor back to the harbour, with the first flakes of snow hitting the deck, our line gets a tug. Is this it? Here we go!
It’s only in the final few metres of water that the cod almost magically appears at the end of the line. He’s not the biggest catch of the day but we’ve got dinner. Rudi quickly takes care of the gory stuff before he jumps back to the helm, outrunning the snow on our way back to shore.
WHERE TO EAT
After some Arctic exploration you need a hearty meal to put some warmth back into your bones. The Klatrekafeen in Henningsvær is the perfect place to get this. The name literally translates as ‘Climber’s Café’, so they’re used to feeding up intrepid hikers, mountaineers and skiers.
Hidden down an alleyway just off of Misværveien street, Klatrekafeen serves up a range of local soups, fish dishes and smörgåsbords, as well as more familiar offerings (such as chili con carne and beef burgers).
The décor is eclectic, with climbing boots nailed upside down to the ceiling along with all manner of local memorabilia celebrating the town’s adventurous spirit and fishing heritage.
Three seasons in one hour
If you’re ever looking for a sure-fire way of feeling like a true 21st Century Viking then carry a sack full of headless cod through a Norwegian fishing town.
Leaving the fish buried in the snow outside or lunch stop – a small hiking café down one of Henningsvær’s many narrow alleyways – only adds to the sheer ridiculousness of the situation.
Inside Klatrekafeen, an open firepit is roaring away. After two hours freezing ourselves near solid on a fishing boat it’s a welcome contrast the bitter cold of the gathering snow shower. It’s also a good reminder to turn the Volkswagen California’s auxiliary heater on.
Thankfully we don’t have leave the café’s cosy confines to do so. Instead, we’ve got just enough of a sightline to the camper van to use the key. Simple locking and unlocking is, after all, so old fashioned.
Safe in the knowledge that the afternoon’s schlep eastward will be toasty, it’s time for a hearty chili con carne and a slice of well-earned cake.
Over the next hour, our view of Henningsvær (which could easily appear on a Norwegian postcard) fades in and out as not one, not two but three separate snow storms – each increasing in intensity – hit the town.
We try and wait it out (each shower having been punctuated by glorious sunshine) but, by the time the third storm hits, we need to get going if we’re to make our overnight stop on the coast of Offersøy island.
Trudging back to the California, our tracks into the car park – made that morning – are nowhere to be seen. This is nothing compared to the 816 back out of town though.
Already treacherously narrow on the way in, the snowstorm (now morphed into a full-blown blizzard) the road was rapidly transforming into one of the toughest driving experiences we’ve ever encountered.
Visibility is now down to a few metres and the path of the frozen tarmac, easily buried under half a foot of fresh snow, is only discernible thanks to the bright orange poles on either side.
Put one wheel wrong and we’re going to be spending a few hours stuck in a drift, trying to dig the three-tonne camper out.
We come close on one occasion. The locals are barely batting an eyelid at the conditions and, as an articulated lorry comes down the hill toward us, we pull a little too far to the right, clipping a wing mirror on one of the poles.
“The wipers are struggling to keep up with load. And then the windscreen begins to freeze.”
Hearts skip a beat but we’re still on track. Just.
Heading back towards the E10, the road gradually rises skyward, with the temperature doing the opposite. Minus one gives way to minus one point five. Two. Two point five. Is it going to stop?
At minus three the plummeting temperature levels off. The snowstorm is nowhere near ready to settle however.
In fact, the flurries are falling with even greater vigour at this altitude. The wipers are struggling to keep up with load. And then the windscreen begins to freeze.
The wipers follow suit, ice sticking solidly to each blade with ever pass over the glass. Soon, they’re only clearing a narrow window, a porthole through which we’re desperately peering at what remains of the Norwegian landscape.
This feels like proper Arctic Circle stuff now. For the first time, we’re actually nervous. Properly nervous. This is about as far removed from the sunny south coast as we’re ever going to get.
Quickly pulling into a lay-by, we begin to chip off the ice when we’re suddenly reminded that our particular California Ocean has been equipped with a heated windscreen.
A swift prod of the centre console-mounted button and, a few minutes later, the screen and wipers are, finally, back in working order.
Our pulses lower slightly. Armrests down, we even allow ourselves to relax back into the V-Dub’s rather comfortable seats.
Back on the E10, the snow is still coming down in thick, heavy droves but, with a slightly wider carriageway to play with, we’ve got a bigger margin for error, not that the California needs it.
While we’ve been working up a sweat, the 4Motion system has kept everything under control with complete Scandivanian cool.
By the time we reach Svolvær, the 2.0-litre TSI motor has helped us to finally outrun the snow and we’re rewarded, once more, with a fresh view of distant mountains emerging out of the frosty haze.
The VW California is settling back in to its role as the consummate long-distance cruiser too, eating up the E10 kilometres with ease.
It’s so natural to drive in these conditions that we forget we’re skittering across ice at 80kph; rolling into a few sharper downhill curves at Vestpollen, we’re given a sharp reminder that even a few hundred studs isn’t going to prevent the laws of physics.
With the weight of the kitchen, cupboards and sleeping quarters out back, the California suddenly steps out as we carry a little too much speed through the left-hander. Re-focus. Relax. “Don’t rush and enjoy the view,” we tell ourselves. It’s sound advice, especially as a simply stunning sunset is brewing and, as we’re about to find out, the best vistas are yet to come.
Model: Volkswagen California Ocean
Price: From £49,975
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol
Top speed: 120mph
Economy: 29.4mpg (combined)CO2: 219g/km (combined)
On sale: Now