At the northern tip of Norway, the treeless and windswept island of Magerøya is mainly of interest to travellers as the location of the Nordkapp (North Cape), generally regarded as Europe’s northernmost point, though it is in fact nothing of the kind (see True north?). The development of the Nordkapp as a tourist spot has not been without its critics, who argue that the large and lavish visitor centre – Nordkapphallen – is crass and soulless and grossly overpriced; their opponents simply point to the huge number of people who visit. Whichever side you’re on, nearly everyone who comes this far north does so to visit Nordkapp, though Magerøya island has other charms too, notably a bleak, rugged beauty that’s readily seen from the E69 as it threads across the mountainous interior from Honningsvåg, on the south coast, to Nordkapp, a distance of 34km.
The obvious base for a visit to Nordkapp is the island’s main settlement, Honningsvåg, an extremely quaint fishing village with an unexpected clutch of chain hotels. More appealing, however, is the tiny hamlet of Kamøyvær, nestling beside a narrow fjord just off the E69 between Honningsvåg and Nordkapp, and with a couple of family-run guesthouses. Bear in mind also that Nordkapp is within easy striking distance of other places back on the mainland – certainly the picturesque fishing-station-cum-hotel at Repvåg, and maybe even Hammerfest and Alta, respectively 210km and 240km away.
Of the tours offered from Honningsvåg’s harbour, Destinasjon 71° Nord’s three-and-a-half-hour king crab safari (t47 28 93 20, w71-nord.no; 995kr), departing several times daily in the summertime, is the most engaging. The Zodiac-based excursion explores the traps in the Sarnesfjorden – the crabs in this region can measure up to 2m in length and weigh some 10kg – before heading to land to prepare what you’ve caught. Another option is a bird safari to the Gjesværstappan Nature Reserve located on the opposite side of Magerøya island. The two-hour tour (t41 61 39 83, wbirdsafari.com) departs Honningsvåg for the ten-minute boat ride, from which you’ll be able to view one of the country’s largest collections of puffins, kittiwakes and other migratory birds who nest up here between April and September. There are between one and three departures daily from May to August.
While the first “official” tourist to visit North Cape was a Franciscan friar, Francesco Negri, who arrived in 1664, the point was named by the English explorer Richard Chancellor in 1553, as he drifted along the Norwegian coast in an attempt to find the Northeast Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Chancellor failed, but managed to reach the White Sea, from where he and his crew travelled overland to Moscow, thereby opening a new, northern trade route to Russia. Chancellor’s account, published in the geographer Richard Hakluyt’s Navigations, brought his exploits to the attention of seamen across Europe, but it was to be another three hundred years before the Northeast Passage was finally negotiated by the Swede, Nils Nordenskjøld, in 1879. In the meantime, just a trickle of visitors ventured to the Nordkapp. Among them, in 1795, was the exiled Louis Philippe of Orleans (subsequently king of France), and King Chulalongkorn of Thailand, who had his name carved into a nearby rock. But it was the visit of the Norwegian king Oscar II in 1873 that opened the tourist floodgates. Two years later, Thomas Cook sent a tour group of 24 to visit. There were no island roads to the plateau, so the tourists had to be ferried by rowing boat from Gjesvær to Hornvika, at the base of the cliffs, before being instructed to climb the steep crags up to the top. The globe monument that now stands in for the actual cape – famous in postcards all over the country – was erected in 1978.
Set about 20 miles down the north shore of the Porsangerfjord, a deep and wide inlet flanked by bare, low-lying hills whose stone has been fractured and made flaky by the biting cold of winter, rests the old timber fishing station of REPVÅG. The E69 scuttles north along massive monoliths interrupting the coast, but for the most part the scenery in these parts is unusually tame and the shoreline accommodates a string of fishermen’s houses – plus the wooden racks used to air-dry their catch. Repvåg makes an ideal base – certainly more quaint than Honningsvåg – from which to reach Nordkapp, though once you’re ensconced here, you may settle instead for a fishing tour or, quite possibly, a few days in real solitude.
While umpteen marketing brochures gladly refer to Nordkapp at Europe’s northernmost point, in fact the neighbouring Knivskjellodden peninsula actually lies 1457m further north. And if it’s mainland Europe we’re talking about, the distinction belongs to Kinnarodden, a remote headland about 80km further to the east. Nonetheless, everyone seems to have conspired to ignore this simple latitudinal fact and now, while Nordkapp has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, there isn’t even a road to Kinnarodden, which can only be reached on a long and difficult 25km hike from the Hurtigruten port of Mehamn.