A raggle-taggle archipelago nudging into the Norwegian Sea, the Vesterålen islands, and their southerly neighbours the Lofoten, are like western Norway in miniature: the terrain is hard and unyielding, the sea boisterous and fretful, and the main – often the only – industry is fishing. The weather is temperate but wet, and the islanders’ historic isolation has bred a distinctive culture based, in equal measure, on Protestantism, the extended family and respect for the ocean.
Somewhat confusingly, the Vesterålen archipelago is shared between the counties of Troms and Nordland: the northern Vesterålen islands are in Troms, while the southern half of the Vesterålen and all the Lofoten islands are in Nordland. The Vesterålen islands are the less rugged of the two groups – greener, gentler and less mountainous, with more of the land devoted to agriculture, though this gives way to vast tracts of peaty moorland in the far north. The villages are less immediately appealing too, often no more than narrow ribbons straggling along the coast and across any available stretch of fertile land. Consequently, many travellers simply pass by on their way to Lofoten, a definitive mistake when considering the small fishing port of Andenes, which beckons with a strange but enthralling back-of-beyond charm and for a litany of whale-watching expeditions. In summer, Andenes also has the advantage of being linked by ferry to Gryllefjord, on the island of Senja. Other Vesterålen highlights are the magnificent but extremely narrow Trollfjord, where cruise ships and the Hurtigruten perform some nifty manoeuvres, and Harstad, a comparative giant with a population of 23,000 and the proud home to a splendid medieval church.
The archipelago was first settled by semi-nomadic hunter-agriculturalists some 6000 years ago, and it was they and their Iron Age successors who chopped down the birch and pine forests that once covered these coasts. It was boatbuilding, however, which brought prosperity: by the seventh century, islanders were able to build ocean-going vessels, a skill that enabled them to join in the Viking bonanza. Local clan leaders became important warlords, none more so than the eleventh-century chieftain Tore Hund, one-time liegeman of Olav Haraldsson, and one of the men selected to finish Olav off at the Battle of Stiklestad – the fulfilment of a blood debt incurred by Olav’s execution of his nephew. In the early fourteenth century, the islanders lost their independence and were placed under the control of Bergen: by royal decree, all the fish the islanders caught had to be shipped to Bergen for export. This may have suited the economic interests of the Norwegian monarchy and the Danish governors who succeeded them, but it put the islanders at a terrible disadvantage. With their monopoly guaranteed, Bergen’s merchants controlled both the price they paid for the fish and the prices of the goods they sold to the islanders – a truck system that was to survive, increasingly under the auspices of local merchants, until the early years of the twentieth century. Since World War II, improvements in fishing techniques and, more latterly, the growth in tourism and the improvement and extension of the roadway infrastructure have all combined to transform and improve island life.
“It is the fish, and that alone, that draws people to Andenes – the place itself has no other temptations,” said the writer Poul Alm when he visited the old fishing port of ANDENES in 1944. While this is too harsh a judgement today, the main emphasis does indeed remain firmly nautical, with lines of low-slung buildings leading up to a clutter of wooden warehouses and mini boat-repair yards that demarcate the harbour and its prominent breakwaters. Even Andenes’ long and straight main drag, Storgata, ends abruptly at the seafront, and the town’s main raison d’être today is as a field station and research centre for marine biologists studying whales: indeed, among Scandinavians, Andenes is best known for its whale-watching safaris. The town is also an excellent place for gull watching – large numbers of glaucous and Iceland gulls, white-billed divers and purple sandpipers frequent its environs – as well as being Norway’s most southerly wintering area for common and king eider ducks. In late winter, the world’s Arctic cod population migrates south from the Barents Sea to spawn in the waters around Andenes – a natural movement that attracts millions of sea birds to the area on the lookout for food.
Andenes is famous for its popular whale-watching safaris, with a marine biologist on board to point out whales, such as pilots, minkes, humpbacks and sperm, as well other sea creatures like dolphins and porpoise. Operators claim – with every justification – a ninety-five percent chance of a whale sighting, and many will reimburse the price of your ticket if you don’t see any. The Vesterålen islands are a stone’s throw from the continental shelf, which is closer to land here than anywhere else in Norway: deep water and a nutrient-rich food supply such as squid make the area an essential feeding ground for sperm whales, though as they can dive down as deep as 3000m to feed, you’re unlikely to glimpse the same whale twice on a single trip.
The tours, which support the research and protection of offshore whale colonies, take place aboard small vessels and use hydrophone technology to pick up the sounds of the whales – essential for locating the mammals without disturbing them. Taking an evening safari during the midnight-sun period can be especially rewarding, as the calmer sea makes it easier to spot the surfacing sperm whales, and the light is simply enchanting.
To many foreigners at least, Norway has an unenviable reputation as one of the few countries in the world still hunting whales for commercial purposes. In so doing, the Norwegians ignore the worldwide ban on commercial whaling adopted by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. While Japan claims to kill whales for scientific reasons, Norway does not disguise its main reason for hunting – human consumption – and its fisheries department works out its own quota. In 2012, this was 1286 minke whales – the largest catch in a quarter of a century. Whale meat (hval) is considered a delicacy by many Norwegians and can still be found on many (north) Norwegian menus, though opinion polls indicate that about one in four Norwegians under thirty oppose the hunt. The method of killing the animals is also subject to bitter debate. Norwegian whalers invented the exploding harpoon and they still use it today. Activists claim there’s no humane way to kill a whale, but many abhor this particular method: one in five harpooned whales suffer a long and painful death. Ironically enough, the waters where thousands of tourists venture out on whale-watching safaris are the same as those used by the whale hunters. Indeed, in 2006 a whale was shot and dragged aboard a whaler right in front of a whaling safari boat, causing a real brouhaha.
By far the largest town on the Vesterålen islands, HARSTAD is just 130km from Narvik and easily reached by car, bus and the Hurtigruten coastal boat. Home to much of northern Norway’s engineering industry, its sprawling docks are a tangle of supply ships, repair yards and cold-storage plants spread out along the gentle slopes of the Vågsfjord. This may not sound too enticing, and it’s true that Harstad wins few beauty contests, but the town does have the odd attraction, and if you’re tired of sleepy Norwegian villages, it at least puts on something of a bustling interlude. The downtown core has little appeal, though the comings and goings of the ferry boats are a diversion, and almost everything you need is conveniently clustered around the harbour, with the bus station, and the jetties for the Hurtigbåt and Hurtigruten boats within a few metres of each other. The only other spark of interest takes place in late June, when the eight-day North Norway Arts Festival (Festspillene i Nord-Norge; wfestspillnn.no) provides concerts, drama and dance performances; note, however, that the town’s hotels are full to bursting throughout the proceedings.
The drive between Vesterålen’s two main settlements is one of Northern Norway’s most atmospheric, its wild and isolated coasts evoking both desolation and surpreme awe. Although Andenes lies northwest of Harstad, it’s reached by heading south out of town along the E10, then it’s 50km southwest along the fjord to the turning for the Lødingen ferry and a further 50km to the bridge that spans the sound over to Sortland. On the near side of this Sortland bridge, Highway 82 begins its 100-kilometre trek north, snaking along the craggy edge of Hinnøya island before crossing a second bridge over to humdrum Risøyhamn, the only Hurtigruten stop on Andøya, the most northerly of the Vesterålen islands. Beyond Risøyhamn, the scenery is much less dramatic, as the mountains give way to hills in the west and a vast, peaty moor in the east. Highway 82 strips across this moorland and, despite offering panoramic views of the mountains back on the mainland, it’s an uneventful journey on to Andenes. If you have time to spare, consider taking the more scenic route along the west coast of Andøya, branching off from Highway 82 just past Risøyhamn to pass through a series of tiny villages like Nordmela, Stave and Bleik (see Puffin safaris).