Discovering Helgeland

It’s never too late to uncover a new favorite part of Norway

Photo: John Barry Helgeland offers mountains and beaches for exploration (at Offersøy near Tjøtta).

Photo: John Barry
Helgeland offers mountains and beaches for exploration (at Offersøy near Tjøtta).

Patricia Barry
Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

“What is your favorite place in Norway?” I was asked during our trip there in June.

I hesitated. Our family has covered lots of territory in Norway. We’ve been to every fylke (county) and seen more of Norway than most Norwegians, we’ve been told. How could I pick one favorite place?

And would my answer change? Every trip to Norway we seek out new places. On this trip Helgeland would be our new adventure.

Our entourage included my husband, our son, our former exchange student, her husband (our personal tour guide born and raised in Helgeland), and their children, ages two, four, and six. Aurskog (Akershus) was our starting point. We began our trip remarkably self-contained, walking across the street to the bus stop—eight of us plus luggage, stroller, and children’s car seats.

Norway’s public transportation made travel easy—bus to train to Oslo Central Station for overnight sleeper car accommodations on NSB, switching trains in Trondheim. Our 14-hour train adventure passed quickly. (We highly recommend the family car if traveling with young ones). We stepped off the train in Mo i Rana into beautiful Helgeland.

Helgeland’s stunning landscape
Helgeland lies in the southern part of Nord­land between Nord-Trøndelag to the south and the Arctic Circle. Lesser known than Nordland’s world-famous Lofoten Islands, Helgeland—Norway’s hidden gem—quietly displays its own unique beauty.

Helgeland’s partially submerged lowlands form thousands of skerries that dot the coastline. Sharp, angular mountains (3,500 ft.) pop up along the coast. Add to this the white sandy beaches, glaciers, fjords, inland forests and mountains, and the Arctic Circle and you have a combination of features that makes Helgeland a unique and stunning part of Norway.

Easily accessible but not as crowded as more popular destinations, Helgeland beckons. Travel by train is easy and can be inexpensive, especially with NSB “minipris” tickets. There are airports, Hurtigruten ports, and bus routes. Highway E6 passes through inland Helgeland. Hugging the coast, following fjords, and island-hopping is the beautiful Route 17, Kystriksveien (coastal highway). This section is part of Helgelandskysten (Helgeland coast), the longest of the 18 National Tourist Routes. Several roads connect coastal Route 17 and inland E6.

The Helgeland coast

Arriving in Mo i Rana, we rented cars and headed to Route 17. Near Sandnessjøen we marveled at the majestic Seven Sisters mountain range (being one of seven sisters, these are my new favorite mountains). Tjøtta was our overnight destination. From Tjøtta we traveled to Brønnøysund. Travel included two ferries and a side trip in Vistnesdalen to see rock carvings from 3000 BC, evidence of Stone Age activity in this area—an incidental stop that surprised us with its historical significance.

Brønnøysund is Helgeland’s southernmost town and the halfway point of the Norwegian coast, equidistant from Lindesnes and Nordkapp. The distinctive Brønnøysund­brua (bridge under which the Hurtigruten passes twice a day) leads to Torghatten, the iconic granite mountain with an expansive hole through its center. We hiked up into the hole from the east, an easy 25-minute hike. The view of the skerries and open waters is spectacular, as is the view, we suspect, from the Hurtigruten we saw maneuvering for a view of Torghatten and us.

Returning to Tjøtta we traveled north to Alstahaug Church, dating from the 1100s and made famous by Petter Dass, a 1600s vicar and poet. Next to the church is the Petter Dass Museum, part of the Helgeland Museum network. Petter Dass is a legendary and beloved figure in Norway. His poetry, including the well-known “Nordlands Trompet,” is revered for its everyday language, subject matter, and appeal to the common man. Through his poetry Dass brought prominence to Helgeland.

Photo: John Barry Overlooking Mo i Rana we picnicked at Appelsinhaugen, a haug (small hill) where people go to hike and eat an appelsin (orange) while enjoying the view.

Photo: John Barry
Overlooking Mo i Rana we picnicked at Appelsinhaugen, a haug (small hill) where people go to hike and eat an appelsin (orange) while enjoying the view.

Inland to Mo i Rana
Mo i Rana, situated inland at the head of Ranfjord and just south of the Arctic Circle, is the largest and most northerly town in Helgeland. With its abundance of iron ore and hydroelectric power, Mo became an active industrial center in the 1900s. Mo is a fun and easy place to walk. Notable is “Havmannen” (Man from the Sea), one of the Artscape Nordland sculptures throughout Nordland. Rana Museum, Nordland University, shops, and cafes populate the center of town. Near Mo are some short hikes such as at Appelsinhaugen south of Mo and the Helgeland Museum at Stenneset with vistas overlooking Mo and Ranfjord.

Mo is a good starting point for exploring inland. To the north are caves—Grønligrotta, easily navigable with lights and walkways, and the more challenging Setergrotta. From Mo one can explore Saltfjellet-Svartisen, a national park and site of Svartisen (black ice), Norway’s second largest glacier. Polarsirkelsenteret at the Arctic Circle is an hour’s drive from Mo.

Off the beaten path from Mo is Mel­fjordbotn, located at the head of Melfjord. The road crosses a lunar landscape-like plateau before its spectacular hairpin descent into Melfjordbotn. While seemingly remote and with a tiny population, Melfjordbotn is an active harbor and home of an annual music festival, Melfjorddagen.

The islands—visiting Lovund
Lovund is an idyllic island, which, like Træna to the northwest, stands tall with sharp mountains in contrast to the low-lying rounded skerries. A two-hour ferry ride from Stokk­vågen with stops at skerries along the way, Lovund feels like it is far out in the Atlantic, though the coast is within sight. There are several ferry choices to get to Lovund, including a high-speed ferry. For us, the slow pace of the two-hour ride was part of the experience.

A car is not needed on Lovund, which is less than two square miles and has few roads. We stayed at the Lovund Rorbuhotell, a short walk from the ferry. The hotel provided a warm welcome with an exquisite restaurant and comfortable accommodations (linens and breakfast included).

Sea life is an important Helgeland food source. In Lovund we tasted a local variation of boknafisk, dried and unsalted fish. Gull eggs, as in the rest of northern Norway, are a common food. Unique to Helgeland are foods such as rødsei (red pollock), also known as gammelsalta sei (aged salted pollock), and breads including kamkake (a bubbly flatbread) and krinalefse (a lefse variation).

Photo: Matt Barry On idyllic Lovund the midnight sun moves along the islands on the horizon.

Photo: Matt Barry
On idyllic Lovund the midnight sun moves along the islands on the horizon.

Lovund is well known for its rich bird life, especially its colony of thousands of puffins attracted by the steep, rocky cliffs of Lovundfjellet (2000 ft.). Puffins are pelagic, spending winters at sea and returning to the cliffs of Lovund for nesting every year on April 14—Lundkommardagen (puffin arrival day)—as local folks indicate. Sea eagles, gulls, kittiwakes, terns, razorbills, guillemots, and many other birds are part of the abundant bird life on Lovund.

Several hikes are available on the island, including a loop trail and a hike to the top of Lovundfjellet. We chose to hike to Lundeura (puffin scree), a nature reserve. We walked on a trail dedicated to Petter Dass. Lovund and its puffins are prominently featured in Dass’s “Nordlands Trompet” and his words are displayed on signs along the trail—fitting for the poet who heralded Helgeland’s beauty. The trail took us to the base of the cliffs where we watched puffins flying overhead between cliffside nests and ocean.

We were fortunate to be on Lovund, barely south of the Arctic Circle, in early July. After midnight we watched the sun slide along the horizon, with Træna and other islands on the horizon serving as a gauge for tracking the sun’s movement. The sun set at about 12:50 a.m., rising half an hour later.

Looking back at Helgeland
From Lovund we returned to the mainland, crossing the Arctic Circle on the Route 17 ferry from Kilboghamn to Jektvik. At Holandsfjord we had a good view of Engabreen, a glacial tongue of Svartisen and the lowest glacier in the European mainland. We left Helgeland behind us, ending our drive in Bodø and flying back to Oslo. We left some destinations unchecked for “next time”—among them the Vega Archipegalo, a UNESCO World Heritage site; Træna and its famous music festival; and the Helgeland national parks.

Our 10-day vacation in Helgeland was awesome. Helgeland has beauty and history at every turn, whether it is a coastline of skerries and mountains or an idyllic island or Stone Age rock carvings. Not only is Helgeland’s beauty unique within Norway, but also special is the feeling you experience there—a serenity and closeness to nature unlike any other I have experienced in Norway.

I have learned that my favorite place in Norway is not necessarily among the well-known tourist attractions, all beautiful and worthy of the attention they receive. We have traveled to Norway’s top tourist destinations and have also been literally off the beaten path. In each trip we find a place that stands out among all previous places we have seen in Norway. For now, Helgeland is my favorite place.

For more info on Helgeland, visit visithelgeland.com.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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