Diary of a guidebook writer: Vesterålen, more than “Lofoten Light”

Photo: David Nikel The beach at Bleik is one of many gorgeous examples across Vesterålen.

Photo: David Nikel
The beach at Bleik is one of many gorgeous examples across Vesterålen.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

One of the biggest problems when putting together the first edition of a travel guidebook is not knowing what you’re going to want to include.

My remit for Moon Norway is clear. I’m to produce a guidebook suitable for a first- or second-time visitor rather than a comprehensive guide to the country. This means I have to be selective about the places I include, even in popular areas like Lofoten. The problem is, how do I plan my travel without knowing beforehand which places they are?

The answer is to keep things as flexible as possible. For example, on my recent visit to Lofoten, I planned accommodation for my first two nights and the last night and decided to hire a car. This kept a big stretch of time flexible, and that turned out to be the right decision.

I knew I would include Lofoten—of course I would. It tops the bucket list of so many travelers, which I verified with a recent post on my “Norway Traveller” Facebook page asking where people most wanted to visit. Over 50% said Lofoten! But where else to include?

The Vesterålen Islands
I’d narrowed it down to the nearby Vesterålen archipelago or the towns of Harstad and Narvik. I’d seen enough of the local tourist office website and Instagram account to know that Vesterålen was pretty, but I was a little concerned it would be “Lofoten light” and not be of interest to travelers who were already going to Lofoten.

Photo: David Nikel The Hurtigruten museum at Stokmarknes features the original MS Finnmarken.

Photo: David Nikel
The Hurtigruten museum at Stokmarknes features the original MS Finnmarken.

How wrong I was. As soon as I arrived on Vesterålen, I knew I’d be staying for the next few days.

True, the scenery is not as dramatic as Lofoten. The mountains are lower and somewhat more rounded, but no less spectacular. With regional capital Sortland at its center, the islands span out in all directions offering choice and helping to keep the roads and attractions much less crowded. Touring Lofoten, you’re pretty much stuck with the E10 highway, which gets clogged in the popular summer months.

The Blue City
Sortland itself is of little interest beyond its blue city project that has seen a big chunk of buildings downtown painted in similar shades of blue. Originally the idea of local artist Bjørn Elvenes, the blue city project was plagued by various bureaucratic and artistic arguments, leading to a rather haphazard implementation. What was intended to be a 3D interactive painting is now a curious sideshow as you stop for lunch or to refuel.

An hour’s drive north of Sortland is the curious fishing village of Nyksund, abandoned in 1970 as the local fishing industry relocated elsewhere. In recent years, the village has enjoyed a new lease of life thanks to a small number of lodgings, cafés, and galleries serving curious backpackers. The remote village can only be reached by a narrow coastal road that clings to the mountainside. Once there, many travelers choose to hike five kilometers across the head to Stø, another fishing village with more modern facilities.

Photo: David Nikel The remote fishing village of Nyksund has enjoyed a new lease of life as a tourist stop.

Photo: David Nikel
The remote fishing village of Nyksund has enjoyed a new lease of life as a tourist stop.

Outstanding beaches
After staying the night in the historic Sortland Hotell, I still had some time to kill the next day. I chose to explore the most northerly island, Andøya. I’d heard the beach at Bleik was a worthy trip, and the nearby town of Andenes seemed a decent size.

The drive took longer than expected because Andøya is simply beautiful. Driving up the west coast of the island, I lost count of the number of times I stopped to take pictures, breathe the fresh air, or just gaze in wonder.

The beach at Bleik is indeed breathtaking. Of course it doesn’t compare to the beaches of Florida or the Caribbean, but this is the Norwegian Arctic, in April! There are plenty of guesthouses, cabins, and campsites in the area that had me scribbling notes and planning out an itinerary to stay on Andøya for a whole week. Perhaps next summer!

The short 10-minute drive to Andenes was interrupted by an unexpected find, the Norwegian Space Center. At this educational center, you can learn about the Norwegian space program and take part in a simulated research mission to the moon. How could I not include this in Moon Norway!?

One thing I’ve loved about the guidebook research so far is these unexpected finds, all over the country. You could argue that more needs to be done to promote these remote attractions. Well, I’m doing my part!

Great coffee in Andenes
Andenes was a charming town and even in April was thriving with life. The guide at the space center pointed me towards a local coffee shop—Kaffehuset Strøm Eriksen—where the beans are roasted on the premises. This is something you only tend to find in the bigger cities in Norway, so finding it on these remote islands was a real treat.

My return to Sortland via Andøya’s east coast revealed yet more beautiful, empty stretches of sand, plus a charming old wooden church just outside the village of Dverberg.

Getting to Vesterålen is simple. The Hurtigruten calls at its spiritual home Stokmarknes (where you’ll also find the Hurtig­ruten museum) and Sortland, while flights from Oslo arrive daily at Evenes airport, just south of the islands. During the summer, flights from Oslo also land at Andenes airport. For those staying on Lofoten, you can take a detour to Vesterålen via the 30-minute ferry ride from Fiskebøl to Melbu. Cars, bicycles, and foot passengers are welcome.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net blog and is the author of the upcoming MOON Norway guidebook.

This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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