Norway: Water therapy

By Gillian Orr

The fjord-indented coastline delights Gillian Orr during the long daylight hours.

Svolvaer, Norway. Photo / Supplied
Svolvaer, Norway. Photo / Supplied

In the far north of Norway, in the small fishing town of Svolvaer, the smell of the ocean hung in the air. More specifically, it was the smell of the ocean's inhabitants that was really getting up my nose. On this remote Lofoten island, the coastline is dotted with wooden racks, or hjell, on which cod is hung out to dry to make stockfish, one of the world's oldest food preservation methods. The pungent, almost offensive scent lingered in the air.

I'd arrived here from Bodo, a rather soulless industrial fishing town on the mainland that's a three-hour boat ride south across the Vestfjord. The Torghatten Nord ferry is primarily used by locals, but such are the incredible scenes of the hundreds of uninhabited islands on offer, the trip is an equally deserving part of the tourist trail.

I was just a few hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The summer days are long around here; in July Svolvaer never really gets dark. It can leave you with a muddled sense of time, the bright blue skies not corresponding with the hands on the clock. And it seemed I wasn't the only one confused.

Following a stockfish dinner at Bojer restaurant (don't let that pong put you off; its strange texture and unapologetic saltiness are rather wonderful), my travel companion and I walked across the harbour to Svolvaer's only bar. It was 1am and locals, old and young, were chatting and drinking with no sense that it might be time to think about turning in.

Without night's cloak to trick us into retiring to bed, we accepted an invitation from two students to ride out on their boat to chase the midnight sun. As the low-lying sun is often hidden behind mountains, the best way to glimpse it is out at sea. When I finally saw those 2am rays it was a spectacular sight: the powerful glare had me reaching for my sunglasses. However, my marvelling was cut short when I tripped over the boat's railing and fell into the water, becoming quickly acquainted with the North Sea (which is very cold). Perhaps the combination of Aquavit and lack of sleep wasn't such a good one after all.

Still, it was a refreshing introduction to the Norwegian landscape, which is defined by land that's fragmented by fjords and vast lakes. The coastline is one of the world's longest and stretches for over 25,000km; some 50,000 islands are scattered off it.

Water also plays a big part in the economy: Norway's two biggest industries are fishing and oil. As it's such an important characteristic, I'd come to make the most of it and experience it in its various forms.

In the summer, the sea up in the north is often placid and (relatively) temperate enough to enjoy close up. A 20-minute drive south-west from Svolvaer is Henningsvaer, where I embarked on a three-hour kayak trip, travelling between the cluster of nearby islands and fishing villages. Despite blue skies and an agreeable temperature of 16C, the snow-topped mountains on view were a reminder of the long winter months, when lakes will freeze and snow will blanket the landscape.

From here, I made my way to Evenes on the mainland; two short plane rides later, I found myself in Alesund, hundreds of kilometres south down the coast. More water. Here, I hopped on board the Hurtigruten cruise ship that wriggles through the fjords to Geiranger. The four-hour trip winds down some magnificent passages including Geirangerfjord, 15km of some of nature's most spectacular riches, with snow-capped mountains, lush greenery, deep blue water and two dramatic waterfalls, the Bridal Veil and Seven Sisters.

At the end of all this is Geiranger, a town of only 250 inhabitants. In summer, its population swells. Last year 300,000 people visited during the season. You only need to see the view from Flydalsjuvet lookout point, with the towering cliffs and waterfalls, to understand what makes Geiranger such a popular spot.

After a quick bite to eat in the harbour, I made my way up the hill to the Union Hotel and Spa. Sitting in the outdoor infinity pool halfway up the mountains, after a full body massage, looking down at the fjord, I experienced tranquillity that I couldn't quite imagine beating.

From Geiranger, it's a five-minute ferry ride along the fjord to Linge, where I found Juvet, a hotel set at the bottom of a mountain range, amid the vast greenery of the valley floor.

Each of the eight cabins is designed to make you feel like you are sleeping in the great outdoors, with one huge floor-to-ceiling glass window looking out over woodland, mountains and a stream which you can hear in your room. There's relaxing, and then there's Juvet.

If you're brave, you can take a dip in the stream. While I wouldn't exactly describe the experience as pleasant, it did have some sort of restorative effect and the outdoor hot tub certainly helped. There is also a steam room and sauna. On a walk in the mountains the following day I stumbled across Olav's Spring. There is a sign that tells the story of an old ruler of Norway, King Olav, who came here in 1029 and would wash in the spring. Local folklore claims that the water has healing properties and those who drink from it will go on to lead long and healthy lives.

I knelt down and had a go. Although I already felt healthier and more revived than I had in a long time, I figured a little bit of insurance couldn't hurt.

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