The archipelago of Vesterålen is probably not a region that springs to mind when you’re planning a trip to the northwest coast of Norway. Overshadowed by the renowned beauty of the Lofoten Islands, Vesterålen, located just north of the popular tourist isle, remains off the radar, yet to become a well known Scandinavian hot spot.
Sitting westward from mainland Norway, Vesterålen’s beaches and clear waters challenge that of the French Riviera. Vesterålen’s topography is defined by its coastline of little inlets, lined with dramatic, craggy mountains and breathtaking fjords. The relationship with the ocean extends into the rich culture and history of the region. Although the fishing industry is not quite what it used to be, it has left its mark, and the sea plays an integral part in every aspect of daily life, from supporting the local economy and founding the food and drink culture to inspiring festivals and shaping folklore. The 30,000 or so residents enjoy a peaceful life in this under-populated landscape, living between rural fishing villages and larger more modernized towns and cities. And it is the welcoming and heartwarming nature of the people who live here that can turn a run-of-the-mill vacation into an unforgettable experience.
An outdoor playground, Vesterålen is a joy for those who want to experience the Norweigan northwest coast and for visitors who appreciate spotting rare wildlife, bagging peaks, world-class fishing, and an excellent local food culture — all without the crowds of Lofoten. Visiting Vesterålen is simply one of the best ways to experience the culture and landscape of Northern Norway. Here’s why you should explore the region and how to make the most of your trip.
How to get there
There are various routes you can take to get out to the archipelago. That said, most people go by air. For international flights to the mainland, Norweigan Air will more than likely be your best bet, especially if you are coming in from Europe. Internally, the airlines SAS, Widerøe, and Arctic Airlink run propeller planes between a wide range of northern routes, a service locals use as a means of public transport. Competition between these airlines is fierce, so shop around.
You can also explore the region by boat. The Norwegian Coastal Voyage Hurtigruten stops at 34 ports and allows guests the chance to hop on and off. An environmentally responsible cruise company, Hurtigruten offers a few different voyages around the coastline. Express ferries are a local favorite. Running year-round, they offer an efficient means of getting the most out of a visit. If you consider taking ferries, one of the best ways to enjoy the landscape and culture is by hiring a car. Vesterålen is connected to mainland Norway and the many tunnels and bridges that connect the archipelago together. Depending on your schedule, one of the suggested ways to experience all the region has to offer is to follow the National Tourist Route at Andøya, which leads to the most northern point of Vesterålen.
1. Accessible, but breathtaking, hiking
Vesterålen has over 150 marked hiking routes peppered throughout the region, offering an opportunity to explore the coast by foot. Accessible to hikers of all levels of ability, each route rewards with views of the Arctic landscape: rugged islets; soaring mountains jutting out of the sea; a wild, yet peaceful, topography.
Visit during the summer months and be awarded with the midnight sun, which affords endless daylight. From late May to mid-July, a full two months, the sun does not dip below the horizon — giving you a chance to experience all of Vesterålen’s outdoor activities 24 hours a day.
All hikes vary in terms of difficulty, length, and terrain. If you are visiting the region specifically for a walking holiday, which many visitors do, it’s advisable to purchase a hiking map that outlines the trails and the Norwegian Trekking Association’s cabins. If you prefer a mobile-friendly map, download the helpful Norgeskart friluftsliv app. Alternatively, guided hikes are also available. We recommend this especially for one of the region’s most beautiful hikes up Møysalen, which is a 10-hour round trip and has limited cell service.
2. An outdoor playground for all
Whatever kind of outdoor activity you are looking for this region is the perfect backdrop to enjoy your favorite sport. From fishing and biking to kayaking and various snow sports, there’s a huge variety of places spotted along the coast where you can hire gear and/or a guide.
It’s not surprising, given the rich fishing culture of the region, that the waters here offer a prime location for fishing trips. Deep-sea fishing can reward you with salmon, seatrout, cod, coalfish, haddock, halibut, and redfish. There are various companies running sea safaris that also rent fishing equipment and/or clothing if necessary. The programs range from a quick four-hour excursion to a tailor-made trip, so there is something suitable for both those serious about the sport and novices.
Also, during the winter, there are many lakes suitable for ice fishing — but be sure to contact a local expert for information on conditions and/or book a guide. And keep your ear to the ground for local competitions that are run throughout the wintertime.
If you are visiting during the summer months and have some time, biking through the inlets is one of the best ways to travel through Northern Norway. Routes are accessible to all levels of riders, and many of the roads are free — or almost free — of motorized vehicles. A combi cycling and touring map can be ordered in advance, which will aid trip planning. You can find more information about renting bikes from local outfitters, and note, if you are coming from Europe, that you can bring your bike by booking the Fly & Bike package with Widerøe airlines.
Kayaking is one of the top ways to explore the waterways of the archipelago. You’ll have the opportunity to experience the coastal landscape in a completely different way than from land. Paddling on the peaceful and tranquil fjords, you can spot local birds and wildlife and hopefully begin to appreciate why the water is so important to daily life here. Kayak hire and guided tours are widely available so you can pack light.
Although for around two months the sun does not climb the horizon above the Arctic Circle, winter is still a fantastic season to visit Northern Norway. The region sees ideal conditions to enjoy the snow-covered mountains whether you ski, snowboard, or enjoy off-piste snowshoeing. There are numerous prepared trails. The longer of these are lit, which helps during mid-winter, but the peak time to visit for snow sports is from February to April when the days are a little longer.
3. Superb chances of seeing arctic wildlife
Northern Norway has a huge variety of wildlife. Depending on the time of year, you may be treated to spotting species that are migratory, such as orcas, and local Arctic animals and birds that live there year-round. Due to the gulf stream and nutrient-rich ocean currents, the region is popular for coastal nesting birds such as the Atlantic Puffin, which return to breeding colonies during the spring. The region has four different bird preserves, and over the years, more than 300 bird species have been observed on and around the archipelago. Bleiksøya, known as bird rock, near Andenes, is home to over 80,000 pairs of puffins during breeding season, and you can take a puffin safari tour out to the island to view the lovable birds in their natural habitat.
4. Small, lightly populated fishing villages
Although Vesterålen has few large towns that are worth a stop, its smaller fishing villages are where you’ll experience the real culture of the region. Each of these rural hamlets, built on the fishing industry, have an individual history that is anchored to the ocean. In particular, we recommend visiting the charming village of Nyksund on the island of Langoya. Its characteristic colored wooden houses, which once housed the families of fishermen and traders, now house its 27 residents and visitors.
The B&B Ekspedisjonen Vertsbrygge has a few very comfortable and traditional rooms, and its restaurant overlooking the sheltered harbor is outstanding. Sit outside on the stilted deck during summer, or snuggle by the fire with a bowl of bacalhau — salted cod with a rich, smokey tomato sauce — if it’s cold out. You won’t find it hard to make friends in this close-knit community, and the stories of the village’s history are plentiful and riveting. Note — during winter, the narrow road out to Nyksund often closes, so check the conditions before driving out.
5. Year-round whale watching
There are not too many places on Earth where a whale-watching tour operator can guarantee you a sighting pretty much all year round. Now, what species of whale you have the pleasure of spotting will depend on the time of year and where you are, but due to the closeness of the continental shelf and the rich nutrition of the ocean in the region, you’ll have the opportunity to experience sperm whales, orcas, pilot whales, fin whales, and humpbacks. There are various companies running tours, but if you are visiting during the summer season from May to September, we recommend Whale Safari in Andenes. During winter, the whales follow the herring into the fjords, which offer a stunning backdrop as the whale’s breach. In the peak season, we advise you to book tickets for safaris in advance, as this is one of the best places in the world for whale watching.