A surfer traverses a freshly snow-covered beach to reach the icy waves at Unstad.

Kian Bourke-Steer

Why the Lofoten Islands Off the Coast of Norway Are a Surfer's Paradise

The Arctic waters off Norway’s Lofoten islands are luring wave riders—beginner and die-hard alike—from across the globe. 

The steady, rhythmic crush of blue washes over me as I wade out into the surf. The water’s chill is milder than I expected, and with a heat wave bringing atypically warm weather, I’ve ditched my neoprene hood and gloves.

There are only five of us in Unstad Bay, taking turns riding long, broad waves as they unspool toward a U-shaped beach and verdant valley tucked between volcanic ridges. Sitting on my board, beneath the unyielding sun, it’s easy to forget that I’m 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. 

Here in Lofoten, a curl of closely packed, bridged-together islands that whips out from Norway’s northwestern coast like a cat-o’-nine-tails, nearly endless summer days make round-the-clock surfing possible. Despite the remote location, growing numbers of avid surfers are coming, even in winter, when the temperatures are subfreezing and the water drops below 40 degrees.

Volcanic ridges dramatically frame the crescent-shaped beach at Unstad, one of Lofoten’s most popular surfing spots.

Kian Bourke-Steer

 

Indeed, these islands have become a favorite playground for globe-trotting adventure seekers, not just for cold-water surfing but for kayaking, skiing, climbing, fishing, golf, and chasing the northern lights. Lofoten’s wave-riding devotees gather at this particular beach, thanks to Unstad Arctic Surf, a camp and surf school that anchors the perfect arc of shoreline. 

“Come with me,” summons Marion Frantzen, the charismatic force of nature with permanent tan lines and a mane of unmanageable curls who presides over the camp. “I remember you were here last winter,” she says, as we clamber over a mass of wetsuits toward a secluded table. Unfurling a road map, she adds, “When you come to Lofoten for the second time, that’s when we start telling our secrets.” 

Grabbing the pen out of my hand, Frantzen scrawls names and phone numbers on the map. “Tell everyone Marion sent you,” she says with the knowingness of someone who planted her explorer’s flag in the area long before its dramatic landscapes and scenic fishing villages began popping up on Instagram travel accounts. “You better get going,” she says, sending me on my way. “I put a lot of stuff on there—good thing the midnight sun is on your side!” 

Driving around Lofoten, weather conditions change frequently. The towering ridges that surround the fjords can trap small systems, meaning you might pass one village cloaked in clouds and swamped with rain, only to discover that its neighbor on the other side of the ridge is basking in the Arctic sun. A single road snakes across the main islands, connecting tiny communities before surrendering to the impossible geography at Å, the western-most village whose name is also the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet. It’s a poetic reminder that you’ve quite literally reached the end of the world. Only the black water of the Arctic Ocean lies beyond. 

A journey to this remote place is a must for every first-time traveler to Lofoten, but for my second visit, Frantzen sends me to Fredvang, reached via one of the last turnoffs on the road to Å. Leaving my car in a cul-de-sac surrounded by silos and stables, I set out on a hike. With the sun still high, it feels implausible that it’s already evening, but I can smell dinner simmering on a nearby hearth. Soon, a little red cabin appears over a hillock with puffs of smoke emanating from the chimney, while an old man gently scythes wheat in the garden.

The author, with an instructor, prepares to paddle out on an unusually warm summer day.

Kian Bourke-Steer

The trail becomes steeper around a series of glacial lakes, and a family of sheep disperses in front of me as I begin scaling Mount Ryten. I hasten my climb, hoping to reach the summit in time to glimpse the midnight sun. Twilight twists like light refracted through a prism, and from the top I can peer almost 2,000 feet down to a scattering of colorful tents along Kvalvika Beach. It’s a sacred site for surfers, immortalized in the documentary film North of the Sun, in which two young Norwegians maroon themselves in the inlet for nine months, living off the land and surfing under auroras.

Leaving Lofoten’s wildest edges, I follow its northern spine to Hov, the homestead of Frode Hov (whose family takes its name from this place). The growing influx of travelers to the region inspired him to transform a portion of his family’s farm into an acclaimed 18-hole golf course, Lofoten Links (rooms from $183), which winds spectacularly along the rocky coast. A collection of sleek, sea-facing rental villas came next, to house the international executives arriving on private jets to play a round or two under the midnight sun.

And Hov has continued to add activities and amenities, including horse-back riding and a restaurant, the Barn at Hov Gård, which opened this summer in a refurbished hay barn. He rattles off a short list of homespun dishes to choose from—“just like how my great-grandmother used to make them!” I have the braised veal, slowly cooked over the course of a day, and wash it down with a locally brewed Lofotpils Blonde Ale. Prix fixe menus that nod to New Nordic trends can also be ordered in advance, but everyone eats together on long, communal tables made from reclaimed wood.

Next, I head north, for Vesterålen, an adjacent group of islands with dramatically sited cottages barely fazed by the buzz of upwardly trending Lofoten next door. My destination is Nevernes (rooms from $295; 47-915-79-456), a family chalet that Torben Frantzen (no relation to Marion) and his brothers rent out to guests. The updated farmhouse, which comfortably fits eight, features a heated lap pool and a hot tub, a restaurant-quality kitchen, a spa, and an extensive wine cellar. A fleet of cars and a Sno-Cat are available to shuttle guests along the coastline that’s visible from practically every room.

There’s also good surfing nearby, and Frantzen takes me to one of his preferred spots at Bleik, on Andøya, Vesterålen’s northernmost island. The moody cloud cover clears as we trundle toward a stretch of white sand hemmed by a row of painted timber-frame houses. To reach the break, we wade slowly through the fluorescent-blue sea. Like at Unstad, the waves crash with the melodic certainty of a heartbeat.

The temperature drops as the sun slumbers behind some clouds, prompting Frantzen to suggest a bowl of warm fish soup. We drive to nearby Nyksund, an abandoned fishing village that, he explains, was reclaimed by German students in the 1970s and ’80s. While about half of the industrial structures along the harbor have been reinvented as charming cafés, the others are weather-beaten, covered in graffiti, and home to bands of seafaring birds.

The drive back to Unstad is roughly 21⁄2 hours—or a bit longer when you take the gravel side roads to maximize your sea views. As I thread my way along the fjords, I spot a gang of Arctic surfers riding waves in a silent, unmarked cove. Perhaps Marion will tell me about it on my next visit.