The Spectacular Drive to 'Norway in Miniature'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because nonstop, stunning Arctic views. Plus tons of whales and no people.
By Terry Ward
Those who make it to Northern Norway would have you believe that the incredible islands of the Lofoten archipelago are the only attraction in this staggering part of the world, so amply hashtagged are the steep peaks rising up from the sea (often with the backdrop of the aurora borealis). And while Lofoten is no doubt spectacular, during the busy summer months the archipelago’s two-lane roads crawl with rental cars and slow-moving mobile homes. It can be a challenge to find a lonely place here to pitch your tent to take advantage of the country’s allemannsretten law, which stipulates that land in Norway (even large privately owned areas) is free for everyone to access.
Enter Senja, a lesser known island north of the Arctic Circle, about a five-hour drive northeast of Lofoten. Mainland Norway’s second-largest island, it’s home to just 8,000 people. White sand beaches, majestic mountains and a churning ocean traveled by orcas and humpbacks have earned the island the title of “Norway in Miniature.” But there’s nothing diminutive about this island. One of the best road trips here starts in Bodø, a small and friendly city located about nine hours south of Senja along the E6 highway. And during the summer months, the midnight sun means nonstop daylight from mid-May to early August.
It’s just a wild, raw place.
Andreas Heide, expedition sailor
“You see the Senja wall — this massive, intimidating fortress of mountains — long before you arrive,” says expedition sailor Andreas Heide, whose crew has sailed under the northern lights in Senja. “There’s always swell rolling in from the North Atlantic. It’s just a wild, raw place.”
But you don’t need a boat to get here and explore like a Viking. Before you leave Bodø, find your way to the Saltstraumen, just east of town, where the world’s fastest tidal current sends masses of water ripping through a narrow strait at 22 knots. Brave scuba divers gear up to watch the kelp bend as if in a hurricane underwater.
About three and a half hours north of Bodø along the E6 highway, look for the turnoff to Tranøy, a tiny seaside hamlet with jaw-dropping views of the coastal mountains, red fishermen’s cabins lining the waterfront that are painted with street art and a surprise art park of scattered sculptures within a harsh, windblown landscape. Nonstop stunning Arctic views continue the entire six hours or so north from Tranøy to where you cross the bridge at Finnsnes from the mainland and enter the next-level landscapes of Senja.
You’ll want at least two days to drive around the island, puttering along the narrow coastal road that connects one spectacular fjord and tiny fishing hamlet to another. Senja’s interior is densely forested, and on the exposed west coast, sheer mountains drop vertically into fjords, and picturesque fishing villages like Mefjordvær are the place to set out on charter trips to hook halibut during the summer months. The hotel and restaurant Mefjord Brygge can hook that up and arrange private boat rentals too, from the on-site marina.
For some of the most spectacular views, pause at a rest area like no other at Tungeneset, where a modernistic boardwalk on a promontory straddling two fjords offers views of the Okshornan peaks (they look like a wolverine’s maw chewing its way out of the jade green Norwegian Sea). And weaving south along the coast, you’ll reach Hamn I Senja, where you can rent cabins by the water, sit for a traditional cod meal or book a sauna session complete with the obligatory icy fjord plunge. What you won’t find in Senja, however, is hordes of people.
“It’s the contrasts, the solitude and all the wild nature untouched by man that will make you want to pack your gear and get lost,” says Norwegian military pilot Linn-Elise Rølvåg, who has flown over most of Norway and hiked and skied Senja backcountry-only terrain many times.
“Senja is just a different dimension of natural beauty altogether,” she says.