For generations they came every winter from harbors the length of Norway thousands of hard men in oilskins who battled the Arctic seas for a share of the rich harvest of spawning cod around the Lofoten Islands. Most slept as best they could beneath upturned boats; the lucky ones huddled in bunks in rustic wooden cabins.
But now, with fish stocks dwindling, the cabins on the Lofoten Islands have been refurbished for a different catch: tourists. "We have to change," says Ola Skjeseth, manager of the Svinoya Rorbu Hotel in the main settlement of Svolvær. "If there are no fish, we still have wonderful nature for visitors."
A regular stop on the Hurtigruten ferry route (www.hurtigruten.com), the islands are a maze of jagged peaks. In those mountains you'll find fertile upland valleys once farmed by Vikings, spectacular fjords circled by sea eagles, and winding roads that lead to fishing hamlets where orcas cruise offshore. There are hiking trails and cycling routes, and you can rent cars of a certain age to explore quiet country roads. But the most dramatic vistas are seen from the sea. It's well worth taking a ride with Steve Jacobsen, a brawny, flaxen-haired boatman who runs trips to a fjord enclosed by towering rock walls where fish bait brings huge eagles swooping down from the crags.
The changing times are evident in and around the harbors on the islands. There are fewer fishing boats and more pleasure craft, and fish-processing factories have been transformed into art galleries and bars. Glimpses of the past remain in a reconstruction of a Viking chieftain's house on Vestvagoy (www.visitnorway.com), where visitors can feast on mutton broth and wild boar, and in a museum in Kabelvag village that has fishermen's cabins kept the way they were in the 1920s, during the bountiful "Cod Klondike" era. The modernized cabins are far more comfortable, but at night you can still hear the restless sigh of the sea and the cries of gulls drifting through your window. Just like in the old days.