LOFOTEN ISLANDS, Norway It started with a photograph we saw while visiting a Park City art gallery in late April.
The title was simple: "D. Lofoten Wall."
But the image was otherworldly. It showed a mountain peak rising sharply from the ocean and highlighted by a ray of sun. In the foreground were tiny fisherman cabins painted in bright hues. A mist of clouds hung in the background.
Does a place like that truly exist?
We discovered for ourselves about three months later, after scrambling to rearrange a previously planned trip to Scandinavia for a 2 1/2-day detour to the Lofoten Islands, a remote island chain north of the Arctic Circle in Norway.
Because the islands slice upward from the ocean so sharply and with such imposing grandeur, they are referred to as "the Lofoten Wall." Scientists believe the mountain peaks are among the oldest on Earth at about 3.5 billion years old and some island settlements date back to the Vikings.
For my husband and me, it was a trip that brought an amazing thrill of discovery as we explored picturesque fishing villages, dug our toes into white sand beaches, climbed jagged mountain peaks and reveled in almost 24 hours of daylight.
Our visit started with a series of flights, first from Denmark, then two stops in Norway until we reached Leknes, which is located on the southern half of the Lofoten island chain. From Leknes, we found ourselves hitchhiking to a nearby town, hoping to find a rental car or at least catch one of the few daily buses.
It was a bit unconventional for us, to say the least. We're planners. But somehow, we found a car and made our way to the village of Fredvang where we had arranged to sleep in a historic rorbu, or fisherman's cabin, on the edge of an ocean inlet.
Our host, Liv Lydersen, explained how life within the Arctic Circle, or "land of the midnight sun," revolves around the cycle of seasons. People don't sleep much in the summer. They soak up the sunlight because in the wintertime the light can disappear for as long as 24 hours.
For the most part, the people of Lofoten rely on fishing, agriculture and tourism to survive. In the summer, you can see rows of empty racks used during the fishing season to dry the daily catch, including cod and herring. The tourists, who are mostly Scandinavian, come with campers and tents to enjoy this Arctic playground.
Like the natives, we didn't sleep much but instead took advantage of the light.
We toured the string of small fishing villages along the southern portion of the islands. At the very edge of Lofoten was the town of A (pronounced "o"), with a small bakery and tourist shop where we both stamped our passports with the town insignia.
Just beyond the town was a walkway that led to a series of sharp cliffs that marked the end of the main Lofoten islands. Campers had raised tents along various outcroppings here, and bright patches of pink wildflowers accented the earth tones of the mountains and sea.
While standing by the cliffs, we felt as if we were at the edge of the world. In the distance, the two outlying islands of Vaeroy and Rost were barely visible and the ocean seemed to stretch into forever through the hazy sky.
But that wasn't the only magical view.
Northeast of A is the town of Reine. This is the place we saw in the picture; the place that prompted us to come here.
And it was every bit as beautiful and unimaginable as we had hoped.
As in the picture, a powerful mountain peak rose from the water of a natural bay. Brightly colored fisherman huts were scattered near the water's edge.
During the morning of our first day in Lofoten, we attempted a hike to top of Mount Reinebringen, a peak that overlooks Reine and offers a sparkling view of the Reinefjord with its craggy rocks that look like shark's teeth, and the ocean.
It wasn't a trek for the fearful. The trail was steep and marked by loose rocks. At one point, a rope was needed to pull ourselves up the slope. My husband (I think he's part mountain goat) finished the climb. I stopped when my inane fear of falling became too strong.
During our hike, the sun was bright and warm. At times it would peek from behind the mountains and cast a bright spotlight on villages otherwise shadowed by rocky peaks.
Toward the end of our second day, a storm crept in. It started with a few wisps of clouds that snaked around the base of the mountains, adding a new perspective to the dramatic peaks. Then the clouds became thicker and covered the inner island channels with a heavy layer of fog.
When we boarded a boat to leave Lofoten, the sun came out briefly, touching the tops of the mountain peaks, and then disappearing as the sky became gray and again shrouded the islands.It was as if nature were bidding us a sweet farewell to this magical place.
About the Lofoten Islands:
• Southwest of the island chain is one of the world's most powerful ocean currents. It's called the Moskstraumen, or maelstrom, and forms boat-destroying whirlpools that have been referenced in literature such as Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
• Many buildings on the Lofoten Islands have grass roofs. The brother of our host, Liv Lydersen, said he was building a home with a grass roof because it offered extra insulation against the winter chill. He said he planned to buy a goat to help trim his rooftop turf.
• The Lofoten Islands are estimated to have some of the oldest rocks on Earth at 3.5 billion years old.
• Outdoor enthusiasts are known to flock to the Lofoten Islands for hiking, bike treks and ocean excursions. During the wintertime, tours are offered to see whales and other sea life.
• The Northern Lights are visible from the Lofoten Islands. Because the islands are above the Arctic Circle, the sun will shine for as long as 24 hours in the summer but then disappear at times for 24 hours during the winter.
• Traveling to the Lofoten Islands requires time and money. The shortest route is flying to one of the three airports on the island chain, but it's the most expensive option. Some people take a boat, while others drive across a new bridge that connects the islands to mainland Norway.
• Only one narrow road, the E-10, runs the entire length of the Lofoten Islands. It's a two-lane highway, barely big enough for large trucks to travel on, and connects small towns with a series of bridges and underground tunnels.
• Lofoten has a relatively moderate temperature because of the nearby Gulf Stream.
• The main tourist Web site for Lofoten is: www.lofoten.infoSOURCE: www.lofoten.info