An adventure in Southern Norway teaches a native Virginian a thing or two about sailing with Vikings.
1 of 12
A population of around 500 calls the Kvitsøy archipelago home.
2 of 12
Barba, a Jeanneau Sun Fast 37, dwarfed by granite cliffs in Southern Norway's 26-mile-long Lysefjord.
3 of 12
Andreas dives into the water near KvitsØy.
4 of 12
Daniel Hug captaining Barba.
5 of 12
Seafood, including oysters and scallops, is plentiful in Norwegian waters.
6 of 12
The author steps out onto the “Kjerag bolt,” a glacier-deposited boulder wedged into a mountain face a full kilometer above Lysefjord.
7 of 12
Andreas opens shellfish for a seafood feast.
8 of 12
Paragliding seen from the cliffs near the Kjerag bolt in Lysefjord.
9 of 12
The Barba crew takes a break on dry land on one of the many uninhabited islands in the Kvitsøy archipelago.
10 of 12
Views of the Kvitsøy archipelago from the top of the lighthouse.
11 of 12
Sheep near the lighthouse.
12 of 12
Colorful boat houses line the canals of Kvitsøy, which locals liken to Venice.
The first thing to know when setting sail with the descendants of Vikings is that they are not fair-weather sailors. For Norwegians, boat drinks and bikinis are mostly the stuff of vacations in the Canary Islands or Thailand. While Norway has more than 15,000 miles of coastline, the homegrown version of the salt life is far more hardcore.
Has darkness already descended? No worries, Vikings will happily sail out from port at midnight in mid-winter. A bit chilly outside? “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing,” Norwegians will quip with a somewhat sadistic smile.
“Layer on your wool and Gore-Tex and let’s go,” seems to be the national mantra, as off into their dramatic backyard fjords and mountains Norwegians venture, no matter the weather.
For a Virginia girl whose prior sailing experience consisted of a few sultry summers on the Rappahannock River spent trying not to capsize my parents’ second-hand Sunfish in water approximately 85 degrees and barely up to my waist, there’s always a lot to learn when I go sailing with my Norwegian friend, Andreas B. Heide.
We had made one epic crossing together on his 37-foot Jeanneau sailboat, Barba, with an all-Norwegian (plus one token American) crew two summers prior, when we sailed from the south of Norway to the Faroe Islands. But I had spent much of my time on that voyage “calling the moose,” as Norwegians cheekily refer to seasickness (the Norwegian word for moose is the melodious “elg”).
So, ready for some inshore training, I headed back to Stavanger last fall to explore the fabulous southern fjord scenery in Andreas’ and Barba’s backyard alongside a multi-national crew that included German photographer Daniel Hug and Welsh sailor Nicholas Fraser.
The weather reports were forecasting rain in the fjords when we left from Stavanger late that September night (“Why not wait for morning?” was not an option), so we decided to head to some offshore islands instead.
“There’s always less rain out at sea compared to the fjords,” Andreas explained, clad in his classic Norwegian fisherman’s sweater—ever the weather optimist as we made the three-hour sail west toward the Kvitsøy archipelago.
The exceptionally scenic string of 365 rocky islands and islets, only four of which are inhabited, has a total population of around 500 people and can also be reached by regular public ferries from Stavanger.
Smooth sailing conditions made for a pleasant crossing, and as the city lights dimmed in our wake, I felt that familiar cradle of ocean-going camaraderie replace any of the land-based woes that had been on my mind.
For making fast friends, there’s no bonding vehicle quite like a sailboat and that one of a kind feeling that comes from being an island unto yourselves out at sea. So we cracked a few beers and enjoyed the ride.
“We should probably turn that bucket over,” Nicholas, the Welshman, told us, explaining that overturned buckets are a symbol of bad luck on sailboats, as they resemble a capsized craft. I quickly flipped over the culprit.
“And never bring a black rabbit on board,” he continued, while I wondered why anyone would. “They used to be stored live for provisions and would nibble holes in the boat’s hull,” he explained. Matches, too, should be avoided on boats, he told Andreas who, never one for superstitions, lit up a celebratory cigar to fête our sail out.
The stars twinkled planetarium-style from the sky as we sliced through the small waves, and soon enough, the Kvitsøy Lighthouse came into view. A beacon for approaching sailors since 1700, the lighthouse is the oldest in continuous use in all of Norway—the original green-hued lens glass inside dates to 1859.
Andreas took Barba’s helm to guide us through the channel, a narrow eastern approach with currents made trickier to navigate by the inky darkness, as we sailed to Kvitsøy’s main settlement, Ystabøhamn, where white houses with red roofs (and the occasional green rebel) stand neatly along a quiet harbor.
In the morning, a bright sun was blazing as we climbed to the top of the lighthouse—guided by the keeper—to take in the 360-degree views of surrounding sheep-dotted islands and series of boat-lined canals.
“I heard another sailor call this place Norway’s Venice for all the canals and how easy it is to get here and there by small boats,” Andreas told us. But Kvitsøy is a far cry from the Italian tourism mecca. The waters are crystal clear, and the island’s trade is limited to a small grocery store, an art gallery, a museum dedicated to lobster, a simple hotel and a well-equipped harbor that welcomes sailors.
The fine weather and flat seas called for some scuba diving—the sandy channels around Kvitsøy are washed with currents and nutrients, and a prime place for finding scallops—and we had all our gear onboard.
I donned my thickest wet suit and followed Andreas into the 65-degree water, spotting a lobster and a crab inside rocky crevices as we descended 90 feet to the seabed.
Soon enough, the telltale half-moon shapes of buried scallops appeared in the sand. We had hit shellfish gold! There were so many that we didn’t bother snatching up any scallops smaller than our palms, and when we surfaced a half-hour later, our mesh bag was loaded with lunch.
Andreas showed me how to loosen the animal’s muscle from its shell with a flat knife and then clean out the roe and guts with the swipe of a finger, leaving just the savory nugget of white flesh behind. We seared half of the scallops with butter and garlic and ate the remainders sashimi-style, sliced thin with a side of soy and wasabi. The taste was pure North Sea goodness, as fresh as it gets. The flat-shelled North Sea oysters we’d pried off nearby rocks completed the impromptu foraged feast.
The next morning we set sail back east toward the mainland and Lysefjord, Norway’s southernmost fjord of note—a 25-mile-long glacier-carved cut to the east of Stavanger where granite cliffs tower more than half a mile high over water as smooth and green-black as obsidian.
Sightseeing boats, ferries and cruise ships visit the fjord from Stavanger, and you can visit here on private sailboat charters, too. But sailing with Barba let us set our own schedule and linger along the way.
We sailed past Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), a platform of an outcropping that hangs nearly 2,000 feet above the fjord and can be accessed by road (if not by sailboat) for a hair-raising hike to its very edge.
As we were looking up at the rock, the fjord’s glassy surface suddenly rippled around us with mackerel feeding at the surface, so we tossed in hand lines with small lures (fishing with live bait is illegal in Norway) and pulled up six fish at a time, over and over.
Andreas used a small metal smoker loaded with birch chips and a bundle of juniper berries and branches to smoke the oily fish for a classic Norwegian lunch complemented with potatoes boiled in fjord water, chopped red onions and lashings of sour cream.
Fed and content, we then motored on to the tiny hamlet of Flørli, best known as the starting point for ascending the longest wooden staircase on the planet, to moor for the night.
The next morning we climbed the 4,444 steps that were once used as maintenance stairs along a water pipeline all the way to the top of the cliffs—a good hour-plus straight up—trying not to get vertigo while admiring the dizzying fjord views below us.
At the top, a trail over a rocky plateau led back down to the village while detouring in and out of moss-carpeted woods and past curious shaggy sheep. There, we foraged for chanterelles and porcini mushrooms in what felt like our very own fairy forest.
Later, we sailed on to the end of the fjord and the small village of Lysebotn, where we joined an international crew of base jumpers, including an American girl from California, at the local pub. They were sipping beers and steeling what didn’t look to be overly jittery nerves for the next day’s activities at Kjerag.
Basejumpers come from all over the world to sheer cliffs more than 1,000 feet high at Kjerag to tempt gravity (and their parachutes) in the fjord’s exceptional setting.
One young Norwegian told me he’d been in Florida until recently, cramming in as many sky dives as possible so that he could finally be certified to fling himself over the edge back home. He had jumped twice that day and would be going again tomorrow, he said, and his adrenalin was so electric I felt drunk with it myself.
We awoke the next day and gathered our gear for the four-hour hike to Kjerag from a drop-off point about 4.5 miles from town. Andreas and Daniel were lugging their paragliders with them on the off chance the wind would be blowing strongly enough into the fjord that they could fly back to Barba instead of schlepping it back downhill with me and Nicholas.
When we reached the clifftop at Kjerag, it was all I could do to pull myself on my belly over to the edge of the cliff to stare down at the water, far, far below.
But the real daredevil (some would say stupid) act at Kjerag comes in pulling oneself out onto the “Kjerag bolt”—an oval-shaped boulder that was wedged into a crevice in the mountain during the Ice Age.
“It’s a rock like any other rock and actually quite a big rock,” said Andreas, sounding all Viking before leaping out onto it gazelle-style, where he grinned for the obligatory photo op.
For my part, I pulled myself, trembling, out onto the bolt (there’s a hook in the side of the mountain nearby that you can use to steady your step) then sat immediately down, trying not to think about what my mother would say if she could see me.
Daniel got the photo of me there, but my stomach still lurches just to look at it. I can’t even remember seeing the views, I was so petrified.
As if that wasn’t enough adventure for our crew, the winds were blowing just right into Lysefjord, so Andreas and Daniel took a short cut back to Barba, rigging up their paragliders and hurling themselves off the cliff edge, flying
all the way back to the harbor. By the time Nicholas and I arrived a few hours later, cold beers were waiting for us to toast the end of an excellent inshore adventure in one of Norway’s prettiest fjords.
If You Go …
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has six nonstop flights per week from Houston to Stavanger Airport Sola, and there are many other flights to Stavanger via Oslo from other North American hubs.
Travel Planning Resources: