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Head for Land of Simplicity on Norwegian Island

December 01, 1985|BETTY LUKAS | Lukas is a Times copy editor.

SVOLVAER, Norway — The Lofoten Islands aren't exactly what most people look for in a vacation.

They have no cathedrals and no casinos. No cable cars and no taxicabs.

No exotica and no erotica. No daily jets. No flea markets. No great buys in leather or diamonds.

What the Lofotens offer the traveler is spectacular scenery--the unvarnished real thing--and the opportunity to hike, fish, climb mountains, boat and swim (sometimes) in a nonsynthetic setting.

The Norwegians, whose love of nature is legendary, know this and regularly make their pilgrimages by private boat or public ferry--sometimes even by plane--to the innocent harbors and imposing mountains that comprise this isolated string of islands about 50 miles west of mainland northern Norway.

Once you've also discovered them for yourself, you're likely to love them too.

But you must long for the simple life, because the Lofotens are uncommonly uncosmopolitan and noticeably unspoiled by unsavory man-made sights.

Jagged Appearance

From the sea they resemble a jagged wall, from which their name is derived, and only as you draw closer do they soften.

They are like leftover chunks of the mainland, casually flung out to sea by some insensitive ancient glacial upheaval. Their age has been estimated at 3.5 billion years, making them among the oldest mountains in the world. The sharp peaks of the ragged, charcoal-colored range that runs down their middle tickle the sky as they rise to heights of 3,000 feet from green ribbons of crop land that border the Norwegian Sea.

The contrast is startling: sharp peaks and soft meadows. But such contrasts are everywhere.

The small fishing villages are simplicity itself, huddling serenely in sheltering fiords that scallop the island chain. Every building, even the houses, are utilitarian, uncluttered red or yellow or white wood rectangles, like bright blocks on a green, almost treeless playground.

In contrast to these simple settlements are the fish processing plants, the fishing boats and the salmon "farms" that dot the shoreline (a new government project). All are operated with the newest equipment.

And with good reason.

Fishing Grounds

This ragged remnant of nature's caprice nurtures Norway's major fishing grounds. Here is where Norwegian fishermen set sail each season to make the massive catches that find their way to markets all over the world.

Fishing is the major industry in the Lofotens. Half of the 26,000 who populate the islands' 30 villages earn their livelihood from the sea's bounty of cod, coalfish, salmon, prawns and herring.

And who would have believed it more than 5,000 years ago when the islands were first settled?

Getting over to these islands from the mainland is part of the pleasure, part of the transition from complication to simplicity.

I sailed here in a 33-foot ketch belonging to friends, but this means of transportation is for seasoned sailors only. That Norwegian Sea is not for beginners.

The ferry from Bodo to Svolvaer is your best bet. Clean cabins are available on the overnight trip if you get your reservation early enough.

Of course, you've got to reach Bodo first. On your map you'll see that it's a far piece from Oslo, about 800 miles north, north of the Arctic Circle.

Counting Fiords

You can either fly from Oslo (one hour travel time) or take the famous Norwegian coastal cruise that originates in Bergen. There are no social directors on these ships, but there are efficient cabins and both a dining room and cafe, and lots of deck space for counting the fiords you pass ($50 a day without meals).

This trip takes two days and three nights because the ship, carrying cargo as well as passengers, makes several stops.

You reach Bergen by means of a spectacular train trip that leaves Oslo at 7:30 a.m., arriving in Bergen about 2 p.m., allowing you ample time to wander around the hospitable city before boarding the ship at 10:30 p.m.

It must be obvious by now that the Lofotens are remote, off the tourist path. It takes time to reach them.

But if you're a jaded traveler, wondering whether there's anything in the world left to see, anything that's still real, try the Lofotens.

Rent a real fisherman's cabin, those wonderful little red dominoes that rim the harbors, where you can still hear the sea beneath the floor boards and the teeming bird life overhead, where you can borrow a boat and fish in the fiord. Now that's authentic.

Plane fare from Bodo to Svolvaer: $40. The flight takes an hour, with departures five times daily. The once-a-day ferry takes six hours and costs $20.

Prices for the fisherman's cabins range from about $10 to $26 per person per night, depending on how large and completely furnished they are.

There are two hotels in Svolvaer: the Nordic, with prices ranging from $58 to $73, and the Havly, $39 to $54, both including breakfast, tax and service charges.

Of the four art galleries on the islands, two of them are in Svolvaer, and a few shops.

For more information: Lofoten Reiselivsforening, Postboks 210, N-8301 Svolvaer, Norway, or Nordland, Reiselivsrad, Postboks 8000, Bodo, Norway, or the Norwegian Tourist Board, 655 3rd Ave., New York 10017.

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