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Svolvær (southernmost point of the Lofoten): 280km (174 miles) N of Bodø; 1,425km (884 miles) NE of Bergen; 1,250km (775 miles) N of Oslo

The island kingdom of Lofoten, one of the most beautiful regions of Norway, lies 197km (122 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. Its population of 35,000 spreads over large and small islands. Many visitors come just to fish, but the area also offers abundant bird life and flora. The midnight sun shines from May 25 to July 7.

Hans Olsen, a local guide, told us, "If you are not already a poet by the time you come here, you will be by the time you leave." He was referring, of course, to the area's beauty, the remoteness of the archipelago, and the mystical Arctic light.

The Lofoten Islands stretch from Vågan in the east to Røst and Skomvaer in the southwest. The steep Lofoten mountain peaks -- often called the Lofotwall -- shelter farmland and deep fjords from the elements.

The major islands are Austvågøy, Gimsøy, Vestvågøy, Flakstadøy, Moskenesøy, Vaerøy, and Røst. The southernmost part of Norway's largest island, Hinnøy, is also in Lofoten. Vestfjorden separates the major islands from the mainland of Norway.

In winter, the Gulf Stream makes possible the world's largest cod-fishing event. Called Lofotfisket, it takes place between January and March, though it dwindled in importance in the latter half of the 20th century. Arctic sea cod spawn beyond Lofoten, especially in the Vestfjord, and huge harvesting operations are carried out between January and April.

The first inhabitants of the Lofoten Islands were nomads who hunted and fished, but excavations show that agriculture existed here at least 4,000 years ago. The Vikings pursued farming, fishing, and trading; examples of Viking housing sites can be seen on Vestbågøya, where more than 1,000 burial mounds have been found.

From the 14th century on, the people of Lofoten had to pay taxes to Bergen. This was the beginning of an economic dominance lasting for 6 centuries -- first executed by the German Hansa tradesmen and then by their Norwegian heirs.

Harsh treatment of local residents by the Nazis during the World War II played a major part in the creation of the famous Norwegian resistance movement. Allied forces, which landed here to harass the German iron-ore boats sailing from Narvik, withdrew in June 1940. They evacuated as many Lofoten residents as they could to Scotland for the duration of the war.

Today the Lofotens have modern towns with shops, hotels, restaurants, and public transportation.

In addition to hotels, guesthouses, and campsites, the Lofoten Islands offer lodging in old traditional fishing cottages known as rorbuer. The larger (often two stories), usually more modern version, is a sjøhus (sea house). The traditional rorbu was built on the edge of the water, often on piles, with room for 10 bunks, a kitchen, and an entrance hall used as a work and storage room. Many rorbuer today are still simple and unpretentious, but some have electricity, a woodstove, a kitchenette with a sink, and running water. Others have been outfitted with separate bedrooms, private showers, and toilets. The best and most convenient booking agent is Destination Lofoten.