Norway’s second biggest island has a split personality; gentle, green and welcoming on the landward side, and raw, brutal and furiously stormy on the oceanside.
Senja Island is like a micro-kontinent, with a mountainous spine, a friendly southern coast, light birch forests, farmland and a wild, stormy and precipitous ocean side. Go to the ocean side for a bit of drama, and head east for relaxation.
The rough Atlantic coast
There is nothing stopping the fury of the Atlantic from hitting the outer coast of Senja. The coast drops 7-800 metres from the mountain tops directly into the ocean. The landscape is rock hard, with barren cliffsides and rocky promontories. There are also coves and bays with fishing villages, and some of the sandy beaches are of that South Sea quality.
Norwegian Scenic route follows the outer coast
The easiest way to explore this dramatic outer coast is to follow the Norwegian Scenic Route of Senja winding its way along the outer coast. This route has lovely, architectonically designed resting stops, view points and toilets, all both fitting into and adding to the lovely landscape.
Husøy is an island of its own
The most vibrant of the many fishing villages is Husøy. A narrow, winding road leads over the mountain to the jetty that connects Husøy Island (The “House Island”) with Senja itself. So exposed to the elements is the village that some houses are wired to the ground to resist the storms. This is a busy place, fishing cod in winter and processing salmon all year. Hard working people need their rest, however, so the local shop shuts down for an hour at midday for lunch. This is highly unusual in Norway, and is allegedly a result of a ship astray from the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Mefjordvær and Senjahopen are non-identical twins
Senjahopen is another of those busy fishing villages. Much more sleepy and traditional, however, is Mefjordvær a mile further out. Old houses cluster around a picturesque port, and the view to the surrounding mountains and the open sea is breath-taking. From nearby Knuten, there is a lovely sea view.
Bøvær has the lovliest beach
A detour from the tiny centre of Skaland goes out to Bøvær. Here, the old fish factory “Kråkeslottet” (The Crow Nest), built on stilts into the fjord, has been turned into a culture centre. They even have their own summer festival. Most people, however, just come here for the long, sandy beach where they walk barefoot in summer, skip stones in the water and look at the archipelago of 98 islands in the Bergsfjord.
From The Golden Loo you overlook the Ersfjord peaks
Another photo op on the National Scenic Route is the so-called “Golden Loo” (Gulldassen), named after its golden-coloured wall cover. From here, walk to the lovely beach and enjoy the view of the impressive mountains on the right side of the fjord.
Tungeneset has the iconic view
The most photographed site, and understandably so, is Tungeneset. From here, you see the Okshornan cliffs. A ramp takes you onto a series of polished rocks that are easy to walk on. Take photographs of the cliffs mirroring in the small pools on the rock surface.
See the fjord and ocean from the “Stomach churner”
Once you have made it up the hairpin needle road going up from the end of the Bergsfjord, you reach a very particular viewpoint. The platform is actually flexible, and combined with the height, is it slightly scary if you suffer from vertigo. However, it’s absolutely worth overcoming your fears, as the views towards the Bergsfjorden, the open ocean and the majestic peaks will be with you forever.
Hamn i Senja is a sheltered port facing the ocean
Hamn means port, and a cluster of islets provide a sheltered port. This old nickel mine and trading post at Hamn i Senja couldn’t be more dramatically situated, with the Sugarloaf mountain straight south, the 98 island of the Bergsfjord to the north and the endless Atlantic to the west.
Torsken village is a small detour
A little detour from the main road takes you to the old centre of Torsken, today a sleepy village with some 150 people, but the fjord view is fabulous. The tiny church of Torsken dates from 1785, and has some treasures dating from previous churches from as early as the late middle ages. Here, the first woman minister in the Church of Norway, Ingrid Bjerkås, worked from 1961 onwards, causing much controversy at the time. She is, however, fondly remembered by the parishioners.
The village of Gryllefjord enjoys a dramatic setting between the fjord and the open ocean. Highly dependent on fishing, the village is compact and colourful. Come here for a bit of urbanity amidst all the scenery, and to take the summer ferry to the whale town of Andenes.
Senja is bike heaven
The Norwegian Scenic Route is also an excellent cycle route. Admittedly, you have to cycle on the road, but there is precious little traffic. The route follows the shoreline, so it is less strenuous than you think, although the Bergsfjorden hairpin needles will be noticed by your thighs. Make sure you stop at all the viewpoints, visit the small, local cafes and park the bike wherever you feel like for a beach walk. The National Scenic Route can be done in one day for the super fit, the rest of us do it in two leasurely days. Add extra days for exploring the forested inland.
The Sifjord Detour leads to nowhere but picturesque rural communities
If you are of the exploring kind, the detour to the communities along the Sifjord are well worth it. The winding road down the scree of Sifjordura towards the fjord is endlessly picturesque, and then you can drive along the fjord past small settlements to the end of the road at Grunnfarnes past small farms under majestic peaks.
Sami Culture lives on in remote areas
Unknown to most, Senja also has a Sami population. The inhabitants of some of the small hamlets in the forests of the eastern side are of Sami origin, and the language is still spoken by some of the elderly. They speak a Northern Sami dialect that is close to the one spoken in northernmost Sweden. This is because Sami people that migrated annually with their reindeer between Sweden and Senja decided to settle here after an illness had spread among their reindeer. The Sami museum in Kaperdalen shows a typical farm with turf houses
Hike Senja from north to south
A spine of mountains goes inside the steep Senja coastland. The peaks hear rise to more than 1000 metres, and constitute a mountain world with wonderful ocean vistas and untouched nature. There is a marked trail that takes some 5 days with 15-20 km hiking a day, and you interchangeably camp and stay in huts on the way. In winter, this can be done on cross country skis. T
The trees in Ånderdalen National Park are 600 years old
The small national park of Ånderdalen near Senja’s southern coast is there to protect the unique coastal pine forests, that have somehow avoided logging. There is also various types of deciduous forests, and the park is easily accessible for hikes and fishing in summer, and for dog sledding and skiing in winter.
The eastern side of Senja is a different face
The eastern slopes of Senja Island look entirely different. There are deep forests of birch, mixed in with aspen and rowan. Little lakes blink, and rivers and streams crisscross the landscape. Small farms are found in the valleys, and along the inner waterways facing the mainland, there is rich farmland and a friendly, green landscape. Gibostad is an old trading post, with picturesque old houses and a well-visited market in August. Senja even has a bit of a Costa, facing south, where the vegetation is notably greener.
Tranøy is the old centre
Before the advent of cars and roads, all traffic was on sea. Then the tiny island of Tranøy was in the midst of trade and communication. This is why we find the old church, dating from 1775, here, surrounded by the buildings of the vicarage. Today, the island is car-free and very peaceful, and a haven for anyone wanting to get away from it all.
Tranøya is the old centre
Dyrøya Island is a haven of greenery
The island of Dyrøya, sheltered behind Senja island, but still catching the mild influence of the Atlantic, couldn’t be more different from the weather-beaten outer coast of Senja. The rounded hills on the island are covered with lush birch forests almost all the way to the top. A country road leads around the island, passing farms, quiet coves and green fields. Very few people make it here, which is why you should go here.
Finnsnes is the new centre, Bjorelvnes the old
Today, most people reach Senja by way of the town of Finnsnes, situated on the mainland near the bridge across the sound to Senja. Shops, restaurants and accommodation are all plentiful, but for a sense of history, you should go to nearby Bjorelvnes. Here you find the old Lenvik church, whose first predecessor was built in 1130, and the old vicarage.
The Midnight Sun shines for two months at Senja
Senja is a good 300 km north of the Arctic Circle, and has thus the midnight sun for more than 2 months. At Finnsnes, the sun is above the horizon and midnight from the 20th of May to the 23rd of July. Beware, though, that the Midnight Sun can hide behind a mountain. This is particularly true on the rugged outer coast of Senja. We have seen the Midnight Sun at Knuten hill near Mefjordvær, others prefer the sun next to the Okshornan seen from the Tungeneset viewpoint. Ask around for good vantage points where you happen to be at night.
Senja is right under the Northern Lights oval
The Northern Lights oval, the zone of the planet where there is a maximum of Northern Lights, passes some 100 km above Senja. This means that no place on the planet has more frequent Northern Lights than this island. Go Northern Lights hunting on the outer coast, or join a professional Northern Lights hunter to criss-cross the island for clear skies, which are required to see them. Many winter guests also hire a cabin for a relaxing winter holiday, watching out for the lights every evening.
One of the absolute pleasures of Senja are all the lovely hikes. The outer coast has a number of iconic hikes to vantage points. The three best known hikes, Segla, Husfjellet and Hesten, tend to be a bit overran these days. Instead, you could go for the easy Midnight Sun vantage point of Riven or the other extreme, the 1001 metre high Breitinden, Senja’s highest point. The green inland has several good points, most of them less challenging.
In March and April, when the weather is stable and the snow guaranteed to be waist deep in the hillsides, it’s time for ski touring in the Senja mountains. Parties of skiers stay in cabins and resorts along the outer coast, or rent a holiday home, and ski all day. In a long, sunny day in April, they can manage to climb several mountains. Senja is less known as a ski touring destination than nearby Lyngen, and chances of finding virgin snow are bigger.
Practical on Senja
Senja is a big island situated south of Tromsø, north of Harstad, with the Vesterålen and Lofoten islands in the south west. From Finnsnes, on the mainland, there is a bridge to Senja.
There are catamarans going Tromsø-Finnsnes several times a day. From Finnsnes, the local buses fan out to the various communities on Senja Island. A few times a week, there is also a catamaran going to the port of Lysnes in the northern end of Senja. From there, local buses go to communities along the northern side of Senja. Timetables should be found at EnTur.
From Lofoten, there are buses to Harstad. From Harstad, there are catamarans several times a day to Finnsnes. From there, you can take buses around Senja. From Harstad, there are also catamarans going to communities along the southern coast, notably Skrolsvik. You can also go by bus from Lofoten through Sortland and Andenes in the Vesterålen Islands. In Summer, there is a ferry from Andenes to Gryllefjord on Senja. This is not an option outside the Summer tourist season. Timetables should be found at EnTur.
Yes. There are several ways of doing it. In Summer, you drive from Lofoten through the Vesterålen Islands past Sortland and Andenes, and then take the summer ferry to Gryllefjord. The rest of the year, you have to drive the E10 to Bjerkvik, and then the E6 to Buktamoen near Bardufoss. From here, the 86 takes you to Finnsnes.
Yes. In Winter, you drive the E8 to Nordkjosbotn, then the E6 to Buktamoen/Bardufoss. The 86 takes you from there to Finnsnes. In Summer, there is a smart solution; from Brensholmen, one hour southwest of Tromsø, there is a ferry to Botnhamn in the northern end of the Norwegian Scenic route. Timetables should be found at EnTur.
Your assistant to explore the big island of Senja is Visit Senja