The island of Utsira, off the western coast of Norway, may be small, but its spirit and soul instantly capture your heart.
Utsira, with its wild and rugged landscape, is bound by an enormous community spirit. The island is a haven for bird life, and is so infused with international street art, that the whole island feels like an open-air art exhibition. The moment you step foot on Utsira’s alluring shores, you are caught in its net of enchantment. If Utsira is not yet on your Norway bucket list, it should be.
We have been staying in Skudeneshavn, on the most southern tip of the Island of Karmøy, Norway, for almost three months, experiencing most of the area’s main sights. Many of them have been popular Norway destinations, such as Priekestolen, Kjeragbolten, Stavanger and the Sognefjord area.
What had not been on our radar, was Utsira. Why this charismatic and breath-taking island is not on the lips of everyone travelling through Western Norway, I have no idea. I guess it remains relatively undiscovered by the masses, making it an even more attractive destination, to add to your Norway bucket list.
Welcome to Utsira
Utsira resident, Atle Grimsby, met us from the ferry. He came to the island for a visit 26 years ago to birdwatch, and here he stayed when he met and fell in love with Tove, his now wife. He works in the Utsira Municipality, but has several hobbies including birdwatching and guiding on the island. This is, “Something I do for the community,” he tells us. That sentiment, we discover, seems to run through the veins of the people of Utsira.
Utsira is the smallest municipality by population in the whole of Norway, with only about 200 people living on the six square kilometre island. It sits about 18 km west of Karmøy and is only accessible by boat. A ferry runs from the main town, Haugesund, with the trip taking about 70 minutes. There is no need to take a car, as the distance from north to south of the island is 2 km, and about 3km east to west. However, you may consider taking a bike, which has free passage on the ferry.
A tourist information office is beside the North Harbour jetty, and here you can pick up a map of the island with marked walking trails and main points to visit.
The walk to the lighthouse took us past old harbour walls, heritage listed buildings, bird-watching hot spots and amazing street art that appeared in the most unexpected places.
Our first stop – the Lighthouse Café. Here we met Atle’s wife, Tove. Over coffee and warm waffles, served in the typical Norwegian style with sour cream and jam, Atle and Tove shared the island’s history, its strong sense of community and told us more about the unique street art.
Utsira Art and Community
Community Art Projects
Near to the iconic lighthouse, you will find two cabins, one pink, one blue. They seem a stark contrast to the weathered, remote landscape, but the brightly coloured huts give a modern, vibrant touch, inviting you to relax and take in the spectacular view out over the ocean.
The blue hut is called the ‘Conversation Hut’ (Havsula). In this little retreat, away from the pressures of life, you can enjoy the peace and soak in the serenity.
The pink hut, the ‘Love Hut’ (Nyperosa), can be booked for the night. It has a double bed and looks out over the rugged landscape to the ocean beyond.
Across the other side of the island is the green hut. Made from bits of plastic collected from the sea, it is a candid reminder of the need to protect our precious oceans from plastic pollution.
Another combined art and community project on the island is the workshop cabin. It was dismantled in Haugesund and reassembled, plank by plank by the residents of the island. A reflection of the community working together.
Here you can find some free bikes that are available to the community and tourists alike. Inside the cabin, lies a small workshop for fixing bikes or for small carpentry projects. I was particularly drawn to the indoor rope swing.
“You can just sit here, swing and think about life” Atle adds when he notices my interest in the swing. Yet another demonstration of how important community is to this diminutive island.
The nearest town to Utsira is Haugesund, and with a 70-minute ferry ride away, it’s not that easy to just ‘pop into town’. Although there are facilities on the island such as a grocery store, school, library and restaurant, haircuts and dental visits mean a trip to the mainland.
So what is life like, living on the island?
“Everyone knows everyone and everything, it’s the way. We’re in the same boat, a big family,” says Tove.
She explains that if they need anything, the community uses Facebook and will send out a message, “Anyone in town today?”.
Both Atle and Tove agreed that there was a strong community spirit on the island. “When something good happens, it’s good to live here, and when something bad happens, it’s also good,” Tove adds.
Many of the islanders are younger generations of those who came before them, but there are also families from Somalia, Nigeria, The Netherlands, Philippines, Denmark and more, that make up this tight-knit community.
Utsira’s Street Art
The amazing pieces of art around the island tantalise and surprise; you are never quite sure where they will pop up next. If you want to be sure that you don’t miss any, you can download a map, detailing the locations and the artists.
The Utsirart Project, ‘Street Art on the Island Without Streets’, began in 2014. Street Artists came from around the world to paint their murals and designs across the island. Since then, various other artists have also contributed to the growing street art found on Utsira.
One of the most famous, whose characteristic stick figures stand tall and proud on this small island, was street artist Stik, from the UK. He began painting in 2001, in his hometown of Hackney, East London, to, “Wordlessly tell the story of his community”.
His 26-metre tall figures are on the two wind turbines on the island. The turbines, installed in 2004, were the world’s first wind and hydrogen energy project. It supplied energy to ten of the houses on the island.
The two giants, named after the Norse goddesses Frigg and Freyja, welcome the ferry as it arrives from the mainland. – Stik
Stik continues to do a lot of work with charities and creates artworks with communities around the world. His book features many of his unofficial street murals spanning over a decade, telling the stories and motivations behind them.
The most recent addition to the island’s art is a large mural by Borondo, who captured the idea of the small island residents all being in the same boat and working together as a community. This reflects the essence of Utsira’s community spirit perfectly.
Utsira Street Art Gallery
Another of the street artists, JPS, inspired by Banksy, has a gallery of his art in Utsira’s old school basement. The theme is ‘Scream’, and the art here definitely leaves a gruesome impression. The gallery is free and always open.
There are two heritage listed lighthouses on the island which are the only remaining twin lighthouses in Norway.
Only one of the two is operational and has the important job of sending weather recordings to Oslo six times a day. The lighthouse’s lantern, which was first lit in 1844, sheds its light routinely once a month and on special occasions. The second lighthouse is abandoned, harbouring some secret street art.
From the top of this lighthouse, which sits at the highest elevation of all of Norway’s lighthouses, at 68m above sea level, you can look out over Utsira’s striking, wild landscape. If you are keen-eyed, you may also spy some of the street art from here.
The lighthouse is open during the school holidays and by appointment. Fancy a stay overnight? You can rent out the large lighthouse-quarters.
Western Norway has undergone a few booms and busts when speaking of herring fishing. Around the mid 19th century, during one of the good periods of herring fishing, you could find up to a thousand fishermen on Utsira. Sleeping under their upturned boat in freezing conditions, was the only option for many who would head to the island hoping for their share of the spring herring. The North Sea could be treacherous, and the cold, dark weather conditions made for dangerous cirumstances. Most had simple wooden boats with oars and sails so there was a need for a safe harbour. Therefore, in 1866, the inner harbours on the island, which still stand today, were built by about 100 stonemasons. In 1870 they were completed and are now heritage listed.
Today, having both the North and South harbours, ensures that there is a least one safe port into Utsira that is protected from the strong, buffeting winds.
Sea Pilot Competition – Display of Manhood
Before 1922, seven families, over five generations, had built their own huts on the peaks of the hills and competed to pilot the incoming ships to the harbour. When the incoming sailboat lowered their flag, this acted as a request for a pilot to come out and guide them safely into harbour. The father and grandfather would be watching in the station and the kids would be in the boat at the harbour ready for the race to begin. Whoever got their hand in the boat first, got the job of guiding the ship into the harbour. This was at the time, an ultimate display of manhood.
It is a bit of a climb to this vantage point, but you get a spectacular view across the island and can see both the North and South Harbours.
Norway’s First Female Mayor – Embarrassment or Pride
Historically, Utsira was ahead of its time when, in 1926, it established its first council of eleven women and one man. What’s more, this event also marked the inauguration of Norway’s first female mayor, Åasa Helgesen.
Their very first policy was the lowering of their own wages to help the island’s economy. Next, they had roads built so the children did not have to arrive at school with wet feet.
What is extremely interesting is that places such as Mexico and Venezuela sent telegrams congratulating the island on its first female mayor, yet locals and those on mainland Norway, mocked the island being run by women, nicknaming them the ‘Petticoat Council’. For a whole two generations, it was not talked about outside of the island because of the shame that was felt. Today though, that shame has been replaced by pride.
Åasa Helgesen was both a midwife and farmer. Back in the day, the men would be out fishing for months on end, only coming back at harvesting time. The women on the island ran the farms and raised the children. The community had to work together and help each other which is a legacy continued in the thriving community spirit on Utsira today.
The timber church was built in 1785 but underwent renovation in 1870. However, the original pulpit is still in place. The inside was very different to the décor in most churches we have seen and the choice of colours, pink, blue and white was unusual. In line with the nautical connection of the island, a ship hung near the altar.
Immersion in Nature
Over 300 bird species have been recorded on this internationally known birdwatcher’s paradise. 26 of them being extremely rare. It even has its own ringing hut (where they catch a bird and ring its leg for recording purposes). We didn’t see anyone with binoculars but definitely saw plenty of bird life.
The main hotspot for bird watching is in a local resident’s garden which actually used to be the house of the first female mayor.
Until 1945, seagull catching was popular on the island. Why this came to be, is that the gulls were poaching from the spring herring shoals, so the islanders set traps. They used the seagull feathers to fill quilts, about 80-100 birds filled one quilt. The birds were also eaten if food was scarce.
Although not so good at bird spotting, what we did know how to spot and find were geocaches. We were short on time, so only managed to search for three. However, we could easily have spent a day hunting the many hidden caches across Utsira’s diverse landscape.
There are three main marked walking trails throughout the island and plenty of opportunity for exploring the rocky coastline and wild terrain. The island is believed to have had inhabitants dating back to the stone age. Indeed, some of the walking trails take you past remains of Celtic settlements.
Utsira is shaped like a butterfly. The valley runs through the middle like the butterfly’s abdomen and either side the hills rise to form the wings.
Five hours on this wild island retreat were not enough. We would recommend at least staying overnight, in order to enjoy all the island has to offer.
Perhaps it is not by chance the island resembles a butterfly, for you will experience a change. Utsira cannot help but impress itself upon you, transform your moments and seep deep into your soul.
The butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough.
– Rabindranath Tagore
The journey by ferry from Garpaskjærdkaien Quay, Haugesund to Utsira takes about 70 minutes each way, and costs 320NOK return.
The voyage can sometimes be rough but the ferry has stabilisers and roll control which helps in rough seas.
Where to eat
Lighthouse Cafe (near the Lighthouse)
Dahmsgard Restaurant (Tel. 986 61 981)
Dalanalstet (Pub Restaurant – Tel. 418 52 330)
Island Supermarket – Joker (Tel: 52 74 92 20)
If you are visiting Norway, this enchanting, alluring and charismatic island must be on your Norwegian bucket list. Has anyone already visited? What do you think would be the main attraction for you to this island? We’d love to hear from you, leave a comment below.
After finishing my Law Degree I decided to become a teacher. I am passionate about teaching, learning and most of all, about inspiring others. Now, as a writer and blogger, I love sharing our travels and our musings on life’s journey. I hope, through these, we can play a part in inspiring you to do whatever ‘satisfies your soul’.