“A place where ideas can land and take off again”
A few months ago, I found myself back in Oslo, Norway visiting friends, including Anders—my dear outgoing, tree-hugging, Viking lookalike. He told me about a small, hidden, and picturesque island named “Værøy” located in the northwestern part of Norway. He described it as a stunning and barely-touched magical oasis right off the coast. To my surprise, he said that his friends had purchased land on that island. Quick to react to my inquisitive look, he had already begun answering my questions. After all, he was in the process of helping his friends turn a piece of Værøy into something that would change the world…
When you first approach Værøy, you are greeted by crystal-clear water, sandy white beaches, and mountains upon mountains. Don’t let the beaches and water fool you, though! We’re still talking about Norway, so it is cold. Yet given Værøy’s position, it’s actually the warmest place in the Arctic Circle. The winters rarely fall below 0 degrees, so the island will generally stay above freezing all year. The summers can reach up to 19 degrees (66 degrees Fahrenheit). I have been told that the weather can change drastically within just an hour from sunshine to hurricane winds, to thunderstorms, to snow. You never know what you will get. Its above-freezing temperature and location make it a geologist’s dream. In the winter, the northern lights can be seen crystal clear, dancing in the night sky. The island is home to only 750 people. To get there, you can take a two-hour flight from Oslo to Bodo and then hop on a scenic three-hour ferry voyage through the sea or a twenty-minute helicopter ride.
Paul White, a friend of Anders and one of the investors of the land on Værøy, came to the island with a mission. He and an ambitious group of forty shareholders are going to transform their portion of the land into a multiuse residential hub catering to education on sustainable living in this high-tech world, all while serving the community at Værøy.
On my latest visit to Norway, I had the opportunity to interview Paul, and here is his story.
A: Paul, let’s hear a bit about yourself to get started.
P: I am from England but moved to Oslo, Norway ten years ago with my wife. She is from Norway originally. I used to work for Microsoft but am now currently CEO of two companies in Oslo: Xvision and Blinck.
A: How did you hear about Værøy?
P: I moonlight as a DJ as well. Back in 2016, some people had a crazy idea to host a festival in Værøy, and I was asked to DJ it. I had heard many stories about Lofoten (the string of islands Værøy belongs to) and it being a magical place. I have been to a number of beautiful places in my life but none like this. I remember when I was visiting the States, I traveled from San Francisco to Death Valley and stopped off at Yosemite. At times, I was so overwhelmed when looking at the scenery in Yosemite that I felt like crying. It was just so beautiful. Being at Værøy was a very similar experience. I was staying in Værøy during the Midnight Sun Festival in the summer. With all the beauty, it was also a bit disorientating because during this time of year, the sun never sets.
A: Could you describe the beauty?
P: In the summertime, if you look out away from the island, the sun is kind of hovering and you get this sense of space. The clarity or definition of what you are looking at is so much greater than anywhere else I have been. I don’t know if that’s atmospheric or something else. Maybe, it’s the way the sun is shining through the atmosphere. I have no idea, but you see these subtle changes in color, and from one second to the next, the whole landscape just changes before your eyes because of the way the sun is shining. It’s like looking at a high-definition TV.
A: Maybe it’s due to the lack of pollution? Does the air smell super clean and crisp?
P: Absolutely. You have a feeling of closeness to nature there. You feel kind of negligible in the scheme of things. When the wind blows there, even just the slightest gust, you feel really vulnerable. It’s a very raw place to be. For me, coming from the UK, from a place that’s heavily populated where everyone is packed together and you are never really far from another human being, and then going to a place like Værøy, you suddenly feel very insignificant in respect to what you are looking at. Have you heard of the Lofoten Islands?
A: Yes, a little.
P: It’s basically a chain of islands across the top of Norway. One time when I was standing on top of a mountain in Værøy on a very clear day, I was looking out, and I could see all the way up the entire chain of islands.
A: That sounds incredible.
P: I was just standing there with my mouth wide open. I think at that point I started crying because it was just so overwhelming. That was kind of my intro to Værøy. I did take a bunch of photos but none of them do any justice to what you experience when you are actually there. It’s a very multi-sensory experience.
A: Let’s break this down: You go to Værøy to DJ, you fall in love with the place, and then decide to buy a part of the island? [laughs]
P: The location of where the festival took place was on a disused air strip. On that air strip was an old factory that was previously a chocolate factory but had later burned down. The guy that owned it decided that he wanted to move and start up another chocolate factory elsewhere in Norway. Word spread that it was available. A Facebook group started, and somehow—and to this day I don’t know how—I got added to the group. I thought to myself that this was interesting [smirks]. It seems a bit bonkers, but I had this strong connection to this place and the experience I had, so I started to get interested. In late 2016, a bunch of us got together to figure out if we could buy the place. By January, 2017, we had thirty investors and then in February we purchased it. Since then, we have been trying to figure out the best way to move forward—what would be the best approach to use that land in the right way.
A: What are your plans for Værøy?
P: We will always take into consideration the 750 people that currently live on the island. The vision as I see it, is that this should be a place that contributes to the local community and the island. I don’t see any of us owning that land. We are stewards of it. We are going to create something there that has a positive impact to the community but also allows people to come and experience the beauty of it.
One of our first projects is to create a community kitchen to provide a space for people who live on the island to come and eat, drink some beer, and potentially provide employment for them. Also, the idea would be to bring in people that don’t live on the island who are skilled in making food. For example, we have interest from a few Michelin Star chefs that are willing to train people that come from the island. In conjunction we will be updating and fixing the current house that is on the property.
The long-term vision is to build eco-friendly facilities for people to develop their own projects. We welcome artists, businesses, and start-ups to visit and live there for a period of time. We also welcome universities, companies, etc. that are impact-driven and want to have a positive effect. We have a number of companies that are interested in having week-long retreats where they can go to Værøy and focus on different projects but then also have the opportunity to go for a hike, fishing, or whatever it may be.
In the works is a plan to build an educational space, where people can research certain interests. Within the library, we will have education tools on living sustainably in an arctic environment. That building will also hold a growing laboratory with different types of food. We know people that work with vertical farming and aquaponics, where you can grow food in domes, and of course use lighting in the winter months.
The opportunities are only limited by the types of people we get on board and what they want to work with and, of course, how we get this financed.
We welcome people to the island to develop themselves, their ideas, and their projects.
A: Why did you decide to call this project Værøy Lufthavn?
P: Johan Gjestland, who is the founder, chose the project’s name. Værøy Lufthavn translates to “Weather Island Airport.” He chose it because he wants the island to be “a place where ideas can land and take off again.”
A: An item on many people’s bucket lists are to see the northern lights. I heard that Værøy is one of the best places to view this. Do you plan on having any type of accommodation such as a hotel or “glamping” for people that just want to visit for a few days?
P: The tourist industry is huge in Northern Norway at the moment. We want to make sure we have a controlled type of infrastructure in this sense, where the tourists don’t overrun the locals. But we absolutely want to have something like this. We plan to have an observatory and accommodations where you can see the northern lights from your bed. The northern lights are amazing, but they are also a bit fickle, so we thought about making a virtual reality experience for tourists as well. We are definitely looking at the tourism aspect of this as it will be beneficial to the local community.
A: What sorts of activities does the island currently have to offer?
P: There are tons of outdoor activities, both educational and physical. Beautiful hikes, surfing, fishing, caving, whale watching… there were killer whales last summer, actually. It’s also home to many absolutely majestic-looking eagles. You will be able to see puffins there that are super-cute birds with these funny beaks.
We have some ideas with future activities that we plan on starting as well, like vertical greenhouses, composting, partnership with Nordic Ocean Watch to schedule beach cleanups and lectures, seaweed farming, microbrewery with local ingredients, festivals, fire pits for community gatherings, retreats, and the list goes on.
A: I was told that everything you plan on doing and building will be environmentally friendly. How do you plan on doing this?
P: We don’t want to be preachy in any way. The most important thing is to have underlying values which maintains sustainability and ecology and environmental stewardship. For example, there is a ton of plastic that washes up on the beaches of Værøy. We have spent time with a local helping him clean it up. There was so much plastic in these big one-ton sacks that we ended up getting a helicopter to pick them up and bring it to the land. In the future we will be partnering with Nordic Ocean Watch to host beach clean ups, lectures, recycling the plastic waste, building a marine pollution learning center in which we will have a 3D printing room using the plastic from the ocean clean ups.
In the end, we are there to come up with solutions, not just point out problems.
A: How long until things will be up and running?
P: On May 7th, we are starting our first online fundraising campaign with www.funde.no. Our goal is to raise 600,000 kr (kroners), which is roughly $100,000 dollars. This will help us break ground on the community kitchen and restore the current housing structure.
The aim is for the community kitchen to be up by the summer.
The theme is all about repurposed materials, which is pretty much the theme of everything that we are doing. It’s Scandinavian-themed: very clean, traditional cabin facility with a modern touch. We plan to have space for about thirty people plus an industrial kitchen area.
Next step is to create accommodations set to open in 2019.
A: What do you hope for with Værøy Lufthavn?
P: I would like it to be a place of collaboration and creation between people of different perspectives and approaches to life. I think it is really important these days to see how other people that are not like you live. We live in a very divisive culture these days, and I want to work against that. It’s a small project in the scheme of things, but I feel like you have to start somewhere.
I would like to be sitting there some point in the future… one, two, five years’ time and seeing the results of all the effort we have put in. Seeing something beautiful that we have created from the seed that we are planting now.
A: To find out more about Værøy Lufthavn and how you can be a part of this beautiful effort, head over to www.lufthavna.org They are also on Instagram @lufthavna, Facebook @VaroyLufthavn, and http://www.funde.no/project/view/118.