[As written for Travel Eye, hosted on The Huffington Post UK, August 2012]
They say a picture tells a thousand words and that’s completely true of all 600 of my pictures I’ve managed to take while in Western Norway for a long weekend. The area is so pretty that even the most amateur of photographer (me) could come back with great snaps; it’s not hard to capture Norway’s beauty because it’s plainly there for everyone to see.
With so much stunning scenery around, it wasn’t easy putting that camera down. But as soon as you stop and take in that fresh mountain air, you know you’re somewhere special. It makes your lungs feel clean, your eyes feel like they’re finally seeing what you’ve spent years looking for – and your mind goes blank, purely because it’s hard to focus on anything else other than the sheer beauty of what’s in front of you. That’s what my short but ever-so-sweet trip to Norway did for me, anyway. Here’s how it happened…
The glorious hub of Ålesund
Norway is home to around five million people, all of whom are scattered across an area of more than 148,000 square miles. There’s no crowding, the roads are wide and clear and there’s a sense of pride on people’s faces. The locals love their county.
My first trip there began earlier this summer. I was going to explore one of the country’s most famous Fjords found on the western coast. Geirangerfjord is internationally known for its rugged beauty. I’d seen pictures of the stunning cliffs and winding roads – but also knew it’s not often that places really live up to their (usually enhanced) pictures. So I kept an open mind…
Flying direct from London Gatwick with Norway’s budget airline, Norwegian, we arrived at the stunning Art Nouveau town of Ålesund after just two hours. This coastal town was to be our hub and had quite rightly won awards for its beauty.
Heading up nearby Mount Aksla, we were shown the best view of Ålesund from the height of 52 feet. The brightly-coloured buildings brought the crystal clear canal water to life with their yellows, blues and greens – while the town’s houses, tall churches, hotels and restaurants all pierced the skyline with their unique architecture. It took a 418 large-step descent to get into town. And our legs felt strangely like jelly afterwards, but it was worth it. The beauty bar was set.
The history of Ålesund is just as fascinating as its good looks. Back in 1904, a couple of drunken men set their wooden house on fire. A fire that ended up burning down the entire town. As 10,000 people lost their homes, the country – and the continent of Europe – stood up and took notice and it’s a team of German architects who are now thanked for Ålesund’s revival.
The result was this – pretty good, huh?
Off the coastline are Ålesund’s surrounding islands – one of which housed the airport we flew into. Instead of having to boat it across to the mainland, we were treated to a drive through Norway’s highly impressive network of underwater tunnels. Again, it’s pretty amazing work.
Following a little wander through the town and a visit to the local Art Nouveau Centre, it was time to try something a little different. So we opted for a high-speed 62 Nord RiB boat out to Runde Bird Island, where more than 500,000 sea birds have taken over the rugged cliffs as their home.
To say this is quite a sight, is an understatement – especially with thousands of wings circling above you; and it’s certainly not something for the faint-hearted. En route, we were luckily enough to spot sea lions on a neighbouring island and when we finally did hit Runde, it was the puffins that truly melted our hearts. Those orange-beaked beauties are a rare spot amongst the gulls, but they’re worth the wait – and the super bumpy high-speed boat ride.
Back in town and following a comfortable night’s sleep at the Rica Hotel Scandinavie in the heart of Ålesund, it was time to head off on an exciting adventure – to see Norway’s famous Geirangerfjord.
Journey to the Fjords
Driving the National Tourist Route meant we experienced some of Norway’s most beautiful scenary. And despite the suggestion that this could be the busiest road in the country, we actually met very few passing cars.
A couple of hours in and our first stop was Trollstigen – a stunning area that looks over the roads we’d already travelled. The view was breath-taking – below us, the snaking tarmac wound its way up the hills. It put into perspective just how many hairpin bends we had taken on, and just how high up we were.
The scene before us consisted of vibrant green fir trees, snow-capped mountains, distant tumbling waterfalls, low-passing clouds and stunning blue skies. My camera was very happy.
After taking at least 50 photos of just that one stunning view, we jumped back on the NTR until we arrived at Linge where we jumped on a 30-minute car ferry to Eidsal. And just when you thought this drive could not get more exciting – we hit the most exciting part of the route, Eagle’s Road.
Now, the Top Gear fans out there might remember Clarkson and co’ doing some pretty hefty driving down these roads – it looked impressive back then on my non-HD TV, but now – in the flesh – it looked heavenly. After many stops for photographs (there aren’t enough days in the year to take all the pictures of the Fjords/mountains/blue sky/fir tree scenes that I wanted), we descended into the town of Geiranger.
Now, after that drive, I was convinced think that there’s no better way to see the Fjords than that bird’s eye view from the mountains. I was wrong.
Sailing the Fjords…
The best way to experience a Fjord is to sail down it. Or kayak down it, whic is what we did. Hitting up our friends at Coastal Odyssey, we headed out in pairs – waterproofs on, camera in a sealed bag and sunglasses-at-the-ready. It’s tedious work for a beginner (and no joke, I have particularly weak arms) but it was also one of the most exciting and beautiful things I’ve ever done. What a way to sightsee!
We saw waterfalls, cute little villages amongst the mountains and waved at passing little children playing by their houses. It was pretty special and even my weak arms had never been happier. There was also not one moment where I thought I was about to go overboard either – so kayaking was a winner in my book.
Back on land and we enjoyed a local buffet dinner at the Hotel Union Geiranger. If you’ve been out doing physical stuff like we had, this is the perfect place for refuelling, because not only is this All You Can Eat buffet, but the hotel also offers great spa facilities – with steam baths, a Hammam and sauna and two swimming pools that open up to a view of the Fjord. Lovely.
The next morning, we began the drive back to Ålesund. After kayaking through Norway’s most famous Fjord, I didn’t think anything I saw today would blow my mind quite as much – wrong again – the Norangsdalen Valley with his velvety green tree tops and crystal clear waters, once again left me speechless. It was hard to believe that just a few hours away was my bustling city home in South London and here we were, surrounded by such serenity.
After plodding our way through these scenes, snap-snap-snapping away, we finally arrived in Øye – a cute Fjord town with by crisp air and the prettiest of mountains. Here, we jumped on a 62 Nord boat to sail speedily through the lovely Hjørundfjord (£59 per person) back to our hub home. It’s hard to put into words, that feeling of sailing down such a peaceful expanse of water, taking in the flowing waterfalls and the ice-capped mountains far up in the sky. We had blankets and beanie hats; and sunglasses and sun cream on. You wrap up warm because the speed of the boat leaves you windswept, but as soon as you stop in the Norwegian summer sunshine you’re stripping off to a flimsy top and shorts
After a long weekend of non-stop moving, I welcomed my bed at the Radisson Blu, Ålesund. Topped off with a seafood dinner at Anno and some local wine, it was the perfect end to the perfect trip.
When to go
Being where it is in the world, Norway – as you probably know – has its light summer months and dark winter months. So it’s a no-brainer that this trip would be much more accessible in the summer. The best time to go is between May and September when the flowers are in bloom, the hiking trails are open and the day is longer. Temperatures can get up to 30 degrees Celsius in the summer but it’ll be cooler in the mountains, so layer up. More details are available here.
Flights from London Gatwick to Ålesund with Norwegian cost £43 one way including taxes.
Avis offers car hire from £250 for four days if booked in advance. Alternatively 62 Nord offer a round trip from Ålesund, visiting Øye and Hjorundfjord, Norangsdal Valley and Geiranger for £108.50 per person. Or you could bus and ferry it yourself if you’re feeling truly adventurous.
Rica Hotel Scandinavie provide double rooms with breakfast and wifi from £98 per night.
The Radisson Blu Ålesund also offers a double room with breakfast and wifi from £60 per night.
Lunch at Invit involves tasty sandwiches and light meals – and they are better received when enjoyed out in the sunshine on the restaurant’s floating terrace. Try Lyst for delicious coffee.
Hotel Union Geiranger offers rooms including breakfast for £86 per night. The buffet dinner, which samples some of the local sea food and meats, starts at £26.50.
The Juvet Landscape Hotel offers stunning outdoor huts for £273 per night including breakfast (perfect for honeymooners or a special treat). A pit-stop lunch can be booked in advance.
Hotel Union Øye offer rooms from £217 including breakfast and wifi, as well as delicious tea breaks if you are only stopping for a while. It’s allegedly haunted by members of the Norwegian royal family. I didn’t get to see any of them. Sadface.
The guys at Coastal Odyssey will happily take you out for a day of sea kayaking. Prices start from £87 for an adult and £70 for a child.
62 Nord offer their RiB boat trip to Runde bird island for £86. You have to be over 16 to take part.
If you’re booking up your Norwegian adventure for the summer, aim to be in Ålesund for the annual Sommerfesten, which usually takes place around the end of July.
This summer festival, with its motto of ‘Peach, Love and Understanding’, was set up by Bernt Jakob Oksnes and his pal in 2004. The pair had taken their group of 30 friends to beach on local island Giske for a booze up with some guitars. They sang, they drank; they had a good time. The following year, their friends brought their friends and the party grew. Eight years on, 20,000 people are said to descend into Ålesund for the one-day event.
Artists are only paid in studio time, so overheads are cheap. It’ll cost you a £32 online donation to get you in and all you have to do is bring an offering of food (homemade or not). The donated food is then served up by 600 volunteers to the festival goers… for free!
“It’s important to remember the core of the festival; it’s about friends and everyone chips in,” Bernt (above right) told us when we visited.
Drinks are obtained through pre-paid tokens. The portaloos come with their own anti-bacterial gel. This year (and last year), Travis headlined. It’s an inspiring event and it’s a shame we don’t have more festivals like it. Two years ago, The Telegraph called it ‘The greatest festival you’ve never heard of’. I’d second that.
It’s not an obvious choice for a summer holiday but I wholeheartedly recommend the Norwegian Fjords for exactly that. This is a place that proves you don’t have to travel half-way across the world to find breath-taking beauty, friendly locals, a great atmosphere (literally, the air is so fresh) and delicious food. Yes, Norway certainly has my vote.
For more information head to www.visitnorway.co.uk