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Three-Day Weekend: Norway

By Charles Olav Coxe
June 17, 2016
Norway-Trollstigen
Anders Peter Amsnæs/Dreamstime
It's an old gag: “Have you driven a fjord lately?” But deep discounts and stunning new tourist routes will put the majestic stretch of inlets between Bergen and Molde high on your bucket list.

 This is, undeniably, the most beautiful place I’ve ever used a toilet.

I should probably explain: In Norway, I often find myself uttering variations of “this is the most beautiful _______ I’ve ever seen.” But after years of exploring my ancestral homeland, I never thought I’d say it in a bathroom. It’s a nice side effect of the country’s oil-funded Tourist Route system, an ambitious program pairing Norway’s top architects with the country’s most scenic drives to design overlooks and bridges (nasjonaleturistveger.no). Their genius is also applied to roadside rest stops.

Widely hailed as one of earth’s most stunning places—especially if you gawk at natural beauty—Norway’s fjord country has also been one of the most expensive to visit. But thanks to a surging U.S. dollar, plunging oil prices, and direct cheap flights on Norwegian Air, this year is the perfect time to see Norway at a discount (fares from $249, norwegian.com). 

With so much to explore, the best plan is to see Bergen…and then get the heck out of town, driving through fjord country and hitting every scenic view you can.

Soaking in Norway’s Seattle 

Small enough to see in a day, yet chock full of great neo-Nordic cuisine, culture, and postcard-everywhere-you-look scenery, rain-drenched Bergen always reminds me of the Pacific Northwest, starting with its music. Norwegian acts aren’t quite household names, but the local scene has an impressive range, from Röyksopp (electronic pop) and Enslaved (black metal) to Sondre Lerche (singer/songwriter) and Ylvis (“What Does the Fox Say?”), all the descendants of classical icon Edvard Grieg, who play in small venues like Bergen Kjött (a meat market turned art gallery/concert venue, bergenkjott.no) and the adjacent large stage and intimate club setting at Lille Ole Bull (olebullhuset.no).

I know this sounds touristy, but I can’t visit Bergen without walking through the colorful wharf buildings of the Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site and 14th-century trading center. Dodging the relentless drizzle, I ducked into the expansive Bergen Art Museum ($12, kodebergen.no), then hit the vintage shops and cafés along pedestrianized Skostredet.

They aren’t cheap, but Nordic standouts Restaurant 1877, renowned for its seasonal, local organic produce (from about $64 for a three-course meal, restaurant1877.no), and weather-inspired seafood perfectionist Cornelius (from about $48 for a two-course meal, corneliusrestaurant.no), complete with boat trip to its own island, compare to the best dining experiences I’ve had in any city, from New York to Copenhagen. To give your credit card a break, Marg og Bein’s award-winning local seafood (entrées from about $20, marg-bein.no) and Bare Vestland’s delicious Norwegian “tapas,” craft beers, and the best bread and butter you’ll have in your life (dishes from about $5, barevestland.no) offer quality far beyond their price.

Once the weather cleared, I dropped everything to hop on the Flöibanen funicular up Mount Flöyen for a panoramic view of the city, fjord, and surrounding mountains (round-trip ticket about $11, floyen.no). 

Driving a Fjord

It contradicts everything said about traveling in Norway, but I rented a car. Yes, gas is expensive, but with a scenic view better than the last around every bend, I needed to explore on my own.

My first stop was Naeröyfjord, the narrowest fjord in the world, with 5,000-foot-high snow-capped peaks plunging almost vertically into blue-green water just 750 feet across at its tightest point. This UNESCO World Heritage site is best seen from the water (I opted for a kayak, but there’s also a ferry) or hiking along the 600-year-old Postal Path.

Tunneling under the mountain took me to Flam, a town best known for a railway repeatedly voted most scenic in the world (tickets from about $42, visitflam.com). This hour-long train ride, switchbacking 3,000 feet up the mountainside past a dozen waterfalls, is a must-see. But so, on the way out of town, is the toilet at Stegastein—even if I didn’t need to go. A Tourist Route overlook, this doozy of a loo peeks over the cliff’s edge, thousands of feet above Aurlandsfjord, offering a private, scenic view.

There’s precious little to do in Fjaerland, and that’s why this 300-resident hamlet is one of my favorite spots on Earth. The sleepy streets in town are dotted with tiny bookshops (some just shelves with an honor-system cashbox); above town in summer they’re lined with the sweetest raspberries I’ve ever tasted. Adding to its air of fairytale perfection, the only real lodging option, Hotel Mundal, celebrating its 125th birthday this year, is almost ridiculously quaint and furnished with family antiques (from about $163 per night, hotelmundal.no). The toughest part was finding any motivation to go anywhere else.

Journeying through the Land of Glass and Ice

Just outside town, I stopped by the Norwegian Glacier Museum (admission about $15, english.bre.museum.no) to join a trek on—and in—nearby Jostedalsbreen, Europe’s largest glacier, its arms still grinding inexorably down at a rate of six feet a day (hikes from about $33, jostedal.com). For more midsummer snow, Stryn Summer Ski Centre offers the rare chance to rocket down a 900-foot ski slope in nothing but skis and shorts (about $15 for one trip down, about $45 for one-day access, strynsommerski.com). 

The nearby town of Geiranger, another UNESCO site often called the “most beautiful place on earth,” offers hiking, kayaking, and ferry rides past waterfalls plunging thousands of feet from impossibly perched cliff-top summer farms straight into Geirangerfjord.

Driving up the Valldalen valley, I passed through the spectrum of Norwegian ecosystems (fjord, forests, farmland, alpine meadows, arctic mountain peaks) and history (centuries-old farms and grass-roofed cabins to the new modern visitor center at Trollstigen Pass), seeing the country’s highlights in just 20 miles. My vote for most scenic of all Tourist Route overlooks, Trollstigen, or “Troll’s Ladder,” is a favorite spot for BASE jumpers. I watched jumpers in wingsuits plunge past the buses that climb the hairpin turns, as they tried to get close enough to almost touch one without dying. 

Doubling back down Valldalen, I found an understated architectural marvel: Juvet Landscape Hotel, a scattering of glass-walled cabins and spa unobtrusively perched among birch trees over a rushing mountain river (from about $190 per night, juvet.com). (If it looks familiar, you’ve seen the movie Ex Machina.) Built by the architectural firm Jensen og Skodvin without blasting rock or cutting trees, the cabins have dark walls, sparse furniture, no TVs, and no curtains—ensuring there was nothing to distract from the most impossibly perfect view I’ve ever had from a hotel room. Do I really have to leave? 

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