Norway: Unnatural levels of natural beauty
OK, let’s get one thing straight right away: Norway is a gorgeous place.
Thanks, Captain Obvious.
I was counting on plenty of ooooh-and-aaaah scenery during my 10-day adventure—planned by Monique van Dijk-Seppola of longtime NTA-member Scandinavia Tours—but this beautiful country, with its rugged mountains, captivating fjords, and miles and miles of coastline, far exceeded my expectations.
The point was particularly brought home during a tour in Bergen at Troldhaugen, the house museum of renowned composer Edvard Grieg. I saw period furnishings, personal artifacts, and other things typically found in a historical home, and a bonus was a piano concert featuring Grieg classics.
Somewhere during “Once Upon a Time,” my eyes drifted past pianist Rune Alver to the wall of windows behind the stage that offered a view of the wooded hillside and Nordås Lake. I was struck by the fact that, even inside this quaint concert hall, I was still able to experience the natural splendor.
You see, Norway’s beauty is always right there.
Lillehammer and those majestic mountains
In Norway, if you draw breath, you get outside and enjoy winter. That idea is born of necessity—as the country knows its way around snowy winter days and chilly temperatures—but part of that is also just how Norwegians roll.
That ethos was on display right away, as Monique opened our action-packed and well-paced February tour with a showshoe trek and a dog sledding experience at the Spidsbergseter Resort Rondane. It was a crisp, sunny day when we put on our snowshoes, and the peaceful 90-minute journey on the mountain was magical.
After a break for lunch, it was time for dog sledding. While I am pretty scared of dogs—bad experience as a child—mushing across the tundra of the national park behind the skilled team of canines was a treat.
@ntacourier writer Pat Henderson gets a real taste of winter with @moniquelouisevds of @scandinaviatours. Highlights include dogsledding @spidsbergseter , @hunderfossen_eventyrpark ice castle, snowshoeing, @maihaugen historical village, Lillehammer, and tobogganing @olympiaparken . #norway #adventure #travel #tour #tourism #adventuretravel
Next up was Lillehammer. Located in the mountains (are you noticing a theme yet?), this city seamlessly blends a quaint, ski-village vibe with an urban sensibility. Based on fond memories of watching the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, I had been looking forward to exploring it.
Lucky for me, one of the attractions we visited was the Norwegian Olympic Museum. It tells the story of the 1994 games, as well as when Oslo hosted the Winter Games in 1952, and is chock-full of exhibits with memorabilia and equipment pertaining to the country’s many Olympic heroes.
The museum is located on the grounds of another of the city’s top attractions, Maihaugen. This living-history park, which includes more than 200 relocated buildings, offers many snapshots of Norwegian life across the centuries.
I particularly enjoyed a re-enactor presentation about daily life in rural Norway in the late 1930s and seeing the Garmo stave church in the museum’s open-air section. Originally constructed in the early 1200s, the church was carefully dismantled and later reassembled at Maihaugen in 1921.
We also visited Hunderfossen Winterpark and enjoyed a tasty farm-fresh meal in one of the group dining rooms. The grounds were bustling on a Friday night with performances and activities (most were geared for pre-teens). The colors and craftsmanship at the ice castle, which included an altar, various sculptures, and four bedrooms that accommodated overnight guests, were amazing.
The next morning before we left Lillehammer, Monique had one more snowy adventure in store: tobogganing at the Olympic Center. Willing participants can head up the mountainside via tow rope and then zoom to the bottom at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.
Just like the snowshoeing and dog sledding, the activity made me feel like a kid again, and I loved it!
Captivating coastal Bergen
I’d heard a lot about Bergen from two of my siblings, who had visited as part of cruises they’d taken over the past decade. I’m a sucker for any place that combines the mountains and ocean, and this charming spot along Norway’s western coast did a fine job of delivering both.
We stayed in the waterfront district, Bryggen, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The colorful local guide for our walk around the historical area regaled us with tales of how the shipping industry allowed the city to become the nation’s economic hub starting in the 14th century. The tour concluded with a ride up to Mount Fløyen, which offers panoramic views of Bryggen, the more modern city center, the surrounding mountains, and the outlying islands.
We closed our brief but excellent 30 hours in Bergen with the aforementioned visit to Troldhaugen. The concert was great, and equally enjoyable was being able to roam the grounds of this beautiful hilltop house museum.
A side note, but the staffers at the Clarion Hotel Havnekontoret were amazing. They were so hospitable and paid incredible attention to detail. They put us in two of their well-appointed suites, which spoke volumes about how much they value relationships with their tour operator partners like Monique.
Fantasticness in fjord-y Flåm
I won’t say Monique saved the best for last, but the final stretch of the trip in the Flåm area was a real highlight. This UNESCO-recognized region includes picture-perfect fjords, colorful communities, and jagged peaks.
We began our exploration at the Gudvangen Viking Village. Our clever costumed guide delivered a thorough history lesson on the life and times of the marauding Vikings who settled here as far back as the 11th century.
Next, we boarded Future of the Fjords, the first all-electric vessel to be used for sightseeing boat tours, for the ride to Flåm. (You can read more about the cutting-edge, eco-friendly vessel here.) The ship cut a winding path between the snow-capped peaks of Nærøyfjord, and even the nip in the air couldn’t keep me from taking more than 100 photos as the sun was going down in this fairy-tale setting.
The following morning was bittersweet, as Monique and I exchanged a few last laughs at breakfast before we parted ways. Spending more than a week showing me around Norway had put her a little behind on the regular tasks it takes to run a tour operator business, so I was on my own.
The final stretch of Pat’s epic Norwegian adventure with Scandinavia Tours includes a boat ride through Nærøyfjord, a snowshoeing tour in the Aurlandfjord area, a ride on the famous Flåm Railway, and a free day exploring Oslo. #norway #fjord #adventure #adventuretravel #travel pic.twitter.com/HcIhhlLN5g— NTA Courier (@NTAcourier) February 24, 2020
My day consisted of another snowshoeing tour—this one through the tree-laden Aurlandfjord area—and a ride on the famous Flåm Railway. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s most scenic train excursions, the ride from Flåm to Myrdal was an hour of neck-craning goodness as I tried to catch each spectacular view along the way.
Oslo, and a fitting final act of hospitality
After catching a different train to Oslo, I spent my final full day on a self-guided walk around Norway’s capital city that took me to Parliament, the Oslo Cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Nobel Peace Center, the Munch Museum, and Ekeberg Sculpture Park.
I’d tried to go on a tour of the Oslo Opera House, a stunning building set on the waterfront, but the tour in English was sold out. I noticed that “Madama Butterfly” was playing that night, but there were no tickets left for that, either.
All my years of going to sporting events and concerts led me to think someone might have an extra ticket nearer to show time, so after all my walking I headed to the stately Opera House a half hour before the first curtain.
When I inquired at the box office, they gave me a mobile number to text about a ticket. The woman who met me in the lobby said she had an extra seat by hers. I think my story of “first time in Norway, just hoping to see a show” struck a chord with her, and she gave me the ticket for free.
“Madama Butterfly” was brilliant, and after the cast took its bows, my new local friend and I exchanged goodbyes and hugs (still OK at that point). When I thanked her again for her generosity, she smiled broadly and said, “It was my pleasure; I’m glad you enjoyed the show.”
That genuineness, and her gesture, was a fitting final example of the wonderful hospitality I’d experienced throughout my Norwegian adventure.
A special thanks to Scandinavia Tours’ Monique van Dijk-Seppola and her excellent network of local partners who made this unforgettable 10-day adventure possible. Contact her via email or go to scandinaviatours.no to learn more.
Top photo: Lakeside vista at Troldhaugen in Bergen
Photos by Pat Henderson