Norway is one of the most scenic, hospitable and peaceful countries in the world. There are two primary travel experiences: The first is a cruise along its island-dotted, fjord-indented coastline. The second is the one that I made last summer: a two-week mix of land- and sea-based adventures. The trip allowed us to take our time and to chat with the friendly locals — almost all of whom speak perfect English — as well as to get off the beaten track to view landscapes of unique and unmarred beauty. We also stayed in some well-run and spectacularly located hotels and made delicious discoveries while sampling the inventive restaurant scene. Norway is not only a very wealthy country — due to its massive oil reserves — but also a sophisticated one. Since the beginning of the oil boom in the 1970s, the Norwegians have developed a discerning taste for luxury and comfort, which is complemented by the purity and simplicity of Scandinavian design.
We began our journey in Oslo, the country’s capital and largest city, then traveled to Bergen by train, visited that city and the surrounding region, continued north from Bergen to Alesund via an overnight voyage on the famous Hurtigruten shipping and cruise line and then explored Alesund and its environs by car and ship for several days. Though this itinerary may sound ambitious, it is very easy and comfortable to travel in Norway since excellent roads, a small but impressive rail network and an excellent system of coastal steamers and ferries link the country together.
We traveled in mid-June, which is perhaps the ideal time of the year, since the countryside is bright with wildflowers and the waterfalls are still powerful torrents fed by snowmelt, but the high-season crowds of July and August have yet to arrive. After September, many museums and other attractions reduce their hours, and the transport systems switch to a less-frequent service.
Located at the head of the Oslofjord, a long, craggy inlet in the southeast of the country, Oslo is an attractive green city with a spectacular setting and splendid museums. You should plan to spend at least four nights to sample all it has to offer. Oslo is in the midst of a major urban makeover that has adorned it with some striking modern architecture, notably the Oslo Opera House, which has contributed to the transformation of the Bjørvika, a formerly rundown industrial district on the waterfront. Designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta (architects of New York City’s National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion), this dramatic $700 million building of intersecting planes and sloping stone surfaces has become the forerunner of additional avant-garde projects. Other cultural institutions now under construction include a new National Gallery, a new museum devoted to the works of painter Edvard Munch and a new home for the Deichman Library, which contains books in some 35 languages.
The other much-talked about neighborhood revitalization scheme is Tjuvholmen, or Thief Island, so named because it used to be a honky-tonk district frequented by sailors (and later an execution ground for thieves). Now it has been completely rebuilt and is home to both the Astrup Fearnley Museum, a collection of modern art housed in a striking building designed by Renzo Piano, and the 118-room The Thief hotel.
Occupying a modern building overlooking a canal but set back from the waterfront, The Thief is a friendly, well-run boutique property popular with the city’s smart set as well as a weekend-away destination for Norwegians and other Scandinavians. On arrival, the welcome was friendly, and the hotel immediately established its arty credentials with a canvas by Richard Price in the lobby, art videos in the elevators and several Warhols on the walls of the THIEF FOODBAR restaurant. There we enjoyed an excellent lunch of shellfish tartare with scallops and pickled fennel, and butter-roasted turbot with baked Jerusalem artichokes. (The Thief also has a gastronomic restaurant, Fru K, that serves contemporary Norwegian cooking.)
Upstairs, our Deluxe Room came with a partial sea view through sliding glass doors that led to a small private balcony. The interior contained contemporary furniture designed by a raft of well-known international designers including Tom Dixon and Patricia Urquiola. Oak parquet floors, a gray-and-gold headboard by B&B Italia, a down duvet and Norwegian-made woolen blankets by Røros Tweed all contributed to a mood that was agreeably serene. Additional amenities included an espresso maker, a sound system with docking station and thick wool slippers. Overall, the room was well-lit and very comfortable, if a little small. The white marble bath with a separate tub and rainfall shower was well-designed, and the lighting was excellent throughout.
Overall, The Thief is a very pleasant hotel, but I found it slightly puzzling that it has been so lionized by the mainstream American travel magazines. Even for Oslo, it is expensive, and its location is slightly inconvenient for sightseeing.
The contemporary art in the public spaces; the rooftop bar (summer only); the excellent breakfast buffet.
The location isn’t ideal, and, for the money, the rooms are small.
The food stalls on the waterfront near the hotel are great for a light lunch on a sunny day.
We liked the 155-room Hotel Continental from the moment we arrived. This handsome, family-owned hotel has a central location and is within an easy walk of the city’s main attractions. It comprises an original Belle Epoque stone building and a contemporary annex, and it has recently been renovated and completely redecorated. The British firm RPW Design found a way to respect the property’s traditional aspects — for example, leaving its collection of Munch lithographs in the lobby — while making it more modern with streamlined furniture, stylish glass table lamps and earth-tone colors accented by acid-tone throw pillows. The hotel dates to 1900 and is renowned locally for its beautiful art nouveau Theatercaféen bar and restaurant, which serves a delicious comfort-food menu.
Although the Hotel Continental has some superb suites with sea views, we settled for a good-value Deluxe Room, which came with a sitting area, ample closet space and a handsome bath with two sinks set in a black stone counter and a combined shower and tub. From an efficient concierge to the cheerful chambermaids, the staff were consistently outstanding. We would definitely stay here again on a future visit to Oslo.
Spacious, comfortable, attractively decorated rooms; the fine breakfast buffet; the central location.
Dining room staff talking over the heads of guests as though they were not there.
The Theatercaféen, the beautiful art nouveau café at the hotel, serves excellent light meals.
The Bergensbanen, a 310-mile rail line connecting Oslo and Bergen, is spectacularly scenic and one of the most popular rail journeys in Europe. Tickets need to be booked as far in advance as possible, as they frequently sell out during the summer. Since it is a seven-hour journey, we went to Mathallen, Oslo’s indoor food market, to shop for a picnic before the departure of our train at noon. There we bought bread, smoked salmon, shrimp salad, cheese, fruit and a bottle of Riesling in a cold sleeve. We boarded with the daily newspapers, magazines and books, but we barely glanced at any of them, as the landscapes seen from the train had a hypnotizing beauty. Built between 1875 and 1909, the line climbs to an altitude of 4,000 feet and passes through 182 tunnels before descending to the Atlantic coast. Seven hours may sound interminable, but in fact the journey went by almost too fast.
Bergen was founded in A.D. 1070 and has a spectacular setting, with green misty mountains providing a backdrop to a pretty little port. Its enduring personality as a busy, outward-looking trading town is explained by the fact it was once part of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their respective ports that was founded in the 13th century.
Alas, though Bergen is a delightful place and the jumping-off point for a variety of adventures, the city’s hotels are unimpressive. After a disappointing night at the Augustin Hotel, we moved to the 37-room Det Hanseatiske Hotel, which occupies several 18th-century wooden houses in the Bryggen, the historic UNESCO-listed port district. Today the harbor is used by pleasure craft and ferries, since the large ships have moved farther away. To be happy here, I suggest booking a Deluxe Room or a Suite; Standard Rooms can be dark. Our Deluxe Room came with exposed beams in a varnished wood ceiling, parquet floors, a velvet upholstered couch, a bed with a black leather headboard and a bath with a claw-foot soaking tub and separate shower.
The hotel provides a very good breakfast buffet, and the snug, book-lined FG Bar, with leather Chesterfield sofas, is an agreeable spot for a drink before or after dinner. But the hotel’s three restaurants are not recommended: There are much better places to eat in the city, from a simple but very fresh seafood meal at the Torget (fish market) to the excellent modern Norwegian bistro Lysverket, which is run by chef Christopher Haatuft, who formerly cooked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City.
The convenient location.
Rooms can be dark due to small windows.
None of the hotel’s three restaurants merit a meal.
On this trip, we took water rather than land transportation whenever possible, since almost every ferry in Norway offers a scenic experience. This is why we chose the ferry for the 40-minute boat ride to Os. There, a friendly driver from the 135-room Solstrand Hotel & Bad (“bad” is Norwegian for bath, here referring to the hotel’s spa) was waiting for us on the dockside. The Solstrand turned out to be a collection of mustard-colored wooden buildings with charming gingerbread-style wooden fretwork on their eaves. It was only 10:30 a.m., and the delightful woman at the front desk invited us to have coffee in the lounge or to go for a stroll along the coastal footpath at the bottom of the immaculately groomed garden. We made ourselves comfortable in the lounge, with its beechwood Biedermeier-style furniture, huge picture windows and bookshelves stocked with volumes about Norway. We savored the dozens of shades of gray that composed the view on an overcast morning. We also spent time inspecting the framed photographs on the walls, which told the story of the place. Opened in 1896 by Christian Michelsen, Norway’s first prime minister, the Solstrand quickly became one of the country’s most famous hotels, where affluent Bergen families spent their holidays, honeymoons and anniversaries, also enjoying the added entertainment provided by the fancy folk from Oslo. We had just settled in for a lazy interlude when the front desk clerk reappeared to tell us that our room was ready; clearly, housekeeping had made a big effort, which was much appreciated.
Our suite (#411) in the newer south wing of the hotel came with glorious views over the hotel gardens, the Bjørnafjorden and the distant islands and mountains. A pair of wicker armchairs on the west-facing balcony and another pair just inside the sliding doors had been arranged so that the panorama wouldn’t be obstructed if you were lying in bed. Many details delighted, such as the porthole window over the dressing table, but the small bath with a combination shower and tub was in need of updating. The hotel’s spa — which includes a large indoor swimming pool, sauna and hammam — was state-of-the-art, however. And the menu in the dining room suited the hotel perfectly; we enjoyed an exceptional dinner of creamy shellfish soup, grilled salmon, and blueberry tart.
The Solstrand is attractive, comfortable and has a gorgeous location, but ultimately the best thing about the place is the staff. During our stay, everyone was friendly, spontaneous, alert and eager to please, and as a result the hotel had a delightfully relaxed and homey atmosphere. It was a wrench to leave, but this is a place to which I definitely intend to return.
The magnificent location; the friendly and accommodating staff; the splendid spa.
Dining hours are rather brief, and transfers to ferry or bus station aren’t included in the room rate.
The front desk of the hotel has maps for three different self-guided hiking expeditions. Kayaks can also be rented at the hotel.
After a memorable day spent touring the surrounding area we boarded a Hurtigruten ship for an overnight passage to Alesund. The Hurtigruten line was founded in 1893 to link remote communities along Norway’s long western coastline with a passenger service as well as freight and mail deliveries. Recently these ships have been upgraded, and they are now popular with foreign visitors (read about our Hurtigruten cruise). Alesund is a snug little port of art nouveau buildings — much of the old town burned down in 1904 — approximately 260 miles north of Bergen, which was long known as the salt cod capital of the world. Today, people go to Alesund because it is the gateway to Norway’s most spectacular fjord district.
Arriving early in the morning, we picked up a rental car and headed to the 27-room Hotel Union Øye via ferries from Solavågen to Festøya and then Sæbø to Urke, a tranquil 2½-hour journey. (Direct boat transfers to the hotel are also offered by 62°NORD, a local travel agency that also arranges a variety of adventures, including a sea wildlife safari.) Set back from the long, narrow Hjørundfjord, the Hotel Union Øye is a clapboard structure with gingerbread fretwork, trimmed gables and balconies and a fascinating history. At the end of the 19th century, wealthy Europeans were in search of new destinations of great natural beauty, and in 1891 the Hotel Union Øye opened to cater to the demand. As the guest book reveals, the hotel was exceptionally successful, attracting such clients as Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany along with famous names like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Henrik Ibsen.
The three-story hotel has been completely restored, and today each individually decorated room carries the name of one of its famous occupants. Almost all the accommodations have four-poster beds; none has a television or telephone, since the idea is to re-create the gentle rhythms of 19th-century leisure. Our room was decorated with heavy wallpaper, swagged damask curtains, wood-framed armchairs and a chest of drawers; the small bath provided a roomy stall shower and Victorian fixtures. Overall, it was quite comfortable, but we preferred to relax in the spacious main lounge. Dinner was served by waitresses wearing traditional Norwegian dress, and we thoroughly enjoyed a simple but delicious meal of scallop chowder and roast lamb. Afterward in the lounge, one of the waitresses recounted the history of the hotel and its legends while guests examined such curiosities as the queen of Holland’s walking stick and one of Karen Blixen’s hiking boots. A stay at the Hotel Union Øye is not just an experience of magnificent scenery, but also a sepia-toned journey into the past.
The spectacular setting; the strong sense of history.
Noise travels easily in this vintage wooden building.
In season, there is a chartered boat service from Alesund to Øye available through 62°NORD (62.no).
Following an excellent breakfast the following morning, we drove south through the Norangsdal valley to the little town of Hellesylt. There we caught the ferry to Geiranger, a magical hour-long journey along the Geirangerfjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had booked this passage in advance, since it is extremely popular during the summer months. The trip takes in the Knivsflå waterfalls and also passes close to the Brudesløret (“Bridal Veil”) falls.
After a lunch of roast salmon with scallion pasta at the Hotel Union Geiranger, we drove north and followed the scenic road 650 to the Storfjord Hotel in Skodje. This 23-room property overlooking its namesake fjord and the Sunnmøre Alps first opened in 2006 and was completely renovated in 2013. Inspired by traditional Norwegian farm architecture, it has log walls and a turf roof. We had reserved a fjord-view Superior Deluxe Double room with a private balcony, which came with a king-size four-poster bed, parquet floors and a sitting area. Wool throws and vases of wildflowers lent the room a homey touch. The bright bath was equipped with a claw-foot tub and a separate shower. A four-course dinner is offered daily, and the changing menu relies on local produce. We began with a salad of tiny, sweet local shrimp; followed by a cod steak in herb sauce; a selection of excellent local cheeses; and crème caramel with blueberries. Our only regret about our stay was that we’d booked for just a single night.
The experience of rustic Norwegian-style luxury.
Not having had the time to go helicopter sightseeing.
This hotel is also a winter destination, since the nearby Stranda ski resort is often named as the best in Northern Europe.
Returning to Alesund, we checked into the 47-room Hotel Brosundet, a former fish-packing plant overlooking the Brosundet canal. This successful conversion is another example of the work of Oslo’s award-winning Snøhetta architectural studio. The guest rooms derive their character from the huge exposed wooden beams of the original building and come with oak parquet floors and stylish contemporary furniture. Baths are separated from the main living area by frosted glass and provide soaking tubs and rainfall showers. Since Double Rooms are small, I advise booking a Junior Suite with Sea View.
The hotel’s Restaurant MAKI — which features contemporary Norwegian cooking with an emphasis on seafood — is extremely popular, so it is essential to reserve a table. After dinner, you might want to stop by the bar to try some Norwegian aquavit or new local digestif Marka, a bracingly bitter concoction made from dandelion, bog myrtle and angelica root.
Charming staff; the excellent restaurant.
Rooms are relatively small.
Anyone looking for a unique experience might want to book Room 47, which is in the converted Molja Lighthouse, a 15-minute walk from the hotel.
Alesund itself is an attractive place with a population of 45,000 inhabitants. The town has a number of museums, notably The Fisheries Museum, which explains the history of the salt-cod trade; The Art Nouveau Centre; and the Aalesunds Museum. The latter is devoted to the history of the town and includes fascinating exhibits about life during the Nazi occupation, plus a tiny submarine in which some locals crossed the Atlantic to land on a beach near Boston!
The only consolation at the end of our memorable trip was that we had visited barely a third of Norway. So, we hope to have several future occasions on which to explore other areas of this spectacular and exceptionally hospitable country.