Exploring the Natural Wonders of Norway

August 14, 2013 by

Europe, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Running from spruce forests in the south past countless lakes, mountain peaks, glaciers, fjords and island archipelagos all the way to the Arctic Circle, Norway is blessed with awesome natural beauty combined with plenty of indigenous wildlife in thousands of hectares of wilderness. As custodian of all this loveliness, this land of Northern Lights and midnight sun has created 43 national parks and safeguards its assets fiercely.

Oslo

It’s simple to escape into the raw beauty of the countryside from Oslo; just take a two-hour cruise deep into Oslofjord for a perfect introduction to the majesty of Norway’s landscape. You can also enjoy peerless views of the city’s waterfront and its striking new opera house on a mini cruise of Oslo. North of the city, hop on metro Line 1 to Frognerseteren on the fringes of Nordmarka, a tranquil wilderness of spruce and pine covered forested hills reaching up to 2,300 ft (700 m) just 20 minutes from the city center.

Skiing in Nordmarka

Skiing in Nordmarka. Photo credit: Pål Nordseth via Flickr.

Nordmarka is especially beautiful on crisp winter days when the sun glints off fresh snowfalls and the region becomes the winter playground of Oslo, with cross-country skiers cutting swathes through the snow-covered woodland tracks or skaters dancing across frozen lakes. In summer swim, hire a kayak, fly fish for char and trout, or hike and cycle the way-marked trails. Wooden cabins for overnight stays and a few cafés are scattered through the forest; the spectacular Holmenkollen ski jump and museum are within walking distance at Kongeveien.

Bergen

To the north of Oslo, Bergen was the ancient capital of Norway and is rightly regarded as the gateway to the fjords; if you’re using the city as a base for exploration, you can feast on fresh seafood along the waterfront at Vågen and explore the multi-colored UNESCO-listed gabled wooden warehouse, workshops and town houses along the Bryggen wharf, built by Hanseatic League traders from Germany, England and Belgium between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Explore things to do in Bergen

Fjords

Hardangerfjord

Hardangerfjord. Photo credit: Victor Velez via Flickr.

South of Bergen, the majesty of Hardangerfjord inspired Edvard Grieg to compose To Spring as it twists and meanders 112 miles (180 km) inland from the Norwegian Sea. As it journeys, so the landscape of the fjord changes; near the coast the waters are shallow and softly sloping hillsides lead down to alluvial plains that provide fertile soils for farming – visit in spring to see the fruit trees blossom. Further inland the drama increases; hills steepen into uncompromising snow-clad mountains and the fjord narrows, culminating in Hardangervidda Mountain Plateau, an upland area strewn with reindeer herds, cycling and hiking paths, and punctuated by the glacier of Hardangerjøkulen.

Ferries criss-cross the fjord, from which the vast waterfall Langfoss hurtles 2,000 feet (612 m) down the cliffside. Other equally spectacular falls can be seen by car or on foot; Eidfjord is the ideal base for walking and cycling tours and is 11 miles (18 km) from Vøringfossen in the Måbødalen valley, which has a drop of 600 feet (182 m) and is Norway’s most famous waterfall. Further south on the Sørfjord branch of Hardangerfjord, the waterfall of Skjeggedalsfoss throws itself 525 feet (160 m) downwards in a series of giant rock steps, while at Steindalsfossen near Norheimsund, a track passes right behind the falls.

Sognefjord is Norway’s longest fjord; lying north of Bergen it cuts 130 miles (209 km) through the Jotunheimen and Jostedalsbreen National Park and lies within reach of glaciers at Austerdalsbreen and Jostedalsbreen, as well as thundering waterfalls at Kvinnafossen, Kjosfossen – only visible from the Flåm railway – and Feigumfossen, on the south side of Lusterfjord. Fjord-side and high mountain driving routes traverse the region, all with viewing points; there are hiking, trekking and cycling trails, kayaking, ski-ing, climbing and glacier-walking facilities, plus salmon fishing on the river Lærdalselva, arranged through the Norwegian Wild Salmon Centre. Side trips from here include the five 12th-century timber-built stave churches in Urnes near Luster, Vik, Kaupanger, Undredal and Borgund. These curious timber buildings look oddly oriental but are unique to Norway and the few areas of Sweden once occupied by Norway.

Higher up the coast, spectacular Nordfjord stretches 60 miles (100 km) to the sea from the foot of Jostedalsbreen glacier, the largest in mainland Europe. The region is a thriving winter-sports destination, with downhill and cross-country facilities, all-year round ski-ing at Stryn and glacier hiking in summer.

North of Nordfjord, the town of Ålesund, famous for its Art Nouveau architecture, stands at the mouth of Storfjord, which leads inland to Norway’s most famous fjord. Geirangerfjord is only 10 miles (16 km) long but it’s over 60 miles (100 km) from the open sea. The tourist-inundated village of Geiranger sits huddled at the top of Geirangerfjord, where bright blue waters reflect the snow-lined peaks and waterfalls run off the green-swathed steep-sided hills. At the epicenter of Norway’s fjord country, it is crowded all year around with visitors taking cruises, cycling, hiking, horseback riding and enjoying beauty of waterfalls such as Sju Søstre and Friaren. Bound on all sides by snow-capped hills and cliffs reaching 5,250 feet (1,600 m), at its narrowest the fjord is only 1,640 feet (500 m) wide but is fully navigable as its depth plummets 4,250 feet (1,295 m) in places; ferries run constantly up and down the fjord between Hellesylt and Geiranger.

See the coastline by land

As well as base for exploring the fjords, Bergen is also the jumping off point for awesome cruises to explore Norway’s elaborately labyrinthine coastline, but for landlubbers there’s another way to travel. Just past Trondheim, Kystriksveien – the Coastal Route RV 17 in English – is an extraordinary road stretching along the fractured coast of Helgeland from Steinkjer to Bodø, running through narrow fjord valleys and spanning glistening sounds over elegant bridges. Hemmed in by the mountains to the east and providing glorious views of thousands of miniscule islets to the west, the 400-mile (644 km) drive requires linking up with six local ferry services. Timetables are available online and at the tourist information center in Steinkjer.

Lofoten Islands

Lofoten Islands. Photo credit: Víctor Vélez via Flickr.

As RV 17 progresses northwards so the scenery mutates from winding steep-sided fjords to coastal-hugging. There are vast sandy beaches at Abelvær and Storvika, mountain trails at Heilhornet and Torghatten, and strange prehistoric cave paintings deep in the Solsem Cave on the island of Leka. Pass the Arctic Circle – 40 per cent of Norway lies north of the Arctic Circle – at Jektvik to walk on ice at the Svartisen glacier or take a boat trip out to the world’s most malevolent maelstrom at Saltstraumen. If you’re visiting in spring, take the ferry from Sleneset to Lovund to see the puffin colony. At the end of the route, ferries from Bodø plow across spectacular Vestfjorden to the Lofoten Islands.

Northern Norway

Hanging off the north-west coast of Norway in Nordland, the Lofoten island archipelago lies within the Arctic Circle but thanks to the Gulf Stream, their winters are relatively mild. Lofoten comprises five sizeable and five tiny islets that appear to rise up like a solid wall from the sea, forming a wildly popular free-climbing destination as well as a hiker’s paradise. To the north, the islands of Vesterålen are largely given over to bird watching and fishing for river trout, salmon and cod as well as hiking and ski-ing right through to Easter; in the 24-hour daylight of summer, sperm whales can sometimes be seen feeding; trips to see them leave from the villages of Andenes and Sto.

Northern Lights in Norway

Northern Lights in Norway. Photo credit: akiwitz via Flickr.

Right at the northernmost tip of Norway, Finnmark is the Norwegian sector of Lapland. It stretches 30,000 sq miles (77,700 sq km) from the Norwegian Sea in the west to the Russian frontier in the east and Finland in the south. The region is inhabited by around 18,000 Sami people, many of whom still lead a traditional life as nomadic reindeer herders. The vast snowy plateau of Finnmarksvidda lies at the heart of the region: visit in winter to spot the Northern Lights – usually visible between September and March – try out dog sledding across snow-covered lakes and rivers, cross-country ski-ing, snowmobiling and ice climbing, or take a sauna in temperatures well below freezing. In summer the sparse plateau vegetation scorches under relentless 24-hour sunshine and it’s time for salmon fishing, bird watching, hiking and cycling along endless trails, or quad biking right up to the Russian border. And if you are visiting in summer, be sure to load up your suitcase with plenty of insect repellent.

 – Sasha Heseltine

, , ,

Comments are closed.