Earlier this year, Norway took my breath away with its over-saturated scenery, impressed me with its immaculate hospitality, and wrapped me up in its stunning panoramic views, enchanting me to an unprecedented level best described as elation.
Interestingly, if you’d asked me a year ago where I wanted to vacation, Norway would not have been at the top of the list. In fact, it wouldn’t have even been listed. Why? For lack of knowledge, really. That, and a strong aversion to cold weather. Even when my husband and I booked our trip to Norway this year, I had to make an effort to get excited about a destination where the outdoors is the attraction.
The trip to this particular Nordic country was actually the result of a compromise with my husband. He wanted to visit Norway. I? The Mediterranean. We decided to take a long summer trip and split our vacation days in these two diverse areas. Boy, am I glad we did. Spoiler alert: my favorite half of the trip was our time in Norway.
We spent 12 days exploring the captivating Scandinavian country. Our method of travel? Princess Cruises’ beautiful Ruby Princess.
Never did we imagine the overwhelmingly stunning experience we were in for. No matter the village or city we visited, the setting was pristine. It was cold (freezing, by my standards) everywhere we went, yet the warmth and friendliness with which every Norwegian we encountered greeted us made up for the air temperature. Clear signage, from street signs leading us to attractions and tourist information booths to red “T’s” painted on tree trunks throughout hiking paths, led the way so efficiently that we never went astray.
Norway is not a first-world country. No, Norway is above that. I designated it ‘first world plus.’ Of course, the prices reflect this. Vacationing in Norway costs a pretty penny (think water bottles priced at $7 in non-tourist areas). But, if you ask me, the price tag is worth it. And, if given the opportunity and the good fortune, I’d spend the money again in a heartbeat.
Every place we visited in Norway enthralled us, yet it was these that left us with an extra special impression:
Bergen, the second most populated city (275,00 people) was our first destination in Norway. Spread across a peninsula, the very walkable city is marked by colorful buildings with tall, green mountains towering behind. A five minute bus ride from the port inserted us straight into the city center. There, we ran into the park in which the octagonal, natural lake Lille Lungegårdsvann offers beautiful reflections of the city’s landscape. From there, we trekked on to the retail area of the city’s center, where high fashion clothing stores abounded.
But we weren’t there to see clothing, we were there with one mission in mind: to hike up Mount Fløyen, one of the seven mountains surrounding the city. The hiking path was quite easily accessible from downtown Bergen, so we quickly began the 1,000 foot hike. Though that’s roughly one fifth of a mile, the hike was a steep one. For our effort, we were rewarded handsomely with a viewpoint that offered panoramic views of colorful Bergen. It was a pleasant, scenic five minute ride on the Fløibanen funicular, rather than our feet, that returned us to the heart of Bergen.
We ended our Bergen adventure with a feast of local beer and freshly-caught salmon at the lively open-air fish market. It was sitting there, feasting and people-watching, that we realized that there is no such thing as an unattractive Norwegian.
A stark contrast to the bustling city of Bergen was the village of Flåm — population 400. Fjords, rather than buildings or mountains, characterize its scenery; it is, after all, located in the heart of the Norwegian fjord country. A few scattered, mostly small building clash with the surrounding emerald green fjords that seem to tower all the way to the heavens. The height and breadth of the fjords is so incredible that looking at them makes you question if you’re looking at some kind of magical illusion. Your mind will signal that it is indeed reality, but that won’t calm the feeling of being in a dream. That feeling remains throughout your visit to Flåm, and it’s a lovely thing.
Though we had originally planned to take a 2.5 hour ride on the Flåm railway — considered by many to be one of the most enticing railway rides in the world — tickets sold out before we were able to purchase a pair. And you know what? At the end of the day, we decided that wasn’t a bad thing. We filled our day with a relaxing walk through the quiet town, a hike up a mountain with a gorgeous waterfall flowing nearby and a visit to the small and extremely cozy Viking-style Ægir Brewery. There, we learned that craft beer tastes best with a fjord in the background.
Life in Geiranger is so civilized and quiet that there are no police in the village, home to just 250 people. But what Geiranger lacks in population, it has in majestic views. Situated at the foot of a tight “alley” of the Geirangerfjord, the small town — which looks Polly Pocket-sized in proportion to its surroundings — is bordered on one side by the deep blue Norwegian Sea and on the other by brightly-hued palatial fjords. It’s another scene you have to see to believe, one of incomparable beauty.
In the town, its handful of long roads either wind, climb, zig-zag, or descend. Walking is an option, but it’s a dangerous and tiring one, with one exception: the Fossevandring waterfall walk, a centerpiece of the Geiranger canvas when looking at the town from sea-level. Some genius built aesthetically-pleasing, slip-resistant stairs (with railings) that follow the path of a rapid-hitting waterfall. As you walk down the stairs, time slips by and a feeling of awe overcomes you, rendering you speechless. The experience is so magnificent that we walked down alongside the waterfall two times in one day.
We spent the other half of the day on the most dizzying bus ride we’ve ever experienced – one that took us to and from the top of Mount Dalsnibba — 4,800 feet above sea level. While we had experienced mild weather and mostly sunny skies while in Geiranger, we were met with dense fog and snow atop Mount Dalsnibba. The sharp change in climate was surreal, as was the white, quiet, empty wonderland that surrounded us there. Had the skies been clear, we would have enjoyed one of the most coveted views in all of Norway. Either way, we were happy, albeit dizzy, campers.
Honningsvåg, the northernmost town on mainland Norway, was a quaint little spot where life seemed to move slowly. Its main attraction was a church built in 1885 that was one of the few surviving buildings in the area after World War II. Its antiquity impressed, and so did its warmth — much needed on the cold, windy, rainy day that we visited.
Most notably, Honningsvåg served as a gateway to NordKapp (the North Cape).
The North Cape is a 1,000 foot cape where a large plateaued area serves as an impressive lookout to what seems like the end of the world. It is best known for being the perfect spot to catch the midnight sun but on this occasion, our departure time didn’t allow for a midnight sun viewing. Regardless, the view and the feeling of standing at the edge of the cape was thrilling.
The last stop on our Norwegian cruise was Stavanger, the third largest city in Norway. In an effort to spend our last few Norwegian Krones, we went inside the Stavanger Cathedral, not knowing what to expect. Built in 1125, the cathedral experienced heavy damage after a fire in 1272. Repairs were made and the cathedral remained mostly intact until a major renovation in the 1860’s. By no means did the cathedral look decrepit, despite its age. On the contrary, the cathedral exuded an incredible glow that was full of life. It exhibited some of the most ornate, dazzling and large-scale woodwork I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
Stavanger Cathedral was not the only old element of Stavanger. On the west side of Stavanger’s main harbor lies an area of the city known as Gamle Stavanger, an area characterized by cobblestone roads and immaculate, bright white clapboard houses with white picket fences and colorful gardens. The homes are the original structures and offer spectacular views of the rest of the harbor, strongly marked by its modern buildings.
It was the perfect fairytale ending to the most captivating vacation of our lives.