Cruising through Norway’s narrowest fjord, navigating more than a dozen dizzying switchbacks on a drive down one of the country’s steepest roads, hurtling through innumerable tunnels on Northern Europe’s highest railway and speeding past gushing waterfalls and icy tongued glaciers. Sounds like an advertisement for an adventure expedition, right? Actually, it’s the one day Norway In A Nutshell tour. Showcasing the best of Norway’s landscapes in one single day, the tour sounds ambitious, but in fact it’s a brilliant concept. Literally hundreds of thousands of travelers sign up for it each year, thanks to Fjord Tours, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2012.
Here’s the basic idea: From Oslo (the capital), Bergen (Norway’s second-largest city) or Voss, visitors embark on a cruise through the narrowest arms of the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest, a luxury bus ride through the countryside and three separate train trips. If the pace sounds relentless, it’s not. There is a sense of moving onward but also countless opportunities to relax, linger over lunch or coffee, stroll through shops and small museums and chat with fellow adventurers.
What’s more, there’s flexibility. The tour operates year round and while spring and summer are the most popular, some travelers prefer the fall colors or winter’s hushed beauty. Travel can be round trip or one way. You can return in a day or overnight in one or more of the various towns en route. The company’s Fjord Pass offers deep discounts on white-water rafting, sea kayaking and museum visits as well as reduced rates for Avis rental cars and 150 select hotels. Or, you’re free to choose your own hotel.
Well-wrought combination packages ramp up this adventure. Of a sampling of eight fjord tours, the popular Hurtigruten & Norway in a Nutshell combo adds a four day cruise up Norway’s fjord-indented west coast from Bergen to Trondheim, the legendary Viking capital, with the famed Hurtigruten cruise line, which marked its 120th anniversary in 2012. Sign up for the rail and cycle tour, “In the Navvies’ Footsteps,” and you’ll bike 16 miles along the storied 50-mile Rallarvegen mountain road used by early railroad workers. On Fjord Tours’ “Norway by Car,” choose from a range of auto tours covering the astounding terrain throughout the country.
After a couple days in Oslo, I decide on the classic one day Norway In A Nutshell tour from Bergen, a 50 minute flight west on SAS. Once checked into the Clarion Hotel Havnekontoret, I whip out my Bergen Card and do a bit of sightseeing. Steps from the hotel is Bergen’s major landmark, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bryggen, a colorful row of gabled wooden houses where 14th century Hanseatic merchants dried cod for shipment throughout Europe. Riding the Fløibanen funicular up Mt. Fløyen, I take in fabulous views of the city, at the confluence of several fjords and surrounded by seven mountains. At the harborside fish market, I sample Bergen’s signature fish chowder, creamy and bristling with fresh seafood.
The next morning, I leave the train station for the tour’s first leg, the hour long train trip aboard the Bergen Line from Bergen to Voss. Stretching from Oslo to Bergen, the Bergen Line was an engineering marvel when it opened in 1909. Some 15,000 Swedish migrant rail workers, called Navvies, blasted through sheer rocky heights and stretched trestles and tunnels across rivers and deep gorges. Half of the route is composed of tunnels, so there’s an exhilarating feeling as you emerge into light to catch a blue sliver of fjord or a green patch of hummocky hillside then disappear into darkness only to emerge again into blinding light and glimpse some new part of the landscape—a farm, a rushing river, a foaming waterfall. It’s like watching vacation slides on an old View-Master, only better.
An hour later the train pulls into Voss. In a wide valley surrounded by mountains, Voss is the site of the 13th century Vangskrykja church and other medieval landmarks. Rail buffs know Voss as the home of chief forester Hans A.T. Gløersen who somehow convinced a reluctant nation to undertake the difficult task of building the Bergen Line, linking Norway’s two greatest cities and giving Oslo quicker, easier access to the North Sea. Boyhood home of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, Voss is now the site of an extreme sports festival in June that showcases activities like bungee-jumping, paragliding and base-jumping. And Voss is a center of Norwegian folk music and site of the spring Vossa Jazz festival. Here, too, is historic Fleischer’s, a sprawling gabled and turreted resort hotel where Norway’s King Haakon VII inaugurated the Bergen Line.
Some travelers have booked overnight stays at Fleischer’s and plan to spend the day visiting Voss’s sights. But, within minutes of arriving in Voss, most of us are on to our next adventure. Boarding a large white luxury tour bus, I see for the first time my fellow “Nutshellers”: young couples with backpacks, a few older couples and some families with kids. We’re soon chatting and comparing notes on our travels. I like the camaraderie but I also enjoy the independence that Norway In A Nutshell offers. With no tour leader and no company embossed bags or floppy hats, you’re free to reach out to anyone, whether on the tour or not, whether American or foreign. Or you can savor the passing landscape in blissful solitude.
On the hour-long ride from Voss to Gudvangen we pass farms and meadows, hillsides and waterfalls. The climax is the Stalheimskleiva Highway, Northern Europe’s steepest road, with 13 precipitous switchbacks. The “Skleiva” is so high and narrow that the driver painstakingly inches his way down the mountain. Considering the deep gullies looming below us, it’s both exciting and nerve wracking. Finally, we reach the gateway to Gudvangen, a heart-shaped valley so idyllic that you expect to see shepherd boys and girls in traditional Norwegian garb emerge from the shadows with goats or sheep in tow.
At Gudvangen, our next conveyance awaits: a great white tour boat bound for Western Norway’s fjord country. Tracing a route that’s shaped like a wishbone, the ship will head northeast through the Nærøyfjord, the Sognefjord’s narrowest arm and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, then southwest down the narrow Aurlandsfjord. Bypassing the cafeteria on the enclosed middle deck, I head for the upper. Within minutes we’re steaming through a narrow waterway bound by crystalline rock cliffs nearly a mile high. Atop the cliffs are small farms, now mostly abandoned. Far below, a man paddles a red kayak as pinkish-gray harbor porpoises leap through the clear blue waters and seals bask on shoreline rocks. Periodically, the captain announces coastal sights, such as one of Norway’s smallest churches, or the hamlet of Undredal, where the country’s famous goat cheese is made.
Around 1:30 we cruise into Flåm for a 2 ½-hour layover. I’ve met two Dutch women, members of an international trekking society, and am looking forward to hearing about their travels over a leisurely lunch. But the intrepid pair has other ideas, and we’re soon hiking in the foothills above Flåm. From only 50 feet above the harbor, the views are splendid. Below us is a small beach, places to rent bicycles and kayaks, and several souvenir and sweater shops. I poke through the Flåmsbana museum’s quirky exhibits: pickaxes and wheelbarrows, an old-time schoolroom, photos of stationmasters and several old train cars. There are nearly a dozen cafés and restaurants here, including a few at the Ægir Brewery and several at the 121-room Hotel Fretheim, a long white frame establishment built in 1870. But after all my explorations, I only have enough time to grab a pølse, a plump and flavorful Norwegian hot dog.
By 4 p.m., we’re aboard the forest green Flåm Railway. A branch line of the Bergen Railway and an engineering marvel when completed in 1944, the Flåm Railway is Northern Europe’s steepest normal-gauge railway, reaching an altitude of half a mile at Myrdal. Offering glimpses of fabulous scenery and manmade attractions like the red and white Vatnahalsen Hotel, it passes through 20 tunnels, most of them hand-carved. The highlight is a stop at Kjosfossen waterfall, a broad and powerful cascade dropping 300 feet from its rocky heights.
At Myrdal station, we pass the hour long wait at the Café Rallaren. It’s a lively place, with ski poles and other memorabilia adorning the walls, and packed with both Norwegians and foreigners laughing and chattering over drinks, with salmon, schnitzel and pancakes with sour cream and jam. Soon on a modern double-decker train to Oslo, we continue on the Bergen Line to Finse, Norway’s highest railway station, and begin crossing the Hardangervidda, northern Europe’s biggest high mountain plateau and part of a national park that’s home to the continent’s largest herd of wild reindeer as well as arctic foxes, snowy owls and other critters. On the one side rise the Langfjellene Mountains in the distance; on the other, extends the glistening Hardanger-Jøkulen glacier, Norway’s sixth largest, from which skiers make a procession to Finse on Norway’s Constitution Day, May 17. Punctuated by lakes and glaciers, the landscape looks like a great icy prairie, vast and treeless.
When the train pulls into Oslo’s Central Station 5 ½ hours later, it’s nearly 10:30 p.m. After 14 hours on the road, I should be weary. Incredibly, I’m not. The sight of all those dramatic landscapes has energized me. Striding through the station, I hold my head a bit higher. Along with wonderful memories, Norway In A Nutshell has left me with a deep sense of accomplishment. Maybe I’m not in the same league as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, first to reach the South Pole, but I’ve just survived a sightseeing marathon, lived to tell the tale and loved every single minute of it.
The country code for Norway is 47.
Where to Stay:
Clarion Collection Hotel Havnekontoret – Steps from Bryggen wharf, this was the grand headquarters of a Bergen shipping magnate. Slottsgaten 1, Bryggen, Bergen, 55-60-11-00. www.choicehotels.no
Fleischer’s Hotel – This many-gabled, 115 room establishment is where King Haakon VII inaugurated the Bergen Line in 1909. Evangervegen 13, Voss, 56-52-05-00. www.fleischers.no
Hotel Fretheim – Another grand hotel along the Bergen Line, it prides itself on serving farm fresh food. 5743 Flåm, 57-63-63-00. www.fretheimhotel.no
Vatnahalsen Hotel – High above the Flåm Railway, it offers 40 rooms in the main building (plus 10 in a former rail workers’ barracks), plus a restaurant, bar and lounge with dance floor. Vatnahalsen Høyfjellshotell, Myrdal, 57-63-37-22. www.vatnahalsen.no
Where to Eat and Drink:
Enhjørningen - Cozy as grandma’s with crooked wood floors, gilt-framed paintings on powder pink walls and some of the best seafood in town. Bryggen 29, Bergen, 55-30-69-50. www.enhjorningen.no
Ægir Brewery – Offering hand-crafted beers and innovative beer infused dishes. Flåmsbrygga, Flåm, 57-63-20-50. www.flamsbrygga.no
Café Rallaren - A casual place for Norwegian favorites, with skis on the walls, and carved wood furniture. 5718 Myrdal, 57-63-37-56. www.caferallaren.no
What to Do:
Norway In A Nutshell - The quintessential full day tour of Norway’s fjords and countryside. Offices in Oslo, Bergen, Voss and Flam. 81-56-82-22. www.fjordtours.com