Norway: Europe's Most Unspoiled Country Offers Rich History & Unparalleled Vistas

Europe’s Most Unspoiled Country Offers Rich History and Unparalleled Vistas n1 -A Vacation Experience Way Beyond Our Expectations- For years we’ve looked forward to visiting Norway and considered a cruise, escorted tours, rental cars and public transportation. Depending on your travel preferences all are great options and can be planned quite easily with help your favorite travel agent, or online. After considerable deliberation we finally decided using public transportation would give us more flexibility and best suit our travel style. It was the perfect choice. Join us as we explore the reasons why we consider this trip one of our all-time favorites and why our readers, especially those with even a bit of Scandinavian heritage, should add it to their bucket list. And for a more current Norway connection consider this: Disney’s recent film, Frozen, (based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen) the world’s highest grossing animated movie ever, used Norway’s stunning landscapes as inspiration. n2 Oslo: Scandinavia’s oldest capital, with a rich history and cosmopolitan setting, is the perfect place to start and end a Norwegian sojourn. We made our headquarters at the Thon Panorama Hotel, ideally located downtown near the train station. This boutique style property, like every hotel we experienced, featured a huge, full-breakfast buffet. With a plethora of things to see and do we’d like to recommend buying a VIP Oslo Pass, allowing free entrance into all the top attractions. Rather than list websites for each attraction we urge readers to explore all things Oslo on: History Buffs: shouldn’t miss Viking Ship Museum, home to incredibly preserved Viking ships buried more than 1100 years ago, now uncovered and remarkably restored; Fram Museum highlights the polar expeditions of Fram, the world’s strongest wooden polar expedition ship ever built and still holding the record for sailing farthest toward north and south poles; Kon-Tiki Museum houses original reed rafts, famous for a Thor Heyerdahl expedition and Oscar-winning documentary proving that early man could have mastered sailing before modern navigation inventions arrived; Maritime Museum features historic shipping and fishing displays with a do-not-miss panoramic film about the Norwegian Coast; Norwegian Folk Museum provides an amazing display of many traditional homes, farmhouses and a church from the year 1200; The Medieval Akershus Castle (from 1299), sitting on a bluff overlooking town, has been a royal residence and then a fortress in 1592. Starting in 1637 it was remodeled into a true renaissance castle including magnificent halls and government reception rooms still used today. It also contains the Resistance Museum, documenting the strong Norwegian resistance to the Nazis and the infamous traitor Quisling. Into Royalty? Then don’t miss visiting the Royal Palace (1824-1848) where beautiful stateroom tours are available in summer months, with change-of-the-guards viewable daily at 1:30 P.M. Like beautiful walks or jogs? Here are three wonderful possibilities: Vigeland Park, a massive public park filled with 200 plus sculptures in bronze, granite and cast-iron by famed Norse sculptor, Gustav Vigeland; Ekeberg Park, a recently upgraded, ten-acre high-in-the-hills park featuring sculptures, hiking trails and incredible views of Oslo below; another great stroll is the harbor-side Oslo Opera House which has a rare feature- a white marble ramp-like roof starting at ground level allowing slow winding walks to the highest rooftop point for more incredible city views. Love Art? Then don’t miss the National Gallery, Norway’s largest collection of fine art including Cezanne, Manet and the country’s most famous artist Edvard Munch, with his paintings, Scream and Madonna. A major surprise revelation was City Hall, site of the Nobel Peace Prize Award presentations and also home to some of the most majestic artistic wall tapestries we’ve ever seen. Interested in Skiing or Seeking Adventure? Then don’t pass on heading up to nearby Holmenkollen, site of many world ski-jumping events and home to the world’s oldest Ski Museum and an adrenaline pumping zip-line off their highest ski-jump tower. Dining Faves: Our meals at Karlsborg Restaurant (Ekeberg Park) and Tjuvholmen-Sjomagasin (on the newly developed waterfront) were so creative, they validated our pre-trip research indicating the culinary scene in Oslo as world class. Oslo is really a walk-able city allowing us to hoof-it most of these sites. n3

Lillehammer: We opted for the two hour Dovre Railway’s Komfort Class from Oslo to this famous 1956 Winter Olympics site, the most northern Olympic location ever. The train experience was a wonderful decision as the scenic route along Lake Mjosa, Norway’s largest, provided awesome vistas at nearly every turn. On arrival, we checked into the cozy Clarion Collection Hotel Hammer for two nights in the heart of downtown. Highlights: A visit to the Olympic site and tour of their Olympic Museum was Don’s singular most enjoyable experience in Norway. Hey, he’s still a sports writer at heart! This amazing display representing every Olympic Games, both summer and winter events, was the best and most enthralling we’d ever visited. A chairlift ride up to the top of the ski jump tower, used in the Olympics, provided special thrills as skiers were doing spine tingling practice jumps on the state-of-art porcelain surface utilized in warm weather. Our walk around the Maihaugen Folk Museum, featuring outdoor exhibits (circa 1200-to 1980’s) of over 200 Nordic homes, farmhouses and a church, with young costumed actors performing in some locations, provided an entertaining and educational afternoon.

Dining: Our Lillehammer meals were more casual than Oslo yet provided some excellent comfort type foods. Egon Restaurant, delightfully overlooking the Mesnaelva River, served up a tasty creamy fish soup at lunch and Nikkers Restaurant added a new culinary adventure to our list of exotic choices-a delicious reindeer stew supper.

Trondheim: n4Next on our itinerary was another scenic train ride north to this historic city, founded in 997 by Viking King Olaf and the celebrated capital of Norway until 1217. To thoroughly feel the history of this medieval community you must tour the town, the classic Nidaros Cathedral (the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world) and the adjoining Archbishop’s Palace Museum offering a dazzling display of Crown Regalia and many notable artifacts, some actually excavated at the site. Our brief stay at the modern Clarion Hotel Congress, the newest hotel in Trondheim, provided the best breakfast buffet of the trip with wonderful water views from their rooftop lounge-bar and many rooms. On the culinary front, Havfruen (meaning Mermaid) Restaurant captivated us with a three course dinner fit for gourmands.

Alesund, Loen & Bergen: Arriving first at Alesund, our ultimate superlatives begin! In our eyes this was our trip’s most picturesque town and is stage central for the world’s most beautiful fjord region. Hotel Brosundet, a tastefully remodeled historic warehouse, was a lodging gem. To add luster to your visit consider these activities: walk the 418 steps to the top of Mount Aksla where incredible views of the town, the surrounding islands and distant Sunnmore Alps await; do a walking tour of this fascinating Art Nouveau community and visit their dramatic aquarium, currently expanding into the sea. Also try to arrange a trip out to the fabulous Alnes Lighthouse, one of the most dramatic coastal settings we’ve encountered in eons. Our number one recommendation while in Alesund is to include a Hurtigruten Cruise ship day-excursion or bus ride on treacherous Eagle Road out to see the quaint little town of Geiranger and the majestic Geiranger Fjord. This crown jewel of the Norwegian fjords, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the longest, deepest and probably most awesome fjords on the planet providing vistas unparalleled in the fjord universe. Many stunning waterfalls and imposing high walled narrow passageways are awe-inspiring. Once arriving in town, do not miss hiking the strenuous but worth-the-energy 400 plus steps up along the rushing glacial river to the Norwegian Fjord Center where the fjord story is brought to life by amazing multimedia exhibits. Our best Alesund meal was at XL Diner where creative cuisine and professional service belied their diner name.,

Our next stop, LOEN, provided our most positive revelations of the trip. Our Loenfjord Hotel stay, on the banks of the roaring Loelva River was a lovely experience and our dinner at their sister property across the road, Hotel Alexandra, was as exceptional as the hotel itself. Norway admittedly doesn’t boast any five star hotels, but the Alexandra was the most upscale Norse lodging property we visited. Our two biggest surprises were rides out to Lovatnet Lake and Briksdal Glacier. The lake was very similar in stunning pristine beauty to famous Lake Louise in Canada but unlike Louise, it has an unspoiled beauty, lack of commercial development and a mind-boggling tourist void. Briksdal, when compared to the glaciers we’ve hiked in Alaska and Canada, was monumentally superior in visual splendor with awesome waterfalls, rock formations and a thundering river. A Norway visit just seeing these sites should justify the trip. If you are particularly into extreme adventure a strenuous guide assisted rock climb hike up Mt. Hoven to a narrow suspension bridge is a definite test of courage.

Our last destination, BERGEN, is considered Western Norway’s “gateway to the fjords”. After settling in at centrally located Scandic City Hotel, we walked by the famous fish market to the Floibanen Funicular to the top of Mt. Floyen for the best vistas of this photo-inviting town. We’d definitely recommend visitors use the Hop-On-Hop-Off tour and not miss the following: Castle Rosenkrantz with the impressive Haakons Hall and the tower climb for more town views; Hansiatic Museum, located in a 1700’s building and provides a fascinating history of the Germans in Norway’s early fishing industry. A few of the original Hansiatic era’s buildings along the picturesque waterfront are still standing. Barely standing or leaning dramatically is a better description but quite unique, nonetheless. The four KODE museums display additional Munch paintings and modern art as well as one of Europe’s finest collections of Chinese artifacts and Norwegian furnishings; Bergen’s Aquarium claims to be the biggest and best in Norway. Another culinary highlight was a mouthwatering dinner at the famous Unicorn Restaurant, overlooking the harbor in another Hansiatic historic building. Their special fish platter of Norway’s finest brought our taste buds into gastronomic heaven. All three of these beautiful but dramatically contrasting towns are considered integral parts of Fjord Norway and full details on each city may be found at:

Bottom Line: Yes, this really was one of the best-ever trips we’ve taken and here’s why: amazing, almost indescribable scenery (especially rich middle-ages history); fabulous sea foods; surprisingly mild weather due to the Gulf Stream; very friendly, engaging people who mostly speak English and genuinely seem to welcome Americans. Admittedly Norway is quite expensive but careful research should locate lodging to fit most budgets. On a future trip we’d like to head further north to visit native Laplander villages, experience the midnight sun’s 24 hours of daylight and visualize the unique luminous color palette of the Aurora Borealis (AKA Northern lights). And by the way we flew roundtrip on the highly regarded Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) non-stop San Francisco into Copenhagen, Denmark and on to Oslo, via a connecting flight.

(Editor’s note: In December’s issue our travel team will write about their recent visit to Truckee/Northstar Tahoe, one of California’s best winter and summer resort areas)