Travel Expert, Jules, took herself and a friend on an adventure around Norway, staying in a welcoming farm house and getting offline in some beautiful landscapes…
Some vacations you rate by money versus value. Some you value by the quality of the hotels versus the cost of getting there and the price of ‘living’ in the resort, and some by how difficult it is to get the comforts of life half way up a mountain or to a hidden valley. The most difficult ones to justify are expense versus experience. Norway is not cheap and it is all about memories and experiences. It is weather dependent as a lot of the excursions are all outdoors. However, with a bit of luck and a following wind (I went in September and had glorious weather, and it should be nice from April), it is hard to beat for memories, experiences and the quality of the people you will meet. All of which are unquantifiable. It is not a 5 star accommodation road trip – go to the US for that. But it is seriously special and after all – comfort is just that – comfort!
I had never been to Norway and had always considered it to be somewhere in the vein of a cross between my family home in Switzerland and a dash of the pine-clad hills of British Columbia with a healthy dose of Scandinavian Aquavit, herring and fish.
What I was not prepared for were the vast stretches of land that are totally uninhabited, save for the ubiquitous red farms and houses of the local farmers stretching in between the few and far flung towns and villages. I had thought red was the Norwegian national color for homes in the high pastures and elsewhere, until I found out that actually it is the cheapest color of paint in Norway hence adopted by all and sundry!
Flying in to Oslo on the previously untried Norwegian Airlines from Gatwick, I was pleasantly surprised at the excellent service, generous leg room in the exit seats I was lucky enough to secure when checking in and, although you pay for drinks and a good choice of food, it was in fact a much more rewarding experience than our local carrier which seems to regularly run out of ice, has stopped serving food and has seats now so uncomfortable you really do understand the world economy. Great choice and there are direct flights into Bergen, Oslo and Alesund.
Oslo was sadly under very heavy cloud and drizzle but a brisk three hour cycle ride with Patrick and Viking Biking gave me a fabulous overview to the highlights of Oslo, the incredible frescos in the City Hall and the beautiful sculpture park of Viligen who, thanks to a prima Donna moment back in time, was given carte Blanche to not only mastermind the planting and geometric design of this magnificent park but paid handsomely to create no less than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and cast iron – which all tell a wonderful story of mankind and its capriciousness. So as to create a sense of timelessness and equality every statue is naked. A must. For the faint hearted who do not cycle, it is made easy with their high-quality city hybrid bikes from the Norwegian company DBS. All bikes will have hydraulic disk brakes, adjustable stems and handlebars as well as 9 gears. Tired but happy we returned our bikes and after checking into our lovely room at The Thief, on the waterfront in the newly renovated Tjuvholmen District, we set off for a walk along the charming waterfront to search for a small restaurant for dinner. The choice is endless – something for couples, families and singles alike with a great buzz and atmosphere. We wandered home to the welcoming fire and bar at The Thief and tucked into a few glasses of wine to mull over how so much could be achieved in so little time. The Thief has a great restaurant open in the summer months on the roof called Fjord and their rooftop bar was still open when we went, which was the second week in September.
The next morning, fired up with a wonderful breakfast where everything you could imagine was on offer, they packed up a small picnic for us and we toddled off to the station again (Oslo is somewhere to catch the tram and bus and not taxis!) to take the train to Myrdal and then the famous Flaam Railway up to Aurland where our next adventure was scheduled to start.
A great train. Clean, comfortable, excellent buffet car, wifi and startling views from the windows all the way to Myrdal made the 4 hours pass in a flash. The Flaam Railway goes over the pass to Flaam which lies on the famous Aurland Fjord and as you flash by waterfalls, gorges and pine-clad peaks the camera was never still. It’s old fashioned wooden decor is a pleasure and stopping by an incredible waterfall for the token photo was all part of the charm.
But now for the adventure. Norway has one thing that stands out in spades – its people. They are so nice, courteous, helpful, smiley – what else can I say but this whole trip from beginning to end was as much about the people and their personal slant on everything than the actual nuts and bolts of the trip itself. Tone and Bjorn set up 29/2 Aurland which is a farm/lodge set just past a roaring river in peaceful farmlands about 20 minutes from the rather touristy and Disney feel of Flaam. The property is comprised of the Kitchen Cabin as I called it with two junior suites, their mother’s Gingerbread House (heaven) making part of the ‘square’, flanked by their own charming home which has a further two bedrooms in the end wing. Then there is the smoke house where we had delicious meals, the barn (yes red of course!) which I wanted to buy and make my home forever and then the hot tub complete with the sauna and steam room sat just in front of our delicious Fisherman’s Cabin. The Buxton family – think an offshoot of either the British Raj family doing Simlar in the summer by train to escape the summer heat or one of Hemmingway’s characters heading off with a rifle and tent to live the African bush. They were the fisherman and like so many British before them who loved conquering either the Norwegian peaks in their climbing boots or fishing those magnificent rivers for summers on end, this had been their summer house during the reign of Bjorn’s parents and where he had grown up in his childhood.
I did see the original small hotel in Aurland where they spent their first summer before discovering the farm of Bjorn’s parents and along with the glass blower, the phenomenal baker who also sells the local goat ‘brown cheese’ (so famous in Norway) and the most beautiful views in the world down Aurland Fjord – that completes downtown Aurland!
Tone and Bjorn are the heart and soul of this part of the trip. The Fisherman’s Cabin is simple and rustic with a charm that captures your heart as you return to roaring fires in the antique cast iron, wood burning stove in the kitchen, backing onto the smell of sweet pine from the open fire in the living room. Three double bedrooms and two singles are scattered throughout the cottage with 5 bathrooms en-suite and in every room is a photo of the Buxton Family and days gone by. The cottage is dotted with family antiques and homely touches like the huge Smeg fridge in the kitchen filled with delicious local charcuterie and cheese and welcoming wines and beer.
Nina was the Sherpa ‘elf’ who magically seemed to have lit our fires without ever hearing him come or go each evening and morning. We had breakfast in the ‘Kitchen’ looking up at the hills and waterfalls surrounding the farm, lunch in the old smoke house surrounded by sheepskins and fires, dinner in our own wonderful kitchen on the scrubbed pine table – what more could you want after a day hiking, cycling and exploring what we euphemistically nick-named ‘Bjorn’s lake’ by rowboat. Hiking with them up above the Fjord one day, we arrived to the pasture farm of the adorable ‘Gri’ who prepared, out of a Harry Potter rucksack, a feast of delicious kid soup, freshly baked bread with cheeses, hams, charcuterie and homemade apple juice to wash it all down. Overlooking one of the most beautiful views in the world, sitting on a table and chairs lifted out of her little goat cabin where they stay when they bring the sheep and goats down from the high summer pastures. No meal has tasted finer and there are a few of these farms that Tone takes our guests to. For the more adventurous they can take you up to the Glacier where you can telemark ski across with a picnic lunch ending up in a typical Lavvu Tent (the home of the Sami people), where you spend the night sleeping on reindeer skins (with an inflatable mattress between them).
Various variations of this day/night out exist including a walk on the glacier and husky sledging until early May and you do not have to spend the night up there. Tone and Bjorn and their helpers are never far sleeping close by in their own tent so this is a fun thing to do with your kids for a true taste of adventure. June and July can be similar with different activities.
Having rowed, walked up to the waterfall, just missed a chance to fly fish which they can organize, done my communion with the sheep and the hills, it was a real pleasure to spend a few minutes in their lovely sauna, slip into the hot tub with a delicious glass of wine and simply savour the sun setting on their own magnificent backdrop of mountains that surround the farm. Silence save for the odd crackle of the wood heating the hot tub was the most precious thing I remember along with falling to sleep each night to the sound of the waterfall. Tone’s delicious home cooking was simple but fresh with so much from their farm garden and all from local suppliers. This the ethos of staying here in a nutshell – you sleep well, eat well and see some wonderful outdoor things or you can simply stay home, have a hot tub, do a couple of hikes, bike into town and go on a day trip up the Fjords with a picnic lunch to see one of the oldest Stave Churches in Norway along with watching stunning scenery go by.
We had decided to spend a night at the family ‘Cabin’ near Luster which is their other home, en route for the other side of the country we were planning to visit. Half an hour from the farm is Gudvangen where we put the car on the ferry. Gudvangen Fjord leads into Naerefjord – one of the most famous and narrowest fjords in Norway. The great Sonjefjord is the main artery into the coast, passing Aurland Fjord with Flaam at its head and finally heading into Kauphanger. I have so many photos as the beauty is simply electrifying – blues and greens so intense you felt someone had added a polaroid filter.
From Kauphanger, you go up to the smallest fjord crossing in Norway where you have to back onto the ferry for a 10 minute crossing that led us to the site of the ancient Stave church at Urnes. Built in the 12th century originally and totally from pillars of pine which form the main body, it was a marvel of everything the Vikings built so well from wood and very little else.
Another 1/2 an hour brought us to the sound of another waterfall and their charming summer cabin overlooking the Fjord – cosy and welcoming, a home from home and in its rustic simplicity just wonderful. Comfortable but simple rooms, one large master bedroom upstairs, the roaring fire and drinks in the wonderful hot tub overlooking the fjord was magical, as was counting the stars.
Moving on and hugging goodbye to Tone on the high pass, we were handled over to Toril with a beaming smile (seems to go with being a Norwegian!) and the second part of our adventure began. Tone has left a very special part in the heart of all my guests who have been there this year – there are no words to describe this properly, just a surfeit of love and pride that she and her family put into every person’s vacation that stays with them.