I thought Norway was a bold tourist destination, especially in autumn. Wouldn’t it just be freezing and pitch dark, day and night? Is there anything else to eat but raspberry reindeer biltong? It might be cool, but would it be fun? I realized how wrong I was when I got off a boat on the shores of Norangsfjord on the west coast. As cliffs tower above and waterfalls tumble, it’s all incredibly dramatic.
You come to a small jetty and there by the water is the Hotel Union Øye, a 19th-century chalet that would seem right at home in a posh Swiss ski resort. Kaiser Wilhelm came here to enjoy the intoxicating combination of wild nature, belle époque interiors and intense intimacy. So did an appeal of all famous Scandinavians from writer Karen Blixen to composer Edvard Grieg. And it is fitting that the burly Victorian Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made it his base for climbing holidays, but so did the luxury lover Coco Chanel, who no doubt loved the four-poster beds, freestanding clawfoot baths claw and light gray satin salon walls. There is clearly more to all of this than I expected.
I have never liked the tourist arbitrage which means that if you go to a poor place from a relatively rich country, you suddenly have access to extreme luxury. The math of the exchange rate meaning that an eight-course banquet in an ancient desert fortress costs as much as a Pret sandwich at the airport makes me uneasy. How much nicer to go somewhere where no one you meet hopes that a big tip will make their miserable day more bearable, because their life is already pretty splendid. Norway is that place.
Like other Scandinavian countries, it is very egalitarian and decidedly inconspicuous. There is a special Norwegian word, janteloven, which is very important here and means that everyone is equal and nobody should ever really try to stand out. This is also true of their royal family, which uses local buses, traditionally sends their children to state schools, and costs the country only $7 million a year overall. $1 billion.)
That’s not to say Norwegians aren’t great in many ways. For starters, they’re dramatically high. I’m a tall woman, but just about everyone we’ve met here — men, women, and children — have dwarfed my 5 foot 10 inches. They also look disproportionately good-looking, along the lines of Claire Danes and Brad Pitt. And they are robust. This is a macho landscape, and it breeds outdoorsy people who spend their childhoods hiking, skiing, and kayaking. Inevitably they seem almost carved out of living rock.
Like the Gulf states, Norway’s recent wealth comes from its fossil fuel reserves and, thanks to skyrocketing prices due to the war in Ukraine, it’s cashing in. It is consistently among the top five richest countries on the planet by gross national income. But unlike the Gulf states, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund distributes the money to the entire population. It’s a kind of socialist paradise for trillionaires.
Perhaps because Norwegians are so used to being rich, they’ve figured out exactly what makes life elegant and fun. George Orwell said, “A fancy hotel is a place where 100 people work like devils so that 200 can pay dearly for things they don’t really want.” This may or may not be true in Paris, but it certainly isn’t the case here. Instead, they have a magic formula for tourists, gleefully giving them exactly what they really want. This turns out to be extraordinarily good, fresh local food; elegant, basic large rooms with many open fireplaces; and energetic outdoor fun in breathtaking landscapes. That old cliché beloved of Nordic noir, heavy metal, darkness, winter gloom and suicidally heavy drinking, just doesn’t apply. More so now that cold destinations suddenly seem so desirable. If the Côte d’Azur sweats 40°C in August, wouldn’t you prefer an invigorating stroll along a heroically dramatic northern seafront, where summer temperatures rarely exceed 25°C? While the rest of the planet boils over, Norway keeps its cool. No wonder Telegraph Travel readers voted it the most beautiful country in Europe this year.
Ålesund, where we were heading, is in the far west, where the coast fragments into countless tiny islands and deep frozen fjords. The city itself is a bustling seaport and great fishery but is also, unexpectedly, an Art Nouveau jewel. That’s because there was a fire here in 1904 and the whole place has been rebuilt with 1910s flourishes, flowers and turrets. One of the great local families are the Flakks, led by billionaire Knut Flakk, who, like so many Norwegians, is enormously tall, handsome and relaxed, and speaks superb English. His roots are in Ålesund and the family’s mission is to bring profits from his helicopter, construction and clothing businesses back to the city. And Flakk must really like it, because when we stayed, she was having Sunday afternoon tea with her family (from very British multi-story cake stands of sandwiches and buns) in her hotel restaurant, Brosundet.
The aesthetic here is all natural wood, a massive central fireplace in the lobby, caramel-colored wool throws, and leather couches in shades of toffee and fudge.
Whatever the weather outside – and Brosundet is so close to the water that adventurous guests have been known to dive from their bedroom windows into the sea channel that laps the hotel walls – it’s very welcoming inside. Actually, staying warm outdoors is easier than you imagine. As they say here, ‘There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.’ Bearing in mind that conditions can go from high winds to sleet to bright sunshine in minutes, your clothes really need to be just right. Luckily, Flakk owns the wool label Devold which has been dressing pioneering skiers and mountaineers in long johns for more than 100 years and whose wool garments Roald Amundsen wore at the South Pole. These knits are made to last – my kids still wear a sweater Devold which my father bought on a family holiday in Norway in the 1950s.
Its sweaters are now made in Lithuania, so Flakk has transformed Devold’s old 19th-century industrial buildings into a very enticing mall where you can buy classy windbreaker coats and elegant wooden knick-knacks and watch people learn to blow the glass or to shoe the horses the original forge. Very nice too, but what elevates the experience from enjoyable to mind-blowing is the raft ride you can take 40mph from the hotel, around the tip of a bluff and into the next bay to get to the outlet center. Well, how else would you expect modern day Vikings to hit stores?
When even retail therapy involves extreme thrill-seeking, you know a day in nature is going to be pretty special. There’s something about the practicality and down-to-earth Norwegians’ interpretation of their magical country that makes you even more adventurous. We spent two nights in the master cabin, the Flakk family’s holiday retreat on an island called Giske, near Ålesund. It’s a very simple and mostly wooden little retreat, with painted floors and a large corner fireplace in the tiny sitting room. You can live the simple life here, taking energetic leaps – I even had a swim off the rocky beach…in the North Sea…in October. And then cook your dinner.
Or you can ask Stig, the chef at Brosundet’s gourmet restaurant, Apotekergata No 5, to come and cook you a modern equivalent of Babette’s feast in your stateroom. His dinner for us, eaten by candlelight, included cod with oscietra sauce and mashed potatoes with at least 50 percent butter. This is caviar socialism at its best. The food is excellent, but it’s not delicate. Etiquette here is curt, and table manners merely perfect the ‘Norwegian arm’, which basically means grabbing whatever tasty morsel you want to get your hands on, Beowulf-style. Waiting to be asked is too soft and Southern.
Oh well, when your days are spent scaling mountains, kayaking in glacier-carved fjords, racing down icy roads on electric bicycles, and zipping around in high winds in helicopters, you feel like you deserve all the yummy food you can stuff yourself with. So things you do.
The Flakk family’s collection of four hotels is called 62° North. All are set within a few beautiful square kilometers of wild coastline around Ålesund. In addition to the Union Øye Hotel, the Owner’s Cabin and the Brosundet, there is the Storfjord, which is larger and more majestic, with outdoor hot tubs and a sauna. The hotel is high on a bluff overlooking fjords and forests where you can go on woodland hikes ending in teepee-like mountain lodges that belong to the hotel. Here, fire up a gas barbecue and warm up with hot chocolate and biscuits with the local, sweeter and tastier caramelized whey cheese and strawberry jam before heading back. The roofs of Storfjord are covered with peat and some have pine trees growing from them. There are fires in most rooms, and the hotel’s dark wood dining rooms and lounges are lit by candles. How we wished a real blizzard would keep us snowed out when it came time to leave.
How to do it
Scott Dunn is offering a six night Norway itinerary from £4,140 per person based on a family of four (two adults and two children) sharing, half board, including return flights from the UK and private transfers. For more information, call 020-8682 5080 or visit scottdunn.com