Most people visit Norway on cruise ships but I fancy seeing it from the land so I join Headwater’s new Fjords of Norway Guided Walking trip. For eight days I explore the region around Alesund using a mixture of ferries, long road tunnels and of course my own two feet. The walks are classified as ‘two boot plus’ with a duration of between four and six hours and daily ascents/descents of up to 700m. They can be quite steep in parts so good health and reasonable fitness are important.
Norwegians really do like the outdoors and around two thirds of them regularly go walking, a number that’s increasing every year. They take it so seriously that even the Norwegian equivalent of Kit Kat, ‘Quick Lunch’, features hiking trails on the inside of its wrappers. At the summit of every hilltop or mountain you can sign a ‘Fit Book’, and council officials tot up who’s been that month’s most active person. I don’t think I’ll be winning any prizes but I do manage to reach the summit of Mount Haugsvarden at 2,828ft and add my signature.
Getting around is relatively easy but transfers can be quite long, particularly if you miss one of the ferries. Of course the views as you drive alongside the fjords, or climb the high mountain passes, are simply stunning. The old Geiranger road has gradients of 10%, consists of 29 hairpins and took 300 men, working for 8 years, to complete it in 1889. It’s closed in winter and even in early June, snow ploughs are busy working, keeping the way clear.
It’s easy to see why the 15km Geiranger Fjord has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It’s breathtakingly dramatic, its sheer sides rising 1700m upwards and the waters plunging to a depth of 260m. Abandoned farms perch precariously on thin mountain ledges where children were only allowed to play if they were secured by ropes. Spectacular torrents of water tumble over the cliffs and the two waterfalls facing each other are called the Suitor and the Seven Sisters, one trying to woo the other.
As well as regular ferries, large cruise boats ply this Fjord and the town of Geiranger is full of souvenir shops, slightly too touristy for my taste. I prefer the isolation of Norangsfjord, an arm of Hjorundfjord, which seems untouched by time. At its head is the Hotel Union in Oye, dating from 1891, which has been restored to its former glory and furnished appropriately. Each room is named after a famous guest, including the German Kaiser Bill, Knut Hamsun, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the composer Edvard Grieg, playwright Henrik Ibsen and the explorer Roald Amundsen. Room number 7 is supposedly haunted, the sobbing of a suicidal chambermaid keeping you awake all night, but I hear nothing.
Just down the road is the Urke Kaihus, a bar and cafe which opens whenever thirsty customers give them a ring. Outdoor tables range the water’s edge and if makes the perfect place to view the surrounding peaks and dream of reaching the summits. From here our guide takes us on one last hike, climbing up through the woods for a tough couple of hours. At the top, I’m rewarded with the most mesmerising panorama – white-topped mountain peaks surround glittering fjords in every direction. It’s been worth the effort and is something that you wouldn’t get from the deck of a cruise ship.