NORWAY’S neverending summer days give you more daylight hours to explore
Our seven-year-old son was annoyed and confused. It was past midnight when we arrived in Ålesund, but still daylight, and he wanted to know why he had to go to bed rather than head outside and play.
Norwegians say they don’t sleep much in summer – and we could understand why, from the breathtaking views of the fjords and jagged, snow-covered mountains as our plane came in to land at the west coast town’s airport. With darkness absent at mid-summer and temperatures warmer than central Scotland, hundreds of miles to the south, the region has a beguiling effect on the visitor.
The terrain is Scotland writ large – with its familiar-looking rocks, heather and bracken, but also sheer-sided fjords that belittle our sea lochs.
In Ålesund, the cultural links with Scotland – Norway’s nearest overseas neighbour – are equally strong. It has a particular Art Nouveau association with Glasgow, forged when the town was rebuilt in the architectural style following a fire in 1904 that virtually destroyed it. Among those flooding into Ålesund to join the reconstruction effort were architectural students from Scotland. The colourful and decorated façades of these buildings, huddled on the narrow peninsula which the town occupies, are best seen from Ålesund’s answer to the open-top bus – the City Sightseeing Train, whose carriages trundle through the streets from Dronning Sonjas Plass. It’s ideal for the less energetic; it saves you climbing the 173 steps up to the viewpoint and café on 630ft Aksla hill, which provides the classic, stunning view of Ålesund and its archipelago and inspires further exploration.
Ålesund, which has a population of 45,000, is an important fishing port. Its wartime connection with Scotland is also proudly displayed at the Sunnmore Museum, in the shape of the fishing boat MV Heland, which became the so-called “Shetland Bus”, transporting Resistance fighters and arms during the German occupation in the 1940s.
The museum, which is largely an outdoor heritage park, also contains a collection of historic buildings attractively sited around a lake and hillside. On Wednesdays there is a varied activity programme for children, with opportunities to do everything from taking a Viking boat trip and baking bread over an open fire, to stiltwalking and fishing from a jetty using prawns as bait.
But despite the cultural connections, and most Norwegians’ uncannily perfect English, you know you’re abroad when you visit this part of the country. We hardly came across another British visitor during our two-week stay and our accents always drew glances.
One of Ålesund’s other major attractions is the Atlanterhavsparken, an aquarium at the tip of the peninsula whose centrepiece is a huge tank containing 400 fish such as cod, pollack and halibut. Its 25ft-high glass walls made for a mesmerising viewing experience. Elsewhere in the complex, our kids also loved the shallow troughs where they could pick up – under supervision – assorted weird sea creatures, and the innovative outdoor play area that included canal-like water channels controlled by mini-wooden sluice gates.
If Ålesund was impressive, Norway just became more and more spectacular as we headed east from the town along the fjords. The amazing views were matched by the extraordinary feats of engineering required to carve out roads through the terrain, requiring countless tunnels hewn from bare rock.
From the pink and purple lupin-lined highway, we gazed across the fjords at massive waterfalls and farms with their brightly painted red and yellow buildings, perched precipitously on ledges of the near-vertical slopes.
At the head of Tafjord, just over an hour’s drive inland from Ålesund, we were even able to survey the scenery from the luxury of a heated outdoor pool beside a campsite, looking virtually straight up to the 5,000ft peaks towering above the narrow waterway.
The Norwegians love the outdoors. You’ll find clusters of painted wooden cabins in the mountains, many with grass and flower-covered roofs which have been cherished by families for generations. We stayed in one that was owned by Norwegian friends near Grotli, but there are many available to rent. We sunbathed and swam in a nearby lake, and even found enough snow to give the children their first cross-country skiing lesson – in July.
Returning from several days in the wilds, we treated ourselves to a session in the delightfully relaxing spa at Hotel Union in Geiranger, which has an outdoor, heated salt-water pool. There is even an open fire at one end of the adjacent indoor pool. Bliss.
The hotel also features a remarkable sauna, whose huge glass walls afford views of the mountainside and the river that tumbles through the village. It’s a world apart from the wooden cupboard-feel of traditional saunas.
In the basement, the hotel contains an unusual collection of vintage cars – grand, seven-seater open tourers that transported the first tourists, who had arrived by steam ship early last century, up what must have been a daredevil climb from the village, via several dozen hairpin bends, to what has become one of the quintessential views of Norway – of the snake-like Geirangerfjord.
Eating out, like many aspects of holidaying in Norway, isn’t cheap, though it’s not exorbitant – expect to pay around £2.50-£3 for a coffee. We kept costs down by stocking up with provisions at supermarkets and making sandwiches for outings. However, the local soft drink became a family hit – pineapple-flavoured Brus, that looks and tastes like a peely wally version of Irn-Bru.
While there are no direct flights to Ålesund from Scotland, two airlines provide connections via their hubs. KLM has from this month entered the fray with flights to Ålesund from its Amsterdam base.
Norwegian also flies from Edinburgh via Oslo, with the otherwise no-frills airline providing an unexpected extra dimension of free in-flight wi-fi and the novelty of being able to update Facebook at 35,000ft.
THE FACTS KLM flies to Ålesund via Amsterdam with connections from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. Return flights from Edinburgh in July from around £213 per adult, tel: 0871 231 0000, www.klm.com
Norwegian flies from Edinburgh to Ålesund via Oslo, but outbound flights this summer require an overnight stopover in Oslo. Return flights in July from around £235 per adult, tel: 0208 099 7254, www.norwegian.com/uk
Ålesund tourist information office, Skateflukaia, www.visitalesund.com; Sunnmore Museum, Borgundgavlen, www.sunnmore.museum.no; Atlanterhavsparken, Tueneset, www.atlanterhavsparken.no; Hotel Union, Geiranger, www.hotelunion.no, B&B starts from around £245 for two people sharing for two nights.