Nine times out of 10, given the option of risking my life, I pass. But this is different. I’ve just hiked up Godoyfjellet, a small peak overlooking the Norwegian coast near Alesund. Greeting me is a stone ledge, some 20ft long and roughly as wide as I am tall. It’s like a shiny grey tombstone rammed lengthways into the earth, and there’s nothing but fresh air separating it from the fishing village below. I take a deep breath, battle a rush of butterflies, and walk over the precipice.
The ledge has a name. It’s called Johan Skytt (‘Johan Shooter’), apparently in memory of a local marksman who won fame shooting bears. Whether this is because it’s straight as a gun barrel, because the village of Alnes is so tiny (“There weren’t many streets to name after him,” my guide chuckles), or because climbers who conquer it are shooting the metaphorical bear that is their own, stomach-buckling fear, who knows. But it’s a brilliant high point after a short hike, crammed with coastal views, a dark lake and scratchy blotches of purple heather. Standing on it, I can see from the Norwegian Sea to the Sunnmøre Alps.
In between lie some of the great wonders of the natural world. Norway’s western coastline is a supreme tangle of mountains, valleys, islands and indentations, but its knockout attractions are its fjords. These narrow inlets, hemmed in by soaring mountains (they can be as deep as they are high), have fascinated tourists for centuries. Geologists will tell you they were ground out by glacier tongues at a rate of 3ft every 2,000 years. According to the cult novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, however, the planetary designer Slartibartfast takes credit for their construction:
“Did you ever go to a place — I think it was called Norway?”
“No,” said Arthur. “I didn’t.”
“Pity. That was one of mine. Won an award, you know. Lovely crinkly edges.”
And the edges are crinkly. And lovely. They’re so awesome, in fact, that visitors can succumb to a kind of holiday hypnosis. Floating down Geirangerfjord on the tourist ferry, a procession of sheer slopes, snow-capped peaks and tumbling waterfalls unfolds like one calendar page after another. Soaking it up, you almost glaze over. You almost zone out. On this trip, I was determined not to let that happen. I didn’t want to see the fjords through a viewfinder. I wanted to get up close and personal, to feel the strain in my calves, run my fingers through the water, taste the salt on my skin.
Norway, of course, was only too happy to oblige. As little as 1% of the country is built-up, and hikers are legally entitled to walk or camp on any uncultivated land, so there’s no trouble getting out into the open. But it goes deeper than that. Friluftsliv (‘the outdoors life’) is part of the Norwegian DNA — friendships are nurtured at the cabin or campfire, and newborn children often receive membership of the Norwegian Trekking Association as a gift. The explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen put it best: ‘It is better to go skiing and think of God, than to go to church and think of skiing,” he said.
It all clicks for me one Saturday on the Geirangerfjord. Setting out in a sea kayak, I paddle past a string of waterfalls with Michael Braun, of Active Geiranger, before docking for a steep and sweaty climb to Skageflå, a mountain farm set on a cliff 820ft above the water. The farm is no longer a permanent residence but it oozes atmosphere. The roofs of the ghostly buildings are loaded with grass, wildflowers and pagoda-like chimney pots. Peering through a window, I can make out a wooden table lain with a simple cloth.
Michael and I head back down towards the kayaks, refilling our water bottles from a mountain stream, chatting about life, nature, philosophy, politics. This is one of the things I love most about hiking and kayaking. As boots crunch on scree, as paddles splash in the water, you hit a groove. Long, meandering conversations strike up. Friluftsliv starts flowing. For a couple of hours, the nine-to-five is nonexistent.
Back on the fjord, Michael spots seagulls circling over patches of white water. We paddle towards them. A dark fin surfaces. Air blasts from a blowhole. Six or seven porpoises are fishing; for several minutes, we’re able to float silently as they go about their business. At times, they breach so close I can not only see the whites of their bellies, but the black pools of their eyes. “I’ve never seen them this close,” Michael whispers.
Kayaking offers more than a window into the wilderness. Back in Alesund, I take a gentle, two-hour paddle around the city with Arne Fagerhaug, of local adventure company ACTIN. Alesund was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1904, and almost entirely rebuilt in art nouveau style afterwards — resulting in one of the most concentrated batches of the architectural style anywhere on earth. Climbing the 418 steps up to the viewing point at Aksla gives you a bird’s-eye perspective, but paddling offers something different again.
“You get an angle that you won’t get any other way,” Arne muses, guiding me under the bridges, past the curvy towers and turrets, before squeezing between the quay and a massive cruise ship to stunning views of the Sunnmore Alps.
Alesund is a good base for exploring the Sunnmøre region, I discover. And another waterborne trip — this time on a wildlife sea safari with 62°Nord — reminds me that fjords aren’t just an inland experience. Bombing along in a rigid inflatable boat at 35 knots, survival suits and wind goggles are necessary as we speed towards the bird sanctuary at Runde island. There, a cacophony of 500,000 puffins, gannets and shags teem about the cliffs. The puffins’ brightly coloured beaks look like something you’d find in a sweet shop. The gannets have built nests into treacherous nooks in the rock, using colourful strips of discarded fishing net to bind the materials together. Crowning it all is the sight of a sea eagle, gliding above the action with barely a flap of its wings.
Back in the harbour, I watch a Hurtigruten ship — one of the freight and passenger boats plying the coast between Bergen and Kirkenes — move out to continue its voyage towards the Arctic Circle. Nearby, art nouveau warehouses have been transformed into hip boltholes, like Brosundset Hotel, or restaurants, like Sjobua, which gets its fish straight off the boats. The odd jellyfish hangs in the water as I chat to a fisherman hacking at a halibut by the pier. Stig Sylvestersen is selling his catch after spending the morning long-lining out at sea. “I can’t tell the direction,” he smiles. “It’s secret.”
It’s a sunny morning, but the fjords can be marvellously moody, too. In the space of a day, I experience razor-sharp sunlight, drilling rain, arching rainbows and blankets of mist and fog. In between hikes and kayaking trips, I drive through dramatic landscapes — the Norangsdalen Valley, or the hairpin bends of Trollstigen (‘The Trolls’ Path’) — and each one rolls out its own programme of meteorological madness. Pulling up by the shores of the Hjorundfjord, at Saebo, black clouds move to a soundtrack of rumbling thunder. A visitor attaches a rain cover to the back of his powerboat, and I settle into the Sagafjord Hotel for a bowl of creamy fish soup, and a bout of storm-watching.
Norway is super-expensive (at one point, I pay NKr75 (£8.25) for 0.4l of beer, and NKr39 (£4.30) for a small bottle of water), and its service culture can be surprisingly lacklustre — I regularly have to hunt down waiting staff to take orders or pay bills. But that seems a small price to pay when the spirit of friluftsliv and the hand of Slartibartfast combine. Be it World Heritage Sites like Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, or smaller moments like a stop to pick blueberries on a hike up to the Storseterfossen Waterfall in Geiranger, all are etched in the memory.
After stepping back off Johan Skytt and hiking down Godoyfjellet, we stop at the Alnes Lighthouse for a coffee and a thick wedge of fyr kake (‘lighthouse cake’) — a gungy indulgence spiked with local wild berries. Tucking in, we recognise several faces from the hills at the tables around us. They’re kind of like neighbours now.
Must do: The Norwegian Trekking Association (NTA) has around 460 cabins in the wild, with bunks from NOK195 (£21) per night. english.turistforeningen.no
Tradition: No hiker’s backpack is complete without a Kvikk Lunsj — Norway’s version of the Kit Kat, featuring hiking trails inside the wrapper.
Norwegian is the only airline to fly directly to Ålesund from Gatwick. norwegian.com
Average flight time: 2h.
When to go
May-September is the best time to hike and kayak the fjords (winter focus is skiing).
Need to know
Currency: Norwegian krone (NKr). £1 = NKr9.01.
International dial code: 00 47.
Time difference: GMT +2.
Active Geiranger. activegeiranger.no
Alnes Lighthouse. alnesfyr.no
Where to stay
Alesund: Hotel Brosundet. brosundet.no
Saebo: Hotel Sagafjord. sagafjordhotel.no
Geiranger: Hotel Utsikten. classicnorway.no/hotell-utsikten
How to do it
Sunvil Discovery offers four nights in Alesund and Geiranger, a short Hurtigruten cruise, a rigid inflatable boat safari, guided kayak tour and hiking from £1,358 per person, based on two sharing. sunvil.co.uk
For summer 2014, Wexas has a five-day tour based out of Alesund and Geiranger, including flights, accommodation and car hire from £1,040 per person. wexas.com
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)