Affjordable Norway: a mountainous trekker’s paradise

Julian Harris
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IF you want to turn back at any point, you can.” Our sympathetic Norwegian host was suddenly full of reassurance. She was looking across the breakfast table with the concerned expression of a mother observing her sick, ailing child. Fear, dread. Pity. Maybe a hint of disdain for being put in this position. With a cleverly-planned series of complaints about my pitiful level of fitness and injury-prone left leg, you see, I had finally managed to make her even more worried than I was about my ability to complete the impending task – a nine-hour hike up and down the 6,000 feet-high Skåla mountain.

And now she’d finally said it – I was allowed to give up. Giving up was socially acceptable. Hurrah! Success. I let go an internal sigh of relief and patted myself on the back. The mantra had worked again – always lower expectations. If I ever have kids, I’m going to teach them this. Even making it half way up Skåla would now seem like a valiant Shackleton-esque victory for British exploration.

Landing at Oslo airport the previous day, I had joined our small team of hikers to discover that among the number was Bonita Norris. Indeed, I hadn’t heard of her either – but apparently, talking of British explorers, she’s the youngest ever British woman to conquer Everest. As Bonita painted pictures of her gruelling death-defying climb to the highest point on earth, I got on with my favoured form of upper-body exercise – lifting a pint glass of cold Norwegian lager repeatedly to my lips in the airport bar.

Direct flights to Norway’s fjord region are now available twice-weekly from Gatwick (to Ålesund), yet I recommend travelling via the capital. After a spot of tourism in Oslo, one can jump on an internal propeller-powered plane run by Norway’s budget airline Widerøe. Amusingly, this is a bus-like service; the plane takes off, lands somewhere for a few passengers to alight, then takes off again to resume its journey.

Arriving in this miniature plane over the fjord region’s awesome mountains and intertwined water-ways was a stunning introduction to the scene. As the sun set beyond the distant sea, we meandered through the rocky peaks, created by unimaginably huge glaciers some 2.5m years ago. The ice-age glaciers literally sliced through the ground, creating huge canyons.

The fjords consist of sea-water that has filled these gaps between sheer vertical rock faces. One of the many enjoyable novelties is experiencing picture-perfect still sea-water, undisturbed by the usual choppy waves. The modern-day glaciers atop the mountains melt at the edges, producing a plethora of trickling water-falls; the minerals from which turn the sea-water a glowing green.

In winter the waterfalls freeze, forming a thin shelf of ice down the side of their cliffs. Adventurous – or some might say insane – climbers take this opportunity to ascend the frozen waterfalls, leveraging themselves up with pick-axes. The region is a magnet for brave, sporty types, who climb and cross-country ski all over it, according to the time of year. In summer, hiking is the most common activity.

In attempting the climb of Skåla, I took on the role of a journalistic guinea-pig. The hike is categorised by the tourist office in the upper bracket of “hard”, so I set out to see if a regular, fairly unfit city-dweller could cope.

The first positive sign was that we were not alone. Starting on a Saturday morning, the walk was busy with locals. Mums, dads, kids, dogs and even grandparents happily trekked upwards, issuing a smiley “hei!” as they inevitably – and effortlessly -- overtook me. What I’d feared as an epic once-in-a-lifetime struggle appeared to be more of a weekend stroll.

In just four and a half hours we had made it to the summit. And just five hours later we had made it back down. I could barely move for the remainder of the trip.

Fortunately, the more salubrious waterside hotels in the region usually have luxurious spas, complete with saunas, Japanese-style Jacuzzis, cold-water plunge pool and massage services. If you’re prepared to dig into your pockets, your aching limbs will love you for it.

And fear not. It is by no means compulsory to adorn your trip to the Norwegian fjords with exhausting physical travails. Judging by tourists’ waistlines at the hotels’ evening buffets, the area’s appeal is not limited to fitness fanatics.

In the Geiranger Fjord, we took a charming boat trip that sails past a handful of cliff-side farms. Now abandoned, these tiny dwellings were previously home to hardy souls who had engaged in a constant survival battle to overcome frequent avalanches and social isolation.

Asking why anyone would proactively choose to set up home in a place where there was a strong chance of being crushed to death by snow in your sleep, we were told that some poor people had fled there to escape destitution in the cities.

Flying back to a typically packed, soul-destroying Gatwick, their decision suddenly seemed somewhat more reasonable. As far as destinations go, the UNESCO world heritage-listed site is near-perfect for an escape from our tough lives in the city.

Below the cliffside farms, the occasional boat tinkered past, people fishing off the side. Further down the fjord people splashed around in kayaks. Modest, short hiking trails abound, all of which offer spectacular views of the unique landscape.

Meanwhile above, the glacier, rock faces and high peaks offer a challenge to daring onlookers and masochists. Next time I think I’ll stick to the kayaks.

● Hotels
Many hotels are deliberately scattered along the fjords, for ideal views of the water.

In Loen, stay at Hotel Alexandra for 1,260 Krone (£142) per person in a double room or 1,020 Krone (£115) bed and breakfast.

An extensive buffet dinner is included, or costs 490 Krone (£55) for non-guests.

The hotel has a pool. A luxurious and exclusive spa can be accessed for an additional charge.

In Geiranger, stay at Hotel Union for 1,235 Krone (£139) per person in a double room, including access to the ultra-luxurious spa area.

Without spa access, prices start at 790 Krone (£89) per person in a double room, including breakfast.

● Hikes
In Loen, climb to 6,061 feet above sea level, to the top of Skålatårnet (the Skåla Tower). The route is easy to follow, along a marked-out path made from stones. The hike takes four to five hours to the top, and the same time back down. For fitness fanatics, the world record for running to the top is 1 hour, 8 minutes and 30 seconds.

In Gerainger you get the chance to walk behind waterfalls. The guided “Nordic Walking to Storseterfossen waterfall” takes 90 minutes and can be booked at the Hotel Union for 175 Krone (£20) per person.

For a more testing trip, try the Laushornet hike, which passes Storseterfossen waterfall (you can walk behind the waterfall). The return hike takes five to six hours and includes very steep ascents.

● Travel
Norwegian has twice-weekly direct flights from London Gatwick to Ålesund from £36 one way incl tax. They also fly via Oslo several times per day. SAS also fly to Ålesund via Oslo from LHR.

Widerøe, Norway’s low cost inland airline, has cheap flights and connections from Oslo to Sandane airport, near Loen, as well as many other hiking areas in Norway.

Bus from Geiranger to Ålesund, including the ferry from Eidsdal to Linge, costs 240 Krone (£27) (approx. thee hours and takes in the scenic Eagle’s road).