Scandinavia: Lofthus and Oslo, Norway

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 55 of the February 2016 issue.
Visitors mingle with the statues in Oslo’s Vigeland sculpture park. Photos by Randy Keck

 (Second of three parts)

The second stage of my August 2015 Scandinavian adventure began with a drive from coastal Bergen into the heart of Norway’s enthralling fjord region. I was journeying, partially hosted, with a group of 38 intrepid travelers on the 12-day “Scandinavian Explorer” tour offered by smarTours (New York, NY; 800/337-7773 or 212/297-0955,

Upon our arrival at the hamlet of Voss, we boarded an express train for the climb to Myrdal Station, where we switched over to the Flåm Railway. 

For the next hour, we descended more than 2,600 feet through magnificent scenery that included towering mountains, pristine streams and rivers and thundering waterfalls, passing through 20 tunnels before arriving at the attractive, tourist-oriented village of Flåm, located on Norway’s largest fjord, Sognefjord. 

After lunch, we embarked on a leisurely, scenic cruise of some of Sognefjord’s smaller arms. I was captivated by the number of sheer-drop waterfalls, some over 1,000 feet high, cascading via multiple terraced levels from the mountaintops to the fjord far below. The waterfalls were so constant and expansive, it was impossible for photos to capture essence.

Resorting to luxury

At the end of our cruise in Gud­vang­en, we rejoined our coach and traveled through the Stalheim canyon to Lofthus, arriving at the inviting Hotel Ullensvang, nestled on the sunny-side shores of Sørfjorden, a branch of Norway’s second-longest fjord, Hardangerfjord. 

Lofthus is famed for its long history of fruit production, which began in the 13th century. Today, over half a million trees are flourishing in area orchards. 

Hotel Ullensvang, which first opened in 1846 and has been operated by the same family for five generations, was a pure delight and a trip highlight. It sports views of parts of the Folgefonna glaciers to the west and has a scenic backdrop of the orchards of Lofthus and the striking Hardangervidda plateau. 

The included dinner buffet each of our two nights in residence featured an impressive array of seafood and other foods from the region. Hotel attributes included a heated indoor/outdoor swimming pool with a very lengthy outdoor lap lane, open year-round. 

While I did not see any other hotel guests swimming in the actual fjord, I felt doing so to be a personal challenge and managed the brisk temperatures for about 10 testing minutes. The enchanting night lighting of the hotel grounds along the waterfront created a fairy-tale-like setting and mood. 

Four interesting hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties are accessible from the hotel. One is the Hardanger Fruit Trail, which takes hikers on an educational journey through local orchards.

Traveling back in time

On our group’s free day in Loft­hus, most of us chose to take an optional tour ($49 each) featuring the Hardanger Folk Museum. The excursion included a shortcut ferry crossing of the fjord and a scenic drive along the shoreline, passing scores of fruit orchards that seemed to be finely sculptured into the fjord mountainside landscape. 

The folk museum was an interesting experience of traveling back in time to 18th- and 19th-century Norway, with a main building displaying a permanent exhibition of Hardanger embroidery, traditional costumes and a collection of Har­dang­er fiddles. 

Exploring dwellings of early settlers at the Hardanger Folk Museum.

Our guided tour included the open-air section of the museum, where we inspected the historic, spartan, wood-and-earth dwellings, gaining a full appreciation of the many challenges faced by those early residents. 

Early the following morning we were back on the road, traveling toward Oslo. I enjoyed having the chance to relax for a few hours and just take in the raw beauty of the mountainous countryside. One of our stops en route was at the Vøringfoss­en, with its 600-foot-high cascade.

Oslo beckons

In mid-afternoon we arrived back in civilization, entering Norway’s largest city and main business center, Oslo (pop. 640,000). 

We first stopped to view the massive structure of the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, where I found myself wondering how such a huge, costly structure related to the interest and needs of the average Oslo resident. In fairness, for many decades, Norway has excelled at ski jumping in the Winter Olympics, so national pride is likely involved in the equation. 

Then we toured the inspiring Vigeland sculpture park, one of Norway’s most popular attractions, recording over one million visitors per year. The park represents the life’s work of visionary sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), with more than 200 sculptures in granite, bronze and forged iron depicting the human form and spirit in every conceivable manner and incarnation.

I found the sculptures simply overpowering in terms of their portrayal of humanity and would have been content to study them for hours.

To say the least, I was very taken with Oslo. It’s a beautiful city offering magnificent historic buildings and a wealth of museums. Having recently attracted many immigrants from the Middle East, it now displays a definite multicultural flair.

We had the luxury of a full free day for exploring on our own, and I chose to visit the Kon-Tiki Museum and the nearby Norwegian Maritime Museum, a 25-minute tram ride from our central-city, harborside hotel. 

One of hundreds of waterfalls in Norway’s fjord region.

After brief self-guided touring of both museums, I caught a ferry back to downtown Oslo for more exploring, seeing the impressive City Hall, the Parliament building and the exterior of the Royal Palace. 

I learned that in central Oslo’s waterfront district, a massive reconstruction project titled Fjord City will soon feature new performance venues, restaurants, museums, recreation areas and homes in an area previously consumed by port activity and traffic gridlock. 

smarTours operates a wide range of value-priced group tours worldwide.

In the last part of this series on Scandinavia, I’ll take you to Copenhagen and Helsinki.     

Contact Randy c/o ITN.