Simon Cowell may well have the X Factor nailed, although Norway seriously wins the Wow Factor. As the sixth largest country in Europe (although technically not in the EU) and the second longest coastline in the world, opportunity for wowing is pretty hot. In this third of our All Things Norway series, we focus our energy on sharing some of the wows we experienced on our seven week tour in 2019. Come with us as we take you on a sensory journey that will have you reaching for the road-map.
Our Interactive Route Map
As we launch into what might be an overwhelming onslaught of oohs and ahhs, we thought we would initiate this blog with our Interactive Route Map. A massive map that shows every little nook and cranny we drove on, the off-the-beaten track routes we followed to avoid the masses and every single wild spot and campsite we stayed on during our seven weeks. Click below for a comprehensive and intimate peak into of every inch of our tour.
I know it seems a bit crazy that in an art gallery as incredible as Norway that we only have 10 Wows. Although when, around every bend, you will have a sharp intake of breath and perhaps even have a leaky eye moment or two, then narrowing it down to 10 feels somehow appropriate. So here they are our best bits:
1. Abisko entry to Norway
After nearly five weeks in the sumptuous Sweden, climbing right up through its central spine, we entered into Norway from the Abisko National Park. After Sweden’s forested kingdom, Abisko gave us a gentle introduction to what we were about to experience. Imagine it being like the warm-up routine for a Michael Jackson concert. It’s a tough gig although someone has to do it right?
After the plentiful border crossings we have navigated since we left England in March 2016, this is by far the most dramatic and stunning drive EVER. With glacial blue waters of the Torneträsk Lake to the magnificent mountains that interlace the valley like a group of giants lining up for a caber tossing competition. If you have the chance to enter Norway at this northern point, we highly recommend it.
By taking this route, you also get to experience Narvik’s World War 2 memorials. Just over the border crossing is one of Narvik’s 6 remembrance sites which, if you value enhancing your World War knowledge are worth visiting.
Check out our gallery by clicking below.
2. Northern territory – Tromsø
Whilst we decided against going to Norway’s most northerly point at Nordkapp, a personal situation back in England graced us with the opportunity to explore the area around Tromsø. Troms is an area of mountain beauty and coastal brilliance as fjords weave their way up to Norway’s northern most city. This region is fabulous to explore both during the summer and winter. Summer with its Midnight Sun and the winter with its Northern Lights. Mountains still sprinkled with snow as the everlasting days slowly melts the white crystals. Fjords full of dolphins elegantly gliding in its waters and an outdoor playground that gives you a chance to hike, paraglide and cycle to your heart’s content.
Tromsø is a wonderful city – and despite being compact and bijou, it’s perfect for learning about the world of Artic exploration over the centuries.
Taking the back roads rather than the arterial E6, you wind your way around endless peninsula that hug the sides of mountains like a limpet. Places to wild camp, with Norway’s Freedom to Roam policy are limitless, as you see quiet pull-ins for a peaceful night’s sleep. Views to take your breath away and miles of scenery that leaves you speechless.
Check out our gallery by clicking below.
3. Senja – Norway’s second largest island
Now this might sound like a secondary position although when you realise that Norway has 50,000 islands, being the second largest is not to be sneezed at. We knew nothing about Senja and had done absolutely no research. So our virginal eyes just drank in the rugged beauty that this jewel in Norway’s crown had to offer.
Known as Norway in Miniature, Senja is a complete delight that will have you running out of adjectives. With one of Norway’s 18 Most Scenic Routes threading itself on the western fringes of the island, this alone is good reason to visit. The Route 87 is a stunning way to take in the joys of Senja as you snake around its pathway, taking in Troll museums, staggeringly beautiful views and Viewing Platforms that leave you standing in awe. Our visit coincided with orchid season; I have never seen so many pink, purple and white blossoms lining the roads like daisies. They grow with the freedom gifted to them by this alpine-like air. Authentic fishing villages survive thanks to their community spirit as they cling to the summer’s abundance before the winter’s harsh conditions arrive. And the Ånderdalen National Park offers trekking in abundance as pathways over the mountain give you mountain goat status. Tramping through the snow-covered glaciers, you can loose yourself in an area that is as close to heaven as it is to the sea and you share it with no-one.
If you asked us to choose between the iconic Lofoten Islands and Senja, we would choose the latter with ease. Senja has all the beauty without the crowds and commerciality. Just natural beauty tucked away in a corner of Norway that is unexposed to tourists. And let’s hope it stays that way. For Senja inspirations just check out this gallery. If you’re not wow’d, then I have failed as a photographer. Check out the gallery below and let me know what you think.
4. Andøya and Puffin Island
As we finally headed our way south, we decided to follow another one of Norway’s Most Scenic routes. Andøya is an odd island compared to it siblings. It has a ridge of mountains and then a plateau of flat land that, in comparison could almost be described, dare I say it as boring! Not a word you might expect to use in the same sentence as Norway, although there we go, I said it! Catching the ferry from Grylleford on Senja, we arrived at this slightly desolate island with doubts. The fishing industry at Andenes has an almost imperial feel to it with its factories waiting to welcome you. Stilted Fishermans’ huts define the town that is like the outback. I expected to see tumbleweed blowing down the deserted yet characterful colonial buildings. The Artic Terns, who have made this rich haven their home, nest in the waste ground opposite and you walk by at your peril. At least wear a hat if you want to photograph these high pitched screechers.
Although you come to Andøya for two reasons. One is to travel the 30 mile (51km) Scenic Route that takes you from the barren land of the north, around the mountains to the cloudberry landscape of the south. Passing by the Space Centre from where 1,2000 rockets have been launched for scientific purposes, your interested will be piqued to explore this northern facility that has been involved with NASA missions.
The second reason is for a 158m tall island called Bleiksøya. This conical shaped isle has surfaced the water’s ceiling from deep beneath the sea on the edge of a sea abyss. This deep trench of water, so close to the land, gives rich pickings for fisherman, nature lovers and wildlife. Each working together to protect this region of abundance. As a result Andøya is THE place to come for Safari’s to get up close and personal to 80,000 puffins, sea eagles and a plethora of whales. For a mere 450NOK you can take a rib out with Sea Safari Andenes and get so close to these amazing birds and watch as the eagles swoop for their next meal. It is one of the most memorable moments of our Norway tour.
Check out our Safari video footage.
5. Lofoten Isles
If researching this iconic destination doesn’t have you reaching for your route planning app, then nothing will. The marketing behind Norway’s quintessential archipelago is pitch perfect. Classic photos and dreamy descriptions will without doubt stir the excitement deep in your belly. And although I am pleased we explored the islands, our seven days was, generally speaking, an underwhelming experience. It is beautiful, with its traditional fishermens’ robus, islands connected by architecturally beautiful bridges that defy gravity and an inspiring palate of fjord colours. Although for us, with its relentless crowds (in July – what were we thinking,) and the commercial hue, coloured our experience. Too many people meant no parking for the iconic walks. Too many vehicles made narrow roads busy and difficult to navigate and an infrastructure, that for campers is solely lacking. We absolutely recommend visiting, although time it carefully to optimise your experience. For your FREE copy of our Lofoten Ebook, just click the image below.
6. Engabreen Glacier – west coast
We tend not to do too much planning when we go to a place as this just feeds our – or should I say my insatiable greed for experiencing every pin I have saved. So it wasn’t until the last moment that we decided to take a fellow traveller’s recommendation and drive the Scenic Route Fv17 from Bodø south. Hugging the coast this road is beyond beautiful and armed with your Autopass Ferry Discount card taking the ferries that link the fingers of this rugged fjord designed coastline is an adventure all by itself. In fact so beautiful was it, that we had to turn off the road as we felt emotionally drained by the almost incessant beauty. I know, it’s a pretty good problem to have right? Although we were a bit wowed out at this point. Not before though we had visited Norway’s second largest glacier. Did you know that Norway has around 1,600 glaciers? So second place, like Senja isn’t a bad position to hold.
The Engabreen, an arm of Svartisen Glacier is pretty spectacular. In part because it is one of the most easily accessible glaciers in Norway and can be seen from the road. And because it is the lowest lying glacier on the European continent with its close proximity to sea-level. Parking up at the Holand Tourist Information office, a short cycle down hill brings you to a ferry that takes you across the Holandfjord to the low lying shores in front of Engabreen. A walk or cycle then gives you the option of looking lovingly at this frozen beauty from a distance, or parking up your bikes and hiking through the boulder debris. This puts you almost in spitting distance of the icy fingers that are ever inching towards to the sea. This is an incredible experience and highly recommended activity. The ferry is just 200NOK per person (£18 return) and an additional 80NOK (£8) for bicycles.
Check out our gallery below
7. Atlantic Ocean Highway and Bud
I mentioned this route more out of necessity than for desire. We have always been great believers in presenting our travels as they are and not sugar coating our experiences. That does no-one any good.
So here’s the thing! Myles had wanted to visit the Atlantic Ocean Highway since we decided to hit the road in 2016. So anticipation and expectations were high. Although we are sad to report that like a Tour de France cycle race it was over in a flash. Yet again, we found Norway’s marketing to have excelled itself and we were left seriously wanting.
After paying the only Toll Booth fee in Norway just outside Kristiansund, we followed the Highway signs like excited children. And we were soon there. The architectural brilliance of the bridge that writhes like a snake was there. Arching in all its magnificence. We stopped off at a couple of viewing points which allowed us to see the Highway from the northern side although it was not the drive we anticipated. Just one bridge makes up this experience and we felt sorely let down by the 3 mile iconic drive. No thrill, no awestruck state that we were promised
So our deflated souls floated further south into the nurturing arms of the gorgeous coastal fishing village of Bud. Now this was a wow. 20 minutes drive away we sought solace from this wonderful place that gave us authentic Norwegian life, WW2 memorials and an archipelago vibe. No disappointment here and without doubt the best bit of this underwhelming scenic highway ‘hot spot.’ Well done Bud, you get our vote. Perversely we are incredibly thankful to the Atlantic Highway, as had we not set our course for this point, we would have missed BUD.
Check out our gallery below.
8. Trollstigen Pass and Geiranger fjord
After disappointment hung around us like a bad smell, we hoped that our sixth Scenic Highway route would restore our faith in Norwegian beauty. Surely the Trollstigen Pass would bring us back home to the thrill and love for travel that we have developed. And we are pleased to say that is it a big fat YES. We were surprisingly nervous about doing the trip – and not because of the road itself as after all we have driven Stelvio in our camper! Our nervousness was born out of our disappointment of the Lofoten Isles the Atlantic Ocean Highway. I am always reminded about the role disappointment has in our happiness and yet we had fallen foul of its destructive ways.
The Trollstigen was a joy. And not just because of its driving challenge. It is so much more than just a road – the whole Route 63 is a driving experience that stretches for 56 miles from Andalsnes to Langvatnet. The route takes you up through the Trollstigen switchbacks, across a ferry and then across to Geiranger, one of the most famous and longest fjord in Norway. The whole stretch is an incredible experience with plenty to see and do along the way.
The Trollstigen was built in 1936 and has 11 switchbacks, carved up through a collection of mountain giants reaching heights of 1600m. With waterfalls and viewing points, this is just one part of the Trollstigen to Geiranger Scenic Route that will take you on a diverse driving experience over the course of 2 hours. Or, if like us you would prefer to savour both experiences with an overnight stay, then why not wild camp at a whole host of areas, sheltered by the shadows of the mountains.
The viewing platforms that overhang the valley are a must to breathe in the full perspective of this road as you see it snake up through the granite giants. Test your nerve as you look out with only fresh air beneath your feet. And then repeat the journey as you head towards Geiranger after the short ferry ride that transports you to part two of your road-trip. A further 11 switchbacks that take you down to one of the most visited places in Norway – certainly by cruise liners. Your vehicle will complain – not in voice, although in smell. That tell-tale sign of overworked brakes will remind you that a steady pace and a cautious drive will reward you with the best experience. As you see the cruise ships in the harbour, you realise you have arrived at an iconic destination. Resisting a stop to admire the view is futile. Head for the Norsk Fjordsenter where you can climb down alongside the Storefossen and be enveloped in the thundering sound of the crashing waterfall as it makes its rendezvous with the fjord. Salt meets snow-melt. A truly magnificent combination where Mother Nature’s forces collide in some gentle yet poignant battle.
The views further up as you climb like a rollercoaster ride are just amazing. More snaking roads that constantly give you sneaky peaks over the fjord way below you. And the upside is that fewer tourists drive this section of the road, so your course is easier than the caravan of coaches on the northern side. Your final destination will be at the junction with Route 15 at Langvatnet. You will breathe a sigh, not out of relief that you made it; a sigh of complete satisfaction. A road that is a challenge for sure, although very, very doable. Having driven the Transfagarasan and Transalpin in Romania and Italy’s Stelvio Pass, we have to say that Norway’s Route 63 was much easier and far less challenging. So you have to put this on your Norway Road-trip list. And is definitely on our Wow List.
9. Gamle Strynefjellsvegen route 258
I love looking a maps and searching out the off the beaten track routes. And after a restful night’s sleep and en route to rendezvous with friends, I navigated us on a back road that avoided the main road – as is my want. Little did I realised that this was yet another of Norway’s Most Scenic Routes – the Old Strynefjellsvegen.
Now this road comes with its own challenges as 75% is not tarmac, although we have driven worse major roads in Italy, if we’re honest. There is no driving fast on this road – not just because you can’t, more importantly because you won’t want to. For me this was THE most spectacular road we drove in Norway. It was like being in a completely different Universe.
Trying to find the right words to describe this land is really tough. Again despite the weather, which was dull and overcast, this road was actually enhanced by the conditions. The grey mountains sombre in their majesty whilst the unbelievably ice-blue waters were set off against the shadows making this road all the more dramatic. It’s the same blue that we saw when we visited the Ice Hotel in Sweden. Almost from another world and a colour that seems almost impossible to create on an artist’s palette.
And then there was the rainbow. Oh wow this was just so magical. I was stunned into silence and that takes a lot. This road, in all its rawness and simplicity was beyond beautiful, for me. It had a ‘The world that time forgot’ feel to it and I half expected to see dinosaurs roaming the glaciers it was that primal. We saw no more than half a dozen vehicles on this road and I would definitely come back here to wild camp – as it was out of this world for sure.
Check out our gallery below
10. Sognefjord Glacier – Jostedalsbreen National Park
Our final wow for this 2019 trip is the drive up to Sognefjord Glacier. The largest of all the ice maidens in Norway.
Although before we talk about that, let me tempt you with the approach road to Sognefjord, which is magnificent in itself. The 724 Route up through the Oldevatnet valley to Briksdalen, with iconic and moody mountain views will take your breath away. Although this no-through road is a little narrow, there are passing places as you navigate the plethora of coaches that bomb up and down this idyllic valley.
And as you hug the edge of the fjord, with its crystal clear waters, the sight ahead is captivating. The sharp lines of the mountain edges pierce the sky whilst it cradles the blue-white glacier which draws you towards it as if on autopilot.
There’s both a campsite at Briksdalen and plenty of parking areas for day visitors. At 250NOK per night for a camper plus two people (which equates to around £26), you have unbridled access to this giant of all glaciers. There’s a fabulous walk for about 1.5 miles which whilst marginally uphill, can be mastered thanks to the tourist tram. If walking isn’t great for you or you have a disability, then for a mere 230NOK (£20) return or 115NOK one way (£11) the Troll’s Tram takes your weary bones closer to the glacier viewing point so that you too can enjoy its glacial glory. Otherwise the walk is a sensory delight. First up you have the Kleivafossen waterfall, which full of glacial melt thunders over the edge releasing 100 litres of water per second. Can you imagine the sound? It’s so loud you can not talk nor hear your heart beat. And whether it is a rainy day or sunny, it matters not a jot, as you will get wet as the spray from this thunderous beast unleashes its full power to the rocks below. It’s Norway’s version of Niagra Falls and you can stand right in front of it and get a free and pure shower.
The glacier, some 10 minutes on, is not quite touchable, although certainly is spitting distance. And if you listen clearly, perhaps you can hear the sound as it creaks and groans with its miniscule movement. It’s a magnificent moment that somehow is difficult to capture in words alone and is a place that I could have stayed for hours just sat quietly in the heart of Mother Nature’s storybook and art gallery. This is most definitely a Norway WOW factor and must go on your list to visit.
Practical Tips for Norway Exploration
Before we leave you, I feel it is important to share our tips for making Norway a memorable experience, for all the right reasons. With its distance and expense many people are put off venturing to this northern land, although with the right strategy, it is more than doable.
- As you plan for your trip, be clear what time you have available and what is achievable. If you only have a short time for your visit, then stick to the southern and central regions. The distances, both to get to and around Norway are vast and so being realistic is important.
- Access to Norway depends a great deal on the time you have. If you have an unlimited length of time, then accessing the northern regions is well worth the travel time, entering at Abisko. If time is limited then a ferry from Denmark makes Norway more accessible. For more information on routes to Norway check out our comprehensive All Things Travel blog here.
- Ferries are a major lifeline for Norway and avoiding them is futile. So you will need to consider an Autopass Ferry Discount Card. This will save you up to 50% on your ferries which is not to be sneezed at.
- Toll roads are everywhere and the system is quite complicated as each toll road is owned by a different company. There is only one Toll Booth, the rest are payable electronically. So you will need to register with EPC or Autopass who collect the toll fees. Registration is easy, although your notification for payment will take approximately 2 months to come through, so don’t be alarmed.
- Think carefully about the time of year you visit. Norway has a short summer season from June to September. Whilst it does offer you long days and the Midnight sun up above the Artic Circle, it is the major tourist season. From the beginning of July for six weeks, the local schools are on holiday so beware of the crowds at tourist hotspots.
- Any time from September to May the weather will be unpredictable – and we’re talking snow here. In 2019 the weather closed in early with snow in many areas mid September. So if you are travelling with your camper/RV or a car, it will need to have winter tyres, snow chains or snow socks.
- Norway’s summers are an interesting beast. Whilst it has been known to have heatwaves like in 2018, the weather patterns are generally not quite so hot and sunny. It can be cold, murky and inclement although if you get clear days, the scenery is absolutely magnificent. So come with the right mindset – this is not a beach-hot destination.
- Norway has a reputation for being expensive. Our experience was a pleasant surprise. Whilst certainly one of the most expensive countries we have been to, it wasn’t as bad as we expected. And there are ways around food expenses – check out our All things Shopping blog here where we share some tip shopping tips to keep your bills low.
- If travelling by camper and you want to bring some supplies with you (especially alcohol) be careful about Customs checks on the southern borders and ferry ports from Denmark. They are known to strip search incoming vans. So either ration your drinking to the EU Duty Free limits, take the Sweden route at Svinesundbrua or pay Norway’s extortionate prices.
From its northern territories to the heart of the central glacier giants, Norway will tease you like a tantalising temptress and will leave you wanting more. And more we shall demand, on another spellbinding trip in the next five years. Until then, we leave you with the images and story that makes Norway such a unique European experience, filling you with an expectation of a sensory explosion should you make your way to this magnificent land.
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Our two other blogs in the All Things Norway Series