Plane, Trains (Boats), and Automobiles
– a short handbook for first-time travellers in Norway.
This short handbook is designed to teach you how to travel in Scandinavia’s most green and pleasant land. Many visitors to Norway arrive without being prepared for the terrain and weather. Given how easy the country is to reach nowadays — especially with those cheap Norwegian flights — it can be (equally) easy to forget what an untamed place it remains. After decades of extensive travelling in Norway, and after 7 books written on the subject, here’s your humble correspondent’s travel advice to the country.
1. Dear reader, first and foremost: Let’s talk about the weather!
Norway is one of our Technicolor planet’s most spectacular spots, its coast lengthy, its fjords and mountains plenty. Though the weather can be challenging, with high seas, snow and storms, there’s also no shortage of sun, warm temperatures or an easy breeze.
Despite sharing the same latitude as Alaska, Greenland and Siberia, Norway nevertheless has a pleasant climate compared to those places, thanks to the Gulf Stream and warm air currents. That said, Norway has the most variable weather in the world, and some of its biggest temperature differences: the country can offer everything from full-blown storms to temperate chillout zones, with temperatures varying from freezing Arctic conditions to a balmy Mediterranean calm within days (or, if you’re lucky, minutes.) On one occasion, a 44.4 degree difference between Norway’s hottest and coldest place was measured on the same day.
So yes, the Norwegian climate can be complex, but let’s focus on fundamental positives. You probably won’t swelter in August, but summers are usually pleasant, with abundant light (though rain can always be expected). The North, meanwhile, enjoys the finest Northern celestial phenomena: you can enjoy the midnight sun in summer, while Northern Lights will keep you fertile through winter.
When in Norway, do as the locals do — think practical, think sustainability, think simplicity, and yes: dress for success, people, which means dress for each and every surprise that may come your way. If there’s one single piece of information whose accuracy this handbook can guarantee, it’s that the weather will change.
2. They Say The Journey Is The Destination
A trip through Norway is varied, to say the least, and a genuine Norwegian truly believes the journey is the destination. While in English one differentiates between ‘fairy tale’ and ‘adventure’, there is only one word for both in Norwegian: ‘eventyr’. Maybe this is the key word to understanding Norwegians’ intense relationship with all the fresh air, sportiness and wilderness, and their obsession with their Viking heroes, their polar explorers and their modern winter sports heroes?
Or their roads? In rural parts of this lengthy land (which is most parts of this land) the roads are spectacular in every sense of the word — totally awesome and dangerously bad at the same time: sharp bends, stupidly steep, tighter than a mosquito’s tweeter, filled with craters on every inch of the scenic routes. Whoop de doo, moose on the loose!
There’s little doubt, at least, that getting up and down the coast, and around this land in general, demands patience and determination. It’s an ’eventyr.’
However, there’s no easy way to say this: if you’re a pedantic planner, or a less than easy lover, getting around Norway can be a bitch. But it can turn out to be a very nice bitch, and more than worth the bitching. Never forget, furthermore, that these are voyages of the imagination as much as they are physical trips. Even if the idea of a five- to six-hour boat ride to your destination of choice seems intimidating — and that’s after a potential journey of John Candy-like proportions, including planes, trains and automobiles — the chances are it won’t be anything you regret.
Even if you’re Norwegian, the effort required may seem overwhelming due to one simple factor: comprehending the matrix of planes, boats, trains and buses is a bit like understanding New York’s City Subway System. Better still, the most important information — schedules, changes, delays, cancellations — is normally in Norwegian. If you’re not a local, you’ll most likely need to refer to a local. Don’t worry: they don’t bite. Unless you’re covered in their heavenly strawberry jam or smell fishy. (Wear both, though, and you’re safe from pretty much anyone.)
3. Trying To Understand Norwegian
Norwegians love their long, impenetrable, portmanteau language, as well as the awesome letters Æ-Ø-Å, which contribute to a stretchy linguistic blend of words with plenty of vowels. These include harbour, bus and airport names, which are sometimes differentiated by just a letter or two or three: hurtigrutakai vs hurtigbåtkai (Yes, it’s all in the details.) Your best bet? As always, ask a Norwegian: they’ll know what to search for, and probably know a better route there anyway. The leading heroes of any Nordic odyssey are the staff on the country’s boats, planes and trains, as well as the harbour and airport folk, who seem to be about the only people who know what’s going on and able to articulate it clearly.
4. The Money Question
Do you think prices for travelling — like everything else in this land — are steep? Well, yes. Put simply, they are. But the country is still heavily subsidised. Though it’s a massive stretch of land with very few people, an extraordinary transportation network serves every last corner of the map. It may cost less to take an Easyjet flight from London Stansted to Berlin Schönefeld, but we promise the high-speed ferry from Bodø to Lofoten Islands is a trillion times more spectacular, and its colour scheme is a great deal more palatable too.
FYI, Norway will be cashless by 2020. Currently, cash is used in only five percent of transactions. Norwegians will — until further notice — take your cash, just to please you.
5. Norway’s environmental hypocrisy: Climate leader and oil giant.
Sustainability should be a modern tourist’s key concern, and travelling through Norway really ought to provoke every traveller to dig deep into his or her soul regarding climate change. True travellers exercise a profound responsibility in doing their part to take care of the future of this most treasured playground: our earth. When you love something you learn to protect it, and in many ways Norway is the most environmentally progressive country in the world. It has steep tax on carbon emissions, over 95 percent of Norway’s electricity comes from clean hydropower and the country is home to the most electric cars per capita of any country in the world. All these wonderful progressive green things are funded by what’s called The Government Pension Fund of Norway (aka The Sovereign Wealth Fund), which is this huge fund that Norway has, worth a trillion dollars. It’s simply their rainy day fund.
But there’s a catch, an enormous moose in the room, so to speak, Norway’s environmental hypocrisy: its sovereign wealth fund is almost entirely comprised of oil and gas money — fossil fuels. Norway is a huge producer, the second largest natural gas exporter in the world, and the fifth largest exporter of oil. Basically they sell that to other countries, and reap the benefits, in terms of revenue and put that into the sovereign wealth fund, which then get funnelled into subsidies to make a greener sustainable society.
Paradoxically, in the 25 years since Norway implemented a tax on carbon, carbon emissions haven’t decreased an ounce. And, the country will only stop producing oil when it has jobs to replace those it will lose. This will require massive investment in clean industries, along with a commitment to ensure that further economic growth occurs in those sectors and not in oil. Norway already has a phrase for this: det grønne skiftet (“the green shift”), meaning creating a sustainable society based on green jobs. But it won’t be easy, and it’s still unclear if this phrase is more than words, and as New York Times reported earlier this year, Norwegians are ‘petroholics', they’re fully aware that this ‘green shift’ they’re talking about is funded by oil money. At the same time, they depend so much on the income from the oil. Just like alcoholics, they do want to stop, but they don’t know how. Or they do, but they can’t help it. Not yet, anyway. To sum up, Norway is buying good conscious for sure, but its better than nothing, isn’t it?
6. Insider Tip: Try Travelling Out Of Season And Off The Beaten Track!
Norway is always amazing, but try to travel outside high seasons. Spring is fantastic — its weather can often be better than in midsummer — and autumn, in all its colours, is simply breath-taking. Then there’s winter, with dazzling snow, super cool blizzards, and, if you’re lucky… The Northern Lights.
Stay clear of the beaten track — (no) thanks to Instagram, increasing numbers of travellers swamp Norway’s most spectacular, and already overcrowded, attractions, including Trolltunga and Prekestolen. Most Norwegians who love the outdoors life — and that’s nearly all of them — have never been to these places. It’s not that they can’t, aren’t allowed, don’t have time or money, or are too lazy: It’s that, first of all — as we’ve already stated — the journey is the destination, and it’s what you see on the way that matters. Second, Norwegians don’t like to walk in a line. (Who does, frankly?) And third, there are so many amazing areas to hike that there’s really no need to choose the same trail as everybody else.
The greatest Norwegian portmanteau word of them all is ‘Allemannsretten’ — all-men’s right, or, the ‘right to access’ — which means you can camp almost anywhere (admittedly outside the city) for free. Wherever you put your tent is your home, but don’t forget your fishing rod. Pitching tents in vulnerable landscapes put a lot of responsibility on the camper. More importantly than our advice on staying clear of the beaten track, please stay on the f… track! The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) — with its trademark red Ts — show the way to the most magnificent experiences of Norwegian scenery. The ‘Ts‘ guide you safely through the landscape, and at the same time, the routes channel foot traffic with the effect of giving the animal life some space and quiet, and avoid unnecessary wear and tear on the vegetation: leave footprints, not on the landscape, but on your soul. Yeah, man!
7. Luxury Lies In The Experience Of Travelling, Not In Its Free Accessories
Norway is far away and far out, so ‘luxury’ lies in finding a hearty balance of accessibility, simplicity, exclusivity and sustainability, while quality resides in the experience of travelling the land, not in the number of towels offered wherever you stay. When travelling off the beaten track, Norwegians like their living and travel simple. They prefer to keep untouched nature as it is: untouched. Another contributing factor is how Norway maintains strict policies regarding energy efficiency, and is steadily implementing further enhanced measures. Norwegian tourist service providers are progressively more proud of their environmental certifications (and they’re simply following the law), with the result that — for example — you won’t be provided with an infinite number of small bottles of shampoo and shower gel, but instead need to make do with a soap dispenser. You got a problem with that? After all, it’s just soap.
8. Mountains Don’t Have Addresses
No one’s trying to be condescending here, but do you really need an address for mountains, glaciers, fjords, seas, tidal waves, the Polar Circle, the Northern Lights, or other topograpical or natural phenomenon? Though it’s unbelievable what you can find via Google these days, they don’t have addresses for all of Norway’s earthly features. Not yet, anyway.
9. It’s All About A Sense Of Balance
Norway offers an exotic mix of authenticity and hypermodernity, of rural simplicity and urban sophistication. When travelling in Norway’s rustic regions, don’t expect anybody to understand your needs; you may need to explain them, politely. The sooner you understand this, the sooner your travel experience will improve. People can be provincial, less professional, and not always of a standard to which you’re accustomed. But isn’t this a big chunk of the experience, particularly if what you’re seeking, or at least a part of it, is virgin land, authenticity and wilderness? Such things are difficult to pair with professionalism, if not oxymoronic, so it’s hard to have both. If you’re arriving at a farm or guesthouse, do you want the family to invite you into their home and prepare their local dishes for you, sharing their culture and costumes? Or do you just want the professional friendliness of a 5-star hotel? When travelling far from main roads and towns, be prepared: you win some, you lose some. Them’s the breaks.
10. Service Levels Can Sometimes Feel As Low As The Fjords Are Deep, But…
You’ll quickly notice that Norwegians aren’t overly polite or proper. They’ve nonetheless always emphasised egalitarian principles, tossing in a healthy portion of common sense for good measure. Never treat people differently based on wealth or rank, and be as polite to women as you would towards men, and indeed to children. (Does that really still need to be said in the 21t Century?! It does? Lord help us…) Furthermore, be nice to your waiter: they might be there to serve you, but they’re nonetheless your equal. Of course, you could be forgiven for thinking Norwegians are rude: service levels sometimes feel as low as the fjords are deep, as a wise woman or man once said. (It could have been a rude person, actually, but we don’t really remember. It was simply a good line, so we couldn’t help but steal it.) If you believe you’re not being properly served, though, try pragmatism instead of anger, and think ‘practicality’ before ‘politeness’. And yes, we’re trying to change these attitudes, one step at a time. In the meantime: life’s too short for politeness, even when there’s a door to be opened.
11. There’s No Kettle In The Room!
Norwegians drink coffee — disturbing amounts of it, and, after Finland, the most coffee in the world. But they don’t drink much tea, nor do they eat food, like noodles, which are prepared simply by adding hot water. (Generally they prefer potatoes.) Expect, therefore, to find a filter coffee machine and not a kettle in your room. And another thing: they don’t eat many biscuits either, but instead favour waffles. Waffles, waffles, waffles. As Prince nearly sang, ‘Waffles and coffee/ Sour cream and jam.‘ (That’s the Norwegian version, musos. Look THAT up on Discogs!)
12. There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothes
Norwegians tend to spend their lives wearing Gore-Tex and down jackets throughout the year. Practicality first, fashion second, because it’s all about being in the weather. So, if you’re heading north, bring good outerwear, at least in winter (and that can mean most of the year.) And if you’re staying south, bring good outerwear, at least in winter (and that can mean most of the year.)
13. ‘When In Rome’, Do As The Scandinavians Do: Wear Wool!
Advice for the rest or the world: please do as the Scandinavians do — wear a layer of wool against your skin when it’s cold. Wool is handy all through the year, for any occasion: you’ll never know when you’re going to need it, even in summer. Cotton or synthetic fabrics may keep you warm when you’re dry, but they don’t help when you get wet, humid, cold, or are sweating like a sow in a steam room. It’s wool that does the trick — it assists the body to self regulate in cold and warm climates, keeping you warm when it’s cold and cool when it is hot. And, because it’s ‘all natural’, it won’t transmit unpleasant body odours, so you can wear it over and over again. (Well, that’s the theory!) At the very least, invest in woollen socks. (We’re begging you!) And nope, modern woollen sports fabrics don’t itch — try the Merino wool or cashmere varieties.