Norway in a Nutshell with a toddler in tow
f it’s your first time in Norway, chances are you would want to visit the places that everybody is talking about. And what’s more popular in Norway nowadays than Nærøyfjord, the place that inspired the hit Disney movie Frozen?
Packaged in many travel tours as Norway in a Nutshell, this set of sightseeing activities is centered in Flåm, a charming little town that’s probably as popular nowadays as Dubrovnik , Croatia.
While I try to avoid heavily-marketed travel destinations, it was my husband’s first time in Norway so I thought it’ll be a nice introduction for him. We booked everything in advance and I have provided all the links I used in the itinerary below:
Route 50 scenic drive
Our home-base was Geilo, a ski-town smacked between Oslo and Bergen. For this trip, we rented a car from Hertz (hertz.no) so that we don’t have to chase train schedules with a toddler in tow. Although their branch was located in the next town (Gol Hertz), they generously brought our rental car straight to our front door.
From Geilo, we drove part of the Fylkesvei 50 route, or the increasingly popular Route 50. It took us a little more than two hours (about 115km) to reach our first stop, because we had a couple of pit stops along the way.
In early summer, this scenic drive takes you along snow-covered mountains dotted with waterfalls, lakes glistening in the summer sun, several tunnels and some heart-pumping sharp bends.
We contemplated on going with the train but renting a car was cheaper and more convenient. Tickets from Geilo would have cost us around €250 (2 adults, toddler is free) while we only paid about €157, including child seat for the car. The fuel for the whole trip cost us €25.
If you’re starting from Bergen or Oslo, train tickets could be book via VY, (formerly known as the Norwegian State Railways or NSB). However it could be very difficult to pay with a credit card, unless you have a Paypal, so you must call them (vy.no/en).
I wouldn’t recommend booking the entire tour. Most packaged tours for Norway in a Nutshell starts at €1000, which is way more expensive compared with arranging everything yourself.
Stegastein viewing platform
Aurland’s most popular viewing platform is a classic example of milking it for all its worth. We would have regretted going up Stegastein had it not been for the driving adventure, crawling at 40km/hr up hairpin bends and narrow, nauseating turns where you have to strategically maneuver your car between huge German campers and tourist buses. Or fall off a cliff.
The view of the Aurlandsfjord from Stegastein was undeniably breath-taking but you have to share it with 50 different people at the same time. There’s not enough parking space and you have to stand in line for the most scenic shot. We stayed here for barely half an hour, only to do a toilet break and eat our lunch.
The Nærøyfjord cruise
This widely-marketed UNESCO-protected Nærøyfjord is very popular among the cruise crowd so prepare yourself for the deluge of Chinese and Indian tourists, the latter more behave than the first (and I am saying this nicely).
I spent a lot of time online searching for the best way to do this cruise. Originally I wanted to return to Flåm on the same day but we didn’t want to rush or come home too late. So I decided to stay overnight in Gudvangen instead of Flåm, to save on hotel accommodation.
The cheapest ticket I was able to get was through Lustrabaatane (lustrabaatane.com). We took an old roll-on roll-off (roro) boat called MF Lustrafjord, which reminds me so much of the ferry boats we take to go to the city. The price was €62 (one way) for 2 adults and a toddler, compared to €82 they offer at visitflam.com.
We parked our car overnight for free at the huge parking area in front of the dock. Our boat sailed from dock no. 8 at 14:45 pm and arrived promptly in Gudvangen after an hour and 45 minutes.
Fortunately it wasn’t my first time in Norway, nor was it my first to take on a fjord cruise. For the husband however, the presence of rowdy Chinese tourists kind of ruined the whole boat trip. There’s nothing more irritating than tourists (who hardly speaks English) ordering you to vacate your seat so that they can take more photos of the fjord that they’ve already have a million shots of. Or a group of seagulls flying over your head the whole trip, possibly defecating on your hair, because the Chinese were feeding them so that they could take pictures. This behaviour forced us to leave the deck and stay inside the boat so that we won’t have to deal with their uncultured ways.
It was raining all day, the sun hardly shows between the gray clouds, but the weather only made arriving in place of the Gods all the more magical. Cruising through the narrow fjord, squeezed between towering mountains with powerful waterfalls, one wonders no more why this place became an inspiration for Frozen, and why the whole world (at least those who could pay) is now descending upon its shores.
Overnight at Gudvangen (camping)
When the cruise crowd alighted from the boat and went straight to their buses ferrying them back to Flåm, a cloud of silence enveloped Gudvangen, and the atmosphere became closer to the post-card perfect tranquility that you’d often see online.
We stayed at Vang Camping (vang-camping.no), a family-run camping site where you could rent a wooden cabin for €78/night. We had double-bed bunk bed for us and the toddler, a small kitchen with electric stove, pots, pans and cutlery and a small fridge, but no running water, although it’s available in the more expensive cabins. We brought packed-lunch and dinner so we didn’t have to fork out too much. There was a supermarket near the dock where you could buy food and beer. A can of Danish beer costs about €4, half of the price in restaurants.
Vang camping is conveniently located 800 meters from the dock, or about 10 minutes walk with a 11-kilo toddler on your back on a rainy day.
Their facility might be basic but the location is first class. It offers an unobstructed view of the majestic Kjelsfossen waterfalls, which on the day of our visit, was fighting the gusty winds trying to blow its water sideways. The night was cold but we have a great sleep, lulled by the sounds of the waterfalls.
What’s most memorable to me, was waking up to a chilly morning wrapped in my soft woolen sweater, drinking instant coffee at the terrace, watching the waterfalls nicely framed in our cabin’s window. And being mesmerized by the clouds slowly rising up the quay behind our cabin, while my daughter is prancing around in delight, dressed in her pink rainy day ensemble.
The camping is located beside the E16 highway but the noise of passing cars hardly bothers you because there’s not much traffic to begin with. Although I cannot guarantee the same tranquility during high season.
Killing time at the Viking Village
Our shuttle bus back to Flåm leaves at 14:30 allowing us enough time to explore a bit of Gudvangen. Although there’s really not much choice for us because many activities like the Magical Cave or mountain hiking are not suitable for toddlers. So after check out, we decided to kill time at the Viking Village (vikingvalley.no/).
I find the entrance fee of €20/person a bit steep even though it includes an English-speaking guide already. But there were enough activities to keep us entertained.
We made delicious rye bread together with a bearded German/Danish (Viking) lady who’s about to discover a treasure in Molde, where she’s living for the last 10 years, chatted with a Spanish (Viking) girl taking a summer break in Norway after finishing her university studies, practice our archery and axe throwing skills, discovered and played a game called Kuub, learned some leather-making secrets from an Englishman masquerading as a Viking smith and basically chased chickens all around.
The bus arrived promptly and we were back in Flåm 25 minutes later, ready to head back home. Tickets are available at Visit Flam (visitflam.com/activities/shuttlebus/) and costs €7/person.
Lunch at Steinbergdalshytta
On the way back, we stopped at this restaurant that we noticed when we went to Flåm, situated on a mountain-side with a sweeping view of a big lake and snow-covered mountains.
Steinbergdalshytta is a mountain lodge and restaurant that was re-opened only three months before our visit. It is located in Stemmerdalen (Steinbergdalen), in the middle of the hiking route of Aurlandsdalen. In addition to good food, you get a great view for free. I couldn’t think of a better way to end our long day. (steinbergdalshytta.no)
Why we skipped the Flam railways
The Flåm Railways, one of the best train trips in Europe, according to the National Geographic, perhaps the best in Norway indeed. Depending on the season, this 2-hour train ride costs between €50-€60 one way, and trudges through the mountains and valleys between Flåm and Myrdal.
But we took the train from Oslo to Geilo and I’m quite convinced that the view was just as beautiful as Flåmbana . The Norwegian Railway System is built not only to provide its citizen with fast and efficient transportation, but also to give them a soul-soothing view while in transit.
Alternately you can also take the train from Oslo to Bergen, and sit at the train cafe the whole time. The food is a little pricey but better than your regular train menu. The view however, is worth paying for.