If you’re like me, the first thing you do when planning a trip to Europe is to consult the Rick Steves country guide. I’ve been buying his popular books for years, and I’m rarely disappointed or confused with the recommendations or itineraries. That is, until I decided to go to Norway…
Why use my tour?
I tried to use the book’s “Norway in a Nutshell” section to plan my vacation in the fjords. And tried. And tried. And tried some more. I read it. I reread it. I mapped it, highlighted it, bookmarked pages for future reference, cross-referenced alternative websites (ie-Hurtigruten), asked travel agents, put it down for a few weeks, and came back to it again, just about as exasperated as when I first started, because it seemed that no matter how much I toyed with the “Nutshell” itinerary, I wound up not seeing everything I wanted to see or else seeing it twice! What I really wished for was a way to see all of the good stuff without sacrificing efficiency and without hurrying, and I never was able to do that until, finally, I ignored the “stock” advice and used that dog-eared book to come up with my own plan. The good news is, it worked! More good news: I’m sharing it with you! For free! Such a deal!
Keep in mind, I’m the type of traveler who likes to leave no stone unturned, and I don’t mind spending some money to do it. I don’t agree with those who say, “Don’t worry if you miss something-always assume you’ll be going back”. Nonsense. You may or may not ever be in that corner of the earth again…only God knows. My philosophy is, it’s best to see it all while you’re there, especially when you consider how much time and money it took to get you there. If you decide you like it that much you can always plan to go again, hoping it hasn’t irreparably changed in the meantime (which is a very real issue considering the demographic catastrophe that is unfolding on the Continent as we speak), but wouldn’t it be nice if, upon returning to Rome, for example, you didn’t feel like you needed to wait in that long line at the Vatican again?
I think that when people say “Don’t worry; you’ll be back” what they really mean is: don’t ruin your vacation by filling it with concerns about missed opportunities-and I agree with that. It’s supposed to be fun, and it’s hard to put a smile on your face when you’re stressing out because it was raining the day you went to see the Naeroyfjord. It’s just that my approach is, spend as much time as you need the first time, allow for some problems, delays, or detours, build some “fat” into the itinerary, and you’ll probably see it all because you were there longer-and you’ll even be able to sleep in occasionally! If there’s one complaint I have with almost every Rick Steve itinerary, it’s the manic pace: I just can’t see how a fast dash through the Louvre a’ la European Vacation is conductive to relaxed sightseeing. Nor do I enjoy a “red eye” wake-up call every morning and sightseeing all day until your legs give out. That is exhausting, not exhilarating, IMO. Of course, staying a bit longer costs more…but far less than a second trip to the same place! That’s why I usually take the Rick Steve plan and add a day or two at each stop.
Which brings me back to the “Nutshell”. Rick Steves actually spells out how to do this in one day. And yes, it can be done, in the same way that you can fast forward through sex, Forrest Gump, or a Santorini sunset . But why? Norway is incredibly wet. It wouldn’t be at all unusual if that one single day you took going from Oslo to Bergen was during a rain squall. If you have the money and the time, spend it. Stay longer. Enjoy it more. How, exactly? Here’s how:
Nutshell Day One-Oslo to Balestrand
Leave the Oslo S station at 0825, arrive in Myrdal at 1258. Transfer to the famous Flamsbana train at 1327 to arrive in Flam at 1425. Make reservations here. Do not delay, the trains do fill up, especially during the summer months. Do not believe what some guidebooks tell you about just stepping on to a full Flamsbana train without reservations-I tried, as did many others. Doesn’t work. You need reservations all the way to Flam well in advance. Make sure you get out at the only stop along the Flamsbana route-you won’t be disappointed.
Take the ferry from Myrdal at 1530 arriving Balestrand at 1655. This is the best ferry company. It allows you to go outside and snap pix. Believe me, you will want to. You will be cruising the Sognefjord.
Balestrand Hotel will pick you up at portside, but a better accommodation option is the Kvicknes. You can walk to that one from the port.
Check the schedule of services at the unique and charming St. Olaf’s Church. When I was there, they held a night time Vespers-type of service that was simply lovely.
Nutshell Day Two-Balestrand
This is a free day. There are some hiking/biking trails around town with great views (easy to moderate difficulty). You can also visit the Jostedal glacier.
Nutshell Day Three-Balestrand to Aurland
Long drive day. Your rental car will be delivered to your hotel front door by Kjetil Nesse. Contact him here. Superlative service and cars, reasonable pricing.
Leave the hotel NLT 0830. Take the ferry from Dragsvik (near Balestrand) to Vangsnes (one stop at Hella). Drive toward Voss via Vik, stopping at the Hopperstad Stave Church (see Travel Notes below) and Tvindefossen Waterfall on the way to the Stalheim Hotel. This is a world-class drive with great top of the mountain views. Lunch on the grounds of hotel. Although the hotel itself gets poor reviews, just sitting above the clouds on the hotel terrace provides a spectacular view of the steep valleys and mountains around it.
Continue to Gudvangen to catch the ferry to Flam…this is the famous Naroyfjord route. Here you must leave your car at the ferry parking lot as there is no car ferry between Gudvangen and Flam. Try to arrive in time for the 1330 ferry to Flam (arrives 1530). If the weather is bad going out, just reverse the trip in Flam and go back to Gudvangen via the 1600 ferry (arrives back in Gudvangen 1800). Yes, you just did a round trip on what many say is the best part of the trip! As an alternative, you can catch a bus back from Flam to Gudvangen to pick up your car. Buses only take about 20-25 minutes for the same trip because they go through an extremely long tunnel. Either way, you will wind up back in Gudvangen to pick up your car about 1-1.5 hours from your hotel in Aurland.
Check in to Vangsgaarden Gjestgiveri. Try to get a cabin on the fjord rather than stay in the main building off the water.
Nutshell Day Four-Aurland to Solvorn
Take the “Snow Road” up and over the mountains toward Laerdal, stopping at the staggering Stegastein Viewpoint along the way. This is a jaw-dropping, once in a lifetime drive. Take your time. Detour to the Borgund Stave Church, which has the best regular tours and park station of the three stave churches on this tour. Then, continue on to Fodnes, where you’ll catch a ferry to Mannheller. Drive on to Solvorn via Kaupanger and Sogndal.
Check in to the Walaker Hotel. You must dine here for dinner as often as you can. Every night if possible. Exquisite! Rooms are honestly a disappointment at the price point, but it’s the only game in town, really. Try to get the outside rooms in the old building on the wings facing the water.
Stroll around Solvorn.
Nutshell Day Five-Solvorn
Take the first ferry from Solvorn to Urnes at 1000 (you can walk about two minutes from the hotel to get to the dock). You will arrive about 1015 at the Urnes dock. Hike quickly up a steep hill to reach the Urnes Stave Church. This is the most photogenic of the stave churches on this tour. Tours start at 40” past the hour, and it is a 20” hike to the church. Hike back to catch the ferry at the bottom of the hour (total time from Solvorn-allow 2 hours roundtrip).
Now you have some choices to make. If you want to walk on the Nigard Glacier it would really be best to make it an all day excursion and add on an additional day in Solvorn. If, however, you would be content with simply viewing the glacier from a close distance after a short hike, you have the option of seeing it this afternoon (allow 4 hours including drive time from Solvorn for hike to but not on top of the glacier).
A good detour on the way to see the glacier is to go through Nes and Luster to see the Dale Church and the Feigumfoss waterfall, but don’t lose any sleep over it if you miss these pleasant but frankly underwhelming attractions.
Nutshell Day Six-Solvorn to Bergen
Sleep in, explore Solvorn, or take a nice morning hike (alternatively do Urnes Stave Church as noted above in AM).
Drive from Solvorn to Balestrand using Hella to Dragsvik ferry. The last Hella-Dragsvik ferry to take in order to catch the express ferry to Bergen is the 1540…that would get you into Balestrand at about 1620 including drive time, but it would be better to catch the 1455, which would get you into Balestrand at about 1530, leaving you with plenty of breathing room, which you can use having tea at the Kvicknes. Return your rental car (Kjetil will meet you in the parking lot of the Kvicknes).
Take the ferry from Balestrand to Bergen at 1655. There are some great photo opportunities on this boat trip. Arrive in Bergen at 2045.
This tour will give you everything Rick Steves recommends in a single 6 day trip, and you won’t need to run yourself ragged to do it. It includes the best driving roads, the most impressive stave churches, glacier stops, quaint villages to visit, and all of the thrilling train and boat rides in one package. Importantly, it allows some extra time for the weather to clear so you can enjoy the views in the sunshine like the tourist photos always show.…and give you some time to relax and smell the fresh alpine air. True, there is one backtrack at the Naroyfjord, but that just gives you two shots at seeing one of the most impressive highlights of the Nutshell trip-and it only “costs” about 90 minutes. Enjoy!
Travel Notes and Tips:
- Don’t worry about ferry reservations. Even at the height of the summer you can get on.
- The local ferries within the Sognefjord leave regularly. You don’t need to plan your arrival or departure time during daylight hours. Just show up and wait. One will come along soon enough. However, if you want to take the ferry to Bergen it will probably only go once or twice a day. Make sure you plan around that.
- This is a trip that needs a whole lot of advanced planning and reservations. Don’t go expecting to get into a hotel or on a train based on some last minute cancellations. Make your reservations as far ahead as the hotel or train service will allow them.
- If you rent a car from the company I recommended you will probably get an included GPS. Check. If you don’t get one, you’ll definitely need it!
- Norway gets a lot of rain! Even with all of the extra days I plugged in, I still missed things because of that. I think I got maybe two days of totally clear and sunny time vs the week I spent there. If that is bound to disappoint you, it’s probably best not to go.
- The stave churches are very cool, but I agree with Rick Steves’ advice that you probably don’t want or need to see three or more. If I were to skip one on this itinerary, it would be the Hopperstad.
- I was looking forward to seeing Otternes Farms as recommended by my Rick Steves book. It is now closed unfortunately, but the road to the farm is still open, and there are great views down the fjord from the farm buildings at the top.