When we saw the sign indicating that we had arrived in Nordkapp (North Cape, Cap Nord), Laurent and I cheered and gave each other a high five! It was a joyful moment….We had made it all the way up to continental Europe’s most northern point (71° 10’ 21’’ N, actually 1400 meters short of the official most northerly point which can only be reached by foot). Our original plans included Nordkapp, but after recuperating Tommy from the garage in Oslo, and after losing 4 weeks of travel time due to the mechanical problems, we felt it would not be reasonable to still target the far north. However, the proximity to the route we wanted to take south down Finland and the great weather forecast made us change our mind at the very last minute. We were not disappointed. What an amazing region! Rugged barren landscapes above the tree line, dramatic cliffs, reindeer, blue sky, majestic fjords, scenic lakes, and a white autumn light that made the scenery even more beautiful. Despite the sunshine, it was extremely cold due to the howling strong winds. However, that just added to the overall experience! It was magical!
The time has flown by since the evening of August 30th when we drove out of Oslo. We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have seen so many beautiful places in such a short time. Our original itinerary had us travelling leisurely for 6 weeks in Norway, and our actual itinerary was cut down to 3 weeks. After our ordeal with Tommy, we did not take things for granted and developed a deeper appreciation for each day that went by.
Our Norwegian road trip started by heading to the south-western fjords north of Bergen. We boarded a new electric tourist boat from the town of Flam on the Aurlandsfjord. This boat has a modern and sleek Norwegian design that reminds one of the Oslo Opera House and its iceberg theme. It was a beautiful day for a fjord tour and it was magical skimming along the water in silence. The boat headed into the Naeroyfjord, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
We bypassed the world’s longest road tunnel (the Laerdal tunnel, 24.5 km long) and took the old road that passes above the tunnel to our overnight bivouac high above the fjord and under a canopy of stars! The scenery along this road is really incredible with a wind-swept rocky terrain covered with mousse and low-lying vegetation painted brown, khaki green and yellow, with splashes of red and pink here and there. After the restrictions on wild-camping we experienced in Iceland and the Feroe Islands, it was utter freedom to be able to spend the night away from the crowds in a quiet isolated spot. It was actually a blessing to have missed the peak tourist season, as travelling through Norway in September allowed us to visit many places without the usual volume of summer visitors.
The following days had us driving through breathtaking mountain and fjord scenery past the town of Geiranger and the beautiful Geirangerfjord (also listed on the UNESCO world heritage list), and we glimpsed our first snow-capped peaks. We also took our first of a very long series of ferries (at least 15 by the end of our travels through the country). Before reaching the famous Trollstigen road with its 11 hairpin turns, the scenery changed to a breathtaking and totally unexpected landscape consisting of a highland plateau area with unusual pointy rock formations, mountains, and small lakes.
We finally reached the long-anticipated Trollstigen road (Troll’s Ladder) which everyone has seen in Norwegian tourist ads and Instagram photos. Luckily for us, we drove downhill along the road. It would have been a much more laborious affair going the other way with Tommy’s 3.5 tons and lack of turbo! Great views of the road were seen at the various scenic lookout points, created again with tasteful and elegant Norwegian design. This minimalist and graceful design was observed throughout the trip in the different regions we passed; in rest areas, scenic viewpoints, information centers, and even roadside toilets (see below in the Vesteralen Islands section)!
Next on the agenda was the Atlantic Ocean Road (one of the 18 scenic Norwegian driving routes promoted by the Norwegian tourist office). Supposedly one of the world’s greatest drives, it was a bit disappointing. Yes, the architecture of the bridges joining the various islands is beautiful, but frankly, there are many other beautiful series of bridges throughout different regions of Norway. We are told one has to drive it during stormy conditions to really appreciate it…..we will have to return to try it out another time!
Trondheim was a pleasant stop with its cathedral, old quarter, and colorful restored old wooden buildings lining each side of the river. As with many Norwegian cities, this one had a laid-back and relaxed feel to it.
We spent many days heading north along the Atlantic coast and one of the most beautiful stretches was along the Helgelandskysten route (the longest of the 18 scenic routes) stretching for 433 kilometers between Holm in the south and Bodo in the north. It is situated about halfway up the Norwegian coast and the drive requires 6 different ferry crossings. We crossed the arctic circle during one of the ferry crossings. Unfortunately the weather was not good during most of this section with 48 hours of non-stop rain! Rivers were close to over-flowing and there were waterfalls crashing down from the mountains on either side of the road. Definitely a region to come back to in the future! Before the bad weather hit, we had time for fishing, digging for clams, and berry-picking (and subsequently making blueberry jam and pancakes). Mushroom and berry picking are definitely Norwegian national sports in the autumn season. There are tons of them everywhere are berries are so present in everyday Norwegian cuisine. We had never seen so many types before! Prior to arriving in Bodo where we took the ferry to the Lofoten Islands, we crossed the Saltstraumen bridge and stopped to gaze (under the pouring rain and the blustering winds) at the mighty currents that are claimed to be the strongest in the world. 4 times a day when the tide changes, 400 million cubic meters of water is transferred through this straight linking two fjords.
Bodo is where we caught the ferry linking the mainland with the Lofoten Islands. While Laurent parked Tommy in the waiting line (only one daytime passage outside of the peak tourist season), I did our laundry at the local Esso gas station not too far away. The crossing took about 3 hours and when we arrived it was already time to find a spot for the night. It was magical watching the islands approach from the ferry. We had high expectations for this part of the trip and were looking forward to discovering the charm of these islands which for us have always been quite mythical. The charm is in the dramatic scenery with majestic mountains, often unusually shaped, the open sea and sheltered coves, beautiful beaches, and picturesque fishing villages and towns. The views from the road are often sudden with plunging and breathtaking perspectives. And again, that special white northern lighting just adds a special ingredient to the recipe. The Lofoten (and Vesteralen Islands) were definitely Laurent’s favorite region of Norway.
The Vesteralen Islands are situated just north of the top part of the Lofoten Islands. However, they are very different from the Lofoten with their own special scenery and character. Often over-shadowed by their famous neighbor to the south, these islands deserve to be the visited. The relative lack of tourists makes travelling much more enjoyable and the scenery is very diverse with rugged mountains, white beaches, colorful marshlands, and quiet villages. The little rain we had was short-lived and allowed us to see a high concentration of intensively colorful and bright rainbows (single, double, more than 10 in the same day)! We met up with our friends Kjell and Tone on Andoya Island and spent the day touring together. Of note, what must be the world’s most expensive toilet block can be found next to the road on this island. We were told that this building which features one-way mirrored glass, allowing users to admire the scenery in privacy while doing their business, had a price tag of 4 million euros!
On the top of my list of favorite places in Norway is Senja, a large island further north than the Vesteralen Islands, and not too far from Tromso. It’s the second largest island on the Norwegian mainland and its scenery changes from mountainous and wild on the Atlantic-facing side to tame and very green on side facing the mainland. This region is in my opinion, one of the best kept secrets (or under-promoted areas) of Norway! Colourful autumn leaves of gold were present everywhere and were an impressive backdrop to many impressive natural sites. The above-mentioned Norwegian architecture was present in many places along the roads and in towns (rest areas, scenic lookouts, etc.) and complemented the scenery in a tasteful way. One of the most impressive views of the entire Norwegian road trip was the unexpected one from above the little island village of Husoy.
Leaving Senja on the way to Tromso, we found an exceptional place to spend the night on the edge of a fjord with a “private” dock. I saw my first northern lights there!
We experienced extremely warm weather during our visit to Tromso, allowing us to have lunch outside facing the marina and to stroll around in the sun. This city is called the “Paris of the North” although we could not figure out why! Much of the city is on an island and an extensive and confusing tunnel system with internal roundabouts and intersections link the different parts. One distinctive landmark of the city is the Arctic Cathedral, with a design inspired by ice and snow.
Next we had to decide which road to take to get to Finland and that would obviously depend on which route we wanted to follow to head downwards from the north all the way south to Helsinki. Do we head east right away from Tromso and drive down the frontier between Sweden and Finland or do we head further north before entering Finland so we could visit the north-east part of the country? Heading further north won the debate, made us change our mind about going to Nordkapp…..and the rest is history!
Before ending this article, we wanted to share an exceptional moment which occurred while we were in the countryside next to Oslo waiting for Tommy to be repaired. The owner of the Airbnb that we were staying at is a beekeeper. For those of you who did not know (or do not remember), Laurent used to be a beekeeper in his younger days. This chance meeting allowed for Oystein and Laurent to exchange their respective knowledge and philosophies on beekeeping and to share a special moment together. It also allowed us to discover raspberry honey….extraordinary, like Norway!