In this image-saturated age, you can believe you've seen a place before you have actually seen it.

The Grand Canyon, for example. You think: "Oh, I saw that on National Lampoon's Vacation years ago, and a million times in action films and nature shows since," and it's true, you have – except you haven't really. I was blasé about even bothering to stop there, whizzing straight past it on a number of trips across the US, until, at a travelling companion's insistence, I finally did. At which point my heart dropped through the bottom of my stomach.

I've just discovered that it's the same with the Norwegian fjords. I thought: oh yeah. Fjords. Seen them in adverts, looming over the Tube platform, cluttering up the supplements. Then I casually glanced out of the window during the descent into Alesund, and my heart dropped through my stomach. Again.

No photograph can do justice to mists hovering over deep dark waters, to the giant chasms fracturing the land from seashore to glacier. We may be reasonably smart as humans; we may have the technology for accurate duplication, and the creativity for artistic replication. But there's some magic in the immediate refraction of light to optic nerve to brain: some elated uplift of the soul (or soaring, slightly sick feeling, depending which side of the mind/body debate you favour) which no second-hand representation can adequately convey.

And that was just from the plane. Up close, the Unesco-listed Geiranger Fjord was almost too much to take in. On the ferry ride approach, the soothing lapping of the inland waters and the quiet hum of the boat engine was punctuated by the repeated shutter clicks of digital cameras and a loudspeaker commentary in Norwegian, English, German and French (I can now say, "This fruit farm was abandoned in the 1960s" in three languages other than my own). We saw the perfect fins of porpoises, accompanying our entry into the Geiranger; we ooohed at thundering waterfalls and aahhed at the snowfields of the Sunnmore Alps high above.

But I prefer my transcendent moments away from the crowds. Paddling down the Geiranger in a sea kayak one early morning, as long shadows cast by the steep rocky sides of the fjord retreated under the rising sun of a clear Nordic sky, more than matched the stomach-lurching moment of the plane. Particularly when we paddled through a perfect rainbow arch formed as the glacial spray of a waterfall plunged into the dark waters of the fjord.

I hadn't even come to Alesund to have my soul sing courtesy of the fjords; that was merely an unexpected tangent of the trip. Last month, a new direct flight from Gatwick brought Alesund within the realms of an adventurous short break. Photogenically straddling a bridge of land that juts out into the ocean, flanked by an arpeggio of islands to the west and snow-capped mountains and fjords to the east, the town is superbly located for wilderness wanderings and is also a chic little urban escape in its own right.

Rebuilt from the ashes of a great town fire in 1904, Alesund rose, phoenix-like, as an art nouveau wonder. What had seemed like a disaster turned into a blessing; not only did the rebuilding provide a boost to the Norwegian construction industry during a depression, but it left a legacy of carved figures, intricate mouldings and inspired furniture – and of a time when architects and town planners passionately believed in a life less ordinary.

While perhaps not in the stomach-dropping category of fjords and canyons, it is still outstandingly beautiful as small towns go and ticked all the relaxing short-break boxes: lunch in the sun on a floating pontoon; a vintage furniture and bric-à-brac store filled with affordable oddities; short hikes to panoramic lookout points, followed by coffee and cakes in an island lighthouse, whose circular walls are lined with the work of local artists.

There was also the experience of lying on a comfy bed in a boutique hotel designed by the architects who created the lauded iceberg-shaped Oslo Opera House, watching the tops of sailing boats float past the floor-to-ceiling windows. And a Saturday night scene with a difference, as party beats spilled out from local bars into the candlelit cabins of motorboats, moored up along the waterfront – essentially a floating strip of beautiful people with better sound systems than many London clubs.

So far, so smugly satisfactory. But there was to be one more moment of transcendence in Alesund, even more unexpected than the effect of seeing the fjords close up. Someone suggested an RIB excursion to see the bird cliffs on neighbouring Runde Island: a high-speed journey in a wave-bouncing Rigid Inflatable Boat, promising half wildlife trip, half rollercoaster ride. I accepted for the thrill-seeking part; not that I'm averse to birds, but, once again, my brain assumed that it knew what it was getting into before the event. Childhood summers in Cornwall had left me with the impression that bird-watching was all about making distant birds look vaguely closer by squinting at them through binoculars; interesting in theory, but ultimately disappointing.

There were no binoculars in sight as we geared up in wind-stopping survival suits, but it was only when speeding across the waves towards the cliffs that I got an inkling that the bird-watching here might be slightly different. First one gannet, then another, swooped close by us, matching our eye-watering speed. For the first time in my life I got to marvel without lenses at the almost architectural beauty of these streamlined seabirds, their elongated wings like white calligraphy brushes dipped in black ink.

And then we rounded the corner of the island, the roaring of the engine slowing to a gentle hum. It was as if we had stumbled into a bird fantasia, into the mythical Land of the Seabirds. There are 2,500 gannets on Runde, and it seemed like almost all of them were above us, flying to and from their nests of fishing rope and grasses high up on the cliffside. Bobbing in the water alongside us were kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots. Perched on rocks along the cliff were cormorants, hanging their wings out to dry. And just ahead of us, in an ocean that twinkled fantastically in the warm light of a long Nordic summer's evening, was a flotilla of puffins.

We floated slowly through their midst, through an ocean so thick with birds that it resembled one of those rubber-duck filled ponds at a fairground. I almost expected each puffin to have a hook on its back and a winning number beneath. They dived and surfaced around us like small, feathered clowns, occasionally making improbable attempts to get their little round bodies airborne. Above, the gannets wheeled and dived like a giant mobile of white and black against a clear blue sky. And for the third time in my life, my heart dropped through my stomach.

Travel essentials: Norway

Getting there

* The only direct link to Alesund from the UK is with Norwegian from Gatwick (020-8099 7254;

Staying & visiting there

* Hotel Brosundet (00 47 7011 4500; B&B from NK1,590 (£176).

* 62 North runs the Wildlife Sea Safari (00 47 7011 4430; Trips cost NK695 (£77).

* Active Geiranger (00 47 7026 3068; offers kayak rentals from NK150 (£17).

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