Magical, misty tour: Explore Norway's dramatic fjords by speedboat and kayak

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).

More information




people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
voicesBy the man who has
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?