A PRIZE-WINNING COAST?
According to Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the designer of Norway's wonderfully serrated shoreline did indeed win an award for his spectacular efforts. Although the shoreline looks as if it has been torn and crushed by the hand of God, the version preferred by geologists is that a succession of Ice Ages were its cause and creation. A massive ice sheet, which gouged out these fjords and valleys, melted around 10,000 years ago to reveal this dramatic legacy.
If you travel to the northern reaches of Norway's coast between November and March, you may witness a spectacle that will imprint itself on your soul: the northern lights. Even though the hours of sunshine each day may be few - or zero - the particles that the sun emits create the aurora borealis, a dazzling, heavenly spectacle of a swirl of turquoise, red or green across the horizon - bringing to life a seascape blanketed by night.
Conversely, you can take a midsummer cruise on which the sun never sets (though it struggles to clamber very far above the horizon). The vessel carves through steely seas and majestic scenery. High on deck, you glide past angry cliffs, deep fjords and scattered islands. Your vessel is the only way to see the astonishing drama of the Atlantic shore on either side of the Arctic Circle.
WHO LIVES THERE?
Hardly anyone, at least in comparison with England, which has a similar area but a dozen times as many people. Norway is an under-inhabited land, but the 4.5m people who live there are very serious about preserving their landscape, adhering religiously to their government's severe building restrictions. It means much of this celestial creation is untouched by human hand.
The vast majority of Norwegians dwell close to the water that has provided the nation's livelihood for centuries. This includes the residents of the national capital, Oslo, which sits at the top of Oslo Fjord. British Airways (08708 509 850; www.ba.com) and SAS (08706 072 772; www.scandinavian.net) both fly into Oslo's Gardermoen airport, 50km (31 miles) north of the city, from Heathrow; BA also flies from Manchester. Or you could fly in from Stansted on the local no-frills carrier, Norwegian (00 47 21 49 00 15; www.norwegian.no).
The high-speed train makes the journey to Oslo S, the central station, in 20 minutes, and costs Nkr160 (£12.80) each way. Anyone travelling to Oslo from Stansted or Prestwick with Ryanair (08712 460 000; www.ryanair.com) will arrive at Torp airport, some 110km south-west of the city. Buses meet each flight, and the fare to Oslo's central bus terminal is Nkr250 (£20) return. Once in the city, cruise the Oslo Fjord on 50-minute harbour cruises (00 47 23 35 68 90; www.boatsightseeing.com) from pier 3, every hour on the hour in summer (18 May to 30 June, 10am-4pm), with longer opening to 7pm from 1 July to 26 August. The price is Nkr115 (£9).
SOMETHING MORE WILD?
Good idea. Most travellers' preconceptions of islands and fjords are more closely represented by the western and northern coasts. Dozens of small communities are linked by daily ferries - the Hurtigruten - which constitute a lifeline for the locals and a travel opportunity for the visitor. Hurtigruten may sound like the name of a troll, but its literal transation is "Coastal Express". For information and bookings visit www.hurtigruten.com, or go through the line's UK agent, previously known as Norwegian Coastal Voyage but now simply Hurtigruten (020-8846 2666; www.hurtigruten.co.uk).
The ships of the Hurtigruten fleet deliver the mail, bring fresh seafood south and take vegetables north. Every day of the year, these modest vessels steer through the treacherous waters that were charted by the 19th-century captain, Richard With (who has one of the ferries named in his honour). The network that he established stretches for 4,000km between Kirkenes on the Russian border and Bergen. Even the southern terminus is further north than anywhere in mainland Britain. During the 12-day voyage, each ship stops 34 times - usually at a pretty port whose main connection with the outside world is the Hurtigruten. Consequently, the company changes constantly. Some of your new shipmates are families taking a one-hour hop to see friends in the next town.Others are students on a long voyage home: universities are in short supply on this sparse coast.
A ferry may not sound comfortable, but in one of the richest nations on the planet, it is. Cabins are simple but well-equipped, and the on-board catering is first-class. Breakfast is a feast that can last half the morning, as is the superb buffet dinner (though alcohol comes at a steep price).
CAN I GET OFF?
Yes, wherever the boat stops. On the way north the vessel stops at half the ports of call, pausing at the other on the return voyage south. Some calls are no more than a 30-minute coffee break, others allow you up to a day to tour a city or venture into the hinterland, although you may sometimes need to catch the boat up at the following stop. If you want to stay longer at any of these destinations, you can disembark, spend a few days pottering around and then get on the next boat that comes along. The ports offer a lot of variety - from small fishing villages where the boat's arrival is a major event to ports where your ship will be one of many checking in.
WHAT ARE THE SCENIC HIGHLIGHTS?
There is little along this coastline that isn't a visual feast. For example, even the Norwegians themselves talk in awe of their Lofoten Islands - they have a mystical presence in the collective psyche of this nation. Say to a Norwegian that you're heading there and they'll nod with approval.
Situated high up above the Arctic Circle on the north-west coast, there are four main islands linked by bridges and tunnels. The first you see of them is the Lofoten Wall - an imposing range of mountains that suddenly rises up out of the sea, seemingly from nowhere. On closer inspection the visual uniformity dissipates: this "wall" is broken up by fjords and straits, and at the foot of the mountains are picturesque villages sheltering from the worst furies of the Atlantic Ocean. Here are communities that for centuries have lived off the plentiful supplies of cod found in the area.
Now the towns and villages attract large numbers of tourists and artists drawn to the uniqueness of the islands and the novel experience of staying in a rorbuer - a fisherman's shack. For those more used to the climate conditions found south of the Arctic Circle, these islands are best seen in summer when the elements are gentler and the unique Arctic light can be enjoyed for longer.
ANY CITY ACTION?
Yes, if you aim for Bergen, home port of the Hurtigruten and Norway's second-largest city. Take an umbrella: only one day in four is rain-free, on average. One advantage is that everything looks very clean and green: the parks, the cobblestone streets, the timber houses, the surrounding hills - even Bergen's fish market at Torget is remarkably shiny.When the sun shines the city positively sparkles - the light bounces off the rust red gable-end buildings, turning the place into a photographer's dream.
Take the eight-minute ride on the funicular railway to the top of Mount Floyen which, on a clear day, will give you a wonderful view of the city. Bergen is also a cultural centre - the former home of Norwegian composer Edvard Greig, it has several museums, art galleries, theatres and its own renowned philharmonic orchestra
Head for Nordnesparken on the southern arm of the centre of Bergen for views over the bay. To reach it, walk through the fetchingly restored streets of Skottegaten and Nedre Stangehagen, full of timber houses.cn the park, pop into the Bergen aquarium (daily, 9am-7pm; Nkr100/£8) at Nordnesbakken 4, which runs its tanks on sea water and has a collection of penguins, seals and local fish.
You can reach Bergen by ship from Newcastle aboard DFDS Seaways (08705 333 111; www.dfdsseaways.com); or by air from Stansted on Norwegian or from Gatwick on SAS.
The tourist office is in the grand Fresco Hall at Vagsallmenninging Square (daily 8.30am-10pm, 00 47 55 55 20 00, www.visitbergen.com).* * Here, you can buy the Bergen Card, which offers free transport and free or reduced entry to museums and attractions. The card costs Nkr170 (£13.60) for 24 hours or Nkr250 (£20) for 48 hours.
Heading north, you come to Alesund - on the map because of its Art Nouveau-style architecture. The city was burnt down in 1904 but rose from its ashes remarkably quickly. Kaiser Wilhelm II paid for much of the rebuilding work; he was a great fan of the area and the Art Nouveau style. The result: a somewhat surreal sight on a coastline where uniformly coloured clapboard houses are the norm. Instead, Alesund presents you with pastel painted fronts, turrets, spires and gargoyles. A refreshingly ornate oasis amidst much Lutheran conformity.
The next main stop, Trondheim, is regarded by many as the last outpost before you enter a different country, ie the North. Life here is not hurried - some may even say it's a bit slow. A thousand years ago it was the capital of Norway. Now it's a university town with a lovely old centre - narrow streets, wooden buildings, brown and rust-coloured warehouses. Trondheim has arguably one of the country's best-preserved examples of medieval architecture: the city cathedral, the Nidaros Domkirke. A former place of pilgrimage, it's now where coronations happen and royals get buried. Opening hours are noon-2.30pm Sept-April, with varying times at weekends and rest of the year (00 47 73 89 08 00; www.nidarosdomen.no). The admission price of Nkr50 (£4) includes access to the Archbishop's Palace.
I WANT TO FIND THE REAL NORTH
It is epitomised by Tromso, also known as "the Gateway to the Arctic", "the Arctic Ocean City" and, with some predictability, "the Paris of the North". The city is located 400km above the Arctic Circle and is the starting point for many a polar expedition - the relics of which can be seen in the city's Polar Museum (00 47 77 68 43 73; www.polarmuseum.no). It opens 11am-3pm daily from October to February, admission Nkr50 (£4).
Tromso is where Mack, Europe's northernmost brewery, produces its Arctic Ale, and where there are alleged to be more pubs per capita than anywhere else in Norway. But lest you think all they do is drink up here, there's great hiking, a midnight sun marathon in the summer, and good skiing in the winter. It's also got a large student population because of the local university.
THE MILD COAST
While the western and northern shores are most celebrated, the rest of Norway's coast is also worth a visit. At the bottom of the west coast is Stavanger - a city made profitable, and cosmopolitan, by North Sea oil. But there's a lot of history here as well: whitewashed wooden houses, a medieval cathedral, good museums, and a historic harbour. There is even an emigration centre for visitors hoping to trace their Viking roots (00 47 51 53 88 62; www.emigrationcenter.com), open weekdays 9am-3pm, however check for irregular closing hours.
You can reach Stavanger from Newcastle aboard the DFDS Seaways Service, or for more southerly coastal parts sail with the same company from Harwich to Kristiansand.
As soon as you hit the south of the country, from Mandal and Kristiansand onwards, the climate, coastline and scenery change dramatically. You are fast approaching the Norwegian Riviera, which stretches up to Oslo. This part of the world faces the relatively tame Skagerrak Sea. It is pretty around here: classic Scandinavian summer holiday stuff, a land of gentle scenery compared to the awe-inspiring landscapes on the other side of the country. During the summer months the area is full of yachts.
You can expect lots of little islands and small fjords, hidden bays and coves, forests and lakes, clapboard houses and picturesque towns. Worth visiting are the well-preserved historic coastal towns - Risor, Tvedestrand, Arendal, Grimstad and Lillesand - characterised by narrow streets, white houses, picket fences and rose gardens.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
The helpful Norwegian Tourist Board has an unhelpfully expensive premium-rate number: 09063 022 003, calls to which cost 50p per minute. More economically, look at the website: www.visitnorway.com. Details about what to see in the region can be found on www.fjordnorway.com . For Norway's south-east coast try www.sorlandet.com.
Additional research by Melanie Gerry
Norway's western fjords comprise a natural wonder, to which the glossy tourist brochures and websites cannot do justice. You have to see the scenery in its three-dimensional glory to appreciate it, to stand on the edge of a mountain overlooking one of these massive holes in the earth to get any sort of concept of the scale, the elemental beauty, and the awesome geology.
Sculpted by glacial ice, these fjords are huge river valleys that have chiselled their way inland from the coast, becoming progressively narrower the further they travel. Each has a name, a claim to fame, and provides the ultimate geography field trip experience. The coastal ships venture into a few of the fjords. Between April and September they navigate their way past the town of Alesund towards the Geirangerfjord. It's rated the most beautiful - a hard-won title given local standards. As you sail along feeling minuscule beneath the towering mountains, you pass magnificent waterfalls tumbling down hundreds of metres. And lest you forget which waterfall is which, they have all been christened with wonderfully kitsch sounding names such as Seven Sisters and Bridal Veil.
The rest of the celebrated fjords are around the city of Bergen where most of the coastal voyages start and finish. Hardangerfjord is one of the largest fjords; its trademark is the thousands of fruit trees growing on the side of the fjord that, when in blossom, make the landscape look as if someone has tipped the colour balance to brilliant pink.
Further south is Sognefjord, for a long time touted as the longest fjord in the world. Evidently it's a false claim - Greenland has an even longer one - but this fact doesn't seem to have lessened the belief by many that Sognefjord should keep the title. Sognefjord is an impressive 204km and in 2004 an extremely hardy Brit called Lewis Gordon Pugh swam the length of it in 21 days. For that he received the title of having accomplished "the longest cold-water swim" ever. It's doubtful there will be many challenges for this title.
Then you come to the most southern of the big Western fjords - Lysefjord with its Preikestolen: "the pulpit". Here you can stand on a rock platform overlooking the fjord. This vantage point - pictured in many a guide book provides the sights that appear on the postcards: the mountains, the lakes, the waterfalls, and - tiny by comparison - the hikers.