BEST DISCOVERY

Deep in the fjord country north-east of Bergen is the beautiful village of Fjaerland, a gentle ribbon of old timber houses edging the black-blue water, with the mountains as a startling backcloth. It's one of western Norway's loveliest spots, saved from modern development by its isolation - the road here was only completed in 1994. Fjaerland also advertises itself as the "Norwegian Book Town" and although it's not exactly in the same league as Hay-on-Wye, there are enough second-hand bookstores to keep most browsers satisfied, while the icy magnificence of the Jostedalsbreen glacier is within easy striking distance - and Hay can't match that. The place to stay is the Hotel Mundal, whose 19th century turrets, verandas, and high-pitched roofs overlook the fjord from the centre of the village.

BEST HOTELS

A grim and unpleasant hotel room is almost unheard of in Norway, and many Norwegian youth hostels - almost all of which have single and double rooms as well as dormitory beds - put the average European guesthouse to shame. Surprisingly, prices aren't as high as you might expect: pounds 80- pounds 90 will get you a comfortable hotel double room in any town. Among special places to stay, the Grand Hotel in Oslo has strong appeal as the long- time haunt of Ibsen, while Alesund's Bryggen Home Hotel occupies a superbly converted old waterside warehouse. Spare a thought also for two remote hotels set amid stunning scenery: the ornate, 19th century Union Hotel at Oye, in the Norangdal valley, and the Kongsvold Fjeldstue, a huddle of tastefully restored wooden buildings in a narrow ravine beside the Dovrefjell National Park, a fine hiking area south of Trondheim.

BIGGEST LETDOWN

The Finnmarksvidda. This giant-sized mountain plateau in the far north of Norway is an eerily desolate land of wide skies and deep horizons with barely a tree or bush in sight. But, although the scenery is stunning, the villages are, alas, quite dire. Alcohol is a real bugbear: booze is available in the bars and restaurants, but it's taxed up to the eyeballs and otherwise the distribution of wines and spirits is controlled by a state-run monopoly - Vinmonopolet - which might be OK if it didn't have such limited opening hours.

BEST MEAL

Give or take the odd reindeer, seafood is where it's at in Norway - simply prepared and mostly served with boiled potatoes. At the youth hostel in Stamsund on the Lofoten Islands, I rented a small fishing boat and caught a cod which I grilled on their barbecue - one of the tastiest pieces of fish I've ever had. More conveniently, the Enhjorningen in Bergen offers exquisite seafood, as does Oslo's Engebret Cafe. You also shouldn't leave Norway without trying a local favourite, the meatballs (kjottboller).

FAVOURITE PAINTINGS

The Norwegians have a keen interest in art - visit any home and you're likely to see original works on one wall or another. The most celebrated Norwegian artist is Edvard Munch, whose piercing, disconcerting paintings are on display in art galleries up and down the country, but particularly in Oslo's Munch Museum and National Gallery. Less well-known, but certainly very enjoyable, are the works of Norway's leading 19th century painters, landscape romanticists such as Johan Christian Dahl and Thomas Fearnley - Oslo's National Gallery has a fine sample.

BEST BARGAIN

Norway's most celebrated ferry journey is the long and beautiful haul up the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes on the Hurtigrute coastal steamer. Tickets for the whole return trip, which lasts for 11 days and includes all meals, start at around pounds 800, but a variety of special discounts as well as concessionary fares can make a Hurtigrute trip a real bargain.

FAVOURITE DRINK

One local brew that's really worth trying is aquavit, a rip-roaring spirit served ice-cold in little glasses and at 40 per cent proof not to be trifled with.

BIGGEST MISTAKE

Everywhere and anywhere along the coast, treat what Norwegians say about the weather with caution. If you're going out for a boat trip, as I did, and notice the wind is picking up, do not believe bland reassurances: the "little choppy" waves I was promised looked more like Bondi Beach specials to me - white knuckles holding on to the side of the boat while the interior workings of my stomach were beyond redemption.

8 Phil Lee did research for "The Rough Guide to Norway". Keep up with the latest by subscribing to the free newsletter "Rough News", published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free "Rough Guide" to the first three subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

To reach Fjaerland from Bergen, head north on the E16 to Vinje, then follow Highway 13 to Vangsnes, where the ferry crosses the Sognefjord to Hella. At Hella, take Highway 55 east along the fjord shore to Sogndal and continue northwest on Highway 5. Allow four or five hours for the journey.

Stamsund is a tiny port on the Lofoten Islands, a craggily beautiful archipelago north of the Arctic Circle. The Hurtigrute coastal steamer calls in at Stamsund, which can also be reached by car.

Fjaerland's Hotel Mundal (0047/ 57 693101, fax 0047/57 693179) is open May through September and double rooms cost around pounds 90.

The Grand Hotel, Karl Johans gate 31 (0047/22 429390, fax 0047/22 421225), is in the centre of Oslo and has doubles from pounds 90.

The Bryggen Home Hotel, Apotekergata 1 (0047/70 126400, fax 0047/70 121180) is situated in the middle of Alesund, a particularly attractive port 400km north of Bergen. The Hurtigrute calls here.

Details of Hurtigrute fares and schedules are available from travel agents. Braathens SAFE (0191/214 0991) fly from Gatwick and Newcastle- under-Tyne to Oslo, Stavanger and Bergen. A return fare from Gatwick to Bergen is pounds 172.

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