Travel: Europe/A weatherboard cabin by the fiord

When in Norway, do as the Norwegians: head for a summer sea house. By Hilary Peyton

We gave up pointing out our dream hide-aways after a few days. They were everywhere, most of them hidden behind the trees. There was a blue gingerbread cabin set in a glade of rustling birch, perched above a rocky shore I particularly liked. And a rambling old house of ochre weatherboard on a narrow inlet. And even one built on an islet no bigger than a tennis court.

It is customary for Norwegians to have a "sea house" for the summer - small cabins along the pine-clad slopes of a fiord or on a small island. These cabins can be rented for no more than the price of a country cottage here, often with a boat thrown in. The locations are breathtaking. One lazy Sunday afternoon drinking home-made fig wine with some friendly locals, I asked my friend Petter where he sailed his boat - a traditional yacht moored at the jetty. "Here," he said, looking surprised. "Why go anywhere else?" It was hard to disagree.

I had sailed on a yacht to Norway as crew, and it had been my intention to return immediately by ferry. I had imagined the country would be cold, damp and expensive. I came home a month later with very different impressions.

We made our landfall at Stavanger and, after a few wet days, sailed south on the advice of local people, to the area between Farsund and Kristiansand on Norway's southern tip. It's a gentler landscape than the fiords further north, and the climate is more reliable, on a par with southern England.

The ribboned coastline, with its countless islands and inlets, is stunning, and the colours here are a constant marvel. It must be the clear northern air that gives such a jewel-like intensity. Fields and pastures green and gold, distant mountains deepest blue...

Perhaps we were lucky: for most of our stay last June the sun shone throughout the long days. In the early dawn the glassy water bears a perfect, unbroken image of the wooded shores. We would watch fishermen across the fiord sinking catches into the cool water to keep the fish fresh. Norwegians love their seafood and you can buy it straight from the boats relatively cheaply. Food and drink, though, are generally very expensive - roughly double our prices.

And when people go shopping, for much of the time they go by boat. Indeed, boats are the equivalent of cars in this environment, and boathouses are like garages. These are dotted along the waterside, pretty old weatherboard buildings, often painted ox-blood red. The traditional boats many of them house are like a throwback to the last century: gleaming with varnish and full of faded nets, flats, crab pots and fish boxes.

On the whole, the inland waters are well sheltered and it's safe to head off with a picnic and choose your own deserted island for a day (where it is quite acceptable to land). Motor boats can be rented for between pounds 10-20 a day or at weekly rates.

If you fancy somewhere less remote there are some wonderfully unspoilt villages (20 or so houses around a bay) and small towns to explore. At times these look almost painfully picturesque, but they are saved from being too chocolate-box twee by the rugged landscape surrounding them. Flat space is hard to come by along the waterside and the old houses are built higgledy-piggledy up the rocks, with fretworked eaves and balconies and tiny sun-trap gardens.

In many of the little towns, the old way of life on both land and sea is detailed in some fascinating local museums. For the most part these are refreshingly unstuffy - not a glass case in sight. There are some wonderful implements on display, made of wood and iron, worn with hard use. Then, my particular favourites, there are the sepia-tinted photographs of craggy-faced seafarers - which might encourage you to try your hand at fishing. Even I had some success with pounds 5-worth of basic gear from a hardware store - after watching small boys pull large fish from the harbour waters it seemed silly not to have a go.

If you want to venture further afield, the bus services are excellent and slightly cheaper than ours. There are also frequent ferries between the bigger islands and the mainland. And from Kristiansand you can take a day-trip to Denmark - a cheap shopping jaunt for Norwegians.

The Norwegians themselves were ever-friendly and welcoming. They smile a lot, are nice to their children and never seem to lock their bikes. With only about 4m people in a country bigger than ours, I guess all that space makes for a calm life - when the sun shines.

Color Line (0191-296 1313) sails between Newcastle (North Shields) and Stavanger. Maersk Air (0171-333 0066) flies daily from Gatwick via Copenhagen to Kristiansand for pounds 203. Norwegian Tourist Board: 5 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (0171-839 6255)

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