In many ways Norway is its coastline. If you were to follow its every crinkle and crease, you would cover some 15,000 miles from the lighthouse at Lindesnes Fyr, the country's most southerly point, all the way up to North Cape, mainland Europe's most northerly point, as far as Kirkenes, which nudges the frontier with Russia. Above the Arctic Circle, it's daylight around the clock at the moment, and the coastal lands look their best, basking in the brief northern summer.
Like Sir Antony Gormley's splendid Havmannen (Man of the Sea) statue, for ever up to its knees in water off Mo i Rana, the people of Norway have long looked to the sea. For many living in the north, a boat journey was until recently the most convenient – often the only – means of travel. And for centuries before salmon farming became a major source of national wealth, the sea brought sustenance from the bountiful shoals of herring and, especially, cod, which was exported to Catholic Mediterranean countries in the form of bacalao, dried and salted. Much later, thanks to smart mid-19th century marketing, cod-liver oil became the natural cold antidote of choice.
Shrimps, halibut and Arctic char, hauled from the coastal seas of the far north, counterbalance the Norwegians' eccentric passion for hot dogs that are available everywhere and dressed with lashings of tomato sauce and mustard. For guaranteed gastronomic delight in Oslo, indulge yourself with the Chef's Menu (NOK900/£90) at Feinschmecker (00 47 22 12 93 80; feinschmecker.no). More modestly, the menu at Bergen's Pingvinen (00 47 55 60 46 46; pingvinen.no) is rich in traditional Norwegian dishes (dinner around NOK500/£50).
The sea laps at the waterfront of every one of the country's few cities (only six have more than 100,000 inhabitants), including Oslo. In addition to its top restaurants, Norway's laid-back capital has galleries and museums that compete with Europe's best and – rare in many Norwegian cities – an animated nightlife.
Norway nowadays faces out to sea for a different reason – to the offshore rigs that pump oil and gas, the source of Norway's exceptional wealth. But, if you discount Stavanger, and Hammerfest, the latest, gas-fuelled boom town, you're rarely aware of such industry.
The southern beaches attract Norwegian holidaymakers by the thousand, but the season is short and early. Regional centres such as Bergen, Trondheim, Alesund and Tromso, are rarely crowded and a delight to stroll around. Leave them behind and, chances are, you'll drive for miles without seeing another vehicle.
For many, Norway means "fjords". The sheer loveliness of these deeply incised inlets, often bordered by sheer cliffs, usually as calm as any lake and sparsely populated, takes the breath away. The western fjords are stunning, but they are almost matched for beauty – and surpassed in solitude – by the islands scattered along the coast from north of Trondheim to Bodo, north of the Arctic Circle. If you want to cover much of this vast coastline, a car is essential. For an active holiday exploring a small area, the coast is ideal for cycling and many tourist offices rent out bikes and cycle equipment.
Nordic Visitor (0800 066 4730; nordicvisitor.com) offers a 10-day self-drive "Majestic Highlights of Norway" package from £1,063pp including car hire and accommodation, but not flights. Nordic Experience (01206 708 888; nordicexperience.co.uk) also has self-drive packages, including an 11-day "Three Fjord Odyssey" for £1,995pp, which includes car hire, accommodation and flights from Gatwick to Bergen (return from Alesund).
More than 12,000 low islands, skerries and islets stipple the sea beside Norway's Kystriksveien, or Coastal Route, 390 miles of breathtaking scenery between Namsos and Bodo. Most travellers heading for the North Cape and Norway's far north dash up the Arctic Highway (E6). Those who like to linger hug the coast, detour to an island or two and short-cut with a couple of relaxing ferry- or express boat-rides across fjords or between islands. There's little land-based public transport outside the school year so you'll need your own car or, for true independence, a bike.
Highlights include the vast Svartisen glacier, which sweeps almost to the shore, Saltstraumen, reputed to be the world's most vigorous whirlpool, and the remote island of Vega, just south of the Arctic Circle. At this Unesco World Heritage site, women still harvest down from the breasts of migratory eider ducks for confecting the softest of quilts. For an excellent online planning resource, consult kystriksveien.no
By far the most convenient way to travel along coastal Norway is aboard the Hurtigruten coastal ferry, whether for a short hop or by taking a mini-cruise. Hurtigruten (020 3393 4057; hurtigruten.co.uk), literally, "the fast route", is a wonderful, flexible way to explore. This unique fleet of passenger-cum-freight ships first sailed more than a century ago. Then, its main function was to supply small coastal towns and villages that had no other access. Nowadays, tourists provide most of the passengers.
Year round, 11 ships work their way up and down the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes, beside the Barents Sea, six days' sailing and more than 1,500 miles away. They offer a daily service to more than 30 ports.
In summer, one-way travel from Bergen to Kirkenes costs from NOK11,855 (£1,189), and Bergen-Trondheim from NOK3,360 (£336), both with cabin (you're obliged to take a cabin if you're on board overnight). Winter sailings – with the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights – can cost less than half these rates.
The city of Bergen (00 47 5555 2010; visitbergen.com) with its timber-clad dwellings, steep cobbled streets, museums and galleries, itself merits a couple of days. It's also perfectly positioned for exploring Norway's western, most sensational fjords. Sognefjord, Norway's deepest and the world's longest ice-free fjord, slashes far inland. From its eastern end, shoot the slim, groomed fingers of Aurlandsfjord and Naeroyfjord, smaller but equally spectacular.
Fjord Tours (00 47 815 68 222; fjordtours.com) runs a "Norway in a Nutshell" trip from NOK1,145 (£115), a one-day tour by coach, train (including the dramatic Flam mountain railway), and boat along Naeroyfjord. It also organises a similar tour to Hardangerfjord, south of Bergen. Further north, you can do your own thing and take the regular commercial ferry from Geiranger to Hellesylt for NOK160 per person (£16) or NOK320 (£32) per car including driver to cruise beneath the spurting waterfalls and sheer cliffs that tower over Geirangerfjord.
Atlantic Ocean Road
Every one of the 48 miles of coastal road connecting the cities of Molde and Kristiansund is spectacular. But the mere five miles that constitute the Atlantic Ocean Road will leave you gasping. Here, as the ocean breezes buffet, eight steep, sinuous bridges link the lonely islets beneath. Bucking and curving like sea serpents, they're perhaps at their best when autumn storms rage while the waves pound and boil beneath. From their heights, fisherfolk dangle a speculative line, hoping to haul in a fat cod and cheat the seals that, in season, gambol in the waters below. Elsewhere, cyclists catch their breath and motorists enjoy a photoshoot at the route's four panoramic lay-bys. You can choose either Molde or Kristiansund, both active fishing communities, as your base. More attractively, make your starting point the bijou Art Nouveau town of Alesund, 44 miles south of Molde.
In Bergen, Det Hanseatiske Hotel (00 47 55 30 48 00; dethanseatiskehotel.no), in a wharf-side, former trading house, has doubles from NOK1,490 (£149) B&B. Preserving much of the original timber, it's an appealing blend of the historic and contemporary.
Alesund's boutique Hotel Brosundet (00 47 70 11 45 00; brosundet.no), is a sensitively converted ex-warehouse. Wood abounds and bedrooms are large, comfortable and tastefully furnished. Doubles start at NOK1,330 (£133).
In Molde, Rica Seilet Hotel (00 47 71 11 40 00; rica.no) juts out into the sound like a huge silver sail. Bedrooms all have large picture windows and views are ever more spectacular the higher you go. Doubles including breakfast start at NOK1,245 (£125).
Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.com/uk) flies from Gatwick to Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger. SAS (0871 226 7760; flysas.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com) fly to Oslo from Heathrow. EasyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) flies from Gatwick to Bergen, and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted to Haugesund. P&O (0843 374 0111; pocruises.com), Fred Olsen (01473 742 424; fredolsencruises.com) and Saga (0800 096 0074; travel.saga.co.uk) offer cruises of coastal Norway.
Lonely Planet's guide to Norway (fifth edition) costs £13.99 and is available at shop.lonelyplanet.com
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