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August 14, 2018, Norway

Naturally beautiful Norway

Sailing north towards the Arctic Circle along the Norwegian coast, Cynthia Loh encounters warm folks as the scenery turns from green to glacial

Cynthia Loh

FRILUFTSLIV, pronounced free-loofts-liv, is a Norwegian term that embodies a love of the outdoors, of direct interaction with nature, of hiking and camping as a part of daily life.

In fact, it is more than just a word — it is a life philosophy for the locals. This is apparent in the way the crew on the ship that was my home for seven days extolled the wonders of the Norwegian fjords we sailed through and the accompanying scenery of tall snowy mountains contrasted against dark Arctic waters.

Blessed with abundant geographical beauty and natural resources such as natural gas, oil, copper, lead, timber and seafood, the country consistently appears among the top five in the United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report.

At one of the regular lectures conducted on board, expedition guides expounded on the benefits of the Norwegian friluftsliv life — going on an outdoor adventure and communing with nature. A successful hiking trip, they said, is one in which you never get to meet another soul.

Maybe this is the reason why Norwegians are such happy people — there is all that nature and lots of space for them to get away and recover their inner zen from the frazzle of urban living. With so much time away by themselves, they seem to be genuinely friendly when they choose to be in the company of other people.

Up close with the locals

I encountered the local congeniality while on a cruise with a front-row view of the picture-perfect scenery.

The Hurtigruten fleet has been sailing along the western and northern coasts of Norway since 1893. The exploration company also provides transport for freight and passengers commuting along the waterways at 34 ports, making its ships a familiar sight with local communities.

The ships may look like megaliners with their multiple decks and hundreds of passengers, but they have none of the usual trappings of a holiday cruiser. There is no cinema, no jackpot machines, no concert and theatre stages. But some ships do have outdoor jacuzzi pools where you can get a good soak with a view of the great outdoors.

One might think their working-ship history is why these ships are decked out simply. But a more accurate reason may be that the Norwegians’ embrace of friluftsliv means they prefer travellers to look outside the ship, rather than inside, when on board.

My main form of entertainment was to step onto the open decks to take in the magnificent views and to strike up conversations with fellow voyagers who shared my awe at the sublime sight of Norway’s craggy coastline, lined with snow-capped mountains that are broken up by fjords.

The scenery turned more dramatic as the ship crossed the Arctic Circle, with thick, white snow blanketing almost every parcel of land.

It was the tail end of winter. With temperatures hovering at 0 deg C, I had to bundle up in multiple layers of clothing to keep warm when I was out in the open but, thankfully, the ship had a partially open, heated deck with outdoor furniture for passengers to nature watch.

I felt more warmth chatting with fellow passengers. All it took was a smile and an exchange of greetings, and most would easily share details about what they were doing and where they were going. Some were on their own adventure; others were heading home.

Their stories gave me a glimpse into how life is lived amid such poetic surroundings and cold temperatures, and why even the locals make it a point to make this voyage.

One traveller spoke about how she and her family were nearing the end of their vacation on the ship. She took her children out of the first two days of school to make their family getaway a reality, and now she couldn’t wait to get home to do the laundry for her youngest, a one-year-old girl. I liked the normalcy of what I heard. It is something I do at home too for my children.

A life less ordinary

At the various ports of call, travellers can disembark to explore on their own or join guided expeditions. Most were smaller towns and villages than I had imagined. The reality that greeted me came as a bit of a surprise, albeit a welcome one.

The scenes were akin to those pictured on traditional Christmas postcards — cosy cottages set in a snowy wonderland. I needed just a few minutes to see most of the seafront villages, including the colourful houses dotting the periphery or lining the two-lane roads.

I wandered around Bodø on my own. It is the second-largest town in northern Norway with a population of about 51,000, yet one could walk across the city from one end to the other in five minutes.

I saw parents pushing their babies in warmly covered strollers, couples walking hand-in-hand, and families popping into malls or out of supermarkets. Again, I felt at home amid these ordinary scenes of daily life in an extraordinary location near the Arctic Circle.

The heart of the town is its harbour: With people walking along the harbourfront and cars and buses zipping along the roads, it is a hive of activity. Shops and offices are housed in low buildings close by, and a public library is situated right at the marina.

Despite the scenes of urbanity, the great outdoors is never far away. Just outside this municipality is the world’s strongest tidal current in Saltstraumen. Nature activities also abound. One can go fishing or sea eagle-spotting, hike on the Svartisen glacier or hunt for the Northern Lights.

In other words, the friluftsliv life is ever-present.

The writer’s trip was sponsored by Scenic Travel.

GUIDELINES

I flew to Bergen, via a connecting flight through Amsterdam, on KLM. Other flight options include flying to Oslo and taking a scenic train ride to Bergen, where the Hurtigruten Cruise Terminal is located.

Norway uses the Norwegian krone, which is not easily available in Singapore, but you can get euros or US dollars to exchange for krones in larger towns such as Bergen. S$1 is equivalent to about 6NOK.

The most widely spoken language is Norwegian. English is also very widely used.

Getting around by ferry is very common in Norway, which has a long coastline. The cruise I was on is available year-round. Car rental is also available and vehicles can be driven onto ferries to reach isolated towns and counties. Public bus and rail transport is also convenient, and fares can be paid by cash and credit card.

With its long coast and many different terrains, Norway experiences different climates. Temperatures along the west coast, where Bergen is located, can reach a high of 18 deg C in summer and as low as 0 deg C in winter. Further north, temperatures go up to about 13 deg C in the summer and dip to -6 deg C in winter.

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