Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Norwegian Fjord and Glacier Tour - Notes on travelling

Lunch and a pint at a small cafe in Eidfjord
It was lovely to take a few weeks off from the stress of closing the magazine and a hiatus from trying to decide where I go from here. I had never been to Europe and my whole life had wanted to visit Norway.  Why?  My great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from there.  It was also off the beaten path of where most friends went - a chance to experience something totally new with no expectations.

Glen and I are not tour group people, but as we had never traveled in Norway, we wanted some local help.  An 8 day self-guided tour - Norwegian Fjords and Glaciers - by Authentic Scandinavia was the perfect choice. We added a few extra days at the start to give us more time to explore Oslo and adjust to the 9 hour time difference as well as one extra day at the end so we could relax before hopping on the plane home. The company books all hotels/transportation/requested add-ons (additional tours, Oslo Pass, etc.) and sends you vouchers to hand in as well as a long, detailed document that covers everything from how to get from your transportation to each hotel as well as sites to see at each stop.

Balestrand - Fram Railway - Hardanger Fjord
I can't emphasize enough how much it was worth the upgrade in hotels.  While you still received the standard room, the hotels were wonderful and the upgrade also meant you road in first class on the railway - big windows, more leg space and free coffee, tea and hot chocolate. If you book extra days in Oslo, the Oslo Pass is well worth it.  All transit (bus, tram, mini ferry to Bygdoy and metro train) is included as well as entry fees to museums and galleries. It easily pays for itself.  We chose the 48 hour pass and didn't get close to visiting all we wanted to see.


Bygdoy where they have over 5 museums to visit including
Kon Tiki, Polar Fram, Folk, Viking and Maritime.
There are several things learned on this trip about traveling internationally -

1. If visiting just one country and booking a self guided tour, pick one that begins and ends in the same city.  The journey each way should be at least a slightly different path so you get to see more, but starting and ending in the same place will save a lot of money on your airline ticket.  If you are visiting several countries and just using this tour in one, then starting and ending in different locations might work out better for you.  You can see the itinerary for the trip we booked at the very bottom.

2. Think of clothing in terms of layers.  While we had amazing weather most of the time, the few off days circulated between light showers and warm sunshine. Let's face it, weather can be unpredictable no matter where you travel. A camisole or tank under a light shirt are a great start.  Then be prepared to add a light jacket or sweater and over all a shell coat that is rain and wind proof.  Roll the coat up into a small bundle tucked into the attached hood and carry in your shoulder bag.  This type of layering allows you to adjust quickly to changing conditions.

3.  Carry important documents such as passport, landed resident cards, health insurance information, credit cards, etc., in a safe manner.  Whatever you chose to carry it in, be sure it has zippered sections that are also covered with a flap. Norway was extremely safe over-all with the exception of pickpockets, so be aware. Don't put everything in one place.  If stolen, you lose it all. Another great tip I heard was to photo copy all ID and keep in separate places so if anything is lost, you have a copy to show the consulate.


4.  Call your credit card company and let them know where you are traveling and the dates you will be there.  More than one travelor has had their credit card put on hold for fraud when using their credit card in a foreign country.  Also carry a small amount of local currency.  While most places took credit cards, we found a few were not set up for international ones.


5.  TAKE COMFORTABLE SHOES.  If you intend to walk most of the day - you really do need to take care of your feet.  Hopefully those of you with a fashionable bent can find a good balance between the two.  This is not a time for heels unless you take a pair to go out at night, and I would suggest a good gel insert for your shoes if you  intend to walk for several hours a day in the city.


6. Think about how to fill the long plane ride.  From North America you could be spending 9 hours in that seat.  The airlines do feed you which breaks up the time, and most have some sort of movie/TV available, but it still can be trying.  Carrying a tablet such an iPad allows you to bring your own movies and I found the image and sound a lot better.  You can also download books, music and games into the tablet to keep yourself amused.  Drink lots of liquids as the cabin air is very dry and don't be afraid to get up and move around when the aisles are empty. Always say yes to the airline headphones as occasionally the connection is different.


7.  Do yourself a favour and be sure your first hotel easy to find.  We were lucky the agency booked us in the Thon Opera located just right next to the main railway station.  After a long exhausting flight, it was great to just walk across the street and into luxury.  If you love a long soak, be sure and ask for a room with a bathtub as not all have them.  This hotel had an amazing tub I could totally submerge in - a nice way to relax after the plane flight or to sooth your tired body after a long day of walking.  It was also near all the transit we used with our Oslo pass which was a blessing and walking distance from many attractions.


Every hotel had this bed arrangement - 2 twins pushed together
with separate duvets.  I actually slipped down between the
beds one night while curling up with Glen. :)
8.  Make sure breakfast is included at your hotel. Norway has the highest standard of living in Europe and that is reflected in the price of food.  A pint cost us from $12 to $15 and a Caesar Salad at a mid-range place over $25 each.  Having a large, leisurely breakfast every morning starts your day of sight-seeing right and definitely helps with the day's expenses.  Every hotel we stayed in had a great Norwegian buffet breakfast, but the Thon Opera was hands down the largest and most decadent! They even had a chef personally preparing eggs and omelets to order.  Sorry, I forgot to take my camera down and this photo is all I could find online.




9.  Be prepared to walk.  Riding on a tour bus from place to place has to be the most isolating way I know to travel and you really don't get a feel for the place.  Walking through a bustling crowd, hearing other languages being spoken, being able to stop and enjoy the old buildings and sitting in an patio cafe where local mums come with their strollers to have a regional pint are all an experience not to miss. The one we found thanks to a local - Cafe Bacchus - had an outdoor seating area on a courtyard behind the church.  They used local ingredients and had an extensive selection of beers from local micro-breweries. Being right in the midst of things really helps you absorb the flavour of that city.


Not actual restaurant.
10.  Last but not least, don't be afraid to ask for help.  In Norway in particular, most people speak at least some English and everyone we approached  was willing to give us guidance. Can't find the bus stop you need, not sure of where the Metro station is, want a suggestion for a good place to eat....the answer is behind every smiling face you see.


Next post I will cover our first 3 days spent exploring Oslo, so be sure to check back.  



Day 01: Arrival in Oslo, the capital of Norway

  • Arrival in Oslo according to your own itinerary. (Note - ONE DAY IS NOT ENOUGH!!! I would spend at least 3 days here.)
  • Recommended attractions:
    • Vigeland Sculpture Park
    • Viking Ship Museum
    • Oslo Opera House
    • Kon-tiki Museum
    • Munch Museum
  • Accommodation in Oslo

Day 02: Bergen- & Flåm Railway- Fjord cruise to Balestrand

  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Bergen Railway from Oslo to Myrdal.
  • Flåm Railway from Myrdal to Flåm.
  • 1 hour at leisure in Flåm.
  • Fjord cruise to Balestrand.
  • Accommodation in Balestrand.

Day 03: Balestrand / Optional Fjærland & Glacier Excursion

  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Day at leisure in Balestrand.
  • Recommended activities:
    • Relax by the fjord.
    • Rent a boat or bike.
    • Go for a mountain hike.
    • Go for a walk in Balestrand.
  • Recommended excursions:
    • Fjord & Glacier Excursion – full day
    • Fjord & Glacier Excursion – half day
  • Accommodation in Balestrand.

Day 04: Cruise along the Sognefjord and coast to Bergen

  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • 4-hour cruise along the Sognefjord and coast.
  • Accommodation in Bergen.

Day 05: Bergen - day at leisure

  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Day at leisure in Bergen.
  • Recommended attractions:
    • Bryggen Wharf
    • Fløibanen funicular
    • Edvard Grieg’s home Troldhaugen
    • The Fish and Flower market
    • Old Bergen Open Air Museum
  • Accommodation in Bergen.

Day 06: Cruise on the Hardangerfjord to Ulvik

  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Travel by bus from Bergen to Norheimsund.
  • 3-hour cruise on the Hardangerfjord.
  • 3 hours at leisure in Eidfjord.
  • Recommended activities:
    • Relaxing by the fjord
    • Exploring the village
    • Excursion to Hardangervidda Nature Centre & Vøringsfoss
  • 30-minute cruise to Ulvik (arrival at 3 pm).
  • Accommodation in Ulvik.

Day 07: Travel from Ulvik via Voss to Oslo (bus/train)

  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Day at leisure in Ulvik until 3 pm.
  • Recommended activities:
    • Relax by the fjord.
    • Swim in the fjord.
    • Rent a boat or bike.
    • Go for a mountain hike.
  • Travel by bus from Ulvik to Voss.
  • Bergen Railway from Voss to Oslo (arr. 10.30 pm).
  • Accommodation in Oslo.  (Note - I would add one more day here as you can arrive at midnight and have to be at the airport the very next morning.)

Day 08: Departure from Oslo

  • Breakfast at the hotel.
  • Departure from Oslo according to your own itinerary.

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