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Fiord Explorers

Going by car and ferry, a family savors the Norway of dramatic cliffs, narrow inlets and green valleys

May 11, 1997|EMILY LAURENCE BAKER | Baker is a London-based freelance writer

BERGEN, Norway — It was not a promising start. As when I plan any trip, I began research on Norway with a visit to the library in search of literature, guidebooks and anecdotal writings. What little I found basically concluded that Norway was dull and expensive.

This was exactly what my husband, Shu-Ming, had said when I first proposed the idea of a driving tour of Norway's fiord region. He had hoped for a trip with vivid culture, one in which every experience would reinforce just how far away from home we were.

"How about Rome?" he asked, as our kitchen table disappeared beneath maps and ferry schedules. "I hear that the sun in Tuscany is mellow and warm in September."

Despite his limited enthusiasm and my fears that our 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Zoe, would not cope well with so much time in the car, I persevered. I had always wanted to visit Norway, and when we moved to London six years ago, I knew it was the perfect opportunity. With a child, it seemed an excellent vacation: no must-see cathedrals or ruins, just relaxation and beautiful scenery.

I designed a seven-day driving/ferry excursion beginning in Bergen, on Norway's southwestern coast, heading north through the fiord towns of Balestrand, Loen and Geiranger. We ultimately continued on to Oslo via central Norway, but a circular route beginning and ending in Bergen is not too ambitious for a one-week excursion.

Having heard that hotels outside Norway's larger cities were, in a word, basic, we decided to splurge in Bergen and stayed in one of the city's most expensive. We chose the Admiral for its waterfront location and because we liked the idea that it was a converted warehouse.

We were delighted. The harbor view and small balcony that came with our mid-priced room for $105 per person (Zoe was free) included an abundant breakfast buffet. And when we expressed disappointment that Zoe's bed would completely consume the sitting area, the staff quickly arranged for us to have an adjoining room at a reduced rate.

After checking into the Admiral, we took advantage of a clear Sunday afternoon (something of a rarity here) and rode the Floybanen, or funicular, that transports passengers 1,050 feet above sea level to a spot with a splendid view of the city and its huge harbor. From atop, the view is one of water virtually surrounding the city with fingers into its center. It's easy to see why Bergen has remained Scandinavia's busiest port since the Middle Ages.

*

After two days in Bergen we were ready to head north to the land of fiords. Although we could have traveled north by ferry, as many tourists do, we opted to rent a car in Bergen because of all the gear necessary to sustain our daughter. We knew we'd all be happiest if she had her own private backseat where she could spread out with books, toys and stuffed friends.

About an hour north of the city, we enjoyed one of Norway's greatest roadway features: numerous picnic spots with dramatic vistas. We pulled off the road at the edge of a fiord where several picnic tables were positioned well apart from one another in a grassy field overlooking the water. As we feasted on steamed crab, pickled herring and boiled shrimp, all purchased at Bergen's famous fish market, Torget, we decided that picnics of fresh seafood in this land of fishermen would be a mainstay of our journey.

By the end of our first day of driving, I no longer regretted not taking a no-effort fiord cruise, and was happy that we had decided to explore the fiords by auto, as the vast majority of travelers do. The driving, while challenging at times, was on well-tended two-lane roads that were totally clear of snow, as they usually remain between Memorial Day and the end of September. And our decision to rent a car provided an unexpected bonus: Some of the most memorable scenery of the trip came not from the fiords but from the interior landscape of mountains and farmland.

Just a few hours after our picnic, one of the prettiest drives of our trip occurred between Vinje (about 12 miles north of Voss) and Vik, where Route 13 follows a fiord through lush farmland, then climbs up to rugged landscape above the tree line.

It seemed we'd reached the top of the world when we drove along a lonely road with not a soul in sight and just a few boarded-up wooden cabins sprinkled among the rocks. A hotel clerk later explained to us that these cabins and the surrounding land were (and, in some cases, continue to be) owned by local families who stayed in the huts when they periodically came up to the mountains to tend their wild sheep.

Gradually as the road meandered down, lushness resumed until at last there was the first glimpse of the Sognefjord, a narrow slice of rich blue water cradled in more gently sloping hillsides than I had expected.

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