Flåm, in western Norway, is a picturesque village where wooden houses nestle between the fjord and mountains. I travelled there on a four-day press trip. You can see the full itinerary here. I’ve already written about Flåm’s historic Fretheim Hotel, Norse-themed Ægir Brewpub, and the Stegastein viewpoint. While we were in Flåm, we also took an RIB (board boat) winter Fjordsafari with Flåm Guide Service, and said goodbye to the village on the Flåm Railway. En route to Bergen, we stopped at the Vatnahalsen Høyfjellshotell, where we borrowed snowshoes and went for a wander through the snow down to the railway track.
You can see what our day looked like in my video:
Winter Fjordsafari with Flåm Guide Service
“Winter is the best time to see the fjord”
Preparing for a winter fjordsafari is a serious business. We were told to dress warmly, for sub-zero temperatures. On top of my base layers, fleece, woollen jumper, ski pants and ski jacket, Flåm Guide Service asked me to add fleecy woollen trousers, two sets of thermal gloves and a standard issue waterproof thermal suit.
No thigh-gap there, then.
Despite the trappings needed to brave the minus-10 degrees cold, the guide told us that in winter you have the most powerful experience on the safari. The fjord would be ours alone. We could gaze at the same mountains that loomed over passing Vikings, without the parps of cruise ships ruining the reverie.
We were a handful of passengers (the boat holds no more than twelve) huddling close to the water, which on our overcast day looked inky-black with the heavy memory of history. We gazed up at mountains from their feet, so they were even more towering than usual. And we were almost close enough to reach out and touch the school of porpoises, which swam over to say hello ten minutes out of the harbour.
The safari lasts 90 minutes, and because of the cold temperature, it isn’t recommended for children under four. So long as your child is happy to sit still for that long, though, it would be a thrilling experience for an older youngster. We sped past frozen waterfalls, and paused at the village of Undredal, which inspired the hit Disney film, Frozen. You can visit Undredal on the longer version of the fjordsafari, two and a half hours long, where you get to warm up with a hot chocolate, and try some of Undredal’s famous goat’s cheese.
Along the way we heard tales about life on the fjord, including the house that was owned by a farmer, which could only be reached by climbing ladders up the cliff-face. Can you spot it in this picture?
Here it is, a little closer:
Nowadays it’s owned by a Norwegian-American couple, who’ve replaced the ladders with a path blasted into the rock face. The path is reached by docking at this small jetty.
Their house is run as a B&B, which (unsurprisingly) is booked up several years in advance.
The most spectacular part of the safari was when we hit the Nærøyfjorden, a UNESCO world heritage site where the fjord is only 250 m wide in places, and the mountains loom 1800 metres above.
Although it’s not cheap, the winter fjordsafari was the sort of trip that can fuel your dreams for years.
A winter fjordsafari costs 640 NOK for adults and 440 NOK for children. It runs in the mornings from November-March, except in January, when the fjord is just too cold. Flåm Guide Service also run excursions in the summer months.
Flåm Railway (Flåmsbana)
“Flåm Railway’s magic number is 20. They began to build it in the 1920s, and it took 20 years to complete. The line is 20km long, with 20 tunnels. It cost 20m NOK, and 20 men died building it (it’s rumoured there were only 19, so they had to bump off one extra to round it up……)”
The Flåm Railway begins in the centre of the village, next to a museum devoted to the railway, and ends in the high mountain station of Myrdal. It’s a phenomenally popular line, with over 900,000 passengers cramming onto its padded red seats last year. In 2014, Lonely Planet named it the world’s most beautiful train journey.
Half of the two-hour round-trip from Flåm is tunnel, which gives an edge to the ride through mountain gorges. You round a corner, gaping in awe at the stunning vista – and then, all of a sudden, you’re plunged noisily into a dark tunnel. You never know quite what you’ll see when you emerge again, but you know it will be breathtaking.
As we spiralled upwards through the mountain tunnels, landmarks were pointed out in 17 different languages on the overhead monitors. Roads were few and far between; instead, there were hiking and cycling trails, like the Raller route you can see zig-zagging in the middle of this picture (it’s described as the most picturesque cycle route in Norway).
We stopped in a light flurry of snow, to visit the frozen Kjossfossen waterfall. If you’re lucky, in the summer months you might catch a Norse goddess there, dancing in the spray.
The terrain became wilder and more snowy, until we reached the Vatnahalsen Høyfjellshotell, a family-run mountain lodge that you can only reach by rail, foot or bike. The train carried on to Myrdal, but we alighted for a lunchtime pit-stop, and to meet the lodge’s owners.
A round trip on the Flåm Railway is 480 NOK for adults, and 240 NOK for children aged 4 to 15. It’s included in the Norway in a Nutshell ticket, where you can tour the region by train, bus and boat.
After the 40-minute train journey from Flåm, and our slippery walk from the train platform up to Vatnahalsen, the sweet smell of waffles that greeted us was achingly welcome. Jannet Aksnes, part of the family that own and run this 40-room mountain lodge, explained that there’s a steady tide of loyal visitors, including a man from London who comes three times a year to just sit on the balcony, 820m above sea level, and just gaze at the view.
Vatnahalsen Høyfjellshotell’s rooms are furnished comfortably but without fridges or televisions. The owners want guests to socialise. There was indeed a buzz about the kitsch, comfortable living area, where a family with small children tucked into waffles after a spot of ice-fishing, and a couple of grizzled cross-country skiiers in their fifties lounged with dogs in front of the communal TV.
And those waffles….. They’re made by hand by Jannet’s mother, who has a ‘waffle muscle’ from stirring all the batter needed to feed 40,000 cruise passengers over the summer. They were light, melt-in-the-mouth, and complemented perfectly by the cream, berry jam and sweet goat’s cheese we used to smother them.
We were tempted by Vatnahalsen Høyfjellshotell’s sauna, which opens out onto the snow in winter, or a plunge pool in summer. Sadly we had to leave to catch our connecting train to Bergen, but we did have time to borrow some of the lodge’s snowshoes, and go crunching through the still scenery, so quiet you could hear flakes of snow as they fell.
Prices at Vatnahalsen Høyfjellshotell vary according to the season.
You can find more information on the Visit Flåm website.
If you liked this post, you might be interested in:
Fjord Norway: Flåm, Stegastein, the Fretheim Hotel and Ægir Brewpub
What to expect from Bergen, Norway
Bergen: Troldhaugen, the Edvard Grieg Museum
A walk in Oslo’s Nordmarka Forest
Seven relaxing things to do in Oslo, Norway
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