September 2nd, 2021
September 2nd, 2021
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For me, the most important aspect of any holiday is the chance to slow down, savour the time spent with family and friends, and have an adventure or two. The only problem is, those kinds of holidays need planning – not so easy when your daily grind is already pretty hectic. One solution is to hand over the time-consuming business of planning to a travel specialist, who has contacts conveniently placed all around the country. This is an approach to travel I have never experienced before, but in the spring of 2021, I was contacted by Up Norway – Norway’s leading travel curator. They firmly believed that a globetrotter like me needed to join the new era of travel: curated journeys.
I never turn down a challenge. So it was with a willing heart that I accepted my first stress-free travel booking, in the reliable hands of a curator. Up Norway took time to map out our interests and preferences with an initial interview, and a couple of days later they offered my girlfriend and I a digital travel guide which they assured us we would love.
My girlfriend and I started our trip at Insignia, in Oslo’s Gamlebyen district. A brand-new, electric, 400 horsepower Jaguar I-PACE was waiting for us. This was no coincidence – Jaguar has always been my favourite car. I have my father to thank for this. In 1971 he blew his savings and some of his student grants on a factory-fresh Jaguar XJ6 i Coventry. I still remember the incredible smell inside the light blue vehicle, trimmed inside with mahogany, metal and lambskin seat coverings. The sounds made by the car doors clunking shut will always be special to me. Now I was delighted to find myself behind the wheel of a 2021-style Jag – my first time driving an electric car.
The first stretch of the trip brought us to my hometown, Naustdal. On a full battery, we managed the full 440 kilometres without needing to stop at one of Norway’s many charging stations. Fast charging is now available in cities, smaller towns and at gas stations along the highways around Norway, so stopping to charge up would have been quick if we had needed to. I did not miss the smell of gasoline whatsoever. Travelling emission-free felt clean, and right.
In Naustdal I invited my father for a trip in the “Jag” which was exactly half a century newer than his own. His 80 years did not stop him from relishing in the experience of the car performing like a big cat turning gracefully on the road between the fjords. My father was clearly impressed over the acceleration, and how silently the car drove.
The trip home was just the beginning. Our actual starting point, Knutholmen – the legendary hotel and restaurant in the small fishing village of Kalvåg – was nearby. It’s situated on the idyllic island of Frøya in Nordfjord, which lies almost as far west as it gets in Norway, where the Atlantic Ocean rules in the winter months. This establishment was opened in 1986 by Svein Inge Fosse. Back then it was a bed and breakfast with five rooms above his country store. He left his business to his son Jan Fredrik, who now, with a firm hand and a lot of humour, runs what has become a medium-sized hotel by the ocean with 200 beds divided into fishermen’s cabins, houses by the sea and a timber-framed hotel, all built according to traditional designs.
The latest addition is called Sjøholt; interior designer Gunvor Catherin Røkholt didn’t hold back on the decor in each of the 16 individual rooms. Passionate about conserving Norwegian heritage, she has subtly woven into the history of Knutholmen and Kalvåg. This hotel also boasts a suite made for an actual monarch, as Queen Sonja of Norway has stayed here three times.
Knutholmen is best known for its abundant ocean activities. We were taken on a trip into the archipelago in an aluminium boat – thankfully roofed. Even though it was June, we experienced three seasons in three hours while cruising this beautiful, wild seascape. However, a little storm and choppy ocean only enhance the experience. It’s no coincidence that the well-designed Dosabu storm-watching cabin was built on the other side of Frøya.
We had a brief soak in the floating sauna before their renowned restaurant opened up. The chefs here work like true magicians, with backgrounds in prestigious competitions and distinguished restaurants. Our expectations were easily met and totally exceeded. Their shellfish platter is renowned, and the five-course meal we enjoyed the next day is a major competitor. We collapsed into bed with satisfied smiles on our faces.
After another stretch in the Jag, we found ourselves deep inside the Sognefjord, checking in at the acclaimed BesteBakken. This exceptionally enjoyable hotel situated in the mountainside above Hafslo is run by married couple Lindis and Odd Geir Alme. I doubt you could find more welcoming and kind people, and they’ll go to any lengths to please their guests. Let’s not forget the adorable alpaca family living right outside – Rusti and co are as photogenic and pettable as they come. Originating from South America, they eat all kinds of fruit and vegetables, and hotel guests are welcome to help with the feeding.
The next morning, we experienced the loveliest breakfast. We ended up with a nine-course breakfast, although Lindis tells us cheekily she could have managed 60, if only we could have finished it all. For Up Norway it is important that the luxury they offer with their partners is low key and Norwegian, so you are not going to find gold faucets and lavish marble, but comfort, personal service and world-class food experiences.
The next day we were invited on a trip to Veitastrond, one of Norway’s most beautiful landscapes with steep mountains, with an emerald river flowing past wooden cabins and nearby glaciers. Lindis was kind enough to act as our guide, and kept stopping to tell us stories along the way. In one of the traditional cabins right next to Tungestølen, Aud Marit Hillern was waiting for us with the most traditional rustic lunch I have ever tasted: sour cream porridge with plum puree, cured ham with flatbread and pancakes with moose burgers. Extremely tasty, and pretty potent.
Lindis cooks the dinners at BesteBakken herself, and just like her breakfast, she offers exciting combinations with nicely paired wines. My girlfriend Caroline is also an incredible chef, and they ended up exchanging tips, tricks and other culinary secrets. Both are also animal lovers, and they shared several stories about kittens, crias, and baby alpacas.
The next hotel on our journey was only an hour’s drive away, at the bottom of the breathtaking Aurlandsdalen. On the farm-turned-hotel 29|2 Aurland, Tone Rønningen Vike and her husband Bjørn Vike have refurbished old agricultural buildings into a modern architectural diamond, while including the original details. These traditional rooms offer both a romantic retreat and Norwegian ‘hygge’, which can only be translated as a particular kind of Scandinavian ‘cosiness’. If you are interested in history, like me, your stay may be complemented by Tone’s stories of the lore and myths surrounding the area.
Most of the guests here accept the offer of all-inclusive meals, and the feedback shows there have never been any regrets. This is thanks to the kitchen, which comes up with new daily menus of the highest quality; they even have their own sommelier. The breakfast is simple yet exceptional, including tasty cheeses, mountain trout from a local business and eggs laid by their own hens.
One of the nights at 29|2 Aurland, we skipped the gourmet dinner; although with a valid excuse. Only a couple of kilometres away, on the mountainside towards Flåm, one of Norway’s most exciting restaurant concepts has recently opened up, and Up Norway didn’t want us to miss out. At Pop Up Otternes you can find some of the country’s top chefs rotating one weekend each through the summer in 300-400-year-old log buildings in the courtyard of Otternes, with an exceptional view over the Aurlandsfjord.
Master chef Thomas Moen was in full control of his pots and pans, and proudly presented a ten course menu with everything from pickled wasabi to fermented seaweed and topside of reindeer steak. Pure heaven! Sommelier Raymond Mikkelsen complemented the dishes perfectly with delights from the wine cellar. The taste of complete bliss.
Our perfectly curated vacation ended on a literal high, at Skåbu Mountain Hotel. This design hotel, with suites and double rooms, is run by Jannicke Haug Doksæter and Henrik Sverdrup. With a little help in the kitchen. Master chef Lukas Socha has a background in several Michelin starred restaurants, and he ensures the hotel offers innovative culinary experiences through a nightly four-course menu.
The hotel is full of gorgeous details, including a homemade wood-burning stove suspended from thick ceiling chains, and the little metal animal figures climbing up candlesticks and wine glasses. For our hosts, it’s a vital part of bringing life to Northern Europe's highest village, and they are both actively engaged in local politics and organisations. Skåbu is a gateway to the Jotunheimen mountain range and makes for a perfect starting point for all the hikes or cross-country trips you could wish for. A perfect base for a self-declared mountain goat like myself.
From a range of local suppliers they source everything from food to activities. Their approach is ‘we are stronger together’. Despite every day being extremely hectic, the couple still made time to welcome us with lively conversations and plenty of laughs. Henrik showed us the family farm from the 17th century, where we encountered sheep with lambs out grazing in the summer, and we saw waterfalls and mountains along with their dog Tyra. Henriks knowledge was only exceeded by his enthusiasm and we reluctantly parted ways after such an excellent stay.
Not only were we leaving the idyllic Skåbu Mountain Hotel, but it was the end of an amazing vacation.
I will admit I was initially sceptical of travelling on an ‘arranged’ trip with a travel curator. Travel guides are something I never found useful before, with the exception of North Korea, Bhutan and Turkmenistan, where tourists are not allowed in without one. However, Up Norway has come up with something genuinely innovative. Not only do they assist in networking and connecting smaller travel operators in Norway, but they also achieve a result that is well tested, professional, and at the same time has the feeling of impulsiveness and being down to earth.
Importantly we never felt that any of the activities were forced on us. Wherever we wanted to go, we were presented with alternatives to choose from, which also included the option of relaxing at the hotel. The hosts had our interests in mind and were always available for questions or to make whatever spontaneous changes we wanted. In Sogn, for instance, Caroline suddenly felt the urge to get a massage after working hard for months. Our travel curator organised one at very short notice.
The fact that our journey was organised by a professional travel curator did not at all dampen our experience. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Not only did we get to know local people we would never otherwise have met, but we were also able to take part in local activities we found interesting, and everything was set up without us needing to lift a finger. And as if that was not enough, we made friendships that will last a lifetime. We have agreed to meet up with several of our hosts next time they are in Oslo.
I especially noticed the element of sustainability in Up Norway’s choice of partners. Not only is this in the company’s DNA, but guests are also increasingly asking about sustainability on their trips. For a full week, we experienced travelling in Norwegian luxury style. This is different from the luxury offered by places like Dubai or Seychelles. It is a far more down to earth, tasteful way of travelling.
I have always loved constructing my own travel itinerary, and more often than not, making spontaneous changes. However, there were a lot of factors around the concept of using a travel curator that appealed to me. Perhaps one of the biggest was the delivery and consistency of the whole experience, along with the sustainability and the close contact with nature. Caroline and I were welcomed with open arms, and treated like friends, not tourists.
Up Norway has found a formula that works. The question is only when this way of travelling will take off. I am tempted to try it again, even if not for every trip I take. After all, Up Norway does not offer curated trips to Kiribati or Kazakhstan...