St. Paul Pioneer Press

Oct 15 2017
Flam (Berge / Knoff / Natural Light /
Oslo Harbour and Akershus Fortress (Nancy Bundt /
The view near Stavanger, Norway. (Berge / Knoff / Natural...

Norway was named the “World’s Happiest Country” for 2017 by the Sustainable Development Solution Network for the United Nations. What? Could an entire country of just over 5 million really be that happy? I set out to answer that question recently, when I spent two weeks as a guest of Visit Norway exploring Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and the beautiful fjords that traverse the vast Norwegian countryside.

I rolled up the sleeves on my Norwegian sweater, chowed down some lefse, threw back a shot of aquavit and set off on my quest to explore the land of my ancestors, resolute that I would unravel what all of this happiness stuff is about. I approached my many tour guides and random cafe encounters with a consistent list of questions about their country, including my burning desire to get to the bottom of why they are all so happy.

Traveling solo by train, boat, plane and automobile, I met many Norwegians, ranging in age from 25 to 85, willing to engage in conversation about their beloved country. I asked many of the same questions over and over, always ending with “Why was Norway voted the happiest place in the world and what is it that makes you the happiest people in the world?” I was certain I would find at least one curmudgeon, but I could not have been more wrong.

The resounding response was “Yes, we truly are a land of happy people!” The common thread among the Norwegians was a feeling of peace and contentment, satisfaction and a true sense of happiness. Many of my discussions ended with a smile and a simple nod or shoulder shrug followed by, “Our worries are few as we are taken care of from cradle to grave.”

This is a country of people who embrace their daily lives, approaching each day as an adventure, focusing on continual learning, family, friendship, heritage, food and accepting whatever challenges the day may bring, including the weather.

In the city of Stavanger, where it rains an average of 221 days per year, the common saying among locals is “It’s not bad weather — it’s bad clothing,” meaning dress for the weather and get outside. Take that for a glass-half-full attitude! Being outdoors and in nature is like a religion to Norwegians and appears to be a pivotal component to their happiness. Nature is embraced with reverence, and Sundays are reserved for hiking or snowshoeing and preparing meals with family. The Norwegian mind-set was refreshing and certainly kicked a bit of my sneer into a cheer for the homeland of the Vikings.

Here are highlights from my trip:


The Oslo Opera House in Oslo, Norway. (Christopher Hagelund /
The Oslo Opera House in Oslo, Norway. (Christopher Hagelund /

Oslo is the largest city in Norway, with a population of slightly more than 1 million. Visitors to the capital city are greeted by the magnificent Oslo Opera House, which appears to rise out of the water like an iceberg at the head of the Oslo fjord. Oslo is a busy city, and one of the most convenient ways to see the sights is to buy an Oslo City Pass. The pass allows free entry to more than 30 museums and attractions, including free travel on all public transport.

When checking out the museums, don’t miss a visit to the National Gallery to see Edward Munch’s famous painting “The Scream.”

A wonderful way to view the city harbor is in the evening from the Akershus fortress with dinner at Restaurant Festningen. Request a table by the window, or weather permitting, a table on the deck.

I wanted to sample Oslo’s version of “street food” and immediately became obsessed with the vaffel stands. A vaffel is basically a large waffle that is used as the shell to which you add sweet or savory ingredients. My favorite was the ham-and-cheese vaffel with vegetables added for a crisp crunch with every bite — delicious!

To experience the breath-taking fjords, I took the popular “Norway in a Nutshell” tour, an amazing journey through the fjords, mountains and valleys. The excursion has been rated as one of the most magical travel destinations in the world. The tour includes the scenic Bergen Railway, the famous Flam Railway and a cruise on the Sogne fjord.

Plan your visit with an overnight stay in the quaint village of Flam and a stay at the historic Fretheim Hotel. After you have checked into this amazing property in the heart of the Sogne Fjord, stroll through the village, stopping for dinner and an award-winning craft beer at the Ægir Brewpub.

Aurlandsfjord near Flam. (Berge / Knoff / Natural Light /
Aurlandsfjord near Flam. (Berge / Knoff / Natural Light /

For a sense of adventure and a chance to see the beauty of the fjords up close, I suggest making reservations for an RIB boat excursion. A knowledgeable guide will take you on an exhilarating tour of the fjords, sharing captivating stories of the history of the area and the fjords. We were treated to a glimpse of sea life by a visit from a few porpoises and seals.

Do not miss taking a short drive and tour of the charming village of Undredal, with a population of 100 and about five times as many roaming goats than people. Fans of the Disney blockbuster “Frozen” will likely recognize many of the buildings, including the smallest stave church in Scandinavia. This small municipality was the inspiration for the village in the hit film.


My Scandinavian adventure continued with a visit to the city of Bergen, on Norway’s southwestern coast. If you arrive by water, you are immediately greeted by the beauty of the historic, colorful wooden houses that were once used as the trading post for the fishing industry and are now occupied by cafes, bars and quaint tourists shops.

Bergen, Norway. (
Bergen, Norway. (

I was delighted to visit the city during the Bergen Food & Beer Festival. The festival gave me an amazing opportunity to sample all the wonderful and sometimes unexpected flavors that define Norwegian cuisine. The seafood offerings were abundant, featuring everything from cod to salmon to whale. What made the selections particularly interesting were the preparations and the Norwegian art of smoking, fermenting, pickling and curing the various foods. I had my share of unusal meat offerings as well, including creative chef twists on lamb, reindeer and elk.

I found the Norwegians to be particularly proud of two items — cloudberries and brunost. Cloudberries are a rare golden yellow berry that can only found in the wild. The berry is so rare that their location in the wilderness is often kept secret, even among family members. Brunost is a brown, sweet, caramelized cheese made of whey, with a flavor profile that reminded me of a sweet yet sour caramel. And, yes, I certainly made my rounds at the beer festival, sampling some of Norway’s finest craft beers.

The day of noshing and sloshing Norway’s flavors was held on the grounds of one of Norway’s oldest and most well-preserved castles, the Bergenhus fortress.

After an enjoyable day of calculated indulgence, I retired and spent my final day in Bergen doing what it appears all of Bergen does on Sunday, hike to the top of Mount Floyen. The base of the mountain is directly across from the city center, and the famous and frequently photographed Bergan fish market. Mount Floyen is 1,000 feet above sea level and the climb to the top is accessible by walking trails or by the city’s famous funicular railway.

Once you reach the top, you are greeted with a glorious view of Bergen, the wharf, and the seven mountains that surround the city center. If the hike to the top wasn’t enough for you, there are many additional hiking and walking opportunities at the top or you can simply take in the beauty and grab a bite to eat at the cafeteria.


The final leg of my journey was a visit to Norway’s fourth largest city, Stavanger. The city was once a coastal fishing port, but the discovery of offshore oil in the late 1960s changed the town forever. To get an overview of the impact oil has had on Norway, spend an afternoon at the well-curated and interactive Norwegian Petroleum Museum.

The culinary scene throughout Norway was delightful, from street food to cafes to fine dining. One of the standouts was dinner at Renaa Matbaren, where the focus is on the best products from the sea, fjords, land, forests and mountains in this fertile region.

Pulpit Rock (Berge / Knoff / Natural Light /
Pulpit Rock (Berge / Knoff / Natural Light /

The highlight of my visit to Stavanger was to what many have called the eighth wonder of the world: the “Pulpit Rock.”  I enlisted the assistance of experts at Pulpit Rock Experience to lead me on this journey. It is best to plan four hours for the hike that takes you to a height equivalent of six Statues of Liberties or two Eiffel towers. Once you reach the top, you are met with a breathtaking and unobstructed view of the Lyse fjord.


Norway may currently have a population of 5 million, but after spending two weeks in this beautiful, friendly and safe country, I may change that population total to plus one. It is clear to me why this is the happiest country in the world. The scenery is breathtaking and Norwegians are generally calm, upbeat and gracious. They embrace each day with an attitude of joyfulness for all aspects of life, from family and friends, to a love of nature, to the arts and culture and sharing food and fellowship with others. Norwegians have a strong sense of community and are very connected to their extended family, going back many generations.

However, we can’t ignore the obvious factor of economic security. The petroleum industry has made the country very rich and the government has shared the benefits of these riches with fellow Norwegians. Taxes are high, but living expenses are generally covered from health care to elder care to education, through college. They also believe in personal time and relaxation, offering a generous maternity leave and five weeks of paid vacation.

Desinations Europe Norway Scandinavia Travel Writing

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