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Norway's Atlantic gem

By Ron Smith

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ON Norway’s Atlantic coast, Kristiansund is a real gem and it is now easy to get there.

BMI Regional have started daily flights direct from Aberdeen, leaving early afternoon, which makes life easier.

Kristiansund airport is small, clean and efficient; you are through it in no time. There are buses every half an hour to the town centre, conveniently called ‘Sentrum’ on the bus displays. There are many words similar to ours, probably from Viking times, such as dram, born (bairn), kirk, and in the streets people greet each other with “aye aye”, just as we do. It all helps to make you feel instantly at home, and without exception everyone speaks English.

There are regular service buses from the airport, and the fare is 32 Norwegian Krona, £3.20, not bad for a half hour journey, and less than many airport buses I have been on. You fly in you over countless islands, which are part of the character of the region. Kristiansund itself is spread over four islands, with all the houses made of wood and each one painted a different colour from its neighbour. I was told by one local that this is a law; it certainly makes the place colourful and attractive.

Ron Smith tries his hand at fishing off a Norwegian bridge.
Ron Smith tries his hand at fishing off a Norwegian bridge.

The sea has formed the character of Kristiansund. It started with Klippfisk, dried and salted cod, exported in huge quantities, which made the town wealthy. Down by the terminal for the bus ferry, there is a life-sized statue of a fish wifie (made in 1992) holding some Klippfisk in her hand. There is a Klippfisk museum, in a building dating from 1749, and the ferry will stop there just for you.

The ferry is a bus service; it runs all day long, every 30 minutes, for a 20-minute shuttle between the four islands. It costs £3 for a ticket, or £8.50 for a day pass. They claim that it is the world’s oldest public transport service in continuous use, running for 134 years. With a population of around 24,000 people, Kristiansund is not a large town, so you can walk across bridges to get to each island, but the ferry is very popular with the locals and makes a good short-cut.

Walking around is easy. The streets are clean, bright and wide, and on a grid system. This is because in World War II the Germans used the town as a base for their navy, including a submarine base to attack our convoys, and there is a museum at the fort (see www.kvalvikfort.no) We then bombed the town in 1940. With wooden houses and incendiary bombs, we managed to destroy 75% of the town, over 900 houses. This gave the opportunity to rebuild in the wide grid system you see today.

One of the casualties was the Opera House, a pleasant, stone structure built in 1914, and it seems to be the pride of the town. Not large, it seats 350 people and was originally built as a gentlemen’s club, but was soon found to be too expensive, and was given over to the town in 1928, on condition that the gentlemen had a room of their own in perpetuity. They still meet there, every Wednesday.

During WW2, we put a bomb through the roof. The Germans, in 1942, built a new roof because they needed the building as a military HQ. The Opera House encapsulates the Norwegian character. Opera elsewhere can be very elitist, not here. Every performance is in Norwegian. There are professionals, but also a lot of amateurs performers. There are plays, concerts, recitals, talks and children’s plays. Music and singing is taken to the streets, schools and even the ferries.

A Fire Brigade museum includes Leyland 1925, and Ford 1932 fire engines. There is also Norway’s most modern aquatic complex (www.atlanterhavsbadet.no) with 77 metres of water slides, pools, cafes and so on; and an oil museum, the Petrosenteret, which represents the current wealth of the town. Oil has replaced fishing, and the familiar supply boats can be seen in the harbour.

Another spectacular building is the Kirklandet Kirk, an angular church built in 1964. I went inside where the organist was practising, he came down to have a chat and tell me about the architecture. The massive long concrete beams were fabricated on site and then hoisted up into place. The wall behind the altar is full of coloured panes of glass that shade from deep blue up to the brighter colours of heaven.

The stunning Kirklandet Kirk.
The stunning Kirklandet Kirk.

Architects from all over the world come to see their kirk, described as “quartz shining against a backdrop of roses”. Hanging inside is a model of a sailing ship – all their churches have one. It is truly remarkable. There are other attractive churches in Kristiansund, and just outside the town an ancient kirk, the Kvernes Stavkirke, which translates as the stave kirk of Kvernes. It was built around 1300, using tree trunks (the “staves”). Last year a bit of a hurricane battered the old kirk on its little hill above the fjord but being of such solid construction, it merely twisted a little.

There are strong tree trunks holding it up on one side, pending full strengthening. Inside there is the normal hanging model of a ship – this time a Danish frigate (Norway was under Danish rule for a few hundred years) built around 1700. Close by is the modern church, and in between the ground is in humps – old graves dating to around 10,000 years ago.

Leaving Kristiansund you pass through the 5km long road tunnel (with steep descents both sides, it goes under a deep channel of sea) to Averøy, a traditional fishing community with a rural museum. This leads you on to the Atlantic Road, built in 2005. It has eight bridges as it hop-scotches across many islands. The road is a tourist attraction in itself, with its spectacular views across the seascape. It is so popular that there have been built many lay-bys for cars, and there is a new service centre under construction at the most popular spot.

At one place, the road bridge crosses a swift flowing channel of the sea where fish are known to pass, and it has become so well known that two pedestrian bridges, specifically for fishers, have been constructed. Fishing gear is available close by, and I had a go myself, but with temperatures descending below zero, and the snow coming on, I soon gave it up, without a hint of a fish, although other people there were carrying on – hardy folk!

There are plenty of places to explore, by car, bus (good services) or boat. The nearest large city is Trondheim, and I was recommended to go there by boat – 3.5 hours. I asked if there was a bus – the answer was of course, about 3.5 hours too!

The Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.no) is a Norwegian classic, a regular boat service which goes up and down the Norwegian coast every day. The ships call in at Kristiansund twice a day, one going north, the other on its way south. This is a great adventure.

There are only two disadvantages to Norway – it is not possible to get a good cup of tea and prices. Because Norway is outside the EU, and is doing very well thank you, the Norwegian Krona is in the top three most secure currencies in the world, which makes their prices expensive for us – but having said that, UK prices have risen so fast in the past few years, and continue to do so, that the difference is becoming less.

To test it out, I went to a small local supermarket near my hotel and priced a number of items, the same make and size that you can buy here. The groceries were much the same as here, although bread, meat and fish were twice the UK price. Alcohol is expensive, but pricing the bottles and cans of beer in the shop, I didn’t think that they were much different than here in our supermarkets.

To get to Kristiansund is easy, using the excellent BMI Regional service direct from Aberdeen (www.bmiregional.com) with prices starting from around £275 return, all included. The service is smooth, and quick, especially at Kristiansand’s small airport. For hotels, I stayed in Kristiansund at the Thon Hotel, a newly converted pair of warehouses – you wouldn’t know, except the walls are made of tree trunks, so there is no sound from the other rooms, and from the bedroom window you look directly out onto the water of the harbour and the other islands. One publicity photo shows guests fishing from the bedroom window. Thon hotels are everywhere in Scandinavia (www.thonhotels.no).

The other hotel I stayed at will remain in my memory for ever. It is Håholmen Haustuer, one of “Classic Norway Hotels” (www.haholmen.no). It is on a small island. In days gone by the fishermen would have to row out to the fishing grounds when the cod were there. They would spend so long rowing out and back, that they took this little island and built cabins on it. Then they would row out to it, and stay there during the fishing season. These cabins have been converted to “all mod cons” hotel rooms.

From their landing stage beside the Atlantic Road, their own luxury speed boat collects you and zooms you through many small islands to Håholmen. There are 49 rooms in cabins, with a maximum of 100 guests. Everything is top quality. The speciality of the restaurant is sea food, of course. They have the Saga Siglar Hall, for conferences, with Saga’s Viking boat in the room. The hotel offers activities including sea fishing in either their speed boat, inflatables, or luxury of luxuries, in a genuine Norwegian fishing boat, which is moored to the landing stage.

You can go diving, swimming, rowing, cruising with an outboard motor boat, or any type of sea activity, or you can simply sit in the total peace, listening to the sea gently caressing the shore, while the sun sets, the moon sets, or the sun slowly rises casting fantastic shades of rose, blue, and gold across the islands and the sea.

When I reluctantly had to leave the island, the boatmen took me a small diversion to see the Viking longship that they are rebuilding, then we zig-zagged across to capture on film sea eagles. There are eagles everywhere. I tried to snap them, but they usually flew off before we could get close enough, but for bird watchers, this must be a place to go. The hotel is not so easy to get to, but not difficult and they work hard to make it as easy as possible.

You can take a bus from Kristiansund, and they will send a car to meet you from the nearest stop and then their boat whisks you to the island. If there is a group of you, they will send their boat to Kristiansund – this must be the best way to go. Simply let them know your plans and they will make the arrangements for you.

It sums up Norway – islands, sea, peace, activities galore, and friendly people. I was enchanted by the number of people who were happy to chat to me, always in English. Having a sandwich and a cake in a café lead to laughs and chat with the lassies, who served me an apple cake fresh from the oven, refilling my tea for free as I had to wait for about two minutes – when I asked a lady how to get to a church, she went out of her way to take me there. The lady in the newsagents who sold me some postcards and chatted to me about their special offers and would I need stamps, everywhere I went, open, friendly people, typical Norwegians.

This is a place to go and enjoy, and to unwind. For more information go to www.visitkristiansund.com

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