Flying above the Sunnmore Alps, mountains plunged below my feet, sinking into snaking waterways as deep and dark as the dead of night. Thick clusters of pine trees bristled on sage-green slopes, as our helicopter carved an exhilarating path through a slalom of steep valleys. Around us, snow-streaked peaks soared like the frothing crests of angry ocean waves. Extreme, daring and dramatic, the lay of Norway’s land surpasses all superlatives.
Pre-pandemic, almost 10 million international tourists visited annually, according to Visit Norway. Scenery is frequently cited as the main attraction, so it was no surprise when Telegraph Travel’s comprehensive study revealed it to be the most beautiful country in Europe. In truth, Norway has been turning heads for decades.
Appreciation of Sunnmore’s towering pinnacles began in the late 19th century, when explorers and aristocrats discovered hiking routes weaving through the magnificent Hjorundfjord. Even esteemed writers such as Karen Blixen and Henrik Ibsen, whose visits are commemorated with rooms in the area’s historic Hotel Union Oye, failed to truly articulate its allure.
A concentrated dose of Norway’s best features, this section of the northwest Fjordland more than earns its reputation. But it wasn’t the first – or only – place to spark my love affair with the Scandinavian country.
Epic mountain views
Rising above pancake-flat Denmark and forested Finland, glacier-carved mountains give this Nordic giant unmatched elevation. So many of my travel highs have been experienced at these high points: being carried by fierce winds to the top of Senja’s sail-shaped Segla pinnacle; watching clouds drift below my feet on Vestland’s precipitous Trolltunga plateau.
Once, in the middle of winter, I snowshoed up a mountain on the island of Kvaloya, a 40-minute drive from Tromso. Inky fjords spiralled through the monochrome landscape, connecting a scattering of houses tucked into a concertina of rocky folds. When the wind dropped, not even a cascade of fine snow-crystals could shatter the silence. I felt beautifully still and alone.
A signature physical feature, jagged mountain ranges run right to the top of the long, narrow country, reappearing in the Svalbard archipelago. Originally named Spitsbergen by Dutch explorers, in reference to its spiky peaks, the Norwegian-governed Arctic wilderness is one of my favourite places in the world.
Everything here is intense. At the Alkefjellet bird cliffs, I witnessed thick black clouds of Brünnich’s guillemots squealing and swirling above guano-streaked ledges. Brian Blessed’s Hawkman battle scene in Flash Gordon sprang to mind as thousands of fledglings took their maiden flights.
Polar expeditions and wonderful wildlife
Over the years, I’ve clocked up hours on the decks of expedition ships, scanning a horizon where, for five months, the sun never sets. Patience was always rewarded with celestial displays of angelic ivory gulls, other-worldly lenticular cloud formations, and triumphant blows from blue whales reclaiming polar waters more than a century after hunting almost caused their total demise.
But it’s the Arctic’s apex predator, the buttery polar bear, that’s become a poster child for extinction and a symbol of savage beauty. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them multiple times, although one sighting will always stick in my mind.
Embarking on a June voyage one year, before any other ships had set sail, I found sea ice stretching for miles between islands. Leaning over the bow, I watched a mother and two cubs come so close, I could almost feel the chill of their coiling, icy exhalations.
In the polar regions, however, scenes can change quickly. Less than 24 hours later, the bears’ frozen plateau had been shattered and replaced by rolling blue waves – a reminder that beauty can all too often be ephemeral.
Beaches to rival the Indian Ocean
In summer, Norway could rival the Indian Ocean with its white sand beaches and turquoise waters, where ruby-red starfish cling to the seabed like a haul of pirate’s treasure.
But winter is the season I cherish most. Even on the shortest days, polar skies are blazoned in pastel pink, cool blue and sherbet orange. At night, the aurora borealis performs a magical light show.
Famously overcrowded in peak season, north Norway’s Lofoten islands are empty, peaceful and – in my opinion – infinitely more beautiful between December and March. Traditional red rorbu huts, once used by fishermen, shimmer brightly in the twilight, while wooden trellises hung with drying codfish demonstrate that a nostalgic seafaring culture is still very much alive today.
Displayed in a gallery close to the archipelago’s main island, Svolvaer, paintings by 20th century artist Kaare Espolin Johnson depict sepia-toned scenes of stern-faced men toiling with storms and treacherous waters. Dark, sombre and verging on depressing, they are also inexplicably romantic, summing up Norway’s beguiling, powerful appeal.
Although at times unconventional, Norway’s good looks are endlessly pleasing. From heavenly mountain peaks to fathomless fjords, this raw, rugged natural beauty captivates on so many levels.