A journey into the fjords of Norway

Words by Brandon Scott Herrell

​We received the itinerary for our trip to Norway about 48 hours before our flights. The email from our new friend Maria detailed six days of hiking, biking, kayaking, and touring the fjords by boat.

We had prepared as best we could, assuming we may visit some of the bigger cities such as Oslo or Bergen, but Maria told us “We’ll be staying in the Sunnmøre area, the birthplace of Devold of Norway back in 1853 (also the most beautiful part of Norway in my unbiased opinion)”. 

The short flight from Amsterdam to the town of Alesund proved that our friend Maria had meant what she said. Copper mountains peppered with tiny azure lakes unfolded to the horizon amid vast, swooping fjords. From our home among the various small islands and peninsulas of the pacific northwest, this landscape felt at once familiar and abundant with opportunities for discovery.

We deboarded our puddle jumper on the tarmac, noting the bronzey light of early evening on our first day in Norway. Our driver, Roald met us at Ålesund’s modest airport, and offered some insights to the region’s architecture and history on the drive into town. The Sunnmore region is a scattered network of small towns, punctuated by stunning wilderness and connected by miles of underground tunnels - Norway’s solution to the impossible task of bridging all this water. Ålesund itself is a small fishing village with a unique architectural heritage. A consistent style pervades the town, owing to a fire which devastated Alesund overnight in 1904. A coalition of like-minded architects and craftspeople rebuilt primarily with stone, brick, and mortar in Art Noveau style. Wes Andersen himself might have commissioned the construction. The town feels art directed, down to the muted yellow and green paint job on Hotel Brosundet, our home for the first two nights.

It was in the bar at Brosundet where we encountered our first ‘Norwegian No’ - a local quirk which we came to love and respect. We asked our bartender “Do you have a cocktail menu?”, and were swiftly met with a firm and final “No”.  Maybe we’ve become accustomed to Seattle’s ‘Soft Yes’, but at first it was difficult to see that this response wasn’t a put-off. We’d simply asked a question and the answer was simply “No”. Our lovely bartender proceeded to ask our various flavor and ingredient preferences, and produced a custom cocktail for each of us - including a glass orb filled with ice and flowers with a stemless martini glass nestled in the top. Norwegian No isn’t the end of the conversation, but an opportunity to ask another, better question. 

It was in the light of the morning that we were really able to appreciate the beauty of the hotel. Brosundet is home to Norway’s biggest fireplace - a massive piece of stonework that extends between antique timber beams and upward through the center of the former fishing warehouse. This was the setting of the first of many truly epic breakfasts on this trip. Hotel Brosundet prepares its breakfast buffet every morning. Fresh bread, coffee, smoked fish, local cheeses, and countless other jams and regional delicacies await guests in the relaxed dining room, which sits on the canal that snakes outside the hotel. 

After breakfast, we finally met our host, Maria. Maria Flakk works at Devold with her father Knut Flakk, lovingly called ‘Captain Knut’. Flakk purchased the heritage knitwear producer in 1989 and rescued it from bankruptcy. The Flakks also happen to own all the hotels we’d visit during our stay, the guide company whose boats we’d travel in, and a helicopter tour company, just to name a few of the Flakk family’s enterprises. Maria appeared in the lobby in a chunky knit Devold cap and sweater to give us an overview of our day, which would involve a boat trip through the fjord and a tour of the historic Devold factory on a small island named Sula.

Maria’s friend Gareth would join us for the day. Gareth was visiting from South Africa, and works with a tour company in Antarctica. His humor and sincerity were a welcome addition to the crew. The Fjord Explorer picked us up on the dock behind Hotel Brosundet, and carried us across scenic Borgundfjorden; past charming coastal homesteads and snow dusted peaks that ascend steeply from the salt water of the fjord.

Devold’s historic factory and museum offers the perfect window to the company’s storied history and into its evolving future. Ole Andreas Devold built Devoldfabrikken on Sula in 1868 and moved his company there from Alesund to continue producing their knitwear for Norway’s sailors and adventurers. Devold also constructed Norway’s first hydroelectric plant on the island, which is still in operation today. The company eventually ran into mismanagement issues and declining interest until adventurer and entrepreneur Knut Flakk purchased it in 1989.

Through continual innovation, Flakk’s leadership restored Devold to the respected institution it is today. One such innovation was Flakk’s decision to move manufacturing to Lithuania, reducing the cost of production and giving the company the air it needed to grow. As a result, Devoldfabrikken now serves as a museum and visitor center, as well as providing workspaces for local artists and craftspeople. Upon arriving on Sula, we were greeted by Captain Knut himself. He’d be our tour guide for the day, educating us on the history of the company and giving us glimpses into his plans to carry Devold forward. We visited the hydroelectric plant, and explored the Devold museum - which is home to antique mills and knitting machines from the company’s past. After the tour, we had the pleasure of stopping for lunch at Kantina Cafe - the bright and airy eatery on the rustic factory grounds. After a delicious and seafood focused lunch, we returned to the Fjord Explorer to head back to Alesund. By evening, the wind had whipped the sea into chop. We spent a few minutes being tossed around on deck, shielding cameras from the spray until our captain insisted we come back into the cabin for our own safety. 

Hotel Brosundet is home to the famed restaurant Apotekergata No. 5, which offers a menu inspired by the topography of the region. We opted for the five course selection - River, Soil, Deep (sea), Lowlands, and Garden. The ensuing meal was an exploration of local agriculture, and a lesson on the bounty of Norway’s wilderness. Our ‘Lowlands’ course featured deer which was hunted by the chef who prepared our dinner. ‘Deep’ was a caviar and potato dish we won’t soon forget. The caviar was like a mouth full of ocean. A salty, earthy snapshot of deep sea.

Maria insisted I try the caviar in the traditional way - with a shot of vodka. Naturally, our server delivered the vodka in a cold steaming glass of dry ice that elicited stares and applause from the other diners. Gareth delighted the table with a story about a spirit medium he’d visited, who had entrusted him with a crystal to be deposited in a secret location somewhere in Antarctica on a mission to heal the Earth. Don’t worry - Gareth delivered the crystal safely. He wouldn’t tell us where.

 By the end of our meal, the table was littered with a comical quantity of wine glasses - the result of the generous pairings with our meal. We’ve hardly ever eaten so well or in such good company. The only thing to do after such a meal is to have a beer in the sauna and a cold plunge in the canal. We left our sweaters in a heap on the dock so we could fetch them quickly, and got our first taste of the cold plunge that many Norwegians consider routine. Needless to say - sleep came easily after all this.

Our second morning at Brosundet, we finally managed to snag the perfect breakfast table. In our spot by the window overlooking the canal, we ate too many pastries and had too many coffees, which would be a theme for almost every breakfast of this trip. We’d been looking forward to the day’s cycling trip - eager to get active in the wilderness we’d admired from the plane. Our driver Roald drove us through the mountains, pointing out the small towns along the way. One charming village was known for furniture making. We called it Furniture Town. The next was the home of a frozen pizza company. Pizza Town. We were surprised to learn that Norway is known as the world’s biggest consumer of frozen pizza. Apparently it can’t all be fresh deer and smoked fish. 

The road stretched onward past these reminders of civilization, and deeper into the fjords. Every time we thought we’d seen most beautiful valley or the cutest village - we’d round a corner and gasp again. Roald told us “It’s stunning beautiful every time, so you never get tired of this”. There wasn’t a touch of showiness or sentimentality in his voice. It’s just a matter of fact that that you don’t get tired of this landscape. This deep appreciation for nature was characteristic of the people we met on our trip. Every conversation seemed eventually to circle around to that topic. This is easy to believe when you see the broad expanses of unspoiled nature that Sunnmore contains. The countryside just outside Alesund rivals some of our best national parks in terms of its pristine and dramatic wilderness. 

We pulled off the two lane mountain highway to rendezvous with our bicycle guide, who outfitted us with some capable mountain bikes for the journey through a narrow valley called Norangsdalen. This would turn out to be one of the more memorable points of the trip. If Norangsdalen had only its remarkable landscape, that would be enough. The steep walls of the valley crescendo in dramatic rocky peaks, and plunge into icy mountain lakes; mountainsides draped with the gold and rust blankets of fall. The valley’s rich history contributed yet another layer to our wonder here. We learned the tradition of the dairy farms, who’d send their daughters up into the mountains with the cows to graze in the summer.They’d stay in little sod-roofed farmer’s cabins which dotted the valley walls. Beneath one icy lake we could see the stone remains of a farmstead which had since flooded. The final stretch of the trip wound through a former mink farming village which is home to the historic Hotel Union Oye, our destination.

The doorway to Hotel Union Oye is a gateway backward in time. Since 1891, the hotel has served travelers from Norway and abroad from its home on the shore of Norgangsfjord. The exterior is ornately decorated in a style fit for royalty - literally. Several kings and queens of Norway and surrounding countries have visited the hotel throughout its history to absorb the surrounding nature from Union Oye’s cosy accommodations. We arrived at lunch time, and with the freezing temperatures of the bicycle trip our accelerated metabolisms had worked up quite a hunger. We’d thankfully packed the right sweaters for the trip, and this had been our first opportunity to really see how Devold’s knits perform in Norway’s often unforgiving climate.

We’d done a bit of research into Norway’s food culture, and came with a short list of foods to try. Brunost or ‘brown cheese’ is a staple food in Norway, made from caramelized goat whey - and we encountered it almost everywhere we visited. Lunch at Union Oye started with brunost folded into Norwegian pancakes called svele. We had it with a coffee as blood slowly returned to our fingertips. We’d read that reindeer was a common ingredient in traditional Norwegian cooking, and lunch delivered on that with a simple but delicious dish of reindeer and roasted vegetables. A well-earned beer from a brewery on the other side of a nearby mountain accompanied the reindeer perfectly. It tasted lightly malty and clean, somehow redolent of the pristine surrounding nature. 

Up to this point, the weather had been truly ideal. People kept telling us - “it’s not usually like this”. The leaves had lingered on the trees, the wind had stayed calm, and the sun traced its arching autumn path through the sky unobstructed by clouds. Our bicycle trip through Norangsdalen had sparked a deep desire to experience the region’s nature up close, so we asked our bicycle guide, Oscar to connect us with a hike nearby. We stuffed Devold caps and sweaters into our packs and piled in a van in the bronzey light that was a near constant of our time in Sunnmore. We’ve often been frustrated by restricted access to wilderness areas here at home. Some of our best hot springs are cut off by private property, or controlled by a pay barrier. It wouldn’t be hard to get yourself shot hiking through the wrong yard in some parts of the US. Norway, and indeed many of the nordic countries respect an ancient tradition called ‘allemannsretten’ or ‘Every Man’s Right’. This tradition is written into the law - allowing anyone to walk, camp, and enjoy nature freely anywhere in Norway; so long as they tread lightly. When the steep gravel road to our trail curved into a mountainside homestead, we had no reason to hesitate. We parked (carefully) along the road to start on the trail.

Our team are strong hikers. Most summer days when we’re not in the shop, we’r in the mountains. Trails in the northwest often ascend a manicured footpath through second growth forests, eventually opening on a ridgeline after countless switchbacks. Our first Norwegian hike was anything but manicured. The view from our parking spot was spectacular on its own, with mighty Hjorundfjord below us - and a sprawling expanse of mountains, lakes, and more fjords beyond. We quickly found we’d arrived overdressed, as the trail rose sharply straight up the mountain. We paused to remove our sweaters and locate the red painted markings that indicated the loosely defined path.

We were certainly lucky to have caught the weather we did. Hiking in a t-shirt in western Norway in October sunshine is a rare pleasure. Oscar educated us on what would be a common thread through our conversations. Norwegians hike in the rain too. They swim in the freezing, salty fjords, and if it’s too stormy to kayak; they put on a dry suit. We kept hearing the slogan “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes”. Though Oscar was quick to add with a smirk - “I don’t necessarily agree with that all the time…”. We tend to think that our seasons for outdoor activity are limited by the weather, but this Norwegian attitude was inspiring. Why wait half the year to enjoy the best part of where we live? In Norway, 80% of skiing is backcountry skiing. This level of commitment to life outdoors is something we’d definitely be bringing home with us. 

Since our autumn light was beginning to fade, we opted to shoot for the saddle between peaks before heading back to Union Oye for dinner. Once we stopped moving, the Nordsjo and Nansen sweaters came back out of our packs. From our resting point we enjoyed Norway’s most popular chocolate bar: Freia’s melkesjokolade - a smooth, creamy blend of cocoa and milk from Norwegian cows. We descended the rocky, rambling path to a fjord awash with soft sunlight. The shadows of surrounding peaks stretched across the landscape until the valley was cloaked in dusk, just as we arrived back at the van.

The dark of early evening brings out the cosyness of Hotel Union Oye. Rounding the last bend of the two lane highway that hugs Norangsfjord, Union Oye’s dim orange light spilled out the windows onto the dusky surrounding lawn. We landed back at the hotel to warm our hands at the fire in the lobby and prepare for dinner. We ate a lovely three course meal, the highlight of which was a seared local fish with wild berries harvested from a nearby mountaintop. Everything here seemed plucked from a legend. Such impressive provenance was commonplace. Here, the chef shoots the deer. The berries are from a mountain, and the beer is named after a glacier. The tradition after dinner at Union Oye is to hear stories from the hotel’s illustrious past, so we gathered by the second fireplace in the study with our tiny glasses of aquavit. Our hostess recounted the tale of a German official falling in love with a local woman on a tour of duty. The German promised to return, but his family wouldn’t approve. In despair he threw himself from the ship, and when she heard the news she drowned herself in a nearby lake. Her spirit haunts Room #7 still. A later German siege dislodged a boulder from the mountain behind the hotel. The chunk of rock crashed through the roof and sits on a rug on the third floor. We all slept unperturbed by ghosts, pleasantly tired from cycling and hiking the day away.

We woke to yet another epic breakfast on our final morning at Union Oye. By this time we were pros. A slice of fresh bread is a must with local raspberry jam. Norwegian brown cheese finds a place on every plate. Bread and butter pickles balance the richness of the offerings with a briny crunch. Somehow, three cups of coffee feels normal here. Possibly due to our nightly routine of sleeping six hours or less. Jetlag was a constant companion for those of our team who’d traveled from Japan. Enjoying our fourth coffee on the charming porch at Union Oye, we met our kayak guide, Christian. He was instantly bright and personable, which didn’t stop him giving us more than one Norwegian No as we got to know each other. We packed our bags into the car that would carry them onward to Storfjord, and began our walk to the shores of Norangsfjord. Our team yanked drysuits over our heads, and zipped them shut by a series of sod-roofed boathouses. We paired off and launched our two-person kayaks, bidding farewell to Norangsdalen’s splendor, and Union Oye’s charm.

Our destination was a tiny town called Urke, an hour’s paddle across Norangsfjord. Christian led the way, offering tips for how to sync up our paddling. A natural daredevil, our friend Andrea climbed out of her kayak and scaled the small beacon in the middle of the fjord to absorb the view. We didn’t get the chance to test our dry suits, thankfully - as she climbed gracefully back down and into her kayak without incident. The verticality of the valley was almost dizzying. From our kayaks at sea level, the shore rose straight up to rocky peaks, thousands of feet above. We rounded the bend that separates Norangsford from the larger Hjorundfjord, and little Urke was a straight shot from there.

We’d heard of Urke Kaihus from our various guides. A tiny, one-room bar with local beer and no business hours. We’d been unsure if we could visit, since we were traveling in the off season. To our delight, our guide had called the owners and they agreed to open up for us. As we dragged our kayaks to the shore, we got out of our drysuits and into our sweaters just as our bartender arrived to unlock the door. Sometimes a simple thing like a glass of beer can be the focal point of a greater moment. As we sat in the corner at Urke Kaihus with the door open, staring out at Hjorundfjord; the local beer lifted us with its characteristically light and malty flavor, imbued with the fullness of this incredible adventure we’d been taking together. Again, we’ve hardly had better beer or in better company.

From Urke, we boarded the boat that would take us across the fjord to our last hotel - Storfjord. Our pilot was a friend of Knut Flakk’s. Tom was a gregarious and witty man. His Norwegian No was impeccably timed and appropriately firm when we asked him to model for us. We were headed toward a tiny village called Trandal for lunch. On the shores of Hjordfjord, accessible only by boat - sits the part art compound part pub Christian Gaard bygdetun. Another bar with no hours… Tom called ahead and we were in luck again. At this stage we began to develop a sense of Devold’s significance in the region. It wasn’t a coincidence people were saying yes to us everywhere we went - Norwegian Nos aside...

We moored at the small dock below the venue’s weathered timber exterior as Tom told us of its fame. Built without permits, the owner was allowed to keep the buildings as a technicality when he classified them as an art installation. It’s easy to imagine truly epic parties here, with sailboats moored off shore and live music in the bar’s covered patios. Tom showed us a small secret hatch in the bathroom that opens to the outdoor bar. “When your friends won’t let you drink anymore, just knock like this and you can sneak a beer”. An artful, handmade feel resonates through Christian Gaard. No neon beer signs to be found here. We sat cracking chestnuts under a handmade rope chandelier, drinking a local beer with the now familiar light maltiness. The lone bartender on duty served us a lunch with the perfect balance of rustic pub charm and Norwegian elegance. Deer burgers on handmade bread with fried potatoes. This was the simplest and one of the most delicious meals we had during our time in Norway. 

Our trip was nearing its end. We’d stay one night at the Storfjord Hotel before returning to Alesund for a final evening at Brosundet and an early flight home. The weather was beginning to turn, and our minds began to catch on our backlog of work at home. Storfjord Hotel sits among Norwegian forests, shouting distance from its namesake fjord. The hotel itself rounds out the family of properties nicely, providing a woodsy counterbalance to Brosundent’s elegance, and sharing the classic charm of Union Oye. The property comprises several timber framed lodge style buildings with traditional Norwegian sod roofs, all connected by stone footpaths. Our agenda for the day was appropriately indoorsy. Our rooms weren’t quite ready so we were encouraged to visit the spa for massages and a soak in the hot tub. After four days of hiking, biking, and kayaking - this was a welcome moment of pause.

We left the spa in a state of deep relaxation, and met up in the lobby to a surprise from the concierge. “The pipi room is ready for you”. We did our best to stifle laughter. “Umm… What’s a pipi room?”. Through some fumbling, we discerned that we’d be meeting up in a tipi on the property to have a beer before dinner. We and our concierge shook off the slight embarrassment and we headed out for the short hike to the pipi room. Our first Norwegian rain awoke the rich fragrance of Storfjords woods. Fine mist evaporated on our freshly saunaed skin. The shift toward moodier weather felt right. The mellow glow of a cosy fire spilled out the open door of the tipi into the blue light of dusk in the woods. We stepped inside to find an assortment of wines and local beers, and spent the waning hours of the day recapping the adventure up to this point over drinks. 

To our surprise and delight, Maria met us at Storfjord in the morning, after another epic Norwegian breakfast. We joked that we were getting exhausted with so much eating. Rain had settled into the fjords - but thankfully there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. We borrowed ponchos from the hotel’s stock and set out for a drizzly hike in the woods. We’d seen most of western Norway’s catalog of landscapes, with the exception of its forests. Like much of the landscape here, we felt a level of familiarity from the forests at home. Maria told us along the way that our winding forest path was popular for cross country skiing between towns in the winter. Sometimes people from the next village over ski to Storfjord just for a hot cocoa. Between the narrow conifers, the forest floor was blanketed with verdant moss thick as pillows. Tiny crystal streams ran through the moss, with orange mushrooms in scattered in clusters around them. Even in the cold and rain, this forest felt welcoming - with the right clothes of course.

Arriving back at Storfjord, we packed into Maria’s car for the drive back to Alesund. When she asked us if we’d like to visit her favorite of her family’s homes - none of us hesitated.  The rugged coastline was among the last of the region’s topography we’d yet to experience outside of a tasting menu. The Flakk’s family home sits on a narrow peninsula between the fjords and the sea. The wind carried a biting cold, testing the warmth of Devold’s woolens. The interior of the cabin was suitably simplistic - appointed with the basics of what you’d need for a cosy getaway on Norway’s mercurial coast. No TV,  a fireplace, and plenty of windows. We imagined a writing getaway here in the winter, or summers spent sailing and returning home to cook dinner in the intimate kitchen. Maria told us that was pretty much the idea. 

We arrived back to Hotel Brosundet for the last night of our trip, still recovering body heat from the harsh winds of the coast. The reality of heading home began to set in. The mental pull of inboxes began to creep up, so we went out for a beer. Molo Brew sits on one of Alesund’s bays. A large, industrial style space with concrete floors, communal tables, and to our delight - Shuffleboard. After burgers and beers, we divided into teams. The women’s team dominated the men. Utterly. We don’t need to get into the score… 

Our ride to the airport was at 8AM, so we had precious few hours left to enjoy Alesund. The sauna at Hotel Brosundet seemed exactly the right place. Inspired by the casual toughness of the Norwegians we’d met along our trip - we felt another cold plunge was in order. Together, we sat in the sauna and reflected on the crazy week - The majestic fjords, the shimmering red and gold of fall leaves on the trail, the impossible landscape where mountains plunge into salt water, the Norwegian Nos, and the new friends we’d made along the way… We held all this in our minds, took a deep breath, and jumped one last time into Alesund’s frigid canal.