When you think of Norway, what comes up? The Northern Lights? The Midnight Sun? The fjords? Yet there’s another side to Norway, the south, a region where Norwegians tend to go on holiday but foreign visitors do not. Norwegians call it ‘Sørlandet’, the Southern Country.
It’s easier than ever to get to from the UK now, with recently launched two-hour flights from £59 with Norwegian airline Wideroe, from London Stansted to its heart, Kristiansand.
The region enjoys a noticeably milder climate to the north and access to great wilderness – mountains, lakes, rivers and forest.
Its coast, ‘Norway’s Riviera’, has a host of beaches, islets, skerries and sheltered coves. Boating, swimming and kayaking are unsurprisingly popular here.
Forests and islands
My stay began just east of the town of Mandal, at Tregde Ferie fishing village, set in a restful, sheltered location overlooking the Tregde archipelago.
Visitors stay in cabins and apartments with balconies, with some overlooking the quay. They have kitchens, handy for reducing costs in an area of the world where eating out, and much else, is pretty pricey.
However, there’s an impressive restaurant onsite, Marinaen, with inventive, often fish-inspired dishes, such as freshly caught monkfish with cream cheese and basil profiteroles.
The centre offers boat and bike hire as well as kayaking, diving, fishing and sea rafting trips. My group put on thick waterproofs and jumped into a fishing boat for a ride out past the bay with local fisherman Magne Johannessen, with his Captain Bird’s Eye-style grey beard and thick woolly jumper.
Passing little secluded retreats, seagulls encircled us as pine forest framed each side of our route. In the summer there’d be lots of boats here, but, being April, it was just us on the water. The sun was trying to break out of the thick clouds in this deep sea wilderness.
Before long we were helping haul in mackerel, herring and monkfish in abundance. We moved nearby and got completely different fish: flounder and cod, and some crabs. Magne told us that he caught a 38 kilo monkfish once, nearly a metre tall. As he pulled it out, it bit him on the arm.
We took a boat to little Landøy island, one of more than 50,000 islands in the country. Fifty years ago people lived here full-time, but now there’s just summerhouses. One is owned by Øystein and Liv Steinsvåg, the only people on the island when we visited. Their gorgeous house is something straight out of an interiors magazine, pulling off the rural Scandi look with panache.
Their barn is a living museum built from examples from Norway’s shipping history, including timber from 19th century shipwrecks, sails, lanterns, rope and tackle and even a small jail. You can email Øystein to visit at no charge.
Europe’s first underwater restaurant
A first glance at Under will stop you in your tracks. Europe’s first and the world’s largest underwater restaurant, it is located at Lindesnes, known for its intense weather conditions, which can change from calm to stormy several times a day. The imposing 34-metre-long concrete and wood block resembled a sinking boat, tilting into the icy waters of Lindesnes bay, resting on the seabed more than five metres below. It’s almost an art installation.
Diners sit by a huge 3.4m x 11m window (26cm-thick acrylic rather than glass) revealing a panoramic view of the otherwise rarely seen marine ecosystem of the North Atlantic Ocean. You could see pollack, cod, snails, sea urchins, crabs, lobsters in gladiator battles, spiny dogfish and distinctive seaweed and kelp that change through the seasons. Sometimes seals too. All against a backdrop of the roaring, stormy seas, nature in turmoil. However, unfortunately when I visited, there was not much going on. There’s more action in my goldfish tank. I’ll put it down to bad luck.
Opening in March this year, the 40-seat restaurant is owned by local brothers Stig, and Gaute Ubostad. In their 40s, they’re called ‘drifty’ by the locals, which roughly translates as ‘driven’, because they are forever embarking on new ‘crazy’ projects. This one certainly seems so, being such a costly enterprise (70m NOK/£6.3m) in such a quiet, nondescript location.
Yet already bookings for the 18-course locally-sourced 2250 NOK/£200 tasting menus (plus 1450 NOK/£130 wine pairing) are up to six months ahead. As well as seafood and seaweeds, seabirds and wild sheep that have grazed in the archipelago nearby are also on the menu.
Continuing along the road, you arrive at Lindesnes lighthouse, dating back to 1656 and therefore Norway’s oldest. Designated a national lighthouse museum, it has a cinema with films depicting life here on the coast and living in the midst of a storm. An exhilarating RIB boat ride took us to another lighthouse, Ryvingen, established in 1867. Huge, towering rocks surrounded the barren landscape. It has accommodation available too (600 NOK/£55), if you’re looking for a spot of solitude.
Climbing, biking and hiking
With rivers well suited for activities like white water rafting, canoeing, kayaking and salmon and trout fishing, Kristiansand is seen as something of a destination for those searching for some adventure too.
With this in mind, I stayed at Troll Activ situated at Evje in the Setesdal valley. Set up by British ex-army guy Tim Davis and his Norwegian wife Gjertrud 25 years ago, the adventure sports centre offers 20 activities including climbing walls, treetop walks and mountain bike tours.
Located right next to the raging rapids of the Otra River, the centre excels in water sports. I tried white water rafting, in the cold, fast-moving, swirling waters, which was truly exhilarating.
Southern Norway is a very different beast from what the country is largely known for, and deserves greater recognition, which the new London flights will help achieve.
“We have a massive amount of wilderness here,” says Tim Davis. “We have so much forest and mountain that you can climb a new mountainway or experience a new river every day. It’s very user-friendly terrain. Gorgeous, clean, untouched nature sums this place up.”
Getting there: www.wideroe.no/en/flytoKRS
Further information: www.visitnorway.com/places-to-go/southern-norway/