Summertime Smorgasbord: One Week in Norway

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It was during our ascent of the Besseggen Ridge in Norway's Jotunheimen National Park – a wild zone of tree-bare mountains, crystalline lakes, and ancient glaciers – when the regret began to take hold. A couple hundred feet ahead, my 65-year-old father, Knut, who immigrated to the U.S. from Norway in his early twenties, was cruising like a mountain goat. The last time he'd hiked the Besseggen was 1965, with his cousin Asbjørn, and today they had reunited to give it another whirl. I was tagging along. It was a chilly, overcast day in June, but just 20 minutes into the 11-mile climb I was already winded and sweaty. Asbjørn gave me a pep talk: "Breathe. Stop as much as you need to. We aren't in a rush."

This, it turns out, is also killer advice for tackling the wonders of Norway in summer. With long, high-latitude days that barely see the sun set, it's a magical season; in about a week, you can experience three of the country's greatest regions. That's what we set out to do, starting in the mountains of the Oppland (literally, "upland") before taking in the towns and fjords of the west coast and then wrapping up the journey in Norway's booming, hyper-cosmopolitan capital, Oslo.

About the size of the East Coast of the United States, but with just 5 million inhabitants, most of Norway feels vast and remote. As my dad and I zipped north from Oslo's sleek, blond-wood airport a few days earlier in our tiny rental car (shout-out to the agent who gave us a hybrid hatchback; gas in Norway costs about $10 a gallon), we were almost immediately rolling through lush farmland. Cruising the E6, the main north-south corridor, we snaked past Mjøsa Lake, Norway's largest, into the valley of Gudbrandsdalen, a postcard vista of steep, pine-covered hills.

We stopped for supplies in Lillehammer – pre-1994 Winter Olympics a one-stoplight town, but now a vital little city – then wound deep into the mountains to our family's cabin on the edge of a spring-fed lake in Oppland. The next morning, after a traditional, smorgasbord-y breakfast of brown bread, scrambled eggs, cold cuts, cheese, and tiny, sweet North Sea shrimp, we tested our readiness for the Besseggen run on the mossy slopes of several nearby hills. A few hours in, we hit an unexpected obstacle: a herd of over-friendly goats that seemed to think my father was their leader. (There are also bears, wolves, and elk in these hills.) We decided to head back to the cabin for a whiskey.

In part because Henrik Ibsen wrote about it in his 1867 play, Peer Gynt, hiking the Besseggen has become a national pilgrimage. Only 12 feet wide at its narrowest point, the famous ridge threads two glacial lakes – the Gjende, some 1,300 stomach-churning feet below on one side, and the Bessvatnet, a smaller, deep-blue body of water on the other – like a natural skybridge. Somewhere north of 30,000 people hike it every summer, and as we made our way, we passed (or, somewhat humiliatingly, were passed by) families with kids and dogs, honeymooners, and a large contingent of Dutch, jonesing for the peaks their country lacks.

Nearing the summit, at the trail's steepest section, icy raindrops started spitting down, and a wind strong enough to set my pants flapping like a sail picked up. Soon we were scrambling over slick rocks on hands and knees. But by the time we reached the top, marked by a massive pyramid-shaped cairn, the sun had reemerged, and I felt a mellow sense of satisfaction. A few hours later, rubber-legged and blissed out, we were again at the base, happily eating hot dogs from a snack bar near the parking lot.

After resting up for the night at Asbjørn's nearby cabin, we headed to the fjords of the west coast. We often had the road to ourselves, so we took it slow, stopping to check out a rainbow-spray waterfall or a hawk lazily riding thermal columns before dive-bombing for a fish. We stopped for coffee in the port city of Kristiansund, the jumping-off point for the new Atlantic Road, which twists over eight causeways designed to get you as close to the wild North Atlantic as possible. On a sunny day, it's a stunner of a drive, and an ideal spot for a picnic or impromptu fishing. On a day like ours, with high winds and pelting rain, it might be even better, as the sea hammers the highway, sending whitewater arcing over the buttresses.

As we approached the small city of Molde, we dropped off our car and boarded the MS Nordlys, one of a dozen ships on the famous Hurtigruten line, which makes trips up and down 1,500 miles of Norway's western coastline, carrying passengers, mail, and freight. The annual Molde Jazz Festival had taken over the town, and stages lined the waterfront. We hung out on deck, catching a surprisingly decent Norwegian Stevie Wonder cover band.

The overnight trip took us to the route's southern terminus in Bergen, Norway's second city, famous for its soggy climate and gingerbread downtown, which wraps around the harbor. After lunch, we hopped a high-speed ferry to the village of Rosendal, deep inside the Hardangerfjord – a mountain-ringed mecca for sailing and salmon fishing. After spending the day walking the hills and exploring a 700-year-old church nearby, we slept in a hillside cabin with a view of the island-dotted water below.

For the last leg of our trip, Oslo, the idea was to experience the new Norway, as different from the cabins and lodges of the countryside as the glass towers of Dubai are from its old medinas. In fact, Tjuvholmen, the futuristic, glittering waterfront district where we were staying, could almost be Dubai, if Dubai were on a fjord and had a lot more blond people. At one point, I could see my dad mentally mapping the gritty docklands of his childhood. (Tjuvholmen translates to "Thief Island" – gritty is possibly an understatement.) "I used to unload banana boats over there to make some extra money as a teenager," he said, pointing toward a pier where a yacht was docked. "No one besides teens would do the job – too sticky."

After checking in to the new Thief hotel – a high-luxury palace with killer views of the harbor – we had a negroni at the rooftop bar, then headed into the slightly surreal, late-evening sunshine looking for dinner. We ended up at the new outpost of Alex Sushi, a Michelin-starred Japanese spot known as one of the best in Europe. (Order the omakase menu, which combines superfresh local fish with high-end tuna flown in from Japan, but brace yourself for the bill.)

The next morning, we crossed the street to the new Renzo Piano–designed Astrup Fearnley Museum, which features a big-money collection of contemporary art, from Damien Hirst's formaldehyde-preserved cows to Jeff Koons' life-size sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimp. Opened in 2012, the space is a key addition to the Oslo art scene, long dominated by the world-class Edvard Munch Museum, which houses the vast majority of the artist's work including The Scream.

Feeling Tjuvholmen-ed out, we set off on foot for the hipsterfied district of Grünerløkka, across the river on the city's formerly sketchy east side. (Oslo is extremely walkable.) After swinging by the Mathallen, a high-end food court in an old factory, we checked out Tim Wendelboe, an austere temple of coffee. The thing to get is svart kaffe (black coffee), which is made with lightly roasted beans and a highly calibrated extraction process, resulting in a ruby-colored, fruit-forward brew without a hint of bitterness.

It was a perfect, sun-splashed day, and wherever we went, parks and squares were packed with picnicking families and sunbathers – unsurprising given that Norwegians live half their lives in cold and darkness. Looking to check out Oslo's burgeoning craft beer scene (until just a couple of years ago, generic pilsner was pretty much all you could get), we stopped for lunch at Schouskjelleren, which operates out of a 200-year-old defunct brewery, for a couple of glasses of an excellent blond ale.

On our final day, we walked to Bygdøy – a posh neighborhood on a small peninsula just outside of town – where I wanted to revisit a cluster of three nautical museums that made a big impression on me as a kid. The first is dedicated to the Kon-Tiki, the balsa-wood raft that Thor Heyerdahl audaciously sailed from South America to the South Pacific in 1947. The vibe is all Wes Anderson, with meticulous little vitrines bearing slightly odd captions. Next door is the Fram, the stout wooden icebreaker that explorer Roald Amundsen sailed on the first successful expedition to the South Pole – 1911's version of the moon shot. But it was the Viking Ship Museum, housed in a large, churchlike A-frame building, that had sparked my childhood imagination the most, the same way it did for my dad when he was a kid. Inside are three ancient vessels – parts of the oldest, the Oseberg, date to the year 800 – along with weapons, armor, and other artifacts. Taken together, the three museums tell the story of this tiny, isolated country's outsize ambitions. It felt like a fitting end to our trip. Even though we might not have ranged as far, or with quite as much vigor, as our Nordic ancestors, even a Viking would have to admit we packed a lot in.

Where to Stay

Oppland: The rustic Memurubu Lodge is an ideal base for hikes. [From $55 per night;]

West Coast: The area is dotted with campgrounds and tiny hut-like cabins for rent. Or try the grand Rosendal Turisthotell. [From $135 per night;]

Oslo: The Thief hotel overlooks a canal in the trendiest district. [From $282 per night;]

Getting Around

Car: Norway's highways – especially the new Atlantic Road along the southwestern coast – snake through open swaths of verdant land. Expect to pay approximately $500 for a small car for seven days.

Boat: A system of ferries navigates the west coast for island-hopping or touring cities and villages. For a more leisurely ride, take a multiday cruise on the Hurtigruten line. [From $1,779 per person for a minimum of six days);]

Public Transport: The Oslo Pass offers unlimited travel by bus, tram, subway, and train within designated zones ($90 for a 72-hour pass).

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