Friday, 17 May 2019

Norway double-plus

The old harbour at Landøy

As I gaze out from the top of the lighthouse at Lindesnes, I reflect that there is no piece of mainland Norway to the south of me.
 Granted, I have, just the evening before, been even further south without leaving Norway – but that was to visit the country’s southernmost lighthouse, Ryvingen, which sits atop a rocky islet a few miles or minutes by fast boat from the mainland.

I have to remind myself that I am, here, on a similar latitude to Inverness, so “south” is very much a relative term. On the other hand, however, we are on the rough boundary between the oceanic climate enjoyed, or sometimes endured, by Norway’s west coast, and the continental climate, with its short but hot summers, experienced in the Oslo area. So summers are generally dry and sunny, if a little cooler than further east.

"Lighthouse family" at Ryvingen
I’m well travelled through most parts of Norway, but this is my first visit to Sorlandet, literally the South Country. I’m far from alone, even among repeat visitors to this most popular of Scandinavian countries. However, Norwegians flock here in summer. For this fascinating coastline of infinite islands, islets, coves and skerries is punctuated by pretty harbours, marinas and neatly painted waterside homes and cabins – and places where you can just sit and watch the world go by.

It’s towards the end of our third day when Tim Davis – a Norwegian-speaking British ex-pat who set up probably Norway’s most successful outdoor activity centre more than a quarter of a century ago – sums it up.

“Our challenge here is to compete with the Big Three – the Fjords, the Midnight Sun and the Northern Lights,” he says, over a beer at TrollAktiv, which offers more than 20 different outdoor adventure activities.

“What we do have is great access to wilderness – forest and mountain landscape, while still being easy to reach from Oslo, Stavanger, or Denmark.”

To that list, you can now add the South of England: Kristiansand Airport is less than two hours from Stansted Airport, via Norwegian airline Widerøe’s new service, which runs daily from June 26 and five times a week before then and after August 8.

Tim and his Norwegian wife, Gjertrud, are keen to lure more Brits to TrollAKtiv, where ambitious plans, which should start to take shape later this year, include a standing surfing wave on the awesome River Otra, which rises on the Hardangervidda plateau and is fuelled in spring and early summer by the melting snows.

Alongside these plans, Tim has just acquired another 2,000 acres of forest, with buildings, in which to extend his adventure offer, and has plans for more upmarket accommodation on the site, featuring hot-tubs and other little luxuries.

White water rafting on the River Otra
I’m here to introduce a party of four English journalists to TrollAktiv and the broader delights of the South Country. Three of us have just been getting up close and personal with the mighty Otra on an adrenaline-fuelled white-water rafting trip.

Our giddy plunge over the twin rapids has been with “Gappu”, just arrived from Himachal Pradesh. He’s one of an army of instructors and assistants who join TrollAktiv each year for the busy summer season. Gappu has learned his white-water trade in the Himalayas, where water volumes dwarf those of the Otra, itself no pussycat in the white-water world.

RIB to Ryvingen
As the Otra is dammed above the rapids, it also offers tranquil waters for some of TrollAktiv’s other activities, which, besides those that need water, also include winter sports, especially cross-country ski, forest games, commando courses, cycling and expedition work. After impressive dining at the Dølen Hotel, in nearby Evje, we round off our adventure by failing rather miserably to escape from TrollAktiv’s own ingeniously creative escape room.

Before this failure, we have already packed a lot into three days in the beautiful south – our first two nights were spent in waterside lodges at Tregde Ferie, a traditional fishing resort on the coast, a little over an hour’s drive from Kristiansand Airport.

It was from here that we began our slightly unintentional lighthouse odyssey, riding the fast RIB out to Ryvingen, where those of a solitary bent can come and stay to watch the waves crashing on, and occasionally over, the rocky perimeter of the little island.

Magne Johanessen
I get my hands inside a cod in Eila's kitchen…
For us, life is altogether less harsh, as we sup prosecco and nibble canapés before returning to Tregde Ferie. There, our remarkable chef, Eila Ingilæ, has conjured up a sumptuous fish dinner from the catch we had collected earlier in the day from nets cast by Magne Johanessen, one of the local fishermen who enjoy the right to harvest the sea in this way. It would be wrong to claim a great deal of credit for the haul we have brought to Eila’s kitchen, where she breezes around in effortless fashion, belying her advanced pregnancy. Mackerel, herring, saithe, flounder, plaice, crabs and a couple of healthy size cod succumb to the slash of inexpert knives

Liv and Øystein
That morning’s fishing trip had culminated in a visit to one of Norway’s numerous “part-time” islands, Landøy. The island has all the appearances of permanently peopled place, its well-kept houses lining the grassy central avenue, its school and adjacent playground, toys still in the sandpit. Inside the little classroom, nothing has changed since the last pupils left, decades ago. Old maps of Norway hang down beside the pulpit-desk from where the pupils were taught.

Landøy is not untypical of many Norwegian islands – the country has more than 50,000 islands of varying size and, although the principle is that populations should be supported with basic services, such as travel links and education, the reality is that many are either too remote or, conversely, close enough to “civilisation” that abandonment, in whole or part, is a practical alternative.

In summer, Landøy will be abuzz with families relaxing in its tranquil, traffic-free lawns and gardens. On our arrival, however only two part-time residents are at home, albeit rather special residents. Øystein and Liv Steinslas are dedicated not just to keeping the school in good nick, but also to maintaining Øystein’s quite extraordinary collection of seafaring artefacts, all assembled in a lovingly restored barn that is, in effect, a living museum to all things nautical and rural.
Inside the old barn at Landøy

Liv in the classroom at Landøy
Leaving Tregde Ferie behind, we have a special visit to make, en route to Lindesnes. “Under” is thought to be Europe’s only underwater restaurant and it offers – through foot-thick “glazing” – a remarkable sea-bottom vista, where regular star visitors include the prosaically named Oscar, the cod.

Under has not been open all that long, but dining places for the 2,250 NOK (£200) 15 to 18-course set menu (matching wines at 1,450 NOK (£130)) are at a premium, so we have to content ourselves with meeting chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard as he plans his menu from the locally available supplies. These include foraged plants from land and sea – our guide, Astri Kvåle, will be off diving for edible seaweed as soon as we are gone.
Presentation is everything…

We watch, captivated, as one of the kitchen team carefully arranges and rearranges whelk shells on a bed of empty cockles. We meet Trond Skog, whose elegant pottery provides both decoration and tableware. And we meet one of the Ubostad brothers, Stig and Gaulte, whose entrepreneurship and enthusiasm for the region lies behind Under, which cost a cool 70 million NOK (£6.3m) to manufacture from concrete, then move across the harbour at Bøgly and then sink at its permanent site.

The Ubostads built Under after having previously bought the hotel across the bay out of Administration, and systematically set about breathing new life into it. Of course, with many of Under’s customers travelling some distance, it now has a ready market.

Both the exterior and interior of Under are immaculately finished: floors, walls and ceilings are of locally harvested Norwegian oak boards.
Chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard
Gaulte Ubostad arrives with sand crabs

Trond Skog

When will I get to enjoy the full eating experience here? Well, first I’ll need to plan six months (but no more ahead) and then I’ll have to pay a non-refundable deposit and, of course, book my flights. But I think it might just be worth it for that very special once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.

Tregde Ferie has a fleet of new electric bikes to explore the area

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