CategoriesTravel

Norway and Finland – Getting There, Around and Back

All aboard for the next train out of Flam, Norway!

Getting around is part of the fun of a visit to Norway and Finland. Our trip gave us a chance to check out just about every mode of transportation and many brands, from United Airlines to the Gjene ferry. Here’s the wrap-up:

  • 1 leg on US Airways (Phoenix to Chicago)
  • 1 leg on Scandinavian Airlines (Chicago to Stockholm Arlanda)
  • 7 legs on Norwegian Air Shuttle (Arlanda, Oslo, Tromso, Bergen, Helsinki – see my review)
  • 2 legs on United Airlines (Stockholm to Newark, Newark to Phoenix)
  • Round trip on the VR train (Helsinki to Turku)
  • 1 leg on a boat from Memurubu to Gjende (Jotunheimen, Norway)
  • Round trip on ferry to Suomenlinna (Helsinki)
  • A few hundred miles of driving in Norway
The VR train is a nice way to get around Finland. And it’s not even the country’s fastest.

Norwegian Air Shuttle is the surprise of the bunch; nice planes, good service, good on-time performance and a very nice bit of regional flair.

The VR train was less of a surprise since European rail service has a good reputation. The VR exceeded our expectations, though. Watch for a full review here.

United Airlines wasn’t much of a revelation overall. But somehow, I got us seats in Economy Plus for the flight from Newark to Phoenix. That extra few inches of legroom was a nice surprise. If you have a few extra bucks or enough air miles for the upgrade, I’d highly recommend United Airlines Economy Plus. I was more than a bit surprised by the satellite TV in every seat. Had I not been hip-deep in a re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire, I would’ve thrown out $7 for the 4+-hour flight … especially since Goal TV is one of the stations. United Airlines seems to be in the middle of some real improvements for domestic flights.

CategoriesFitnessTastes

Rise Energy Foods, Tested On the Besseggen Trail in Norway

A perfect place and perfect time for testing the Rise energy food bars.

A boxful of Rise energy foods got me through two of my big days in a recent trip to Norway. It was only my second experience with the Rise energy bar – the first was the time I found one of its “Crunchy Carob Chip” bars at a local bike shop. I am a sucker for carob (the pudgy 12-year-old me used to love carob ice cream from Haagen-Dazs).

The interesting thing with Rise energy foods is that they’re formulated for different purposes – breakfast bars, energy bars and protein bars. I tried to stick to the formula during my trip. Though being vegetarian, kosher and gluten-free don’t really enter my testing calculus, some of you might want to know about that. And some bars are dairy-free and vegan. I do, though, like that the Rise energy bar is minimally processed. See the Rise FAQ page for more info.

There was one particular day that really let me put the hammer down on the sampler platter of energy bars that the folks from Rise sent me for review. That was my 8-hour hike in Jotunheimen. The bars would have to fuel me through steep climbs, through snowdrifts and in pelting sleet and heavy winds.

Sarah

Burning energy on a climb on the Besseggen trail in Jotunheimen, Norway.

and I both sawed through the various flavors. What we found is that the Breakfast and Energy+ were our favorites. They had a nice moistness that made them easy to eat – and you got the feeling of eating real food. There was an unprocessed vitality to them. The Cherry almond, Crunchy perfect pomegranate and Blueberry coconut energy foods topped our list.

Flavor-wise, I had no qualms about the protein bars. A hike in Norway is bound to be cold – and Jotunheimen and its 9-mile Besseggen trail didn’t disappoint. The cold temperatures made the protein bars harden. My solution was to shove them into my gloves for about five minutes before eating. Even then, I’d gnaw off a small chunk, let it warm up in my mouth, chew, swallow and repeat. The protein bars were tasty enough when warm, and actually had a trace of moisture (unlike many protein bars).

They propelled us to the end at Memurubu, keeping the calories coming without weighing us down. That just made more room in our bellies for a post-hike pile of ham, mashed turnips and potatoes.

A few days earlier, the Rise energy bar also powered me through a 10K run in Tromsø , a city in Norway above the Arctic Circle. I ate a bar about an hour before the start. I had a nice, sustained supply of energy and no growling stomach.

We all know there’s no shortage of energy foods in the world. And I know why we have our old stand-bys. If those flavors are getting a little stale, though, be sure to check the Rise energy bar a shot.

The minor towers next to the citizen.

CategoriesAdventuresFitnessTravel

Norway – Hike in the Land of the Giants

Jotunheimen isn’t a place I’d ever thought about until seeing the movie Thor.

There. I admitted it. Sometimes I need a little mindless entertainment. And Thor’s reference to Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants, made me wonder about its place in Norse mythology.

And that’s what led me to Norway and to Jotunheimen (or Land of the Giants) – to clinging to a steep ridge between two icy-cold lakes fed by snowmelt. Earlier today, sleet and rain pelted me. Powerful winds buffeted me. I sawed through all my Rise energy bars.

norway
Sarah leads the way through the beginning of the snow.

Jotunheimen is not the dark, bleak land of Thor’s foes. It is, though, as spectacular a landscape as I’ve ever seen and every bit worthy of a mention in Norse mythology. Our hike started just around 1 p.m. on the far east side of Gjende, the largest of the glacial lakes in sight. We parked our rented hybrid Toyota at Gjendesheim Turisthytte and loaded up. In our packs – rain gear, energy bars, water, sleeping bags, tent (just in case).

Our plan is to hike the Bessegen route. This will take us to a maximum elevation of about 5,725 feet. We’ll pass by Bessvatnet, a smaller lake 1,200 feet higher than Gjende. Our goal is to reach Memurubu, a tourist hut about 9 miles away. In this case, “tourist hut” is a misnomer. It’s a rather nice back-country hotel. The next day, we’ll take a boat down Gjende back to Gjendesheim.

norway
This GPS track will give you an idea of what to expect if you hike the Besseggen.

We have the route virtually to ourselves for the first 2 hours or so. Then we start running into people who started their day at Memurubu; many take the boat in the evening and hike back the next day.

The views of Jotenheimen are spectacular. And it spoils the rest of Norway for us. A few days later in Flam, we’ll be at a magnificent fjord. And we’ll shrug and say “Meh. It’s no Jotunheimen.” That’s how cool it is.

The hike itself starts with a rigorous climb. And there’s one ridge that tests my fear of heights. The exposure is sharp on either side – and we descend about 1,000 feet in about a half-mile. I’m hyper-aware of my backpack’s effect on my balance, and the way my gloves compromise my handholds. And shoving my huge Lowa boots into the available space? Also a chore. But I get down after using every part of me – buttcheeks included – to clutch the rocks.

norway
This is me getting my third wind.

It takes a third and fourth wind to get me to the descent into Memurubu. As we drop lower, a rainbow appears – ending right at the hut. And probably right to the table where I’ll find a plate of ham, mashed turnips, carrots, baked potatoes and gravy waiting to refuel me from the hike. The Middle America-ness of the meal reminds me that many northern Midwest settlers came from places like Norway. It’s an interesting thought that sticks with me through dessert – and into an uninterrupted slumber in a roomful of backpackers.

Watch my Facebook page for more photos of Jotunheimen and other places from my trip to Norway and Finland. And here’s a short video clip!

norway
Memurubu, the end of the rainbow and a big plate of ham.
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CategoriesTravel

Norwegian Air Shuttle – Review and More

Norwegian Air Shuttle
Greta Garbo graces the tail of this Norwegian Air Shuttle 737-800.

Norwegian Air Shuttle and I became very good friends during my trip to Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Norwegian Air Shuttle specializes in budget air travel – like a Scandinavian Southwest Airlines with assigned seating. My wife handled the bookings. Knowing that I like sampling different airlines, she looked into Finnair for some flights. But she found Norwegian Air was the way to go for cheap air travel. Its fares were sometimes half the price of its competitors. She booked us on flights from Stockholm to Oslo to Tromsø to Bergen to Helsinki.

Like Southwest, Norwegian Air Shuttle runs a fleet of 737s, most of which are the new 800 model (including a few with the cool new Sky interior based on the 787). The airline has a neat shtick to put a regional stamp on its fleet: Most of its aircraft have the image and name of a Scandinavian who, in some way, made a mark on the world. Think Greta Garbo, Anders Celsius, Edvard Munch and Edvard Grieg, to name just a few that you should recognize. Nice way to add some history to the air travel experience.

Norwegian Air Shuttle
The Boeing Sky interior – more headroom and a sleek look for this Norwegian Air 737.

Its niche is cheap air travel, so be ready to pay for every extra on a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight: checked baggage, meals, even water. But here’s what else you can count on based on my flights:

  • You’ll get where you’re going on-time. I can’t remember a single late flight in the bunch.
  • You’ll board and disembark more quickly than you’d believe. Norwegian Air boards from the main door and from the rear.
  • The cabin crews are pleasant. Not a scowl or ill temper on any of my flights.
  • The flights all have free wi-fi. But you’ll need a European SIM card in your phone to get anything out of it. I wasn’t able to make it work with my U.S. SIM card.

The word is that intercontinental flights are on the horizon for Norwegian Air using several of the 787s the airline has on order. Where will they fly? Well, New York and Bangkok, for sure. But I’d bet that Denver International Airport would push to land Norwegian Air. Denver’s population is pretty outdoorsy, and it’s a United Airlines hub. So it could draw from other regions to get people headed to Oslo to dive into the many outdoor adventures that await in Norway. Meanwhile, I’d bet all my US Airways Dividend Miles that the staff of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (my hometown airport) hasn’t even considered a bid to lure a few weekly visits from Norwegian Air Shuttle’s Dreamliners.

Norwegian’s CEO is quoted in the in-flight magazine as aiming to make the intercontinental air travel affordable through the Dreamliner’s low operating costs and fuel efficiency. That could open Norway as a tourist destination for a U.S. airport smart enough to make itself attractive. And with the right price and level of service, Norwegian Air Shuttle could compete with Scandinavian Airlines as a major player in getting travelers to Norway – and to Sweden, Denmark and Finland, too.


 

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CategoriesUncategorized

Norway – First Few Travel Days

Norway from the air.

Traveling to Scandinavia starts with a 9 a.m. flight from Phoenix to Chicago a few Thursdays ago. There, we catch a 4 o’clock-ish flight to Stockholm on SAS. The flight lands at 8 a.m. on Friday.

What do we do with eight free hours in Stockholm? Grab the Arlanda Express train for the 20-minute ride to the city. There, we wander the city. Take photos. Have a few snacks. And notice that Stockholm is not a city of early risers.

Still, Stockholm comes alive. We go to the City Hall building and the palace. We fall asleep in a library, rouse ourselves and head to the airport for an evening flight to Tromsø, Norway. That gets in around 7 p.m. after stopping in Oslo. We grab a bus, which includes a long stretch underground in the tunnels under the city. Cool!

Hanging out in Stockholm
Hanging out in Stockholm

A little more bumbling, walking and cab-riding and we’re at our campsite. We pitch the tent … and for some reason can’t fall asleep until around 3 a.m. It’s that midnight sun messing with us: We’re far above the Arctic Circle.

The upshot? We wake up the next morning. Or afternoon, rather. It’s 3 p.m. I’ve never slept like that. Ever. Good thing we still have time to eat and get ready for the race. I have a 10K, and Sarah a half marathon. I start at 8 p.m., and she’s off at 10. Should be good times!

 

Our ride to Stockholm.

 

The library in Tromso – cool architecture!
CategoriesUncategorized

Norway – A Quick Update

Norway is a good place to be in the summer. But I still wonder how that ‘good’ would turn really challenging in the winter. I’m still getting my head around the experience – I’ll have more to say when I return. Count on some epic photos … and maybe another quick update or two about where I am at the moment.

And I’ll have a lot to say about how worthless smart phones are for international travel. I love how the industry calls my Samsung Galaxy Blaze a ‘world phone.’ Not so much, as you’ll learn in a future episode.

CategoriesGearTastes

Scandinavia – My Travel Packing List

Epic trips require epic backpacks. Store that away for a rainy day, eh?

Scandinavia is less than a month away. Well, same for Finland, which is really a Nordic country. No matter what you call this trip, it’s time to mentally pack my bags for a trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway and possibly a bit of Estonia.

We like camping and hiking when we travel, which adds challenges people who go on laid-back beach vacations won’t ever encounter. So, what’s on the packing list for Scandinavia? Pretty much the same stuff I brought to Iceland with a few new additions …

  • Cook stove (MSR Whisperlite International) – I’ll never go on a camping vacation without it after seeing a French family whip up a gourmet meal with one -- while I choked down a cold military MRE pack. It sounds like bottles and fuel are readily available in Scandinavia. There’s no reason to eat bad when you travel!
  • t-shirts and underwear (tasc Performance) – I wind up wearing the same stuff for many days. The bamboo blend of the tasc Performance gear resists funky stench. And it’s super-comfortable. tasc sent me some of its latest bamboo/merino wool blends to test out above the Arctic circle. It’s not on the tasc website yet, but you can check here for other tasc goodies. Watch for a full review later. I expect they’ll be great for hiking and camping.
  • Shirts (Kuhl Breakaway Cafe) – These follow the "no stink allowed" theme. They’re made from something called Coffeenna, which incorporates recycled coffee grounds to beat the stink. Also comfortable to the max. I flogged them without mercy in the humidity of Asia and stayed fresh the whole while. A perfect travel shirt.

I’ll also bring a few packets of freeze-dried foods to get us started. But we may switch to canned stuff once we’re on the ground … I imagine all sorts of canned fish products in Scandinavia. Lutefisk, anyone?

And my travel pillow stays home this time. I’ll bring an inflatable pillow instead, and use a stuff sack as either a pillowcase or a second pillow. I might also skip my infamous hat and just roll with a decent stocking cap instead. But that should do it for the big Scandinavia trip.