Fjord transits fit for kings

Scandinavia's dramatic landscapes come close to perfection, writes Alison Stewart.

Scandinavia's delicate shreds of islands, lakes, inlets and fjords are pounded by the North Sea and slashed by waterways. It is not hard to imagine the solid bits one day floating away into the North Atlantic.

In this liquid world, where sea and land merge, there are 100,000 Swedish lakes, 24,000 islands in the Stockholm archipelago, 800 Danish islands and almost 1200 Norwegian fjords.

Our two-week tour takes us from Stockholm's island world, through the watery Swedish countryside into Copenhagen - merchant harbour and canal city - along the exclusive Danish Riviera (yes, there is such a thing), into the Oresund Sound, Kattegat and Skagerrak, up the Oslo Fjord and into Norway's exquisite western fjordland. It's water, water everywhere (plus one or two drops to drink. Skol!)

Lake Malaren and the handsome Stadhuset (Stockholm City Hall) loom large from our hotel window, reminding us that Stockholm, on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges, is a city of lake and sea. There is as much water here as is in Venice.

One in six city residents owns a boat and many Swedes have a second home in the Stockholm archipelago, which stretches 80 kilometres east of the city. Come mid-October, the lake and part of the Baltic Sea freezes, meaning all those boats have to be pulled from the water. It's a mammoth task, but is done willingly by the boat-mad Swedes.

Stockholm is a working harbour and ferries ply the waters. The Under the Bridges of Stockholm tour takes us beneath 15 bridges and through two locks, passing the Old Town, the Sodermalm islands, Lilla and Stora Essingen, the new area of Hammarby Sjostad and the island oasis of Djurgarden, formerly the royal game park.

You will find boats in the museums, specifically a very large one at Stockholm's Vasa Museum on Djurgarden. The solid-oak Vasa warship was built in the 1620s by Sweden's warrior king, Gustav II Adolf, a magnificent symbol of royal hubris.

Top-heavy with gun decks, it was launched in Stockholm harbour and immediately rolled over and sank, killing 16 people. In 1961, it was raised along with 24,000 salvaged objects. Some of the dead are reconstructed from their skeletal remains - a bit creepy.

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The museums also display a multitude of Swedish creations that do work, such as dynamite, the three-point seatbelt, the adjustable thumb wrench, zips and pacemakers.

From Sweden's Malmo, we cross the Oresund Bridge to Copenhagen. For 400 years (from the 1420s to 1857), Danish kings tolled all ships that passed through this narrowest point between the Baltic and North seas. The Swedes responded by attacking Denmark when the Oresund froze. Today, Swedes, Germans and Norwegians flock to Denmark to rent summer beach cottages.

Copenhagen, founded in 1167 as a fishing village, was once a swamp. It is pristine today, the harbour so clean that people splash about in it, frolicking in the public baths across from our hotel. Land, however, is at a premium, and 48 kilometres of industrial pier are being renovated for houseboats.

We are curious to see Denmark's Riviera, not entirely convinced that a Nordic country, albeit with a 7000-kilometre long coastline, can rightly boast such a thing. It can, and it is a thing of beauty.

Stretching 230 kilometres from Sejerobugten to Oresund, this once simple string of fishing villages has morphed into more than 50,000 exclusive holiday homes.

When rail arrived in the late 1800s, Copenhagen's wealthy cannily acquired land, mansions and staff for summer holidays. Now, many live there permanently.

We only have time to drive the 50-kilometre stretch along the Stradvejen - the coastal road - from Helsingor (Hamlet's Elsinore) back to Copenhagen. This stretch of beaches, wooden jetties and birch forests is now home to some of Denmark's most expensive homes. Writer Karen Blixen's Rungsted home is a museum for her African memorabilia.

Back in Copenhagen, we arrive at the ferry terminal. Tonight we sail the Kattegat and Skagerak (it is hard not to burst into strains of Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen) into the Oslo Fjord and Norway, headed for Oslo and the western fjordland. The Oslo Fjord - a rift valley, not a fjord - is where World War II began for the Norwegians. Adolf Hitler coveted the strategic coastline, the fjords being ideal for hiding ships.

Now, the North Sea produces Norway's wealth in the form of oil discovered in the 1960s. Norway's use of its wealth to build infrastructure is evident in the dozens of mountain tunnels from Oslo to the fjords.

For the next five days, we travel along fjords and fjord arms, cross mountain passes and turquoise rock-flour rivers thick with salmon (more than a few destined for our dinners). We stop in charming fjordside and mountain villages, climb to a glacier and teeter on the top of Norway's highest reachable point by road.

The first stop is Norway's largest fjord, Sognefjord, which stretches 205 kilometres inland from the North Sea. Sheer cliffs rise to 1000 metres on either side, while the fjord reaches a depth of 1308 metres below sea level. The fjords were shaped through several ice ages, when glacier tongues carved the U-shaped valleys.

The little town of Flam is at the innermost part of Aurlandsfjord, one of Sognefjord's many tributaries. There we board the Flamsbana, another masterpiece of Norwegian engineering, which climbs 792 metres, one of the world's steepest standard-gauge railways. We ascend and then descend past waterfalls, rivers and ravines.

Above us spreads a huge weight of ice, Jostedalsbreen, at 487 square kilometres, Europe's largest glacial icefield. About 50 glacier fingers poke down from it and we will visit one of them, Briksdalsbreen.

First, we farewell Flam, sailing down Aurlandsfjord, headed for Nordfjord. There is a real danger of becoming blase as Norwegian panoramas reveal themselves at every turn - raspberry and strawberry fields, sage, mustard, buttercup, red and white-trim houses, deep-green fields, melt-water falls, snow-capped glaciers, red-berried rogan, birch, aspen and alder and everywhere granite mountains. Even the goats are charming.

At Briksdalsbreen, little "troll cars" ferry us up the mountain and we walk the remainder of the way, the magical green tongue of the glacier gradually showing itself.

Just when we thought the scenery could hardly improve, we find ourselves on the switchback pass that leads to Dalsnibba, Norway's highest point by road. Behind us, Jostedalsbreen exhales, while below lies that quintessential Norwegian postcard - the luminous green, World Heritage-listed Geirangerfjord, visited by about 200 cruise ships and more than 700,000 tourists a year. Most of them appear to be on our ferry.

I find a relaxing corner, but just as I am contemplating the notion of perfection, I spot Akerneset mountain, which is eroding into the fjord.

I recall my research. A collapse would produce a tsunami that would wipe out nearby towns in about 10 minutes. As with all things perfect, reality bites at last.

The writer was a guest of Travel the World.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways has a fare to Stockholm for about $2140 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax.

You fly to Bangkok (about eight and a half hours) and then to Stockholm (11 hours 20 minutes).

Phone 1300 651 960; see thaiairways.com.au.

TOURING THERE

Travel the World has a 14-day Tauck World Discovery Scandinavia journey by motorcoach and overnight ferry through Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

Includes hotels, most meals, guides, admission fees, diverse excursions. From $US5690 ($6050) a person.

See traveltheworld.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION

visitsweden.com/

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