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Flam, meaning "little place with steep mountains," could not have a more perfect name. The storybook hamlet, population 450, is nestled on Aurlandsfjord, the innermost arm of the world's second longest fjord, Sognefjord, which stretches halfway to Sweden. With its snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, river, meadows and picturesque farms, Flam is beautiful throughout the year, but most popular in the summer when travelers flock here for the dramatic fjords and outdoor activities. Flam is also a good starting point for a day trip to Naeroyfjord, an arm of Sognefjord, and newly designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Flam's popularity as a tourist destination began in the late 19th century with the arrival of steam ships carrying English and German passengers. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm and Europe's royals were also frequent summer visitors -- attracted by salmon fishing in the Flam River. In 1909, the opening of the Bergen Railway established Flam as a junction for passengers and goods between Oslo and Bergen. Back then, horse drawn buggies carried vacationers through the spectacular region.
Today, Flam is Norway's fourth largest cruise port (by number of calls -- fifth largest by number of passengers). Around 175 cruise ships squeeze through the narrow fjord annually, bringing thousands of visitors to the tiny town. As terminus for the celebrated Flamsbana, considered one of the world's most scenic rail trips, Flam also receives several hundred thousand train visitors a year. Thousands of Norwegians come in summer and fall to experience Rallarvegen, a spectacular cycling route.
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You can certainly pick up Norwegian's signature knitwear (Dale and Oleana are good, but pricy brands), cheese slicers, troll figurines and Norway T-shirts and gifts at any of Flam's souvenir shops. But for something truly local, go to Aurlandskoen, by the Fretheim Hotel, and pick up a pair of shoes made in nearby Aurland. They look like penny loafers and come in an array of neutral and bright colors. Alternatively, the shop at the Railway Museum sells Flam Railway logo items.
Norway features two official languages; bokmal or "book language," derived from Danish, and nynorsk (new Norwegian), derived from many rural Norwegian dialects. Bokmal is the more common, with nynorsk spoken in the fjord country along the west coast and in the central valleys. Norway's oldest language, Sami, is spoken by the country's indigenous people. Most Norwegians also speak very good English. Interestingly, fjord is a Norwegian word that's become part of the international lexicon.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Norwegian krone (NOK). For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Unlike Denmark and Sweden, Norway is not a member of the European Union, and the euro is not legal tender. Aurland Sparebank has an ATM one minute's walk from the ship.
Where You're Docked
The Flam cruise pier is right in town and a short walk to everything. Three ships can be in port on the same day.
There is no port building with facilities, but everything in town is within a five-minute walk. Public toilets and tourist information are in the Flam Railway Ticket Office building, and restaurants, shops and tour providers all line the harbor.
On foot: Everything you need in Flam is within walking distance. There are also several walking/hiking paths that leave from the town. A map is available at the tourist office.
By car: Flam's sole car rental office, Flam Bilutleie A.S., is located at Heimly Pension, about 425 yards east of the rail station (e-mail email@example.com or call +47 57 63 23 00). You'll want to book your rental in advance if you're planning on driving to Undredal (20 minutes), Stalheim (30 minutes), Osterbo (45 minutes) and Voss (one hour).
By public transit: A far less costly way to enjoy the area is by public transportation. The bus stop is located about 200 yards from the dock, just before the train station. Take the bus to Aurland to visit the shoe factory, glass blower and scenic viewpoint. Organized bus tours are also available from independent tour companies.
By boat: Daily ferries leave year-round from Flam to Aurland, Undredal and Naeroyfjord. Choose from two companies, Sognefjord AS and Fjord1, and definitely book in advance. Fjord1 is the public ferry that sails between Flam and Gudvangen on the Naeroyfjord. Sognefjord AS is a tour company that offers a boat trip to Gudvangen and a scenic bus ride back.
By bike: Bikes are available to rent at Haugastol Turistsenter near the train museum. Choose a two-hour or full-day rental and bike along the fjord or into the valley.
Watch Out For
The weather in fjord country can change quickly, so it's best to be prepared and dress in layers and bring an umbrella. If you're booking tours in advance, consider whether you're willing to do them in the pouring rain before you commit.
Flam Railway: This celebrated railway is considered one of the world's most exciting train journeys. The steep 50 minute, 12 mile route between Flam and the mountain village of Myrdal twists up (and then back down) nearly 3,000 feet, through 20 mountain tunnels. The scenery includes thundering waterfalls, the Flam River and Flam Valley. Cyclists can bring bikes on the train (for an extra fee), disembark in Myrdal and return to Flam on the Rallarvegen cycling route, a two-hour downhill ride. Hikers can do the same, but it will take five hours (or you can purchase tickets such that you reboard the train in Berekvam. The Flam Railway offers nine to 10 daily departures in the summer, and they generally sell out. If you wish to book independently, you can either purchase tickets for a group of 10 or more online, in advance, or you can buy tickets the day of your outing. (Just go early -- tickets sold out for all departures by 10 a.m. the day we visited -- and be prepared for crowds at the train station and long queues to purchase or pick up tickets.) The benefit of a ship's excursion on the train is that you'll disembark the train at Vatnahalsen, the stop prior to Myrdal, and have a bit of time to look around and stretch your legs at this more scenic stop before heading back to Flam.
The Flam Railway Museum chronicles the impressive construction of the world's steepest normal-track adhesion railway, with photos, videos and old train cars. It's located in the old station building, just to the left of the train tracks, and is free to all visitors.
Naeroyfjord and Aurlandsfjord: In 2005, UNESCO added the spectacular Naeroyfjord to its World Heritage List. An offshoot of the mighty Sognefjord, Naeroyfjord is Europe's narrowest fjord. It's surrounded by cliffs towering nearly 6,000 feet and cascading waterfalls. Seals, porpoises and eagles are often spotted there. Book a sightseeing cruise along both fjords with or take a ship's tour.
Or for a more active way to see the fjord, sign up for a three-hour kayak tour with Njord Kayak (located on the beach in town) or your ship's shore excursions department. For lots of adrenaline without the effort, Fjord Safari offers 1.5- to three-hour RIB boat tours (essentially fast Zodiacs).
Been There, Done That
Hiking: In addition to training to Myrdal and hiking back to Flam, you have several options for easy and strenuous hikes in the Flam area. For the more adventurous, a 13-mile downhill trail through the historic Aurland Valley meanders past woods, farms and waterfalls. On the way, the path splits into the steep Bear Path and an easier route. The hike takes six to seven hours total; catch a bus from Flam Station to Osterbo and then back from Vassbygdi. You can hike along the fjord to Otternes Farm (2.5 hours), into the valley to the Brekkefossen waterfall (1.5 to two hours) or climb the hill behind the Fretheim Hotel (30 to 45 minutes). There's also a 1.6-kilometer Nature and Culture Walk behind the Fretheim Hotel. The path is dotted with sculptures and scenic viewpoints and offers an interactive section for kids. Pick up a map at the tourist office.
Aurland Fjord Lookout: A glass barrier is all that separates travelers from the water 2,000 feet below at the dramatic Aurland Fjord Lookout (called Stegastein locally). The wood platform is either a two-hour hike or 10-minute drive from Aurland (five miles northeast of Flam) along Old Laerdal Road. Take a tour, bus or drive yourself. While in Aurland, you can also stop at the shoe factory for a tour and some shoe shopping.
Laerdal: With richly carved dragon-like animals on its exterior, the 12th century Borgund Church is considered one of the most beautiful of Norway's 28 remaining stave churches. The Wild Salmon Center on the banks of the Laerdal River features an observatory, exhibitions, film and fly-tying work shop. Part of the fun is getting here. The 1.5-hour drive from Flam (public buses go here) includes the world's longest tunnel, at 24 miles.
Otternes Farm Museum:A scenic 2.5-mile bike trip or hike north along the fjord takes visitors to Otternes with over two dozen well-preserved 17th century buildings, including a farmhouse, cookhouse, storehouse and barn. In the summer, with traditional food making and yarn dying demonstrations, as well as goats, sheep and rabbits, the farm is a great choice for families. (Open June 1 to Sept. 15, daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Undredal: One of few places in Norway where goat cheese is still made the old fashioned way -- from pure goat milk -- Undredal is a town of about 100 people and 400 goats. Don't miss the sweet, caramel-flavored brown goat cheese, little known outside of Norway; you can try it at the country store or cafe. Undredal is also home to Scandinavia's smallest stave church, circa 1147, with just 40 seats and folk decorations. Undredal is 7.5 miles north of Flam; you can get there by boat, car or organized tour.
Scenic Flam is a good place to try Norwegian specialties like lamb in cabbage, smoked salmon, cloudberries and whipped cream, and goat cheese. It's also a fine setting for an ice cold glass of aquavit (a 40-proof potato-based liquor invented in Norway) or a beer.
Local Eats: Cafe Flam Marina is good for light snacks with scenic fjord views and outdoor seating. Flamsbrygga offers several dining options. Furukroa Cafe serves up game meatballs, venison burgers, sandwiches, ice cream and waffles in a cafeteria setting. (Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.) Flamstova Restaurant is a sit-down restaurant with a lunch buffet from noon to 3 p.m. And the Aegir Brewery & Pub is open daily from noon for local beer tasting and serves pub fare (burgers, ribs, fish soup) after 4 p.m. The building is done in Viking style with a central hearth and wood furniture draped in furs.
Gourmet Option: Restaurant Arven at the Fretheim Hotel specializes in fresh ingredients from local producers. . Along with an excellent lunch menu (two or three courses of fish or meat, as well as sandwiches) and dinner buffet, the restaurant serves up panoramic fjord views. (Lunch noon to 2:30 p.m., dinner 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. For a more casual alternative, the Fretheim Hotel team also runs the train restaurant, serving a mix of Norwegian fare and pizza topped with local meats, cheeses and produce.
Staying in Touch
While the gray building by the cruise pier has been set up as an Internet center for crew, there is currently no Internet cafe or Wi-Fi access point for cruise ship visitors to Flam.
Best for First-Timers: Flam's claim to fame is its railway, and the 3.5-hour Flam Railway tour is by far the most popular tour offered. You'll ride the train to the Vatnahalsen stop, with a brief photo op at the impressive Kjosfossen waterfall. At Vatnahalsen, enjoy coffee, tea and waffles and a wander for about an hour before reboarding the train and heading downhill to Flam.
Best for Active Travelers: The three-hour kayak tour on Aurlandsfjord offers experienced and novice kayakers the opportunity to get an up-close view of the area's beautiful scenery. You might spot goats and sheep during your peaceful paddle.
Best for Scenic Views: On the 3.5-hour Stalheim Valley and Tvinde Waterfall tour, a pair of tunnels delivers bus passengers to Gudvangen and onto the Tvinde Waterfall for a short walk and photo op. You'll next head to the historic Stalheim Hotel, where the views have been inspiring writers and artists since the 19th century. The thrilling ride back to Flam along Stalheimskleiva, Norway's steepest road, features plunging waterfalls and hairpin turns. (An all-day version combines a ride up the Flam Railway with a tour of Voss and stops at the Tvinde Waterfall and Stalheim Hotel.)
For More Information
On the Web: Norwegian National Tourist Board or Flam Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Northern Europe and Baltics
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Susan Jaques, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor