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Flam, meaning "little place with steep mountains," could not have a more perfect name. The storybook hamlet, population 400, 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. This past season, between May and September, over 130 cruise ships squeezed through the narrow fjord, bringing some 120,000 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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Norway has two official languages; bokmal or "book language," derived from Danish, and nynorsk, derived from many rural Norwegian dialects. Bokmal is the more common of the two languages with nyorsk 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 English. Interestingly, fjord is a Norwegian word that's become part of the international lexicon.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
At the time of this report, $1 U.S. = 5.4 Norwegian krone (NOK). Check XE.com for the latest conversion. Unlike Denmark and Sweden, Norway is not a member of the EU and the Euro is not legal tender. Flam has one ATM and bank, located 218 yards from the dock.
Where You're Docked
From Flam's port, it's a short walk to everything. Across from the pier, the old Flam Station building houses the Railway Museum and tourist office, a good place to pick up a free booklet with public transportation timetables, rent bicycles, or buy a map for about $9 with local hiking trails (open May and September 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; June to August 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Next door, the new Aegir Brewery produces five microbrews (five samples for $9). Souvenir shops are a stone's throw away, and The Fretheim Hotel is just a few minutes walk from the pier.
Flam looks like a tiny Norwegian Disneyland. The Flam Railway Museum chronicles the impressive construction of the world's steepest normal-track adhesion railway (train buffs will find train souvenirs; there are also Christmas decorations, local wood items and jewelry from nearby Voss). Nearby, a 20-minute film on fjord life runs throughout the day.
Tiny Flam abounds with souvenir shops. For handcrafted gifts, there are knitted sweaters, or lusekofte; pewter beer mugs; and rosemaling, items decorated with floral motifs. The Fretheim Hotel sells a handsome assortment of Roros Tween blankets from Roros, Sia Christmas decorations, books, jewelry, scarves and fleece jackets. Saga Souvenirs' three stores carry knitwear, glass and crystal, jewelry and trolls. Flam Ferdaminne offers Oleana knitwear and its own jewelry line.
Flam's sole car rental office, Flam Bilutleie A.S., is located at Heimly Pension, about 425 yards east of the rail station. The daily rate for a medium size, manual gear Ford or Nissan is $157 with 124 miles or $183 with 248 miles (email email@example.com).
A far less costly way to enjoy the area is by public transportation. The bus stop is located about 200 yards from the dock. Daily ferries leave year round from Flam to Aurland, Undredal and Naeroyfjord (for schedules and fares, visit www.fjord1.no/fylkesbaatane). Bikes are available to rent from the tourist office ($46 per day or $5.50 per hour).
Watch Out For
The weather in fjord country can change quickly, so it's best to be prepared and dress in layers.
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 may want to disembark in Myrdal and return to Flam on the Rallarvegen, a two-hour downhill E-ride (9 to 10 daily departures in the summer, $54 round trip).
Naeroyfjord: 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 here (visit www.fjord1.no/fylkesbaatane for more; $44 roundtrip).
Been There, Done That
Hiking in Aurland Valley: A 13-mile downhill trail meanders past woods, farms and waterfalls through a historic valley once the main route between eastern and western Norway. On the way, the path splits into the steep Bear Path and an easier route (hike takes 6 to 7 hours total; catch a bus from Flam Station to Osterbo and then back from Vassbygdi).
Aurland Fjord Lookout: A glass barrier is all that separates travelers from the water 2,000 feet below at the dramatic Aurland Fjord Lookout, opened last year. The wood platform is either a two hour hike or 10 minute drive from Aurland (5 miles northeast of Flam) along Old Laerdal Road. The Aurland Market, a July event, features local products like cheese and jam, knitwear and embroidery, plus a local band and outdoor dance.
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 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.
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). This is also home to Scandinavia's smallest stave church, circa 1147, with just 40 seats and folk decorations (open late June to mid August, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., $7). Undredal's Cheese Festival, July 25 to 27, features local products, children's events and dancing (7.5 miles north of Flam).
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: Flam Marina is good for light snacks; the Train Restaurant offers typical Norwegian fare like salmon, baby goat and meatballs.
Gourmet Option: Restaurant Arven at the Fretheim Hotel specializes in fresh ingredients from local producers. Meat is smoked and cured in the hotel's own smoke-house and stabbur. Along with an excellent lunch menu and dinner buffet, the restaurant serves up panoramic fjord views. There's cheese and wine tasting in the wine cellar, aquavit and beer tasting in the storehouse, and afternoon tea (for reservations, drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Out of the Area: Seltuftstova, a lakeside cafe along Rallarvegen, is a scenic spot for hikers and cyclists to refuel with waffles, cakes, traditional rommegrot (a porridge) and drinks. The cozy eatery is open daily from mid July until mid September.
Njord Kayak and Wilderness Adventures, a three minute walk from the Flam train station, offers a two-hour paddle trip, four-hour paddle and waterfall hike, and kayak rentals (visit www.njord.as). Fjord Safari offers customized fjord excursions from the pier.
Snow Road to Laerdal: This bus trip travels past the tiny village of Aurland and proceeds through the world's longest road tunnel. Laerdal is known for its 18th-century buildings, the Borgund Church and Wild Salmon Center (3.5 to 5 hours, $99 to $169, Celebrity, Fred Olsen, Royal Caribbean).
Stalheim Valley & Tvinde Waterfall: A pair of tunnels delivers bus passengers to Gudvangen and onto 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 (3 to 4 hours, $62 to $119, Celebrity, Fred Olsen, Holland America, Royal Caribbean).
Staying in Touch
There's an Internet cafe located in the train station open daily between June and August from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and from September to May from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cost is $11 per hour.
For More Information
Norwegian National Tourist Board: www.visitnorway.com
Flam Tourist Board: www.visitflam.com
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--by Susan Jaques. Jaques is a Los Angeles-based writer whose favorite travel adventures are with her husband and teenage son and daughter. In addition to Cruise Critic, Jaques' articlse have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine.