Norway’s forgotten Oslofjord comes into its own

Norway’s forgotten Oslofjord comes into its own
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In a land most noted for its fjords – those spectacular, mountain-ringed coastal inlets carved out eons ago by Ice Age glaciers – there is one such body of water conspicuously absent from most Norwegian cruise-line and tour-operator itineraries.

By Kenneth Kiesnoski, Travel Weekly magazine

Plainly speaking, the Oslofjord – despite sharing a name with Norway’s capital – gets little or no respect, at least from the trade. True, visitors to the fjord, which extends south from Oslo’s harbor to the Skagerrak (the strait that separates lower Norway from Sweden), won’t find the towering cliffs and waterfalls typical of fjords on the west coast. But the hilly, fjordside scenery is lovely, nonetheless. Plus, the greater Oslofjord region is full of worthy attractions, dining venues and accommodations options.

Uncharted territory

For many U.S. tour operators – even Norwegian travel specialists such as Passage Tours in Fort Lauderdale – eastern Norway, other than Oslo, is a no-go proposition.

Tove Nilsen, product manager at Passage Tours, said her average client flies into Oslo, perhaps stays a couple of days and then heads to the west or the north.

Weve had a few clients travel around the Oslofjord on day trips from the city, and some others actually stayed overnight in towns such as Fredrikstad and Halden, but the region really hasn’t been marketed well, said Nilsen. It’s not known as a tourism destination, other than as a stop on the way to Sweden.

Not one of Passage Tours itineraries takes in the Oslofjord region. The company buys its escorted ground tours in Norway from area operators, and they simply don’t offer it.

However, the Norwegian-born Nilsen – prompted by a recent sales call by a Halden official – is taking a new look at the Oslofjord.

Im going to try to put something together to the region for next summer, she said.

Glassworks, gnomes, and garrisons

The Oslofjord region runs from the lakelands north of the capital down both shores of the fjord itself, to Larvik on the west coast and Halden on the east.

Along the way, visitors will find a 243-year-old glass foundry; a fishing port where its Christmas all year; and the trendiest cuisine to be found within fortress walls anywhere.

A recent excursion began at the regions northern tip, at Jevnaker on landlocked Randsfjord, where visitors find the popular Hadeland Glassverk glass factory and outlet.

The glassworks, open since 1762, is the most well-known attraction in the wider Oslo area and competes with the capital for the limited time and attention of Baltic cruise passengers docked for just a day or two.

Hadeland Glassverk

Some 600,000 tourists per year stop by the visitor center, which features a museum; the glass hut, a foundry where visitors observe and partake in glassblowing; an art gallery; a restaurant; meetings space and an auditorium; and eight shops that peddle local goods such as glassware, pewter, porcelain, Christmas ornaments, honey and candles.

It may not sound like Hadeland needs promotion, but Ingrid Raade, director of international sales and marketing, noted only 20% of visitors, or 120,000 clients, are foreign tourists.

As those overseas visitors are divided evenly among the U.S., Germany, Holland and the U.K., theres plenty of room for visitor growth from the States, she added.

Hadeland produces up to 5,000 pieces of glassware a day; of those, abstract Julenisse (Norwegian Christmas gnome) figurines are the most popular, with visitors snapping up 500,000 since 1994.

A logical next stop along the Oslofjord is Drobak, a charming fishing village on the east shore, 22 miles south of Oslo.

A major port in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town – reminiscent of New England – is sleepier today, but popular with artists, musicians and day-trippers from Oslo.

Its also made itself Norways Yuletide capital and official Julenisse headquarters, largely thanks to the efforts of Eva Johansen, founder of the Tregaardens Julehus Christmas shop and Julenissens Postkontor post office.

Armed with trees, toys and ornaments, Johansen travels the world spreading the message that Drobak is the real North Pole; to wit, each year 20,000 international letters to Santa Claus arrive at Drobaks post office, and 100,000 shoppers stop at her store.

Johansens also a staunch advocate of sensible and controlled development of tourism to Drobak, a town of just 3,000.

We take care [because] everything is small here, she said. This towns very popular, but weve tried to keep [growth] on the townspeoples terms.

Besides trolling crooked, winding streets crammed with art galleries and crafts shops, Drobak offers appealing activities such as summertime swimming at three beaches; in fact, the town was once known for curative saltwater baths.

Other summer diversions include late-evening jazz-and-shrimp cruises, with live music, plenty of beer and deliciously fresh crustaceans; drinks at outdoor cafes like Det Gamle Bageri; and meals at the handful of good restaurants in town, such as Skipperstuen for seafood or Kumlegaarden for traditional Norwegian fare.

The harborside Tourist Information Center is home to an aquarium and lutefisk museum (devoted to the lye-laced dried-codfish dish) and also sells tickets for both the jazz cruise and ferry rides to the 1850 fortress of Oscarsborg.

On two islands in the Oslofjord, the now-decommissioned fortress is best known for having sunk the German ship Blucher in 1940.

Today, it serves as a military museum, a historical monument, a park, a recreational area and, as of this summer, a unique hotel option. Officers and recruits barracks recently were remodeled into accommodations, with unparalleled fjord views (see box at bottom).

The few other hotels in Drobak include the 33-unit, century-old Reenskaug Hotel in the town center and the Skiphelle Meetings and Conference Hotel, a beachfront property popular with families – despite its name – and now under renovation and new management.

Skiphelle, south of Drobak, has 43 rooms and 19 cabins, a private beach, a sauna and solarium and fjord activities ranging from boating and fishing to diving and windsurfing.

A bit worn around the edges, the spotless hotel offers reasonable rates, starting at about $65 per person a night, including breakfast.

Fort feasts

Fifty miles farther south is the town of Halden, near the new, ultramodern Svinesund bridge to Sweden, which lies just across narrow Iddefjord, an Oslofjord arm that resembles steep, west-coast fjords.

Looming over Halden is Fredriksten Fortress, a 17th-century bulwark against Swedish invasions.  Today, the fortifications feature museums, guided tours and a top-end, yet cozy, restaurant.

The 35-seat Fredrikstens Vertshus Curtisen, open daily in summer and weekends year-round, occupies snug, old lodgings renovated in 2004 and is worth the two-hour drive from Oslo alone.

Fredriksten Fortress

The menu is modern home cooking; the decor, stylish Scandinavian; and the prices, reasonable.

Meanwhile, an entire morning or afternoon is recommended to explore the whole fortress.

From the Park Hotel Halden, the top hotel in town, visitors can fan out to explore the compact city center, scenic harbor, 18th-century Rod Manor and – farther off – the Brekke locks.

The locks, at 87 feet the highest in Europe, can be traversed firsthand on three-and-a-half-hour day cruises on the M/S Turisten, which plies the Halden Canal from Tistedal to Stromfoss four times weekly from early June to late August.

For more on the Oslofjord region, go to www.visitnorway.com.

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