Design and nature are in perfect harmony in this Scandinavian nation’s off-the-grid hotels, discovers Barry Stone.
A sleeping box bolted to the top of a column in the Fleinvær archipelago that looks more birdhouse than bedroom; an island cabin in Nordland cantilevered over a granite shoreline; a series of pods on a river bend in Valldalen so unique they were the location for the 2015 sci-fi film Ex Machina; a converted fisherman’s cabin and goat barn minutes from the majestic Aurland fjord beneath waterfalls so thunderous its owner claims you can ‘smell’ the water. When it comes to hotels, no country does unorthodox better than Norway.
Norwegians have crafted some exceptional living spaces within their uplifted, glacially-scoured world, which is great news for architecture tragics like myself who want a dash of design with their nature, but who don’t want to compromise either. The further you go off the grid here, the more you’ll be inspired not just by the calibre of design, both natural and built, but also the calibre of the people you’ll meet.
1. Adventure is on the doorstep of Manshausen
In the Steigen coastal district of northern Norway, Randi Skaug was crossing the small channel that separates Naustholmen, the island she owns, from the island where I was staying, Manshausen, owned by Børge Ousland. We’d arranged to have coffee. Randi was the first Norwegian woman to summit Mount Everest. Børge was the first person from anywhere to walk alone and unsupported to the North Pole and has photos of polar bears sniffing his sled. Norwegians have a rare affinity for nature, but there’s a downside. Come here and you might feel like you’ve spent your whole life seriously underachieving.
Randi and Børge could live anywhere but chose to come here, to the Grøtøya strait in Steigen. The former trading post and fishing hub for halibut is just a minute’s boat ride from the mainland, where the kayaking is serene, the mountain traverses exhilarating and the rappelling down red granite cliff faces enlivening. Steigen even has its own glacier. A pretty nice backyard for the indomitable of spirit.
My award-winning sea cabin here had two bedrooms, a Corian bathroom and kitchen and a wall of north-facing glass that gave me a front-row seat over the strait beneath me and Grøtøya Island beyond, which can be circumnavigated in a kayak in two tranquil hours. Randi offered to kayak it with me, but she’s already paddled the bulk of Norway’s 25,000-kilometre coastline. I didn’t want to slow her down.
Manshausen © Steve King
2. Elemental living at Fordypningsrommet Fleinvær
Further south is the Fleinvær archipelago, not too far from the mainland to be considered remote, but far enough that one needs the determination to get there. A year-round population of around 35 live on six principal islands, and my accommodation, Fordypningsrommet Fleinvær, is the product of Håvard Lund’s vivid imagination.
A well-known Norwegian jazz musician, Håvard has created an eclectic mix of buildings on the northern shoreline of Fleinvær’s second most heavily populated island: a sanctuary from the stresses of everyday life, a workspace for visiting artists and a triumph of sustainable living. There is a kitchen, a large study/common room, a sauna and bathhouse and a series of sleeping boxes all built by carpenter/architect students from the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. My njalla – a viewing box atop a four-metre pole that echoed local Sami storage huts – provided a window onto the infinite Northern Lights-filled sky above and an ocean with a tidal range of 2.7 metres below. Fleinvær is Norway at its most elemental.
3. Leave the world behind at Juvet Landscape Hotel
The Juvet Landscape Hotel, on a farmstead in beautiful Valldalen, lies not far from one of the world’s great drives, the Trollstigen (Troll’s Path), which opened in 1936 with 11 switchbacks and a relentless 10% incline over a vertical gain/loss of 700 metres from the valley below. I drove it three times, and only once because I had to.
Juvet is situated on a National Tourist Route linking Trollstigen with the Geiranger fjord and sprang from the mind of its owner, Knut Slinning, who’s never bothered to advertise the place. Why waste money? Thanks in part to Ex Machina, the world comes to him. The century-old barn has been restored, with the cow byre now the dining room and the old pigsty the kitchen, but it’s the nine sleeping places that really inspire.
Images courtesy of Juvet Landscape Hotel
4. Watching the seasons pass at 29|2 Aurland
Driving south from Juvet towards Aurland I took the Sognefjellet National Tourist Route which bisects the Jotunheimen mountains and goes over northern Europe’s highest mountain pass. It was a late September day, and an early snowfall had blanketed the mountains and caused autumn branches to sag beneath a fantastical intrusion of white. At Bøverton, a farm and old coach inn at the foot of Sognefjellet, the owners were out hand-feeding cattle on fields that had been green the previous day but were now gleaming white.
My last night was spent at 29|2 Aurland, a farm and guesthouse near Flåm in Western Norway set on land that has been settled since Viking times and encircled by mountains so high they block out the sun from October to February. Its Goat Barn is a stunning fusion of modern design and 18th-century cog-joint carpentry, its interior filled with recycled doors, windows, rugs and furniture, every item sourced by its indomitable owners, Bjørn and Tone, who are determined to add to Aurland’s considerable charms and so buck the trend in a country which, despite its landscapes, is seeing a drift of people to its cities.
29|2 Aurland’s vernacular design provides an important link to the architecture of the past, much like the traditional fisherman’s cabins at Reine Rorbuer on the Lofoten archipelago with their trademark sod roofs. Sod roofs, likely used in Norway since before recorded history, can weigh as much as 400 kilograms per square metre when weighed down with a load of snow, compressing external log walls to cleverly eliminate winter draughts.
Manshausen, Fordypningsrommet, Juvet and 29|2 Aurland all wrap you up in the same warm embrace. Sitting in their interiors was like being inside the body of a camera, their windows like lenses that bring into focus images of nature that otherwise might be lost in a broader landscape.
That’s what good architecture does; it makes you see the world in a new light. It’s an irony that by narrowing your gaze you are freed to see new things. Less becomes more. And in Norway, that’s a lot.