Port Stop: Flåm, Norway

January 9, 2018
Norwegian Jade, Flåm Harbor

For many cruise ship passengers, the dramatic fjord scenery on the cruise into Flåm is the whole point of visiting this tiny port.  Home to only a few hundred people, Flåm feels more like a tourist attraction than a village (this is actually true—the "real" town center is a few miles from the port, inland up the river).  But although cruising through the Sognefjord and Aurlandsfjord is spectacular, it's not just about about the journey: Flåm offers plenty of hiking trails, tasty local food, and one of the world's most famous train rides.   

Getting off the ship: We were the only ship in port, so we were able to dock at the pier right in the center of town.  If there are multiple cruise ships during your visit to Flåm, you may need to tender.  However, your tender will also drop you off at the town center.

Cow spotted on a hike near Flåm

What to do:

Take a hike.  The free maps available at the tourist information office (TI) show several different routes in Flåm and the surrounding valley, ranging from a one-mile loop through the Fretheim Cultural Park to a 2.5-hour hike to the Otternes Farmyard, which has houses dating to the 17th century.  We attempted the 1.5 to 2-hour hike to Brekkefossen Waterfall, but had to turn back after a couple miles since the final portion of the trail was too steep and muddy for my running shoes to handle.  Even though we didn't make it to the top of the waterfall, it was worthwhile to get out of town for a better view of the waterfall, river, and valley.  We also encountered a flock of sheep and the very hairy cow pictured above.

View of switchback road from the Flåmsbana Railway

Ride the Flåm Railway—it's what initially inspired me to travel to Norway.  Constructed from 1924 to 1940, the route is billed as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.  It's definitely one of the steepest: you start at sea level in Flåm and travel 12.6 miles to the Myrdal mountain station, over 2,800 feet above sea level.  Along the hour-long journey, you'll pass dozens of waterfalls tumbling thousands of feet down mountainsides, a river so clear you can see the pebbles at the bottom, and a road with 21 switchbacks.  There's a brief stop at Kjosfossen Waterfall for photos and an interpretative dance spectacle starring the "nymph" who lives behind  the waterfall (seriously).  If you're returning to Flåm, stay on the train once you arrive in Myrdal.  You don't need to transfer; the same train goes straight back to Flåm.

To call the scenery breathtaking is a lazy travel writing cliche, but it rings true.  Gazing out at the waterfalls, wondering about the people who lived in the isolated farmsteads, watching goats graze on precarious mountain ledges—it gave me a contented bliss I've experienced only a few other times in my travels.  The Flåm Railway really does live up to the hype.   

Since the Flåm Railway is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Norway, book your tickets early.  Our date in August was nearly sold out when I purchased tickets in May, so we ended up taking the last possible train of the day: we returned to the station at 2:23, seven minutes before our all-aboard time of 2:30.  This wasn't a problem since the walk back to the ship is very short, but the tight schedule caused me a quite a bit of anxiety in the lead up to our trip.  Don't be tempted to take an overpriced cruise ship excursion—you can buy the same tickets yourself for a fraction of the price from Visit Flåm.  A round-trip adult ticket is currently 550 krone (about $90); Norwegian Cruise Line would have charged us $300 per person for a virtually identical experience.

View from the Flåmsbana Railway

If you have some extra time before or after your train ride, visit the Flåm Railway Museum, which features exhibits about the history of the Flåm Railway and is free of charge.  We ran out of time to check out the museum, but I did purchase some souvenirs at the museum shop—the selection includes some unique items (especially Norwegian-made handicrafts) that I didn't spot at the other tourist shops in town, and the prices were slightly lower.

Lunch platter, Bakkastova Cafe, Flåm

Have lunch or a coffee break at Bakkastova Cafe.  Located on a hill just above the Fretheim Hotel, the cafe features outdoor seating overlooking the port and traditional Norwegian fare made with locally sourced ingredients.  I opted for the lunch platter: salmon, scrambled eggs, potato salad, a small tossed salad, and toast.  Mike enjoyed the goat sausage, served with potato salad and a small tossed salad, along with a blond ale from the nearby Ægir Bryggeri.

Our meals and Mike's beer cost 426 krone (about $52), which was comparable to what we would have paid at the very crowded and very touristy restaurants near the train station.  Thanks to some pre-vacation research and a short walk, we treated ourselves to more authentic food in a much more picturesque setting.

Goat sausage, Bakkastova Cafe, Flåm

The takeaway:  The cruise into Flåm features some of the most beautiful scenery in Norway, but the port itself also has plenty to offer cruisers—particularly the Flåm Railway, an experience that lives up to the hype.  Although there's no need to pay for a cruise ship excursion to ride the railway, you do need to book tickets early.  Also, if food is important to you, do your research!  Bakkastova Cafe was so much more picturesque than the establishments by the train station, with more authentic food for similar prices.

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