Insight Vacations Spectacular Scandinavia and It's Fjords Tour Review (2013)
Tour Review and Commentary
We took this trip in early July, 2013 after a 1 year break from Europe in 2012. The trip was an escorted tour conducted by Insight Vacations http://www.insightvacations.com/us . There were 40 people on the tour and it consisted of 14 days ground touring . The countries toured included Denmark, Sweden and Norway. A significant amount of time was spent touring the fjords of Norway. Here is a direct link to the tour details (2014 version and pricing) http://www.insightvacations.com/us/spectacular-scandinavia-and-its-fjordssummer-2014.
Our arrival city was Copenhagen. After the meet-and-greet dinner at our hotel, we headed to Tivoli Park for a several hour visit. Tivoli is a very large amusement park centrally located in Copenhagen. The park offers a wide assortment of rides, music, dancing, restaurants, gardens and other interesting activities. For us, the park visit was a pleasurable experience.
Other things in our Copenhagen visit included a half day city tour of Copenhagen the next day. In addition to seeing the old part of Copenhagen, we were able to do a short photo shoot stop at the famous Little Mermaid statue.
After leaving Copenhagen, we made our way to Odense, Denmark. This small community houses the museum and house of Hans Christian Anderson (of children's book fame). We spent several hours on site touring the extensive museum and other attractions on the grounds.
Departing Denmark by ferry, we made our way to Sweden. The actual trip from Frederiskhavn, Denmark to Stockholm, Sweden consumed the better part of a day's travel.
Our hotel in Stockholm was centrally located near the old city of Stockholm (less than a 5 minute walk from the hotel to the old city). While Copenhagen was nice, Stockholm was spectacular. The city is comprised of a series of islands interconnected by bridges. The section of the old town that we had walking access to felt like “Old Europe” with it's narrow pedestrian alleyways populated with a large assortment of merchant shops, restaurants, historic buildings, churches and museums.
Our half day city tour included a stop at the Stockholm City Hall. This is the site of the Nobel Awards (excluding the Peace Award) presented every year. The city hall is both gigantic and opulent in it's appointments. It is truly unlike any city hall we have ever visited to date.
After the city tour we decided not to take the optional tour offered in the afternoon. Instead, we spent the afternoon just wandering about the old city. We did manage to take in the changing of the guard at the royal palace. The entire pomp and circumstance lasted well over an hour. If you plan on taking this in, I recommend getting there at least an hour before the scheduled start and stake out your position at the front of the viewing area.
After leaving Stockholm we started the long journey to northern Sweden. The countryside reminded me of Wisconsin and Minnesota in the United States with it's rolling hills, pastures and lots of forest land. We were reminded of just how far north we actually were when we spotted several moose grazing in the fields.
We made short stops in Sigtuna (smallest city hall in the world) along with a stop in Upsula (a university city). Our final arrival point for the day was Falun, Sweden. Here we took an optional trip to the Carl Larsson Farm (he was a famous Swedish painter). At the conclusion of this tour, we made our way to an abandoned open pit copper mine.
From Falun we started our day long journey to Lilihamer, Norway. The terrain became progressively more challenging as we wound our way through the mountains. Upon arrival in Lilihamer, we made a short photo stop at the Olympic Ice Skating Arena (1995 Winter Olympics). From there we coached on to the Olympic Ski Jump Hill. This provided a good panorama view of the surrounding area.
From Lilihamer, continued our coach drive north to Geiranger, Norway. This was our launching point for the fjords portion of the tour.
After checking in at the Hotel Union, we were treated to a good boat ride onto the fjords. For us, the fjords were like nothing we had seen before in our travels. Each fjord was fairly wide with mountain peaks rising up several thousand feet from it's shores. All along the coastline, you saw countless waterfalls (from the melting snows of the previous winter). The fjords were surprisingly deep reaching depths exceeding 1,000 ft (304m) in places.
We stayed two nights in the Union Hotel. One of the outstanding features of the hotel was the cuisine. The meals (breakfast and dinner) were served buffet style. Buffet doesn't do it credit as I have never seen such a wide variety (and quantity) of good quality food. The menu was varied but definitely favored the sea food lover (which I am a member of). An added benefit for us was a view of the surrounding mountain with a cascading waterfall from our bedroom window.
The first full day after our arrival in Geiranger, we took a half day bus tour throughout the fjord shoreline. That afternoon, we opted to take the Troll Road tour. This is a bus tour up into the surrounding mountains. It's not for the faint of heart with respect to heights and altitude. The trip takes you on narrow roads with frequent sharp switchbacks (thankfully our driver was immensely qualified for this type of terrain). Although the weather had turned adverse (rain, and low clouds), we were still able to see some spectacular scenery.
The next day we left Geiranger and made our way to Fjaerland, Norway. We made several scenery stops along the way. An additional interesting part of this journey were the many gigantic tunnels we traversed through the mountains. Again, the scenery was spectacular (the weather was getting worse).
After spending the night in Fjaerland, we started the day long journey to Bergen, Norway. Again we were treated to more rugged mountain views. We did make a short stop at the Boyabreen Glacier. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the entire area was deluged with rain. I did manage to get off one shot of the glacier. Additionally, on the way to Bergen we took a short trip on the Flam Railway which was both scenic and a lot of fun.
When we arrived at Bergen, the weather had again deteriorated into pouring rain. The next day we had our local tour of Bergen. Basically, Bergen is a small town located on the coast. It has a small old section within easy walking distance from our hotel.
We took the optional tour of Edward Greig's home (a famous Norwegian composer). While there we were treated to a short piano recital.
Thankfully, we exited Bergen the next day and left the pouring rain behind us. We now made our way to Oslo Norway. Along the way, our trip took us again through some mountain areas. While in the mountains, we made a short photo stop at a rustic area used by the Laplanders during the winter season. After nearly a full day on the road, we arrived at the Grand Hotel for our stay in Oslo.
The Grand Hotel is the primary hotel used by the dignitaries for the annual Nobel Peace Price Award Ceremony. The hotel is located directly in the middle of the sprawling old town section of Oslo.
The next day we had a good city tour that included stops at City Hall (site of the Nobel Peace Prize Awards Ceremony). The City Hall was every bit as grandiose as the City Hall in Stockholm. From the City Hall, we toured other sections of the old town. We also made a stop at a Viking Museum that contained a few Viking long ships and artifacts from this time period.
From the museum we made our way to Frognerparken. This is an immense park that has an extensive collection of carved statues (most nude).
That afternoon, we were left to our own devices. Since everything is within easy walking distance in Oslo, we headed to the National Gallery to see the artwork. We were fortunate enough to also be able to see the two version of the famous painting “The Scream'. From the National Gallery, we trecked across the district to the Underground (WWII Resistance) Museum. We took the self-guided tour of the museum which lasted the better part of an hour. From there we meandered back to our hotel for our departure celebration dinner.
The next day we departed back to our home countries. Oslo was such a special city. The old section has countless parks and public areas. Additionally, there are several dozen museums in the area. Restaurants and shopping abound in the area. It is completely pedestrian friendly and very easy to navigate. If you do get lost, one of the “locals” will gladly provide assistance and directions.
Here is a listing of the optionals offered on the trip and my rating of the optionals relative to value.
Traditional Danish Dinner:
The dinner was held in a restaurant in the old section of Copenhagen. The room we were served in was a bit small but quite quaint. The meal offered was a traditional Danish Christmas Meal (we found this amusing given it was July). The food was well prepared and quite tasty. Those in attendance seemed to enjoy it.
Rating : Recommend
New Zealand Castle Tour:
This was a tour of the 17th century Fredriksborg Castle. The castle is an imposing structure situated on a sprawling estate. The exterior provided many photo opportunities. We were able to tour the interior which was interesting. On the way back to Copenhagen we stopped by for a brief photo opportunity at the Royal Summer Residence.
Rating : Recommend if interested in castles.
Swedish Summer Cruise and Dinner:
This optional consisted of a river cruise to the restaurant. The cruise was nice but not outstanding. The dinner was held in a small restaurant located on the water. Unfortunately our small dining room did not offer views of any significance. The meal consisted of a slab of salmon (well prepared) with a couple of sides and 2 small glasses of wine.
Rating : Not worth the cost. You could have a much more traditional Swedish dinner at one the many restaurants in Stockholm probably at less cost.
This is a tour of the rescued ship that sank as it was being launched in 1628. We skipped this optional and instead spent a great afternoon wandering about in Stockholm. The people who attended the optional seemed have enjoyed themselves.
Rating : You decide.
Carl Larsson Farm:
This optional included a long tour of the home of the painter. For me, the inside tour could have been a fraction of the length that it was. The grounds were nice but not outstanding.
Rating : Low Average
The Troll Road:
As mentioned in the narrative, we hit adverse weather while doing this optional. Irregardless, we still saw some spectacular scenery. If you are fortunate enough to take this optional during better weather conditions, be prepared to be awed by the beauty of the scenery.
Rating : Must Do
Visit A Mountain Farm:
We skipped this optional. Through the years we have visited numerous farms in Wisconsin so this presented nothing new for us. The people who attended generally enjoyed the optional.
Rating : You decide.
Edward Grieg's Home and Funicular:
The grounds of his home was nice but not outstanding. The accompanying short piano recital was also enjoyable.
Rating : Average
Norwegian Folklore & Heritage:
This optional was canceled due to low interest by the group. The optional would have consisted of going to a park within Oslo that was set up with period buildings and people dressed in costume.
Rating : Was canceled for a reason – pass on this one.
Here's a summary of the weather we experienced on the trip (we were on the ground from 5-Jul thru 18-Jul-2013).
Denmark, Stockholm : Clear skies, daily high temperature around 75F (24C).
Sweden north of Stockholm : Overcast skies, daily high temperature around 65F (18C).
Lilihamer, Norway : Clear skies, daily high temperature around 70F (21C).
Gieranger and the Fjords : Arrival day temperature around 60F (15C), partly cloudy skies.
The Fjords : Daily high temperature around 50-55F (10-12C), cloudy, windy, rain.
Bergen : Daily high temperature around 55F (12C), constant pouring rain and accompanying fog.
Bergen to Oslo trip : Daytime temperature around 55F (12C), overcast.
Oslo : Daily high temperature around 75F (24C), clear skies.
All three countries have their own currency. Fortunately, each currency is valued close to each other in respect to benchmark currencies like the Euro and USD. There are plentiful ATM's as well as branch banks. Additionally, our TD made sure that as we left one country to cross over into another country, we had access to a currency exchange where the large bills could be exchanged at near FOREX rates.
English is spoken universally as a strong second language throughout the region. We never encountered difficulties with the language. I would offer that the citizenry we encountered spoke better English than a lot of my U.S. countrymen.
Trip Takeaways and Impressions
We found the people to be extremely friendly and warm. There is a strong family commitment within the area. Because of the extensive social benefits offered within the region, each parent is afforded significant paid time off of work when a child is born.
The people of the region are highly educated with state sponsored education starting in pre-school lasting through the college education. Teaching is a highly respected profession that is compensated well.
Violent crime happens very infrequently. Throughout our entire tour, we felt completely safe and secure. Universally, the people abide by the laws. We saw constant examples of this while on the road where people actually travel at the speed limits. Cell phone and other distraction use while driving is outlawed in each country.
Each country is immaculate with respect to the environment. We did not see one annoying road advertising sign during the entire trip. Additionally, we saw no garbage, litter etc. while on tour.
Everything is expensive in the region. To our surprise we found out that Oslo is the most expensive city in the world. We took the approach that we were not going to let the cost of things spoil the trip for us.
We both enjoyed this trip immensely. Insight did a good job of composing the itinerary. We were fortunate in the fact that we had a great group to tour with. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who has not been in the region before. If you have any questions regarding this trip, either post in the comments section or click the Contact Me link. I will attempt to answer you queries in a timely manner.