Design and nature are in perfect harmony in this Scandinavian nation’s off-the-grid hotels, discovers Barry Stone.
Scandinavian hotel architecture takes its inspiration from the landscape’s incomparable beauty
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.
In the Steigen archipelago and 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. Skaug was the first Norwegian woman to summit Mount Everest. Ousland was the first person to walk alone and unsupported to the North Pole. 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 is just a minute’s boat ride from the mainland, where the kayaking is serene, the mountain traverses exhilarating, and the rappelling down granite cliff faces enlivening. Steigen even has its own glacier.
My sea cabin here had two bedrooms, a Corian bathroom and kitchen, and a wall of glass that gave me a front-row seat over the strait below 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.
Further south is the Fleinvaer archipelago, not too far from the mainland to be considered remote, but far enough that you need determination to get there.
My accommodation, Fordypningsrommet Fleinvaer, is the product of Håvard Lund’s vivid imagination. The well-known jazz musician has created an eclectic mix of buildings on the shoreline of Fleinvaer’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. My njalla – a viewing box atop a four-metre pole that echoes local Sami storage huts – provides a window onto the infinite northern lights-filled sky above, and an ocean below.
The Juvet Landscape Hote in Valldalen lies not far from one of the world’s great drives, the Trollstigen (Troll’s Path), opened in 1936 with 11 switchbacks. Juvet sprang from the mind of its owner, Knut Slinning, who’s never bothered to advertise the place. Thanks in part to sci-fi film Ex Machina, set at Juvet, 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.
Watching the seasons
I spend my last night at 29|2 Aurland, a farm and guesthouse near Flåm. Its Goat Barn is a stunning fusion of modern design and 18th-century carpentry, its interior filled with recycled doors, windows, rugs and furniture, every item sourced by owners Bjørn and Tone Rønning, who are determined to add to Aurland’s considerable charms.
Manshausen, Fordypningsrommet, Juvet and 29|2 Aurland all wrap you up in the same warm embrace. Sitting in their interiors is like being inside a camera, their windows like lenses that bring into focus images 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. By narrowing your gaze you are freed to see new things. Less becomes more.
And in Norway, that’s a lot.
01 The view from one of Manshausen’s sea cabins © Steve King 02 Juvet Landscape Hotel in Valldalen © Per Eide Studio 03 29|2 Aurland is close to spectacular Aurland Fjord © Helge Hansen/Montag Photography 04 Exploring Norway’s landscape 05 Kayaking the...