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Norway in spring melted our hearts; Glacier skiing, cycling around a fjord, driving through 18ft of snow and parasailing above ice-cold lakes made for a thrilling family holiday.

Byline: STEVE DYSON reports.

THE immensity of the pre-summer thaw in Norway's western fjords hit us when our seven-year-old, Daniel, counted his 70th waterfall in two hours.

We were on the first half of a whistle-stop tour, which began by bus on hairpin bends up and down hills en route to Gudvangen village, where we transferred to boat for a two-hour cruise on the Naeroyfjord and Aurlandsfjord.

Naeroyfjord is the narrowest fjord in the world, making the mountains with farms clinging to their sides even more stunning as they appeared to be almost directly above us. We gasped as snowcapped peaks glowered, sheer faces of rock carved out by huge glaciers 10,000-plus years ago.

After arriving and resting in the fjord-side village of Flam, it was back to more physical thrills, this time aboard the rollercoaster-like Flam Railway, one of the world's steepest lines on a normal gauge.

We climbed a gradient of 1:18 from two metres above sea level to 866m in 50 minutes, in and out of twisting tunnels spiralling up the Flamsdal Valley to Myrdal, the train's seven sets of brakes squealing as they gripped the tracks.

This swift but exciting trip, neatly called 'Norway in a Nutshell', was the perfect introduction to the country, and from the town of Voss where we were based cost around pounds 47 per adult, half price for children, depending on exchange rates.

The Dysons - young Daniel and his older brothers Ben, 10, and Thomas, 14, along with their mum, Ruth, and I - were on an activity holiday at the end of May.

The initial plunge into the sights of Norway under our belt, we then launched ourselves into four days of exertion that kept us all wideeyed by day and exhausted and aching by night.

First up was biking at Ulvic, a 45-minute drive from Voss. Once there, we climbed on hire bikes for an 18km round trip across the northern tips of two fjords. We were led by the energetic Mona Hellesnes, the marketing manager of the Rica Brakanes Hotel in Ulvic, who had volunteered to show us the local area.

The day was hot and the rolling foothills an effort, but we were rewarded by close-up views of farms, fields of apple blossom and fishing on the Ulvikfjord and Osafjord, made perfect by a picnic on the banks of the near-deserted hamlet of Osa.

This area's natural beauty made the biking a memorable and comparatively gentle way to break our muscles in, with bike hire from the local tourist office starting at around pounds 8 for half a day.

There was nothing gentle about the following morning, when we drove two hours south to a ferry from Torvikbygd to Jondal (about pounds 10 each way), before a half-hour, 1,200m crawl onto the Folgefonna glacier.

Based here is the Summer Ski Centre, just open at the end of May, with ski-hire, tobogganing and tuition available to all ages and skill levels.

Tom had skied recently, and so was soon hopping on the ski lift to the top of the main slope where there are fine conditions for exhilarating cross-country skiing, and marked tracks to the top of the glacier at 1,640m above sea level.

The rest of us were happy to receive basic tuition on a nursery slope (I had skied before, but 25 years ago!), and we achieved various levels of 'snow-plough' trundles during our half day. The trip was worth it for the views alone from the glacier that moves some 10 metres a year.

Now both saddle-sore and thigh-strained, we spent a 'day off' in and around Voss, strolling at our own pace along the leafy Prestegardsalleen footpath along the south of Lake Vangsvatnet, and then up a nearby hill to view the thunderous Bordal gorge.

The next day we were due to parasail over the lake with Nordic Ventures, a company that has run tens of thousands of parasailing, parascending, parachuting and parabungee-jumping sessions for the last nine years, with no serious injuries to date.

And so although disappointing it was also reassuring that our flying was called off twice that day because the volatile weather was too windy.

We filled the time in between with an 80km drive up to the town of Vik instead, sitting aside the Sognafjord, visiting the nearby Hopperstad stave church, one of the best examples of these historic wooden buildings made from vertical planks slotted into upright posts.

This trip involved a climb over the bleak and icy wastes of the Vikafjell mountain on a road closed until just days before. At the highest point, the landscape was dazzling white, the snow piling more than 18-feet on the side of the road. On the hills up and down, waterfalls of melting snow thundered literally inches from the road.

The parasailing cancellation left us with a dilemma, as Nordic Ventures were happy to rearrange for the next and our last morning in Voss - although this would clash with a pre-planned 'family rafting' experience on the nearby river.

Fate took over, however, with the rafting centre itself cancelling our visit for 'capacity' reasons, leaving us free to parasail, with solo flights starting at around pounds 40 each.

Of all our activities, this was the one where I saw all four faces of wife and sons lit up and entranced throughout: the thrill of pre-flight nerves; the worrying moment of being shackled to harness and parasail; and the adrenalin-filled take-off. All five of us went airborne - the younger two boys on dual flights with mum and dad - and we rose to 180m above Voss during our 15 minutes of aeronautical fame.

The literal birds-eye views, the eerie silence, the gut-wrenching feeling of take-off and the scary water-skimming before landing.

These were the exhilarating moments we all talked about most for weeks after.

Norway won our hearts with its breath-taking views, physical activities and a real old-fashioned, virtual crime-free and homely friendliness throughout.

GETTING THERE

WE travelled to Norway with DFDS Seaways, Newcastle to Bergen, a crossing that takes around 24 hours.

There are basic but comfortable cabins with en suite bathrooms, on board activities including bars, restaurants, nightclub, cafes, casino, shops and cinema.

The mini-cruise is exciting in itself for the whole family and become a memorable part of the holiday, especially as you approach Norway's ports through the hundreds of islands near the coast.

Top tip: take your own bottled water, as the water from cabin taps can sometimes be discoloured which, though perfectly safe, puts the kids off using it.

We stayed in Bergen before heading to our main centre in Voss. Although now quite an industrial centre, the bustling main harbour reminds you of Bergen's past as a fishing port, with great fresh fish markets.

There are plenty of sights and activities, including the Floibanen funicular railway to the top of Mount Floyen, from where you get a splendid view of Bergen.

For about pounds 15 you can buy a Bergen card, a 24-hour pass that gives you free bus travel, a trip up the funicular and discounts at many other attractions, such as the local aquarium and museums.

STAYING THERE

WE stayed at the Fleischer's Hotel in Voss, an imposing, multi-gabled building over 100 years old. The grand tradition of good service reigns here, with wood-panelled reception, bar and dining room, sunny conservatory and modern swimming pool all adding to the luxury.

The buffet breakfasts and dinners were top quality, with plenty to choose from, and the large rooms we stayed in we homely with great views out over the lake. The hotel was a favourite of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg early in the 20th Century, and we attended a concert in his honour during our stay, 2007 being the centenary of his death.

PRICES

A WEEK'S activity holiday at the four-star Fleischer's Hotel (www.fleischers.no) normally costs from pounds 386 per person, based on four people travelling with DFDS (www.dfds.co.uk) in a four-person inside cabin Newcastle-Bergen, including carriage of one standard vehicle, five nights in a twin-bedded room on a B&B basis, with additional beds for children sharing with two adults.

A city cruise break to Bergen costs from pounds 183 per person for a five-night short break including two nights return sea crossings in an inside two-berth ensuite cabin Newcastle-Bergen and three nights hotel accommodation as selected, based on twin-bedded ensuite room on a B&B basis.

See more images and reports at www.fjordnorway.com

CAPTION(S):

FLYING HIGH... Ruth and Ben Dyson parasail above a lake.; DEEP... Ruth and Thomas are dwarfed by a wall of snow.; CHEEKY... Daniel enjoys a fjord cruise.; ICE COLD... Steve, Daniel and Thomas Dyson atop the glacier at Folgefonna.; THUNDEROUS... Ruth Dyson next to noisy falls in Flamsdal Valley; BIRD'S EYE VIEW... taking a trip up the funicular railway in Bergen.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Jun 27, 2007
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