On a small island off the crinkle-cut northwest coast of Norway, with no land between it and Iceland, there lives an artist whose brooding, semi-abstract oil paintings draw inspiration from the surrounding soil and sky—sometimes literally. His name is Ørnulf Opdahl, the isle is called Godøy, and sometimes he walks the few yards to the beach and scoops up a handful of sand to give his paint texture. Opdahl’s home is Norway’s landscape in miniature. There is a lake and a mountain and a red-striped lighthouse that seems to act as a conduit for the northern lights. All around is ocean.
It would be almost madness for an artist not to be influenced by the elements here. Godøy is part of Sunnmøre, an archipelago along the western coast of the country and one of the world’s great, insurmountably raw regions: etched by glaciers, shaded by intense greenery. These islands ripple out into the Norwegian Sea, some threaded together by tunnels burrowed beneath the water, though there are far more routes for boats than for cars. The dark Sunnmøre Alps, which possess a sublime, magnetic beauty, have drawn climbers since the 19th century. There are many places of solitude, with names that could have blown in with the wind. Storhornet. Aksla. Skårasalen. Life has long been measured by the rhythm of the seasons, tangled with sheep’s wool and scattered with fish scales. The area’s one and only city, Ålesund, is really an overgrown fishing village, albeit one crafted in a rainbow of sherbet-hued Art Nouveau, the stone chiseled into turrets and spires, a pocket of watercolor politeness in the face of so much wilderness.
“It’s quite different to anywhere else in Norway, which can often be so much more of the same,” says Vebjørn Andresen, who was born farther north, in Tromsø, and arrived here from the wide-open polar expanses of Svalbard. “But the landscape is so compact here. Scenery can change by the minute. The first time I drove through the valley of Norangsdalen, I was so startled by the view I had to pull over and sit on the grass.” Last summer he took a boat out by himself and spent the weekends sculling through the fjord, often the only figure in the landscape, dwarfed by the peaks and wondering how the tiny red-roofed farms clinging to the sides had ever been built. Rowing along these shores in a small vessel, the rock faces plunging at almost sheer angles, can feel like Jonah entering the belly of the whale.
Andresen’s reason for coming to this part of Norway was to take on the role of CEO at 62˚ Nord, an experiential hotel and travel group founded by locally born Knut Flakk and his family. The story of the venture spools back to Norway’s oldest knitted-garment manufacturer, Devold, which Flakk’s father bought in the 1980s. Devold is something of a household name, founded in 1853 by a forward-looking entrepreneur who installed electric lights in his factory just four years after their invention. Workers wove wool from nearby farms into warm long johns and thermals. When the Victorian explorer Fridtjof Nansen traversed Greenland on cross-country skis, he was wearing Devold undergarments; so was Roald Amundsen when he reached the North Pole. And the russet-bearded actor Kristofer Hivju—better known as Game of Thrones’ Tormund Giantsbane, and a regular visitor to Ålesund—insisted the whole cast wear them on set in below-freezing Iceland. So when Flakk was forced to move his manufacturing to Lithuania in 2003 to survive in the global market, he faced a challenge: how to make sure the region wasn’t diminished as a result. After all, by building his business here, the original founder had helped save local communities at a time when many were buying one-way tickets to the U.S. He decided to see the moment as an opportunity. “I was looking at a way of creating jobs and realized that there was no high-end travel experience here,” Flakk says. “It was peculiar, considering the country’s wealth. And there’s so much natural beauty around Ålesund.”
The 62˚ Nord group, which Flakk conceived with his wife, Line, takes a considered, sustainable approach that is intertwined with the life of the region. The two opened the first of their three hotels, Hotel Brosundet, in the center of Ålesund—so close to the water that guests have been known to leap from their windows into the waves. The former fishing warehouse was reimagined by Snøhetta, the architectural outfit that designed the Oslo Opera House and the National September 11 Memorial Museum and Pavilion in New York. Room 47 of the Brosundet is located in a small lighthouse at the end of a quay a short walk from the main hotel. The 62˚ Nord group also took over the imposing, chalet-style Hotel Union Øye, an hour’s boat ride away at the end of a fjord, and renovated the Storfjord Hotel, named for the glacial waters below, after purchasing it from an Anglo-Norwegian couple. Another of the group’s properties, the three-bedroom Owner’s Cabin, is a secluded weather-watching outpost on Giske, an islet occupied only by wading birds, seals, and the occasional Scandi band riffing at the small recording studio. And the original Devold factory remains a place where things are made. The family invited artists and artisans to occupy the space—a blacksmith who uses a 1920s forge, a ceramist, a glassblower, and an illustrator—forming a communal creative hub for the area.
Flakk’s approach is inspired by the idea of geotourism, which aims to preserve the integrity of a destination by actively involving the community while protecting natural habitats. Rather than just parachuting in and out of a place, travelers are able to really get under its skin. With 62˚ Nord, that could mean a food safari to an organic farm and picking berries, herbs, and mushrooms with its owners; kayaking into fjords past waterfalls and glaciers; or swishing off in an inflatable boat to Runde, where puffins arrive on the same day every year, flying in such numbers that the air seems a maelstrom of feathers and orange webbed feet. “It’s been a slow process, but we decided back in 2005 there wasn’t any conflict between profit, society, and the environment,” Flakk says.
The subject of Norway and sustainability is a contradictory one. Nearly half of the new cars in the nation are electric, and Oslo has closed off much of the city to vehicles so residents cycle, walk, or take the tram instead of driving. The elephant in the room, of course, is the country’s status as a leading oil nation. The huge reserves discovered in the late 1960s transformed the largely rural economy. While Norway’s power network runs almost entirely on clean hydroelectricity, the country also exports gas and oil and seeks out fresh deposits, although its mammoth $992 billion sovereign wealth fund now focuses on seeding ethical investments such as the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries. “We were really lucky in being able to create that wealth,” says Flakk, “but it’s only natural that we take the front seat in developing sustainable energy. As for exporting oil—well, it affects the planet no matter who uses it.”
Flakk is also investing his resources in ways that contribute to the country’s green shift. His efforts have centered on creating a business collective to produce hydrogen. “Many people are focused on reducing their footprint and the use of plastics, and being energy-efficient, but I’m more interested in being climate-positive, with renewable sources. Hydrogen is a zero-emission energy carrier that can be used for boats, trains, and planes.” His current goal is making sure the ferries that crisscross the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Geirangerfjord are supplied with hydrogen fuel cells by 2023, and also providing hydrogen refueling points for next-generation buses, trucks, and trains.
People in the region have started to see the advantages of geotourism, Flakk says. A handful have opened up their farms for small numbers of guests. The village of Norangsfjord was in danger of becoming unsustainable—no real industry or transportation links—until 62˚ Nord took over Union Øye, improving access and securing jobs. Characters in the hotel group include Tom Tøsse, from Ålesund, who captains a small fleet and tells the best fireside stories in town, and Finn Kringstad, from Langevåg, who was the caretaker at the Devold factory for half a century and still turns up to tidy the flowerpots. “A lot of people my age are returning from big cities to Ålesund, bringing new ideas,” says Flakk’s eldest daughter, 29-year-old Maria, who helps run 62˚ Nord. “When it comes to travel, there will always be box tickers and Instagrammers, but I think more of my generation are now interested in staying in a place longer, and people are seeing the value in traditional ways of life.”
This is the land of friluftsliv, or respect for outdoor living, and dugnad, communal volunteering; of the Mountain Code (“Don’t be ashamed to turn around”) and the right to roam through any private property as long as it’s undeveloped. As a child, Flakk would spend weekends in the cabin his parents built in the Sunnmøre Alps, and when he was in the Boy Scouts they would go on overnight ski trips, sleeping in snow caves they had dug themselves. “When I was growing up, we had to go for a family hike or cross-country ski tour every single Sunday, no matter what the weather was like,” says Maria. “I used to hate it sometimes, but it instilled a really strong connection with the outdoors. There’s a Norwegian saying, du angrer aldri på en tur—‘You will never regret a hike.’ I love going to the island of Giske, about a 15-minute drive from Ålesund. The wind is always blowing. I head out there with friends when the winter storms are coming, sitting in the car with a hot coffee and watching the weather. The surf spot of Alnes is right around the corner.”
Another Flakk family favorite is the hotel at Storfjord, with a jetty to jump off for cold-water swimming all year round and hiking trails in every direction. Hand-built with logs from the forest, it has a turf roof atop layers of birch bark to make it waterproof. Inside there are woolen rugs and throws; antique wooden farm tools salvaged from the surrounding countryside, whittled during long winter days and nights; trays and ladles; an intricate press used to make patterns on butter. The menu at the hotel’s restaurant gathers a topographic selection from forest and mountain, sourcing meat from local farms and beer from microbreweries. The chefs forage seaweed, wild garlic, and birch sap. They make kombucha from raspberries and beets.
Hiking in spring here is exhilarating, alongside waterfalls that foam and crash as the snow and ice melt. “You get a certain peace of mind,” says Maria. She talks of the weather—“everyone always talks about the weather”—of how in winter people cross their fingers for the nordvesten, the northwest winds, which swirl snow up to the mountains, and of rimfrost, when your breath sparkles with crystals in the freezing air. But most evocative of all is blåtimen, the blue hour, that special time after the sun sets but before complete darkness creeps in, a time for watching the water on the fjord and the peaks fade from view, a time of calm at the day’s end.
62º Nord offers a five-night itinerary from $12,175, full board, including two nights each at Storfjord Hotel and Hotel Union Øye and one night at Hotel Brosundet, plus private kayaking, skiing, a helicopter tour, and boat trip. 62.no for details. Doubles at Hotel Brosundet from $175; brosundet.no
This article appeared in the March 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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