The generous living room windows of our home exchange look out over a narrow channel towards the island of Karmøy. From our cosy vantage point, we watch the weather fronts rolling in from the wild North Sea and the rain-battered ships taking refuge in the calm waters. The vessels may be new, but boats have been making their way through this passage for thousands of years already. For as long as time itself, this route has been known as the safe way north, the “Northern Way”…
Merely a kilometre across the channel – but just obscured from our view by a neighbouring house – lies the ancient church of Olav in the village of Asvaldsnes. There – right there – is the birthplace of Norway, the main stronghold of King Harald Fairhair who controlled this “Northern Way” and first unified this nation.
All in all, it feels like a rather apt place to start exploring.
Considering its geographical, political and historical importance, the visitor attractions at Asvaldsnes are remarkably low-key. This place is too subtle and remote to pique the attention of the coach tour operators, and although the parking was rather full when we arrived (11.15am on a Sunday), we quickly learned that this was due to an ongoing service in Olav’s church. In fact, the Norwegian History Centre wasn’t even open yet, and we started our visit by a walk onto the tiny island of Bukkøy.
It was on this island, on one of the narrowest sections of the strait, that the first Norwegian kings had many of their settlements. Although very little of the original buildings have survived, replicas have been constructed throughout the island, including an impressive boathouse and a rather charming “Viking Farm”, replete with plenty of finger-warming kids’ activities on this Norwegian “summer’s” day.
INTERESTING FACT: If – like ours – your kids are fans of the popular “How to Train your Dragon” books / films / TV series, then they will love Bukkøy. The staff at the Viking Farm claim that Hiccup’s home island – Berk – has been influenced by and named after this place.
Despite the similar name (“øy” simply means “island“), I am ever-so-slightly sceptical of this claim: after all, the author of the books herself cites an uninhabited clump of rock in the Hebridean Sea as her “real-life dragon island“. Nevertheless, do look out for undeniable similarities and potential influences at every turn on Bukkøy, particularly in the “boat house” and the atmospheric interior of the long house.
By the time we had explored Bukkøy, the Norwegian History Centre had finally got round to opening its doors. Once inside, we were treated to a predictably Scandinavian high-tech exhibition on the region’s rich and long history, with plenty of dark corners and moody videos of greasy-haired Vikings thirsty for honour and revenge. It was impressive stuff, but, honestly, who wants to learn about all those things when you can just, you know, dress up as a Viking instead?
Back at our “home”, we got chatting to a friendly neighbour about another of Karmøy’s attractions: the village of Skudeneshavn on the southern tip of the island. She closed her eyes in delight as she recounted tales of the bygone days when Skudeneshavn grew happy and rich from the herring trade, an era which resulted in the building of handsome wooden houses and warehouses that we can still see today, harmoniously scattered around a natural harbour.
“So… it’s like a mini-Bergen?” I proffered.
“Well, yes, I suppose so. Very mini.”
A small-scale Bergen without the coach and cruise tourists? This sounded like a perfect goal for a day out, so off we went and – oh my goodness! It was gorgeous.
We simply wandered the tourist-free streets of clean white buildings and rambling late-summer flowers in a sort of contented fuzz. Having visited Bergen a few days later, I can now quite safely confirm that – although it is, indeed, “mini” – Skudeneshavn can effortlessly compete with its more famous big cousin on looks alone, and is a million times more relaxed. It has culture too: having stumbled into a particularly attractive old-fashioned shop, we soon realised that it was, in fact, the village museum.
Since there was no-one else around, the attendant took us on a private tour of the museum (no photography allowed, sadly, other than the one snap above) allowing us to delve further into the village’s past as a major player in all things herring. In addition, we discovered all manner of curious knick-knacks such as a collection of old washing machines (?), historical dentistry equipment (??) and some original 19th century arsenic-laden wallpaper (“If a fly lands on that, it dies soon afterwards”). Quirky, original, and nowhere near as fish-oriented as we thought it might be: we loved it!
Having successfully NOT bought ice-cream in Skudeneshavn (gosh is Norway expensive for certain things…), we made full use of another unique advantage of doing a home exchange: local knowledge.
Let me explain. An unwritten rule of house swapping is that you leave a “manual” for your guests. This custom-made document – typically 5-10 pages long – not only contains boring-but-practical domestic information (e.g. how to switch on the heating, how to operate the washing machine, what to do if the rabbit dies, etc. etc.) but also provides insider tips on where to find the best experiences in the local region: that tiny café with self-baked organic bread, that hidden viewpoint just a short walk from the house, and, in this particular case, the best beaches for miles around.
Here, at the place described in the home exchange manual, a tropical blue-green sea gently tickled a beach of finest white sand. Looking around, it was occasionally difficult to believe we were in Norway, roughly at the same latitude as the northernmost tip of the Orkney Islands (unless you were actually IN the sea, in which case you were reminded rather abruptly: those wetsuits proved very useful!).
We can say with some certainty that we would never have found this exquisite beach on the west coast of Karmøy if it wasn’t for our privileged access to local knowledge. Actually, I’m not convinced that other Norwegians know about it either: a grand total of two other families shared this little piece of Nordic paradise with us on what was (by far) the warmest and sunniest day that we experienced in south-west Norway.
Back at Olav’s church in Asvaldnes, one more curiosity has stood for centuries. A thin, plain obelisk known as “St Mary’s Needle” stands attentively beside the north wall of the ancient church . Over time, Mary has leaned slowly towards the stone walls of Olav and legend states that Doomsday will be upon us when the two finally touch. According to the latest measurements, the gap is down to 9.2 centimetres.
So, you still have time to visit Karmøy for yourself… but don’t leave it too long.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING KARMØY
- Karmøy is situated between Stavanger and Bergen, in south-west Norway.
- It even has its own airport, which must be immensely practical if you happen to live in Gdansk, Poland (one of only three international destinations that currently enjoys direct flights there…).
- For the rest of us, it is probably easier to arrive by car.
- There’s a bridge linking Karmøy to mainland Norway near Haugesund, and a shiny new tunnel arriving just north of Kopervik.
- Note that if you are taking your own car, you will need to register for Norway’s toll road network in advance. We can confirm that the road tolls in Norway are numerous and pricy. BUT… on the plus side, you will be driving on some of the best-maintained and most spectacular roads anywhere in the world. Ever seen a neon blue roundabout inside a tunnel under a fjord before? No?? Well then, come to Norway.
- The Viking Farm (Bukkøy) and Norwegian History Centre can be explored on a combined ticket that cost us 150NOK (about €16) for adults and 50NOK (+/-€5) for children. Admission to Olav’s church is free of charge.
- Note that opening hours are rather limited, particularly for the Viking Farm. Check beforehand on their website.
- Most exhibits have written descriptions in Norwegian only, but guided tours and audio guides (History Centre) are available in English and included in the entrance fee.
- The History Centre has a café serving a limited but tasty selection of snacks with free refills on tea and coffee.
- Skudeneshavn is at the southern tip of the island, about 35 minutes south of Asvaldnes.
- Parking is abundant and free.
- Stop in at the local tourist office for a map of the village showing the “heritage trail” around the old town.
- A guided tour of the museum cost us 70NOK (€7.50) each (kids went free) and lasted around 30 minutes. Just don’t touch that wallpaper!
- The most famous (relatively speaking…) beaches on Karmøy are the “Åkrasanden” near the town of Åkrehamn. The one we visited was a few kilometres further south. All of them are simply gorgeous. Ample free car-parking, and the Åkrasanden has toilet facilities too.
Daisy the bus visited Karmøy in August 2017
(c) 2017 Jonathan Orr