The fretted shoreline that stretches the 200km southwest from Tønsberg to Lillesand is home to a series of small resorts that are particularly popular with weekenders from Oslo. The most interesting is Grimstad, with its Ibsen connections, the liveliest is Arendal, and the prettiest are Lillesand and Risør. All four have decent places to stay, but only a fifth resort, pint-sized Kragerø, has an HI hostel. Many of the resorts, including Lillesand, Kragerø and Arendal, offer boat trips out to the myriad islets that dot this coast, with trippers bent on a spot of swimming and beach – or at least rock – combing. The islands were once owned by local farmers, but many are now in public ownership and zealously protected from any development. Most of the resorts also offer longer cruises along the coast during the summer, the prettiest being the delightful three-hour trip from Lillesand to Kristiansand.
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SANDEFJORD, some 120km south of Oslo, is best known as an international ferry port and as the site of Oslo (Torp) airport. It’s an amiable, low-key kind of place, whose wide and open waterfront culminates in a spectacular water fountain – the Hvalfangstmonumentet (Whalers’ Monument) – in which, amid the billowing spray, a slender rowing boat and its crew ride the tail fluke of a whale. This is perhaps as good as it gets, but the town does rustle up a quartet of other/lesser attractions.
RISØR, spreading round the head of a gentle promontory about 45km from Kragerø, is a good-looking town, its genial array of old and white timber houses winkling back from its wide and deep harbour. The town rustles up a string of summer festivals, from bluegrass in July to chamber music in June, and is something of a centre for arts and crafts, but it’s the general flavour of the place that appeals rather than anything specific.
Risør started out as a small fishing village, but the Dutch fleet began dropping by for timber in the 1570s and the port boomed until, by the 1880s, one hundred sailing vessels – and one thousand seamen – called the place home. A fire destroyed the bulk of the town in 1861 but it was quickly rebuilt, and most of the wooden houses that survive date from this period. Risør’s marine economy collapsed in the 1920s and today it looks like a rather conservative small town, but – surprise, surprise – in 2007 its citizens elected Knut Henning Thygesen, a member of the Red Party, a fusion of the Workers’ Communist Party (AKP) and the Red Electoral Alliance (RV), as their mayor.
South from Risør, it’s about 45km to the bustling town of ARENDAL, one of the most appealing places on the coast, its sheltered harbour curling right into the centre, which is further crimped and cramped by the forested hills that push in from behind. The town’s heyday was in the eighteenth century when its shipyards churned out dozens of the sleek wooden sailing ships that then dominated international trade. The shipyards faded away in the late nineteenth century, but there’s an attractive reminder of the boom times in the striking medley of old timber buildings that make up the oldest part of town, Tyholmen, which rolls over the steep and bumpy promontory just to the southwest of the modern centre. To explore Tyholmen’s every nook and cranny, sign up for one of the tourist office’s guided walking tours.