Arcing out into the Skagerrak between the Oslofjord and Stavanger, Norway’s south coast may have little of the imposing grandeur of other, wilder parts of the country, but its eastern half, running down to Kristiansand, is undeniably lovely. Speckled with islands and backed by forests, fells and lakes, it’s this part of the coast that attracts Norwegians in droves, equipped not so much with bucket and spade as with boat and navigational aids – for these waters, with their narrow inlets, islands and skerries, make for particularly enjoyable sailing.
Hundreds of Norwegians have summer cottages along this stretch of the coast and camping on the offshore islands is very popular too, especially as there are precious few restrictions: you can’t stay in one spot for more than 48 hours, nor light a fire either on bare rock or among vegetation, and you must steer clear of anyone’s home, but other than that you’re pretty much free to go and come as you please. Leaflets detailing further coastal rules and regulations are available at any local tourist office.
The first part of the south coast, down to Kristiansand, is within easy striking distance of Denmark and as such has always been important for Norway’s international trade. Many of the region’s larger towns, Larvik and Porsgrunn for instance, started out as timber ports, but are now humdrum, industrial centres in their own right. In contrast, several of their smaller neighbours – Risør, Lillesand and Grimstad are the prime examples – have dodged (nearly) all the industry to become pretty, pocket-sized resorts, their white-painted clapboard houses providing an appropriately nautical, almost jaunty, air. Larger Arendal does something to bridge the gap between the resorts and the industrial towns and does so very nicely. There’s also amenable Sandefjord, which may well be the first stop on your itinerary as it has its own international airport – Oslo Torp.
Anchoring the south coast is Norway’s fifth largest city, Kristiansand, a bustling port and lively resort with enough sights, restaurants, bars and beaches to while away a night, maybe two. Beyond Kristiansand lies Mandal, an especially fetching holiday spot with a great beach, but thereafter the coast becomes harsher and less absorbing, and there’s precious little to detain you before Stavanger, a burgeoning oil town and port with a clutch of historical sights and a full set of first-rate restaurants. Bergen may lay claim to being the “Gateway to the Fjords”, but actually Stavanger is closer with the splendid Lysefjord and its famous Preikestolen rock leading the scenic charge.
Right along the south coast, accommodation of one sort or another is legion, with all the larger towns having at least a couple of hotels, but if you’re after a bit of social bounce bear in mind the season is short, running from the middle of June to August; outside this period many attractions are closed and local boat trips curtailed.