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.
Top image © Alvov/Shutterstock
With 82,000 inhabitants, KRISTIANSAND, some 30km west along the E18 from Lillesand, is Norway’s fifth-largest town and a part-time holiday resort – altogether a genial, energetic place which thrives on its ferry connections with Denmark, busy marinas, passable sandy beaches and, last but not least, its offshore oil industry. In summer, the seafront and adjoining streets are a frenetic bustle of bars, fast-food joints and flirting holidaymakers, and even in winter Norwegians come here to live it up.
Like so many other Scandinavian towns, Kristiansand was founded by – and named after – Christian IV, who saw an opportunity to strengthen his coastal defences here. Building started in 1641, and the town has retained the spacious quadrant plan that characterized all of Christian’s projects. There are few specific sights as such, but the place is well worth a quick look around, especially when everyone else has gone to the beach and left the central pedestrianized streets relatively empty. The main historic attraction, however, is a few kilometres out of town at the Kristiansand Kanonmuseum, the forbidding remains of a large coastal gun battery built during the German occupation of World War II.
West of Kristiansand lies a sparsely inhabited region, where the rough uplands and long valleys of the interior bounce down to a shoreline pierced by a string of inlets and fjords. The highlight is undoubtedly Mandal, a fetching seaside resort with probably the best sandy beach in the whole of Norway, but thereafter it’s a struggle to find much inspiration. The best you’ll do is the old harbour town of Flekkefjord, though frankly there’s not much reason to pause anywhere between Mandal and Stavanger.
The E39 weaves its way west for 240km from Kristiansand to Stavanger, staying a few kilometres inland for the most part and offering only the odd sight of the coast. The train line follows pretty much the same route – though it does, unlike the E39, bypass Flekkefjord – until it reaches Egersund, where it returns to the coast for the final 80km, slicing across long flat plains with the sea on one side and distant hills away to the east.
Pint-sized MANDAL, just 40km from Kristiansand along the E39, is Norway’s southernmost town. This old timber port had its salad days in the eighteenth century, when pines and oaks from the surrounding countryside were much sought after by the Dutch to support their canal houses and build their trading fleet. The timber boom fizzled out decades ago, but Mandal has preserved its quaint old centre, a narrow strip of white clapboard buildings spread along the north bank of the Mandalselva River just before it rolls into the sea, and it also possesses an enjoyable museum.
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.
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.
Some 20km south from Arendal along the E18, GRIMSTAD is a brisk huddle of white timber houses with orange- and black-tiled roofs stacked up behind the harbour. Nowadays scores of yachts are moored in the harbour, but at the beginning of the nineteenth century the town had no fewer than forty shipyards and carried on a lucrative import–export trade with France – an economic boom that hooked in a young Henrik Ibsen.
Born in the hamlet of Skien, Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) left his home at the tender age of sixteen, moving to Grimstad, where he worked as an apprentice pharmacist for the next six years. The ill-judged financial dealings of Ibsen’s father had impoverished the family, and Henrik’s already jaundiced view of Norway’s provincial bourgeoisie was confirmed here in the port, whose worthies Ibsen mocked in poems like Resignation, and The Corpse’s Ball. It was here too that Ibsen picked up first-hand news of the Paris Revolution of 1848, an event that radicalized him and inspired his paean to the insurrectionists of Budapest, To Hungary, written in 1849. Nonetheless, Ibsen’s stay on the south coast is more usually recalled as providing the setting for some of his better-known plays, especially his Pillars of Society.
Bright and cheery LILLESAND, just 20km south of Grimstad, is one of the most popular holiday spots on the coast, the white clapboard houses of its tiny centre draped prettily round the harbourfront. One or two of the buildings, notably the sturdy Rådhus of 1734, are especially fetching, but it’s the general appearance of the place that appeals, best appreciated from the terrace of one of the town’s waterfront café-bars.
Lillesand’s nautical highlight is the three-hour cruise aboard M/B Øya, a dinky little passenger ferry which wiggles its way south to Kristiansand in part along a narrow channel separating the mainland from the offshore islets. Sheltered from the full force of the ocean, this channel – the Blindleia – was once a major trade route, but today it’s trafficked by every sort of pleasure craft imaginable, from replica three-mast sailing ships and vintage tugboats to the sleekest of yachts. Other, faster, boats make the trip too, but the M/B Øya is the most charming.
If the sailing schedule of the M/B Øya does not suit, contact Lillesand tourist office for details of a wide variety of local boat trips, from fishing trips and cruises along the coast to the summertime badeboot (bathing boat), which shuttles across to Hestholm bay on the island of Skauerøya, where swimmers don’t seem to notice just how cold the Skagerrak actually is.
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.
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.
The rocks and reefs of the south coast prompted the Norwegians to construct a string of lighthouses and now, with the lighthouse keepers long gone, a number of them offer simple, hostel-like accommodation during the summertime. Lighthouse lodging is inexpensive (averaging around 200kr per person per night), though you’re almost always responsible for your own food, water and bed linen – and getting there and back can cost anything up to 2000kr. Furthermore, arranging it all can be difficult unless you speak Norwegian, though the local tourist office will help fix things up. Of the lighthouses offshore from Mandal offering summer accommodation, Ryvingen Fyr is the most enticing, though best of all perhaps is Feistein Fyr, near Stavanger.