If you are traveling in Norway independently of any tour operators and cannot set aside a couple of days of self-driving to and staying around the most scenic fjords, Norway in a Nutshell itinerary may be your only option to include fjord-seeing in your overall plans. It gives you a few highlights of Norwegian landscapes and history, but it is no more than a fleeting impression, significantly diluted by waiting for and then traveling on crowded modes of transportation. Overall, this is NOT the way to see Norway. Once again, it could be your only option.
There are variations of the same itinerary in terms of point of origin and direction of travel, as well as similar pricier options sold by different companies (they may throw in something marginally more exciting for the extra cost). The heart of the itinerary is in the loop of Myrdal – Flåm – Gudvangen – Voss.
You basically get sequence of tickets for all legs of the trip and can listen to occasional commentary via public address systems, but are on your own otherwise.
You get to/from Myrdal/Voss from where you are staying (Bergen in our case, but it could be Oslo or any other point in the country) via regional trains on Bergen Railway. Over couple of hours from Bergen to Myrdal (and over an hour and a half from Voss to Bergen) you can enjoy pretty passing scenery from the train windows.
The leg between Myrdal and Flåm is significantly more exciting. It takes place on the historic Flåm Railway ♥♥, which is one of the steepest rail tracks in the world, descending at 5.5% gradient for majority of the distance. The ride is certainly picturesque and includes a photographic stop at a waterfall near the top (a bit underwhelming, IMHO). But again, you see all of the scenery from the windows of moving train. There are tunnels and various obstructions for parts of the way, but even when the view is clear and even at a fairly slow speed, you get possibly 30 minutes of the scenery, tops. Better views are on the left-hand side (if traveling down from Myrdal).
Upon arrival in Flåm, a free, small, but full of information Railway Museum ♥ is an excellent choice for any visitor. If you want to learn how people lived in these parts before the advent of the railroad, how that road was built, and what changes it brought along, this is a fascinating narrative with tons of artifacts.
Among the limited customization of the itinerary is selecting how long you would stick around in Flåm. The default option is about an hour and twenty minutes, which should be sufficient for seeing the museum and possibly getting a quick bite to eat at one of the fish stands or cafes. There is not much more to do on Flåm waterfront – it is perfectly a tourist trap. Some other available diversions (kayaking, hiking, other excursions) require significant time outlay and can only be undertaken with any practicality if you are staying in the area overnight.
We opted for staying in Flåm for over 3 hours on the slightly misguided expectation that it would offer more entertainment in itself. In truth, that should have allowed us to have a leisurely lunch at one of the better restaurants, but we made do with the aforementioned fish stalls (not bad, but certainly tourist quality, NOK 500 for two). Instead, we simply lingered in Fretheim Cultural park ♥ on the mountainside above the waterfront, traversing a number of walking paths, which are littered with minimalist art, and lingering on strategically placed benches while admiring the Aurlandsfjord view.
The next leg of the trip, from Flåm to Gudvangen, is a ferry ride along two fjords ♥. This is the most important part of the itinerary and it was in many senses the most disappointing for us. I am giving it a heart because the scenery made up for it a bit, but I reiterate that I would only recommend it for those who have no other options.
The boat ride takes 2 hours, on a regularly-scheduled passenger ferry which is built in a way that limits unobstructed vantage points to observe the scenery. There are a few hundred tourists on the ride along with you, all fighting for the same limited space to take pictures. I commandeered myself a choice spot on the upper deck and would not budge from it for the entire duration of the trip. I got plenty of queer looks and plenty of semi-accidental bumps from people who tried to slither into that same space. The experience for me was significantly diminished by having to endure all of that activity. Tranquil journey it was not (and I allow that for some poor soul who never got to take a good picture I may have been the chief source of irritation).
Some groups of visitors talked loudly enough amongst themselves that the public address announcements could not be heard above their voices. Not that there was any coherent narration. It sounded as if the information was broadcast in at least a dozen languages, but little of what I managed to catch carried significant interest.
You get to to see Aurlandsfjord ♥ and then the UNESCO World Heritage-inscribed Nærøyfjord ♥♥♥. The landscapes are breathtaking.
After you disembark in Gudvangen, you make a beeline for the buses waiting for all tourists who are on the Nutshell itinerary. This is efficient in that the buses are waiting for you, but it could be irritating in that they apparently fail to accommodate everyone from the same boat. We sat on the bus for about 20 minutes while the drivers sorted out the shortage of seats. We did not get to see any of Gudvangen, but a cursory glance suggests that it is a mini-Flåm, sans railway.
The bus then drives through pleasant scenery for the next 50 minutes to get to Voss. Along the way, it makes a directionally-useless detour in order to descend down a historic narrow steep and winding road with 21 hairpins, which some people may consider another mild highlight of the itinerary.
In Voss, you may have some time before your train back to Bergen (or wherever you are staying). Inclement weather prevented us from exploring the town center, which we initially planned to do.
Overall, our journey lasted 13 hours, of which I count at least half as being spent waiting for public transportation or being transported alongside large quantities of tourists, while getting glimpses of scenery beyond the windows. And the equation would be even worse if we did not linger in Flåm those two extra hours.
We are glad that we got to see Flåm and the fjords, but we certainly intend to do it differently the next time around.
Your mileage may vary.