I thought Norway was a bold holiday destination, particularly in autumn. Wouldn't it just be freezing, and pitch-dark, day and night? Would there be anything but reindeer biltong and cloudberries to eat? It might be beautiful, but would it be fun? I learnt how wrong I was when I stepped off a boat on the shores of the Norangsfjord on the west coast. As cliffs tower above and waterfalls crash down, it's all impossibly dramatic.
You arrive at a little jetty and there by the water is Hotel Union Øye, a 19th-century chalet that would look quite at home in a posh Swiss ski resort. Kaiser Wilhelm came here to enjoy the heady combination of wild nature, belle époque interiors and intense cosiness. So did a roll call of every famous Scandinavian from the writer Karen Blixen to the composer Edvard Grieg. And fair enough that the rugged Victorian Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made it his base for climbing holidays, but so did luxury-loving Coco Chanel, who no doubt enjoyed the four-poster beds, freestanding claw-footed baths and pale-grey satin-walled salon. Clearly there's more to all this than I was expecting.
I've never liked the tourism arbitrage that means if you go somewhere poor from a relatively wealthy country, suddenly you have access to extreme luxury. The exchange-rate maths that means an eight-course feast in an ancient desert fortress costs the same as a Pret sandwich at the airport makes me uncomfortable. How much nicer to go somewhere where no one you meet hopes a large tip might make their miserable day more bearable – because their life is already pretty splendid. Norway is that place.
Like other Scandinavian countries, it's very egalitarian and decidedly unflashy. There's a special Norwegian word, janteloven, which is a big thing here and means that everyone's equal and no one should ever really try to stand out. That also applies to their royal family, who use local buses, traditionally send their children to state schools, and cost the country a mere $7 million a year all in. (Compare that with Monaco where Their Serene Highnesses rack up an annual bill of around $1 billion.)
That's not to say that the Norwegians aren't exceptional in any number of ways. For starters, they are dramatically lofty. I'm a tall woman, but almost everyone we met here – men, women and children – dwarfed my 5ft 10in. They also seem to be disproportionately good-looking, along the lines of Claire Danes and Brad Pitt. And they're rugged. This is a macho landscape and it breeds outdoorsy folk who spend their childhoods hiking, skiing and kayaking. Inevitably they seem to be almost hewn from living rock.
Like the Gulf States, Norway's recent wealth flows from its reserves of fossil fuels, and, thanks to rocketing prices because of the war in Ukraine, it's cashing in. It's consistently among the top-five wealthiest countries on the planet by gross national income. But unlike the Gulf States, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund spreads the money around the whole population. It's a sort of trillionaire's socialist paradise.
Perhaps because the Norwegians are so used to being rich, they've worked out exactly what makes life both stylish and fun. George Orwell said, 'A smart hotel is a place where 100 people toil like devils in order that 200 may pay through the nose for things they do not really want.' That might or might not be true in Paris, but it certainly isn't the case here. Instead, they've got a magic formula for tourists, cheerfully giving them exactly what they do really want. This turns out to be spectacularly good, fresh, local food; stylish, big pared-back rooms with lots of open fires; and energetic outdoorsy fun in breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. That old cliché beloved of Nordic noir, of heavy metal, gloom, wintry darkness and suicidally heavy drinking, just doesn't apply. All the more so now that cold-weather destinations suddenly seem so desirable. If the Côte d'Azur in August sweats in 40C heat, wouldn't you rather a bracing walk along a heroically dramatic northern seafront, where summer temperatures rarely get above 25C? While the rest of the planet boils, Norway keeps its cool. No wonder Telegraph Travel readers voted it the most beautiful country in Europe this year.
Ålesund, where we were heading, is in the far west where the coastline fragments into any number of tiny islands and deep, icy fjords. The town itself is a bustling seaport and big in fishing but it's also, unexpectedly, an art-nouveau gem. This is because there was a fire here in 1904 and the whole place was rebuilt with 1910s flourishes, flowers and turrets. One of the big local families are the Flakks, headed up by the billionaire Knut Flakk, who, like so many Norwegians, is enormously tall, handsome and relaxed, and speaks superb English. His roots are in Ålesund and the family's mission is to plough the profits from its helicopter, construction and clothing businesses back into the town. And Flakk really must like it, because when we stayed, he was having Sunday afternoon tea with his family (from very British tiered cake stands with finger sandwiches and buns) in the restaurant of his own hotel, Brosundet.
The aesthetic here is all natural wood, a huge central open fire in the lobby, caramel-coloured woollen throws and leather sofas in shades of toffee and fudge.
Whatever the weather is doing outside – and Brosundet is so near the water that adventurous guests have been known to jump out of their bedroom windows into the marine canal that laps against the hotel's walls – it's very cosy indoors. Actually, staying toasty even outdoors is easier than you'd imagine. As they say here, 'There's no bad weather, just bad clothes.' Bearing in mind that conditions can go from fierce winds to sleet to bright sunshine within minutes, the clothes really do have to be right. Luckily, Flakk owns the Devold wool label that has kitted out pioneering skiers and mountaineers with long johns for more than 100 years and whose woollies Roald Amundsen wore to the South Pole. These knits are built to last: my kids still wear a Devold sweater my father bought on a family holiday in Norway in the 1950s.
Its jumpers are now made in Lithuania, so Flakk has turned Devold's old 19th-century industrial buildings into a very tempting shopping centre where you can buy classy windproof coats and elegant wooden knick-knacks, and watch people learning to blow glass or shoe horses in the original forge. Very nice too, but what raises the experience from pleasant to mindblowing is the RIB ride you can take at 40mph from the hotel, round the tip of a headland and into the next bay to get to the outlet centre. Well, how else would you expect modern Vikings to get to the shops?
When even retail therapy involves extreme thrillseeking, you know that a day out in nature is going to be pretty special. There is something about the practicality and matter-of-factness of the Norwegians' take on their own magical country that makes you more adventurous too. We had two nights in the Owner's Cabin – the Flakk family's holiday retreat on an island called Giske, near Ålesund. It's a very plain little hideaway and mostly wooden, with painted floors and a large corner fireplace in the tiny sitting room. You can live the simple life here, going for energetic yomps – I even had a swim off the rocky beach... in the North Sea... in October. And then cook your own dinner.
Or, you can ask Stig, the chef from Brosundet's gourmet restaurant, Apotekergata No 5, to come and cook you a modern equivalent of Babette's feast in your own cabin. His dinner for us, eaten by candlelight, included cod with oscietra sauce and mashed potato that was at least 50 per cent butter. This is caviar socialism at its best. The food is excellent, but it's not dainty. Etiquette here is on the brusque side and table manners are limited to perfecting 'Norwegian arm', which basically means grabbing any tasty morsel you want to get your hands on, Beowulf-style. Waiting to be asked is far too soft and southern.
Oh well, when your days are spent hiking up mountains, kayaking in fjords gouged out by glaciers, racing along icy roads on electric bikes, and swooping around in high winds in helicopters, you feel you deserve all the exquisite food you can stuff in. So stuff you do.
The Flakk family's four-property hotel collection is called 62° Nord. All are within a few beautiful square kilometres of wild coastline around Ålesund. As well as Hotel Union Øye, the Owner's Cabin and Brosundet, there's Storfjord, which is bigger and grander, with outdoor hot tubs and a sauna. The hotel is high on a headland overlooking fjords and forests where you can go for woodland hikes that end up in teepee-like mountain refuges that belong to the hotel. Here, you light a gas-fired barbecue and warm up with hot chocolate and biscuits with the local, sweet and moreish caramel-whey cheese and strawberry jam before strolling back. Storfjord's roofs are covered in turf, and some have self-seeded pine trees growing out of them. There are fires in most rooms, and the hotel's dark-wood dining and sitting rooms are lit by candles. How we wished for a real blizzard to keep us snowed in when the time came to leave.
How to do it
Scott Dunn offers a six-night Norway itinerary from £4,140 per person based on a family of four (two adults and two children) sharing, half board, including return flights from the UK and private transfers. For more information, call 020-8682 5080 or visit scottdunn.com