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by Rich Rubin

A mountain range coated in snow. A silvery fjord. A waterfall frozen in mid-gush as it plunges down a steep hillside. Just say the word “Norway,” and a host of romantic images are summoned up. While these images are likely to be wintry, there’s actually an abundance of romance year-round, from springtime vistas over wildflower-clad hills to the remarkable phenomenon known as the Midnight Sun. With same-sex marriage legal now (see sidebar), it’s a perfect destination to seal your love in a spot that’s guaranteed to fan the flames of ardent commitment.

You’ll probably fly into Oslo to start your romantic adventure. If you’re tempted to head straight out of town, don’t do it. There’s a new Oslo emerging, an Oslo of design hotels, hip restaurants, and thriving nightlife. The city is probably your best bet in Norway for finding a list of establishments where you can easily arrange your wedding (see sidebar). After you’re officially hitched, spend a few days exploring the wonders of the capital before moving on.

Celebrate your love like true culture mavens at the new Opera House, which opened in April 2008 and has drawn raves for its architectural style and acoustic perfection. There are also museums on subjects from design to Viking ships to the art of Edvard Munch. My all-time favorite Oslo sight, though, remains Frogner Park, where the sculpture garden of works by Gustav Vigeland is one of the most thrilling and romantic spots in the world, filled with stone and bronze figures that are more human than half the people I know. You’ll soon be creating stories about every statue you see: the two men, one old, one young, who sit on a bench staring at each other; the pair of women, one with her arm draped around her companion; the two guys sitting back to back in almost admirable self-involvement. As you ride the tram back to the city center, you’ll be tempted to look at everyone as if they’re a sculpted figure—which is only appropriate in a country where the beauty is so moving, so overwhelming, that you can’t quite believe it was put there by nature.

Traveling from Oslo to Bergen, here’s my suggestion: do NOT fly. The train takes many more hours, but if ever there was a “journey is more important than the destination” trip, this is it. I think the Bergen Line is one of the world’s great train rides. You won’t be able to help feeling romantic as the train glides past long inlets dotted with tiny red and yellow houses, water running black between snowy banks in winter and burbling up among deep green fields in summer. Snuggle together as the train rolls past high rutted cliffs, streams with floes of ice as thin as glass in odd, irregular patterns, and evergreens rising tall as the sun shines brightly in that clear Norwegian sky.

Combining old-world quaintness and university town sophistication, Bergen’s a charmer. There’s a certain romance to the lost-in-time feeling of Bergen’s ancient buildings, which can transport you back to the time of the Hannseatic League, a European union of merchants that was among the world’s most powerful. Twisting cobblestoned streets are lined with a rainbow array of houses. Walk along the Bryggen, or harbor, as anglers hawk their wares in the waterside market and a maze of centuries-old former warehouses now holds shops and restaurants. Fløyen, a hill above town that’s reached by funicular, boasts acres of wooded paths for a perfect outing in solitary togetherness, with stunning views over this seaside city. Wander to your heart’s content, then get back on the funicular heading toward town. Dismount a few stops before town and walk the rest of the way, wandering among kaleidoscopic wooden houses leaning precariously over winding hillside streets: pure Bergen charm.

Back in town, don’t miss the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art, one of five museums (including the fabulous Bergen Art Museum) lined up along an in-town lake on Ramsus Meyers allé. I confess, I’m a sucker for decorative arts museums in general, but this one is totally fabulous, with everything from elegant jewelry and historical glassware to wild furniture.

That’s the beauty of Bergen: a seamless combination of old and new, sleekly functional and breathtakingly romantic, young at heart but a city for the ages, Norwegian through and through and yet with an international outlook that comes from having long welcomed shipping-related visitors from all over the world. Small town and metropolis both, it’s as gay-friendly as a city could possibly be. Here, the gay community seems at ease with itself and with the city as a whole. In the city’s one gay bar, Fincken, a pair of honeymooning visitors will feel right at home with the eclectic mix of friendly people. Here, gay men and lesbians of all ages and types mingle with an ease I rarely see at home, and being young and pretty are not as important as being, well…a nice person.

Of course, this is Norway, so there’s certainly a preponderance of pretty people. This is the land of both geographic and human beauty. Like the casual appreciation of Bergen’s glorious setting and nearby splendors, people here seem to take the human beauty in stride as well. At home, people so good-looking would be full of themselves. Here, there’s a low-key quality that makes them all that much more gorgeous. The combination of confidence and modesty is quintessential Bergen.

Bergen is not just an evocative and romantic city, it’s the gateway to the fjords, and if you’re looking for a sure bet for romance, the fjords are it. There are many options just a short way from town. Whether you take a tourist-oriented boat or simply do a trip on a commuter fjord boat with locals riding to work, it’s an incredible ride. On one journey, we plow down the Aurlandsfjord, mountains looming majestically on either side of the boat. More mountains rise up in the distance, seeming to pierce the sky. From time to time a brightly-hued little village appears by the water, patches of green in front of the houses reflect in the water before overhanging mountains. I wonder how it’s possible to live among such beauty on a daily basis.

As we weave through a narrow passageway of water, I look back and see the scene we’ve just left, the mountains appearing upside down in their watery reflection. While nature has created this amazement, I can’t help but think: “It’s like a painting,” the mountains and reflection are so perfectly-wrought. Just as I’m admiring the form, though, the mirror image is staggered into pieces by the wake of the boat, creating loopy mountain reflections and majestically-rising real mountains. I do stop to wonder, between snapping pictures, if this is all real. It’s not just that it’s so beautiful, but that it changes so frequently, so that a still-life of water, mountains, reflections, snow, and sky becomes so much more than that. It actually seems to take on a life, as if you’re watching a video of this achingly gorgeous landscape, the editor cutting smoothly from image to image so that they appear almost superimposed on top of each other, they come at you so quickly and from every side. I actually find myself gasping aloud as a new pair of mountains rises on either side of us, surrounding us with nature at its most awesome.

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As much as it changes moment to moment, it changes even more season to season. In winter, the mountains are a vision in white, whereas in summer they’re swathed in green. In summer you’ll spend most of your time on the ship’s deck. In winter you’ll cuddle together inside as the wind grows biting and the chill starts to penetrate. Either way, it’s Norway at its romantic best, and you can’t help but fall under the spell of its glory.

Don’t limit yourself to a fjord ride, as even more amazements await. One great way to be astounded by Norway’s romantic scenery is in the Norway in a Nutshell trip, a day-long voyage out of Bergen that puts you on just about every kind of transportation known to man (except planes) and shows you some of the most scenic wonders in the world. In addition to a long ride on the fjords, you get a bus trip through rolling hills and unblemished countryside, a ride on the marvelously steeply-plunging Flam Railway, and a jaunt along the Bergen line. You can do it in either direction, saving the Flam Railway for the end of the trip, or plunge right into it and do the nice and easy Bergen Line ride at the end. Either way, it’s a journey that is the essence of romance, the essence of Norway. Well, that’s a little redundant, as I’ve come to believe that the two are really one and the same.

For me, the country’s north contains the most romantically unspoiled scenery that Norway has to offer: miles and miles of untrammeled landscape and tiny villages seemingly untouched by time. A weather-beaten splendor rules this otherworldly land above the Arctic Circle, where summer days last twenty-four hours and nighttime grips the winter, the sun emerging for a matter of mere minutes. It’s life on the edge, literally as well as metaphorically, and it takes a special type of resident to endure the extremes—and a special type of visitor to appreciate the magic.

For those who do, however (I count myself among them), there’s nothing more gorgeous. I love the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago up above the Arctic circle, where I drive across islets connected by bridges, past craggy mountains rising straight from deep blue seas, brightly-colored houses arrayed along harbors backed by snowcapped hills, and A-framed structures laden with hanging fish (the locally-produced stockfish is a major industry). Hiking’s a favored pastime here, as are birdwatching and boating. As I drive from village to village, I stop in a series of galleries, including that of the Lofoten’s master painter, Dagfinn Bakkes, whose evocative lithographs and dramatic watercolors are the quintessence of this isolated paradise, from a stormy cliffside to a placid, deep blue sea. I don’t need a destination though, I simply hop in the car and drive through such villages as Reine (voted Norway’s prettiest village in a local publication), or the pretty, one-lettered town of A.

Here we’re miles away from the trendy restaurants of Oslo or the university-driven sophistication of Bergen. Here nature is the ruler, and there’s nothing more awesome than a trip up north in midsummer, when Norway’s famous midnight sun is on view. I remember every detail of our midnight sun trip as if it occurred yesterday. It’s the kind of experience you just don’t forget. I remember the drive past low hills carpeted in fuzzy coats of red and green, long silvery fjords, and craggy mountains streaked with sprays of heathery brown. We turn and drive along the coast, yellow and red houses sitting jauntily waterside, copses of birch trees scattered along the rocky coast, the sun low but bright in the blue, blue sky (at 11 P.M.!).

At the village of Brenna, we head out onto fields sitting above a rock shelf, looking out to open sea. We have the hillside to ourselves, surrounded by this flat rock carpeted with green, the tiny white flowers of the cloudberry plant dotting the verdant lawn.

The sun makes its way toward the horizon, still shining bright. Overhead, gulls give a couple of loud squawks before retreating into silence. The still-bright orb continues its journey seaward. Eleven thirty, fellow scenery-gulpers have arrived, and as the midnight sun, now flushed with a tinge of orangey-gold, continues its slow movement toward the horizon line, I hear a strong voice singing softly. “En himmel flammer i nordlysets brann,” it intones, “a heavenly flame, the northern lights…” The sun approaches sea level. We gaze out in silence. Something incredible happens: the sinking sun suddenly changes its mind, pausing just before it sinks into the sea, and begins, implausibly, to head upwards again. If I were the overly romantic type, I’d compare it to a relationship that will never end, that even as it occasionally sinks it begins to rise again.

Still, summer holds only a fraction of the glories of this far-north wonderland. If you have a winter honeymoon planned, not to worry: the allurements of Norway’s Ice Hotels beckon. These establishments are unlike any place you’ve stayed before: hotels built of ice and snow and rebuilt every year after melting away in spring (the north offers two, Alta Igloo Hotel and Kirkenes SnowHotel). Have a drink in the ice bars, or pay your respects at the austere ice chapel. Then settle in for the night in your private “igloo,” reindeer skins and body heat providing the warmth (the heavy-duty thermal blankets don’t hurt either). Talk about Norway in a nutshell.

Perhaps the most romantic possibility in all of Norway is a journey: the coastal voyage offered by Hurtigruten. You can fly from the southern cities to the north, but why not partake of this one-of-a-kind expedition? Carrying you from the pleasures of Bergen or Oslo to the splendors of the north, it’s a very special cruise, heading up the coastline of this long, narrow country, carrying you from village to village. It starts with the ships themselves, some offering Art Deco décor, Jacuzzis, or suites with bay windows, perfect for snuggling up in your room while the astounding scenery passes by in everchanging splendor—and what scenery it is! Narrow fjords flanked by mountains. Tiny islands set in a shimmering sea. Glaciers rising straight from the ocean. Jagged peaks covered in rows of deep green pines. Farmland set like emerald jewels in a windswept and unbelievably isolated plain. You’ll venture from the Art Nouveau town of Alesund to the venerable Trondheim, Norway’s first capital and a visual feast of ancient wooden buildings, Gothic cathedral, and placid harbor. From these charms it’s on to the Lofotens through fjords teeming with swooping birds to the far-north outpost of Kirkenes, near the Russian border.

Whatever awakens your sense of romance, Hurtigruten has something for you. Wildlife lovers can join a polar bear or whale-watching cruise. Epicures love the Gastronomy in a Musical Framework voyage, with gourmet dining, wine and aquavit tastings, and even a midnight concert in Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral. Want to explore another culture? The Sami Encounter reveals the unique world of this northern people, combining the coastal splendors with visits to a reindeer farm and an overnight in a Sami village.

Remember what I said about the midnight sun? Imagine experiencing the amazement from the sea, with nothing between the two of you and the now-sinking, now-rising orb but the glittering waters tinged with crimson, magenta, and flamingo-hued swirls. You don’t have to cruise in summer to witness miraculous spectral scenes, either: an autumn/winter voyage brings you face to face with that most incredible of phenomena: the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. If you’re lucky enough to catch it, you won’t forget it. As you’re watching the deep blue sky, suddenly a shimmer of green appears, tinged with gold. Stripes of cream and pink appear, then vanish. Swirls of color tease you with their evanescence and then are gone. Pastel “comets” dance through the sky in a bold and beautiful array of light that’s as astounding as it is ephemeral.

When it’s over you’ll wonder: did I really see this, or was it the fevered working of my romantic imagination? It’s a question you might well ask yourself about Norway in general, where the most fantastic of sights is the rule rather than the exception. I think, in the end, what gives Norway its ultra-romantic quality is the sense of sheer, overwhelming spectacle, whether it’s a summer cruise through a leafy fjord or a winter voyage to the Northern Lights. Seemingly perched on the edge of the world, there’s a sense of going places no human has ever gone before, even though the more realistic side of you knows you’re hardly the first to have visited. Put aside that realistic self. It has no place in Norway. Let your imagination flourish. Let yourself become a contemplative and utterly unworldly dreamer.

That’s the effect Norway has on the soul (and no, I don’t use the word “soul” lightly). If there’s a romantic in you, Norway will awaken it. If there isn’t, Norway will create one. There’s no underestimating its power, and no resisting its force. Lose yourself in the romance, since you’re going to fall under its spell eventually.

In June 2008, Norway became the sixth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, converting its former civil partnership laws into official marriage. Check out this statement by Minister of Children and Equality Anniken Huitfeldt: “This Act recognizes that homosexual and heterosexual partnerships are of equal value and that they are based on the same values.” Could we have said it more succinctly? The act goes even further than many countries, putting gay couples on an equal par with straight ones for adoption, and granting lesbian couples equal rights to assisted fertilization.

If you want to get married in Norway, it’s a fairly simple procedure, and there are no residency requirements. You just have to have held a passport for three months, and sign a form at the embassy stating that there is “no impediment” to your marriage (i.e., that you’re single). Churches are allowed, but not required to marry you.

Where should you tie the knot? Oslo is probably best equipped to handle your gay wedding, and Tommy Andreasen of the Continental Hotel notes that “Most restaurants, hotels, and venues in Oslo are now welcoming gay weddings and celebrations.” The Continental is, of course, a prime wedding locale. Other hotels that would serve nicely for the purpose include Oslo’s new design hotel, Grims Grenka, and the stunning reception rooms at the Grand. With its gorgeous views, cute staff, and fab food, Ekesbergrestauranten is a great choice for a restaurant-based feast, as is the ever-chic Bølgen & Moi (you might try their Bergen counterpart as well). While Hurtigruten’s staff is not authorized to conduct weddings of any type, a minister can be brought on board to conduct a ceremony for an unforgettable seafaring nuptial.

Whether or not you plan to actually marry in Norway, just the fact that they’ve taken this progressive step speaks wonders about the ease you’ll find and the welcome you’ll receive. Best of all is the nonchalant acceptance that a step forward for GLBT people is a step forward for the country as a whole. In Minister Huitfledt’s words: “This is vital for a decent society.” Need we say more?

[Published: May, 2009]

Dial 011-47 before all numbers unless noted.

For all destinations, your best source of information is the Norwegian Tourist Board. www.visitnorway.com/us

Continental, Oslo, Stortingsgaten 24-26. Tel: 228-240-00. Doubles $160–$479. For over a century, the Continental (the only Norwegian member of Leading Hotels of the World) has been a luxury leader. Rooms (some with unbelievable views) range from classic to contemporary, service is impeccable, and the banquet rooms provide a lovely series of choices for your gay wedding. www.hotel-continental.com

Gabelshus, Gablesgate 16. Tel: 232-765-00. Doubles $168–$269. In a house dating to 1912, Gableshus is set in a quiet area of embassies and private homes for a gracious feel that’s increased by the pretty rooms and low-key, lovely staff. www.choicehotels.no

Grand Hotel, Karl Johans Gate 31. Tel: 232-120-00. Doubles $192–$466. Since 1874, has welcomed visiting royalty, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and other celebrities. Lavish rooms, a well-equipped spa, and gorgeously appointed public rooms create a feeling of grandeur. Female guests love the “Ladies Floor,” dedicated to their needs and featuring artwork by female artists. www.grandhotel.no

Grims Grenka, Kongens Gate 5. Tel: 231-072-00. Doubles $220–$439. Oslo’s first boutique hotel, a member of Design Hotels, has a stunning, high-design look, with rooms artfully combining sleek contemporary design and folk art touches; you’ll appreciate comforts from Wi-fi and iPod stations to organic juices in the mini-bar. www.grimsgrenka.no

Argent, Oslo, Kirsten Flagstads Plass 1. Tel: 214-221-00. This hip restaurant in the new Opera House serves a contemporary menu, from pan-fried cod with mussel/truffle foam to a sweet/hot mango-chile terrine. www.operaen.no

Bølgen & Moi, Løvenskiolds gate 26. Tel: 241-153-53. This was a hip designer restaurant before there were hip designer restaurants in Oslo. Its creative cuisine and fabulous-looking interior are still perennial winners. www.bolgenogmoi.no

Ekebergrestauranten, Kongsveien 15. Tel: 232-423-00. Several levels of dining from fine to more casual. The menu combines classic and contemporary in dishes from orange-smoked duck breast with quince cream or tea-smoked salmon to Arctic char with parmesan/salsify. You might just stumble onto a gay wedding celebration here. www.ekebergrestauranten.no

Havsmak, Henrik Ibsens gate 4. Tel: 241-388-00. Specializing in seafood, Havsmak’s chef prepares a five-course daily menu, from which you can select as few as two, or all five, from char with preserved apples and parsnips to oven-baked mullet. www.havsmak.no

DOGA (Norwegian Center for Architecture and Design), Hausmannsgate 16. Tel: 232-928-70. Established in 2004, the center hosts a variety of exhibits on subjects from interior design to town planning. www.doga.no

Munch Museum, Tøyengata 53. Tel: 234-935-00. A spectacular collection (and changing temporary exhibits) of Norway’s leading artist. www.munch.museum.no

Royal Opera House, Kirsten Flagstads Plass 1. Tel: 214-221-00. This shining new light on Oslo’s cultural scene is worth a visit for the restaurant and to admire the stunning architecture, but do try to take in an opera in the acoustically prime performance hall. www.operaen.no

Vigeland Sculpture Park, Frogner Park, Kirkeveien. This is my one must-see in Oslo, a lovely park filled with the inspiring sculptures of Gustav Vigeland. www.vigeland.museum.no/en

Viking Ship Museum, Huk Aveny 35. Tel: 221-352-80. Okay, Viking ships aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you’re in Norway, right? Some of these vessels are really pretty amazing. www.khm.uio.no

London Pub, CJ Hambros plass 5. Tel: 227-087-00. The leading gay bar in a city where most places tend to be mixed. London Pub offers such “theme nights” as Queer Tango. With a pub downstairs and dance club up, it’s been a fixture on the scene since the 1970s. www.londonpub.no

For general tourist information, consult www.visitoslo.com, which has a section devoted to GLBT information.

Det Hanseatiske Hotell, Finnegården 2A, Bergen. Tel: 553-048-00. Doubles $210–$291. This sixteen-room Bergen charmer is as romantic as they get, with timbered walls and ceilings, leather furniture, and antiques scattered throughout. www.dethanseatiskehotell.no

Hotel Havnekontoret, Slottsgaten 1, Bergen. Tel: 556-011-00. Doubles $168–$425. A perfect location right on Bergen’s harbor makes this low-key, casual hotel a winner. Nothing super-fancy here, but with those views, who needs fancy? www.choicehotels.no

Kviknes Hotel, Kviknevegen 8, Balestrand. Tel: 954-954-95. Doubles $236–$571. Set right on the stunning Sonjeford, you couldn’t ask for a more romantic location, and the casual atmosphere of this inn that’s been open since 1752 (the Kvikne family has had it since 1877) is graced with antiques and artwork throughout, and great vistas from most rooms. www.kviknes.no

Bølgen & Moi, Rasmus Myers aleé 9. Tel: 555-977-00. The Bergen outpost of this famed restaurant offers the same high standard of design and cuisine, tucked among Bergen’s “Museum Row.” www.bolgenogmoi.no

Enhjørningen, Bryggen. Tel: 553-279-19. This restaurant’s name means “the Unicorn,” and it’s about as magical as one, with its wharfside setting in a centuries old building. Seafood’s the specialty here. www.enhjorningen.no

Zupperia, Nordhal Bruns gate 9. Tel: 553-366-33. Modern, airy, casual spot in the Museum of Decorative Art, with an international slant to the food and a nicely artsy setting.

Bergen Art Museum, Rasmus Meyers alee 3-9. Tel: 555-680-00. An outstanding collection ranging across three separate buildings and centuries of work from the ancient Greeks to a great survey of several centuries of Norwegian art. www.bergenartmuseum.no

Fjord Tours (including Norway in a Nutshell): www.fjordtours.com

Permanenten Vestlandske Kunstindustrimuseum (West Norway Museum of Decorative Art), Nordhal Bruns gate 9. Tel: 553-366-33. From jewelry to tapestries, furniture to glassware, there’s always something fabulous at this wonderful museum of applied arts. www.bergenartmuseum.no

Fincken, Nygårdsgaten 2a. One of the most welcoming and fun gay bars I’ve ever visited! Make it a point to get there for the friendliness and easy mix of people. www.fincken.no

For information on Bergen proper visit www.visitbergen.com. For more general information on the fjords see www.fjordnorway.com

Anker Brygge, Lamholmen, Svolvær, Lofoten. Tel: 760-664-80. wo-bedroom suites $383. On its own island in Svolvær Harbor, these two-bedroom suites in former fishermen’s cabins offers Lofotens charm galore, and of course, perfect water views. www.anker-brygge.no

Reine Rorbuer, Reine i Lofoten. Tel: 760-922-22. Doubles $135–$227 “Rorbuer” means “cabins,” and these little bungalows in a fjordside Lofotens fishing village have been restored to modernity without losing their original atmosphere. www.reinerorbuer.no

Alta Igloo Hotel, Alta. Tel: 784-333-78. Doubles $623 (includes breakfast, dinner, local transfers). Your own private igloo awaits in this hotel built of ice and snow, with reindeer skins, thermal blankets, and your own body heat to warm you up. www.sorrisniva.no

Kirkenes SnowHotel, Kirkenes. Tel: 780-705-40. Doubles $596 (includes breakfast, dinner, local transfers). Check into your “snow suite” (these actually have real beds among the ice/snow), where they promise you’ll sleep like a “Snow King or Snow Queen” (you decide which). www.kirkenessnowhotel.com

Du Verden, JE Paulsens gate 12, Svolvær, Lofoten. Tel: 760-770-99. A surprisingly up-to-date restaurant at the heart of the Lofotens, with a menu from fish soup to pizza and a nice little coffee bar. www.duverden.net

Ekspedisjonen Restaurant, Nyksund. Tel: 481-180-68. A harborside restaurant specializing in seafood and other delights from the far north. www.arktiskmeny.no

Best resource for the Lofoten islands is www.lofoten.info. For other northern destinations, try www.visitnorthcape.com

Hurtigruten: To find out about the variety of coastal voyages, consult www.hurtigruten.us