Residents of Loen in the mountains around the Nordfjord could hardly have hoped for better promotion of their new tourist attraction this weekend. Under sunny skies and with snow-capped mountains at their scenic best, a new gondola built to lure more visitors to the area was formally opened on Saturday by none other than Queen Sonja.
The queen, who even put on one of her traditional bunads for the occasion, was also full of compliments for the area that she knows well after years of hiking in the mountains of Loen and Stryn. “This is one of the most fantastic areas we have in this country,” Queen Sonja said as cameras from state broadcaster NRK and other media rolled.
The superlatives didn’t stop there, as the queen went on to describe the landscape as “absolutely outstanding, with great variation.” She said the new gondola, called Loen Skylift, was “completely fantastic, an incredibly beautiful experience.” Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted last fall that it’s the first gondola to be built in Norway in 55 years.
The queen, who will turn 80 in July, admitted to having some fear of heights, “but I managed this just fine,” she said after the gondola whisked her and her party from sea level up to the 1,011-meter summit called Hoven in just five minutes. Waiting at the top is a new restaurant and viewing platform meant to appeal to cruiseship passengers and anyone else keen to stand on mountains without having to spend all day climbing them.
The gondola, billed as having one of the steepest ascents in the world, is the great new hope for Loen and the Nordfjord. The area plays a central role in Norway’s tourism history, attracting visitors since the 1800s and home to some large hotels. The area’s major attraction, however, has become a victim of climate change. Briksdalsbreen, an easily accessible glacier that’s an arm of the Jostedal glacier, has literally been shrinking because of melting ice in recent years.
Many cruiseships, meanwhile, opt for other fjords like Geiranger. State tourist officials hope the new gondola will take some of the pressure off Geiranger, which is now so clogged with cruiseships during the summer tourist season that there’s barely room for any more. The heavy cruise traffic in Geiranger, a UN World Heritage Site, has also been raising concerns over accidents, air pollution and spills.
So Richard Grov, director of the venerable Alexandra Hotel down in the town of Loen, got the idea for a Swiss-style gondola to be built up through a gorge behind the hotel. After securing some political support he also mobilized 115 local investors. DN reported that the hotel is the largest shareholder, followed by local meat producer Nordfjord Kjøtt, the local community of Stryn and more than 100 others.
Cruise passengers form a major market, but Loen Skylift also is billing the gondola as “Norway’s easiest top tour” up to mountain peaks. There are many higher summits behind Hoven, and the gondola can open up a large and scenic area of the mountains of western Norway for both hikers and skiers willing to pay NOK 485 for a round-trip ticket. They include everyone from extreme sports fanatics to families out on ordinary skiing or hiking holidays, and those who aren’t in shape or able to hike or ski at all but want to see the view.
“It will be great if more people experience these mountains,” Queen Sonja told reporters on Saturday, as the local officials who worked hard to make the NOK 280 million gondola project a reality beamed with pride and gratitude. “We have so much of the great outdoors in Norway that we must be generous, and share the nature with those who can’t get up here on their own. Not everyone is so fit that they can just spring up the trails here. I think it’s great that more people will now have an opportunity to get out in this gorgeous mountain area.”
‘Faith in the future’
Stryn Mayor Sven Flo declared in his enthusiastic speech at the opening that “with enough effort and determination, everything is possible.” The local businesses investing in the project hope to attract up to 50,000 visitors during the first year of operations.
“When we’ve invested so much in this, it shows that we have faith in the future,” Grov, now manager of Loen Skylift, told NRK earlier. “We have a dream that this area will once again be seen both regionally, nationally and internationally.” The gondola will run year-round, regardless what the weather is like.
Several hundred local residents showed up for the gondola opening, with children from Loen’s school on hand to sing. More people were waiting on the top of the mountain, waving flags and wearing bunads themselves, to greet the queen before many invited guests sat down for lunch in the new Hoven Restaurant.
“I’m touched to see that so many folks turned up,” said Grov. “This is a big day.” Ordinary operations were beginning on Sunday.