Family Excursion to Scandinavia and the Baltics

by Wendy Fougner

A few years ago we embarked on a family vacation to new destinations with heritage connections. Our journey spanned seven countries in Scandinavia and the Baltics over the course of three weeks: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. A bit of a whirlwind though a thoroughly enjoyable trip with plenty of culture and novel experiences.
We flew from Vancouver to London, then London to Oslo. Upon arriving in Oslo, we took the train to our hotel. It was easy, convenient, and meant we didn’t have to immediately worry about driving or determining directions. It’s always worth checking in advance the best way to find your way from the airport to the city and your hotel.

Oslo was beautiful with loads of sightseeing to be had, both by car and by foot, and we did our best to take it all in. If you are looking to shop, there are plenty of boutiques with traditional fare and high-end clothing. As most people will tell you, Scandinavia is one of the more expensive places to visit in the world. So be prepared if you are planning on eating out – our first dinner cost us nearly $400 after the exchange rate! It was a bit of a shock. We quickly realized that preparing our meals was the way to go if we didn’t want to break the travel budget in the first few days.

We took a day trip to Lillehammer, home of the 1994 Olympics. This was a bit of a sentimental stop, as our youngest son was born during that Olympics. It turned out to be a quaint town with a lot of interesting shops, and residents in traditional clothing. A nice break from the capital, and I am glad we had the chance to see it.

Next up was Lom, which is approximately 4.5 hours from Oslo. The roads were quite narrow but thankfully there wasn’t a lot of traffic. The town is known for having one of the few remaining stave churches and for being situated amidst the tallest mountains in Norway. That might explain why we noticed a lot of summer snowboarding while we were there. That night we stayed in a nice three bedroom cottage where we were surprised to learn we had to rent sheets and towels. If you were planning to stay longer than one night, I would recommend bringing your own towels and sheets to cut some costs.

From Lom it was off to Flåm on an unbelievable drive through the mountains. There are a lot of tunnels in Norway, and the Aurland tunnel is 25km long with three halls. It’s quite the engineering feat and the world’s longest car tunnel. Flåm, a seaport town, is situated in a tributary of the world’s longest and deepest fjord. It’s a bit of a tourist hub, so the town is full of tourist boats, cruise ships, trains and various tour operators. We stayed in a new three bedroom apartment that allowed us to cook our own dinners. A collapsible cooler also allowed us to take lunches on our day trips, when possible.

After Flåm, we drove to Odda, a small town and the birthplace of Bruce’s father. Experiencing the culture there was important to us as a family, and we’re glad we had the opportunity to go there. Soon after, it was on to Sweden.

Our Swedish adventures started in Kalmar, a summer tourist destination. Although the weather had been great so far, it was much sunnier in Kalmar than the northern destinations. For a break from sightseeing, we headed over to the popular beach of Böda on the island of Öland where the kids had a great time.

From Kalmar we drove to the glassblowing region of Linkoping where you can watch some of the local artisans work. I was hoping this would be the place to get my signature souvenir of the trip; unfortunately, nothing really tickled my fancy. Luckily, our hotel was in a great central location, and once settled we decided to sit outside, have a nice meal, and take in the local goings on. It was interesting to note that in Sweden it’s quite popular to order your food at the counter and bus your table when you’re done.

Soon it was on to Stockholm, where we discovered our hotel was way out of town. The younger family members decided closer was better, and some made that happen. One of the fascinating sites in Stockholm was watching all the women that poured into the downtown district at night, dressed to the nines for a night in the clubs. Since our clubbing days are past, Bruce and I tended to settle for more relaxing pursuits. The next day we visited the Vasa Museum, which was one of the most spectacular museums I’ve seen. The museum houses the Vasa, a massive warship that sunk in 1628 and was salvaged in 1961 along with everything that was salvaged with the ship. The museum attempts to show what life would have been like on board the vessel, and it was certainly able to make an impression on every member of the family.

Next it was on to the Baltics with the first stop in Tallinn. Our hotel was a ten minute walk from the old city, so we enjoyed wandering around. From Tallinn we drove to Vilnius, an eight hour drive with lots to look at. Like most of the Baltic cities, Vilnius was more economical when eating out, so we took advantage and ate outdoors as often as we could. It provided a great vantage point for people watching. Our hotel in Riga was also just outside the old city and provided easy access to all the different squares to explore and enjoy the live music.
We did venture to the capital cities of Denmark and Finland and I found them to be like most European big cities – nice places to visit and much of the same. One place worth mentioning is the Carlsberg Museum in Denmark. I had an epiphany at the museum about art, culture and the ways of the past. They had Greek sculptures with replicas next to them of how they would have been painted previously. It was a moment of cultural understanding. And, yes, we also sampled the beer.

My favourite countries on this trip were the Baltics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They were charming with a vibrancy and busyness not felt in the Scandinavian countries. Perhaps some of it was because on the drives in the country I could get a sense of the way of life. This was not really noticed in Scandinavia because of the steepness of the mountains and the forests hugging the roads.

Aside from a couple of plane difficulties on the way home, we had a wonderful trip. As the children have gotten older and flown the coop, these larger family trips have become more precious. If you’re looking for somewhere new to travel, Scandinavia and the Baltics are worth visiting.