BERGEN, NORWAY - When Norway dissolved its 91-year-old union with Sweden in 1905 to become a fully independent country, Swedes didn't feel too bad about the separation from the neighbouring land with a long, dreary winter and a short growing season.
Now the country that was one of the poorest ones in Europe has become the second-richest country in the world in terms of per capita GDP, due mainly to its valuable North Sea oil assets, which were discovered in the early 1960s.
Besides the "black gold," there is another important source of Norwegian pride that has put the country on the map: awe-inspiring landscape carved by glaciers. The vertiginous peaks and verdant valleys that had long been deemed a major obstacle to industrial development now attract a steady stream of tourists from all over the world.
Long, narrow inlets of sea between steep cliffs formed during the ice age - called "fjords" - are a must-see for tourists visiting the country.
Lying about 350 kilometres north of Bergen, the Geiranger Fjord is one of nature's masterpieces. The fjord is the country's second-longest, reaching 100 kilometres. Two years ago, National Geographic declared Geiranger the world's most exotic tourist destination in the world, and it was no exaggeration.
Its exceptional natural beauty is derived from narrow and steep-sided rock walls that rise up to 1,400m from the Norwegian Sea and extend 500m below sea level. The walls have numerous waterfalls while free-flowing rivers cross their deciduous and coniferous forests to glacial lakes, glaciers and rugged mountains.
Located in the heart of the fjord, the small village of Geiranger with its 300 residents is a wonderful site surrounded by high mountain peaks, impressive waterfalls, green vegetation and the deep turquoise waters of the fjord.
Since the first cruise ship arrived in Geiranger in 1869, the area has been visited by touring ships for more than 100 years, including those of kings and queens.
The best way to admire Geiranger's landscape is by ferry. In Geiranger, one can take an hour and a half fjord cruise. A comfortable sightseeing boat takes you out on the fjord, bringing you close to the cascading waterfalls, towering mountains and the abandoned mountain farms.
Geiranger can easily be reached by the coastal cruise boat Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.com) from Bergen, the second-largest city and the former capital of the kingdom.
Bergen is an international city with small-town charm. A lift serves both local residents and tourists as it climbs 1,050 feet up the steep hillside. It is an excellent opportunity for visitors to see the beauty of Bergen from above the gateway to the fjords.
Some of the notable cultural attractions include the annual Bergen International Festival and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
During the 14th century, Hanseatic merchants from Northern Germany settled in Bergen and made it one of their four major overseas trading centres. Most of Bergen's medieval buildings were destroyed by disastrous fires that ravaged through the city, but several Hanseatic buildings still remain in the Bryggen quarter of the city, housing boutiques, restaurants and museums.
To take advantage of the magnificent landscape of this city, take the funicular to the top of Mount Floien. It's spectacular to look in wonder at the sea/mountain contrast, and the funicular even runs during the dead winter months.
People who want to reach Geiranger arriving from Alesund will take the Orneveien (The Eagles Road) with wonderful view points or the famous Trollstigvegen if they come from Andalsnes.
A busy little port with a strong nautical tradition, Alesund is internationally renowned for its Art Nouveau architecture. After a town fire in 1904, Alesund was rebuilt with distinctive architectural style with turrets, spires and imaginative ornamentation.
Fresh cod and salmon are the most frequently enjoyed foods in Norway.
Keep in mind, Norway is an expensive country to travel in, probably the most expensive in the world in terms of food price - a regular cheeseburger costs around $20 and a small bottle of water is $5.