They were absolutely right, I think as I pop another juicy red orb into my mouth. We're sitting around red-painted picnic tables behind a strawberry-shaped kiosk in Norway's Valldalen valley, eating sun-sweetened fruit plucked from the plant minutes before with 14 other like-minded motorcyclists from America, Germany and Venezuela. We just finished climbing the majestic, 5500-foot Trollstigen pass. With 11 toe-scraping hairpins, the "Troll's Ladder" is as demanding as Stelvio or any of Europe's other more famous passes, and the view from the summit, out over Isfjorden and Andalsnes, is even more scenic. It appears Edelweiss Bike Travel (www.edelweissbike.com) was right all along: Norway might be the best place in the world to ride a motorcycle.
No one has more experience with motorcycle touring than Werner Wachter and his crew. Now entering its fourth decade guiding intrepid moto-adventurers around the globe, Edelweiss offers tours from the Alps to Africa, Tunisia to Tibet, and almost everywhere in between. So when you ask them where to find the best riding, you anticipate a spectacular response. Russia's Road of Bones? The French Alps? Maybe our own crown jewel, California's Highway 1?
You certainly don't expect the answer-instant and unequivocal-to be Norway. Really? The land known for darkness, death-metal music and lutefisk-caustic, lye-soaked cod disguised as a delicacy? It seemed more like a dare than an invitation, but my wife Emily and I accepted the challenge and signed up for Edelweiss' five-day Norwegian tour.
The endorsement wasn't exaggerated, and proved completely counter to our ignorant expectations. We set off in early July, a season when the sun doesn't kiss the horizon until almost midnight. The seafood is always fresh and non-toxic and the riding was-as advertised-among the best we've ever experienced. Imagine sinking the Alps into the sea and you'll have an idea of what Norway's west coast looks like. Craggy, glacier-cut peaks plunge straight down into deep, narrow fjords. If you're not climbing a ridge, you're racing along thin ribbons of road that wind between rock and water. There is no in-between, and on the rugged, sparsely populated islands, isthmuses and peninsulas that compose this Wild West, there is little traffic and certainly no interstate.
Our guide, Marcus Hellrigl, who has been leading tours for 17 years, underlined what makes riding in Norway so great: the people. "The Greece of the North" is Hellrigl's description of the place, inspired by the friendly, laid-back manner of the Norwegians, whom he claims are more like life-loving Mediterranean folk than anyone on the Continent. Bash the left-leaning Scandinavian welfare model if you must, but universal health care, subsidized higher education and comprehensive social security seem to keep most Norwegians uncommonly content. Not coincidentally, Norway was ranked highest of all countries in human development for eight of the last nine years, and also the most peaceful country in the world in 2007 by the Global Peace Index. In other words, it's a good place to relax.