We admit it: Repeated viewings of the movie “Trolls World Tour,” released in 2020, helped get us through lockdown. And somewhere in the house is a ratty-haired troll doll from the 1990s who’s a dead ringer for Justin Timberlake (who, coincidentally, stars as Branch in the DreamWorks Animation oeuvre). In November, “Trolls Band Together” is coming to local theaters. Bring on the glitter freckles!
If your bunch is into trolls, too — perhaps Jan Brett’s “Trouble with Trolls” is in heavy rotation at bedtime — consider going to a place where troll obsession is a way of life: Norway. Your troll-happy kid will be “en glad laks” — Norwegian for “a happy salmon,” we promise.
“Trolls have been part of a living narrative tradition for centuries, which has portrayed trolls as both smart and stupid, dangerous and harmless, and they appear in all sizes,” says Ane Ohrvik, professor of cultural history at the University of Oslo. “The trolls often lived in inaccessible and untouched nature — in caves in the mountains, for example. As such, they not only lived in nature, they were also a part of it.”
You can feel the presence of these mythical beings in twisting roads, caves, cliffs, fjords, and rock formations — including a lofty promontory called Trolltunga (troll’s tongue) and another, Trollpikken, that translates into a specific (R-rated) part of a troll’s anatomy.
Troll-hunting by boat
Our original plan was to drive the majestic Norwegian coastline. And then we discovered that it comprises 63,000 miles of land — which would circle the world 2½ times if stretched out, according to National Geographic — thanks to those famous fjords. But there’s another way to go: For 130 years, working vessels run by Hurtigruten (“the quick route”) have carried cargo and people on an express route between the north and the south. Lonely Planet has called this coastal route “the world’s most beautiful voyage.”
Few Americans have discovered this line. Hurtigruten is less pricey than many cruise lines, and their hybrid (gas and electric-powered) ships have an “expedition” vibe. Instead of casinos and discos, they offer salmon-filleting demonstrations and sea chantey sing-alongs. The classic coastal journey covers 780 miles of waterway in the Norwegian Sea and the Bering Sea, between Kirkenes, in the arctic north, and cosmopolitan Bergen to the south. The trip takes six days and stops at 34 ports on the route. It’s a hop-on, hop-off situation for some; other guests sail for six days or 12. Some stops last just a few minutes; some occur during the middle of the night.
Given all that, we thought we would be roughing it aboard a mail boat, with basic bunks and middling foodstuffs. Surprise! Our ship, the MS Richard With (named for the captain who founded Hurtigruten in 1893) was modern and comfortable. WiFi was reliable and our mini-suite was lovely, with a sitting area, flat-screen TV, and cushy bed.
As for the food, “Norway’s Coastal Kitchen” is a seafood-lover’s bonanza of fresh cod, herring, and salmon, lots of vegetables, and some tasty desserts. There are also vegan options and meat, including reindeer (sorry, kids!) About 80 percent of the ingredients come from 50-plus suppliers along the coast, they say. It’s a chance to try local specialties, like sweet, caramelized brown cheese, often served with a waffle, and stockfish (air-dried preserved cod.) If you love the sound of that, try the stockfish-flavored ice cream they offer at the bakery. Containing bits of fish in a vanilla base, it’s not bad. You can even try cod liver oil, once fed to Norwegian kids for the vitamin D content. It’s nasty.
Name that troll
Onboard lectures reveal stories of Norse mythology and superstitions, featuring creatures like Stallo. The indigenous Sami people in the north believed that he would eat naughty children, especially during the holidays. “Kids had to be quiet and clean up, or else,” says Laura Köstler of the ship’s Coastal Experience Team. Then there is Huldra, who lives in the forest; she’s a magical creature with long blond hair and a cow’s tail. “She lures children and men to follow her into the forest, never to be seen again,” Köstler explains.
And beware of Nøkken, another star of Norwegian folklore, who lives in lakes disguised as a beautiful white horse. If you step inside the lake, the creature will transform into a hideous beast and pull you down. Trolls are major players in these tales, and they can be found anywhere, in mountains, forests, and lakes. “They come alive at nighttime,” Köstler says. The message: “Don’t go to these places at night or the trolls with drown you.” Yikes. These stories persist today, especially in northern Norway, she says.
Off the ship, excursions take you into troll territory. In Vardø, we saw small sod-roofed houses that could definitely house trolls. Vesterålen, also in northern Norway, is home to a major troll hot spot, Trollfjorden, “The Troll Fjord.” Slipping past 3,280-foot-high Trolltinden peak, the nearly 2-mile-long fjord is only 229 feet wide, made more dramatic by waterfalls sprouting from the rock. We opted for a sea eagle cruise, and got close enough to the walls of the fjord to drink from the waterfall and discover the tiny troll dolls placed within the rock. Above us, white-tailed eagles swirled and swooped, diving down to catch fish.
A tough troll stroll
We were excited to visit Brønnøysund, site of Torghatten Mountain, a favorite of troll enthusiasts. Rising 846 feet from the sea, Torghatten is known for the 98-foot high, 82-foot wide, and 525-foot-deep hole that runs through it. According to legend, the hole marks the hat of a Brønnøy king that turned to stone.
As the story goes, early one morning, Lekamøya and her seven troll sisters were fleeing from Vågekallen, who was desperate to capture a wife. The King heard them and came to their rescue. However, Hestmannen, a disobedient knight who had been awakened by the noise, got up and shot an arrow toward the maidens. The King threw his hat to intercept the arrow. Just as the arrow pierced the hat, the sun came out and its rays turned the trolls, and hat, to stone. The troll sisters are immortalized as the Seven Sisters mountains; the tallest sister is 3,517 feet.
In summer and fall, you can hike up Torghatten. We decided to do it, and discovered the trail featured 350 stone steps, heading straight up. At the top: A big hole — hat-shaped, if you use your imagination. This hike isn’t for kids (or adults that aren’t Norwegian-fit), but there’s another way to get close to the site: a boat ride alongside Torghatten.
‘The world’s most beautiful voyage’
In truth, seeing the troll-themed sites and hearing the stories was fun, but the real joy was hanging out on deck and taking in the splendid views of sea-meets-Caledonia Mountains. We enjoyed exploring fishing villages with their red- and ochre-painted houses, 12th-century cathedrals, and local museums. It was a kick to get a taste of the Norwegian way of life and its strong focus on the outdoors. Norway gets 24 hours of daylight in summer, and very short, dark days in winter — although the winter sky is not black, but dark blue, we learned. And it’s very cool to cross over the Arctic Circle.
Although we didn’t see the Northern Lights, they’re a great reason to take this trip in winter (and 2024 is expected to be a stellar year for the Aurora borealis.) Of course, there’s mythology associated with the lights too. “We were afraid of the Northern Lights as kids,” a crew member named Maya told us. “My great-grandmother wore a white headscarf to protect herself from their power.”
One unfortunate result of a schedule like this: You’ll pass through some cool places in the middle of the night. But you’ll definitely get your fill of troll tales. And fish.
If you go . . .
Hurtigruten’s Original Coastal Express runs year-round; we took the six-day southbound itinerary. From $1,141. Guided shore excursions cost extra. Hurtigruten has also launched a new North Cape Express during Northern Lights season, sailings from Bergen and Oslo, with dogsledding, King crab fishing, and other Arctic activities. www.hurtigruten.com
More places to go troll-hunting in Norway
The Troll Museum, in Tromsø, trollmuseum.no, explores Norse folklore in many fun ways, including augmented reality. In Lillehammer, fairy tale-themed Hunderfossen Adventure Park (hunderfossen.no/en/) is packed with rides, farm animals … and a 70-ton troll. One of the country’s most scenic routes, Trollstigen (the Troll Ladder) is absolutely stunning, twisting through 11 hairpin bends as it climbs up the mountainside. Trolltunga, the Troll Tongue, also offers fantastic views, if you’re willing to take on a long, demanding hike. And about two hours outside of Oslo, there’s Trollfoss, a 39-foot-high waterfall, reachable via a steep 30-minute hike. For more, visit www.visitnorway.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org