I’ve often wondered what goes into writing a travel guide book. I mean where do you even start?
David Nikel knows, having recently completed Moon Travel Guides‘ first Norway edition.
I chatted with him about what goes into producing one, as well as picking his brains on holidaying in Norway.
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF? HOW DID YOU END UP IN NORWAY AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN THERE NOW?
It’s said that people move to Norway for the money and stay for love, or move for love and stay for the money. I fell into the first category! I moved to Oslo in May 2011 in my former life as an IT contractor as the money on offer was 50% higher than in the UK. Less than two years later I really liked the country, I had met someone special, but I hated the job. So I took my hobby writing and turned into my job.
WRITING A GUIDE BOOK MUST BE QUITE DAUNTING? WHERE IS THE VERY FIRST PLACE YOU START WHEN EVERYTHING IS A BLANK CANVAS? WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING ABOUT WRITING IT?
There were many points when I thought “why did I do this!?” but the end result made it all worthwhile.
This was a first edition guidebook, which isn’t so common these days as most guidebooks have most major destinations covered already. While starting from scratch is daunting beyond belief, there was a significant outlining process before I was given the contract. This gave Moon confidence in me, and meant I didn’t start with a complete blank canvas, and could properly plan my research trips.
The most difficult aspect of writing the book was striking the right balance between entertainment and information. There’s nothing worse than a dry guidebook devoid of any personality, but at the same time people turn to guidebooks for facts. It was also quite tricky to put myself in the shoes of a first-time visitor, as I have lived in Norway for several years. I took the opportunity to ask fellow travellers I met along the way what questions they had. This helped enormously!
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO RESEARCH THE WHOLE COUNTRY?
This is a difficult one to answer as I had travelled extensively before starting the book research, having written about Norway on my own blog and for magazines and websites for several years. So I had a lot of the background information already. The actual process of taking trips and writing took around 12 months, with a further six months of editing and answering questions from the editors after that.
NORWAY HAS A RATHER FIERCE REPUTATION FOR BEING EXPENSIVE. AS A TOURIST WHAT ARE THE BEST WAYS TO SAVE MONEY?
Planning in advance. This goes for the obvious, such as buying train and plane tickets at least a week before travel, right through to planning meals. If you know roughly when and where you are going to eat, it can bring the cost tumbling down. Indian, Chinese and Thai restaurants tend to offer the best value in most towns. Traditional Norwegian food is expensive pretty much everywhere.
If you are planning a road trip, avoid chain hotels and plump for one of the countless cabins (called hytter or rorbuer) around the country. They are basic but great value, and often come with kitchenettes so you can prepare your own meals. If you’re in Norway for a week or more, the savings here can really add up.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR IDEAL ONE-WEEK SUMMER ITINERARY FOR A FIRST TIMER?
The classic journey is Oslo to Bergen on the train, or by car. The train is one of the world’s most famous journeys, and with good reason. You soar over a mountain plateau and see snow on the ground even at the height of summer. Connect to the Flåm railway for a beautiful trip from the mountains down through the valley to the shore of a fjord.
Bergen can be uncomfortably busy in the summer so Stavanger and Ålesund are good alternative choices, especially if you have a car. Both cities are within easy reach of fjords – the Lysefjord and Hjørundfjord respectively – so you won’t be missing out.
WHERE IS YOUR SECRET-SPOT IN NORWAY THAT YOU’D (ALMOST) LIKE TO KEEP FOR YOURSELF AND WHY?
Lofoten’s recent popularity probably disqualifies it from having a secret tag, but outside of July it’s still relatively quiet. The islands are simply stunning, with cute fishing villages surrounded by granite mountains soaring from the ocean. The only downside is the fishy aroma. The fishing industry is still important to the local economy and racks of drying cod are a common sight across the islands!
My other tip is the UNESCO World Heritage site Røros. The central streets of this tiny former copper mining town is like something from a fairytale, especially during winter when snow is guaranteed for months on end. Despite being hours from anywhere, the town remains a thriving community thanks to its focus on sustainable tourism and local food production.
MAYBE YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE FAVOURITES, BUT IF YOU DID, WHICH HOTEL DO YOU LIKE BEST IN NORWAY AND WHY?
I much prefer to stay in cabins as the value cannot be beaten, but if I had to choose a hotel it would be the Scandic Nidelven in Trondheim. Most of the rooms overlook the river and marina, while the hotel’s breakfast has picked up a dazzling range of awards. For me breakfast is one of the most important parts of a hotel stay, and so many hotels in Norway offer the same basic buffet of bread, ham and cheese. By contrast, the Nidelven offers chefs who cook omelettes or a stack of pancakes to order, and even a barista.
HAVING LIVED THERE FOR A WHILE NOW, WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE TRAIT ABOUT NORWEGIANS? IS THERE ANYTHING THAT STILL PUZZLES YOU, PERHAPS MAKES YOU HAVE A WRY SMILE?
Norwegians are generally quiet and reserved, so it can be really difficult to get to know them. The one exception is when they’re out on the hiking trails when they turn into the most outgoing, friendly people on earth. The Norwegian love of the outdoors lifestyle is well-documented (there’s even a word for it, friluftsliv), so it’s almost as if that’s where their true selves are hiding. The funny thing is, if you bump into the same person a week later in the city, they’ll probably be silent once again. Maybe a slight nod of the head if you’re lucky!