It's 6:45 a.m. when the fog horn aboard the "Costa Atlantica" booms out through the early morning fog. The ship isn't just heralding the arrival of a new day. Its resonant call also announces the arrival of another 1,000 plus day-trippers to Flam, one of the gateways to the Sognefjord, Norway's longest fjord.
Located along the country's western shores, fjords are long, narrow waterways. These deep ocean inlets are formed when water floods a steep valley created by a glacier's movement. Steep mountains often rise up on each side of the valley. The Sognefjord attracts an average of about 600,000 tourists a year to the western region of this Scandinavian country.
Noreval Distad, spokesman for the Destination Aurland tourism authority, born and bred in the Norwegian fjord country, took ABC News high up into the mountains above these geographical wonders to show off the amazing vistas.
"I think it's a good life. I grew up in the Fjord area," Distad said. "For some years, I also tried city living, but I decided to go back to the fjords because I like to be close to the nature. To see the nice scenery every day is something that's very important to me."
The first Norwegians settled this region of Scandinavia about 8,000 years ago after the glaciers receded. They hunted reindeer in the high mountains, fished along the fjords and eventually established farms, raising animals and crops. The most recent of Norway's industries, tourism, got its start 150 years ago when English lords first visited to fish salmon and climb the hillsides.
Just about a decade later, the first cruise ships sailed into the fjords in the 1870s. Distad explained that tourism naturally grew out of the Norwegians' gregarious nature until it became the industry is it today.
"A lot of books were written about the Norwegian landscape. Then maybe a farmer built a little bit bigger house, he started to rent out a room, and today it is a big hotel," Distad said. "So tourism has become a part of the daily life in quite a natural way."
There's plenty for tourists to do, too. Visitors can kayak, fish, hike, camp, paraglide and even skydive. Less adventurous visitors can experience the expansive landscapes through boat, car or train tours.Evan Lewis and Aud Melas, his Norwegian-born wife, both escaped what he called the "rat race of Silicon Valley" in 2004, and came to Flam to set up and run a hotel and micro brewery, primarily catering to those tourists who arrive daily to discover the fjords. Lewis has the distinction of offering an American's take on this awe-inspiring corner of the world. "Western Norway , the fjord region, [has] the different dialects, the intense nature, the rugged landscape. It's a source of real pride for a Norwegian, and my wife certainly has that. She will agree 100 percent with me that living in this wonderful nature is the greatest thing ever," Lewis said. The fjord region has inspired writers and artists for centuries. Edvard Munch, the Norwegian-born painter of the famous "Scream" conceived of his masterpiece while watching the sunset: "I stopped and looked out over the fjord. The sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became 'The Scream.'" If one is still not convinced that the fjords just possibly could be one of the most spectacular palaces on earth, then maybe National Geographic Traveler magazine can sway the undecided traveler. In the upcoming November/December issue, the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations awarded the region top honors in the sixth-annual "Destinations Rated."