The hotel’s beginnings
The Finse mountain lodge was completed when the Bergen line opened in 1909. Its original purpose was to serve as a place of safety, and a spot for tourism. Many believed it was an insane idea to have trains running over the mountains, since the risk of getting stuck in snow was high. Therefore, a place of refuge was considered necessary and Finse was built. Someone also saw the potential of the growing tourism in Norway and believed that restaurant carriages on the trains, as well as a hotel along the way, was a great idea. The Finse mountain lodge was officially opened by Minister Kristoffer Lehmkuhl during Easter of 1909. It was the state-owned Railways of Norway that stood as the owner of the property located 1222 meters above sea level.
Merely a few months later, the property was taken over by the efficient and productive hostess, Alice Lister Fangen. She was a mother of five and had been the hostess at Finse since 1903, when she established a precursor to the mountain lodge. She joined forces with Joseph Klem who ran the Finse shop, and together they quickly developed a large new bedroom wing. In 1914, the world’s first indoor ice skating hall opened.
In 1915, the partners co-founded a Norwegian hotel company called Norsk Hotelcompagnie AS, and Finse Hotel was placed within the company, along with Haugastøl Hotell and Dr. Holms in Geilo. Joseph Klem moved to Geilo and Alice ran the place for another year before she handed over the position to Joseph’s brother, Andrew. He oversaw further developments of the property for another 17 years. At this point, Finse was a very modern place with many prominent guests and cigar smokers. Sonja Henie used Finse as a training place before major championships. Polar explorer and hero Ernest Shackleton trained at Finse before he set out on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The era’s exclusive guest list also included individuals such as King Haakon, Fridtjof Nansen, Karen Blixen, the Prince of Wales, and polar explorer and pilot Trygve Gran.
In the 1930s, Norsk Hotelcompagnie AS had taken over ownership from Fred Olsen and Bergen Dampskipsselskab, making them a major force in the Norwegian hotel industry. Under the leadership of Axel Lund, more hotels were incorporated into the company. The guests were faithful and regular, as they commonly vacationed at Fevik Beach in southern Norway during the summers, celebrated Christmas at Dr. Holms in Geilo, and spent Easter at Finse.
World War II
During World War II, Finse Hotel was seized by the Germans. They wanted to establish an airstrip on Hardangerjøkulen glacier to test aviation under “arctic conditions”. They established large barracks, which were given to the Tourist Association after the war. It is today known as Finsehytta. Interestingly, the Germans never managed to use the glacial airstrip – one plane landed, but never took off again. The airstrip had to be dismantled and sent home to Germany by train. After the war, Finse Hotel experienced a resurgence – the “posh” returned and adopted the place as their own.
In 1961, the hotel expanded and several new rooms and suites were added to the west side of the hotel, facing the water. Larger common areas were also built to accommodate more guests. However, a surge in popularity of buying cottages in the late ‘60s meant a rather sharp decline in guests at the hotel. Hotelier Jorund Helleland from Hardanger was instated as director in 1972. A couple of years later, he bought the hotel for a single Norwegian kroner, when Norsk Hotelcompagnie AS was dismantled.
The 1980s and on
In 1980, Tron Bach bought half of the hotel, rebuilding and reconceptualising it as a sports establishment, aimed at younger people who loved the outdoors. Helleland, still owning the other half, reconstructed the western part of the hotel into a smaller Finse Hotel. After futile attempts to have two hotels side by side, they remerged in 1986, effectively creating Finse 1222 and Apartment 1222, respectively. A rebuilt old medical train carriage, from the days of the war, was lifted into place as a “skyway” between the two buildings to emphasize the reunification.
In 1987, brothers Trygve, Knut and Nikolai Norman joined the ownership. After a few years as partners with Tron, they took over the brand in 1995 and have run it since. Arne Storhaug, at the age of 28, became hotel manager and heralded the “new age” of Finse. He showed that even a hotel at 1222 meters above sea level could flourish. Since then, teams of young and innovative experience mountain- and hotel-people have carried Finse’s centenarian story further.