Young Hans was full of enthusiasm and soon managed to buy a small piece of land on the banks of the Fjord, where he built himself a boathouse. To begin with, these lodgings were referred to as a ‘Staging Inn’, and consisted of Hans Utne’s own straw bed in the loft over the shipping office. After just one year, Hans Utne expanded his facilities by 100% now providing two beds. With this, the foundation for Hotel Ullensvang was laid. The year was 1846, and Hans was no 17 years old.
Across the Fjord, at Aga lived the first farmer in Norway to become a member of parliament, Johannes Johannessen Aga. He had several daughters – the youngest, Brita, was sent across the Fjord, initially to work for Hans, but not long afterwards they married. Brita was then 17 years old and Hans was 37.
Through the years, the hotel was extended and modernised several times. But when the second generation, Bjarne Utne and his wife, also named Brita – took over most of the responsibilities of running the hotel in 1919, the building had become shabby and was in desperate need of refurbishment. This task was carried out, and at the same time, the hotel was split from the business and established as a separate company. The hotel now had 50 beds and was for the first time kept open on a year-round basis. Since then, the hotel is open all year round. During the Second World War, the hotel was used as a retirement home for Bergen.
Ellen Harris Utne arrived in Lofthus in 1939, together with her husband Hans Utne. She was the first member of the family to have received formal training in hotel administration, a training she completed in 1950 while bringing up four small children at the same time. In 1962, Hans and Ellen Utne, the third generation of the Utne family, took over the managing of the hotel. By this time the hotel was thoroughly refurbished, but without destroying the old and traditional features of the building.
As you walk through the hotel today, you will note that the Utne family’s interest in traditions has been handed down through the generations.
In 1969, the 4th Generation Utne, Edmund Harris Utne and his wife, Ina Torill became involved in the hotel´s operation. In 1972 they started with their major expanding plans. In all the following years, the 4th Generation has made Hotel Ullensvang to what it is today: a state of the art and first class hotel.
The 1995 Whitsun weekend saw the introduction of a very special event, the “Hardanger Music Festival”. For many years, Stig Nilsson of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra had been looking for a suitable location for a festival of classical music. Finally they found their ideal location: Hotel Ullensvang in Hardanger. The Music Festival is fully booked each year and celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2005 – officially opened by H.M. Queen Sonja. Present was also the – at that time – Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik with his wife, and the Icelandic Prime Minister, Asgrimson with his wife.
The fifth generation Utne, Hans Edmund Utne and his Swiss wife Barbara Zanoni Utne, joined the hotel in 2005 and ran it until 2021. They have realized Ullensvang Bad in 2013 with, among other things, a 88 meter along swimming channel in the garden. They also have renovated all hotel rooms and common areas during an eight-year period.
In March 2021, the Utne family passed ownership of the iconic hotel situated on the shores of the world-renowned Hardanger Fjord to new owners H.I.G. Capital and JV partner and manager, Hamilton Hotel Partners. Hamilton is an experienced operating partner, that has been active in the European hotel industry since 2004 and brings a wealth of experience managing multi-faceted resorts. Hamilton has successfully led the transition of several family-owned and operated resorts in the past. The portfolio of hotels that Hamilton manages, asset manages and/or co-invests in comprises 50 hotels. Hamilton is part of Boston-based Pyramid Hotel Group.
Hamilton is investing in partnership with funds advised by H.I.G. Capital, LLC (“H.I.G.”), a leading alternative assets investment firm. Together, the partners have a long-standing relationship in the European hotel sector.
Lofthus is often called the orchard of Hardanger, a name this beautiful rural district bears proudly. With its population of 650, Lofthus lies on the east banks of Sørfjorden, an arm of the Hardangerfjord, sheltered in the rear by the Hardangervidda Mountain Plateau (National Park), and looking out over towering mountains and the Folgefonna glacier. During blossom time in May, there are more than 600.000 fruit trees in flower in Hardanger, about 512.000 of these in the villages along Sørfjorden.
Cistercian monks brought the fruit trees
The first fruit trees in Hardanger, and thus the basis for a whole industry, were planted in Lofthus sometime between 1200 and 1210 by monks of the Cistercian monastery. The same monks were also responsible for the well-known “Monk steps”(“Munketrappene”) in the mountainside behind Lofthus. In order to simplify access to the Hardangervidda Plateau, the monks carved out huge blocks of stone which they transported up the mountainside to make a total of 616 steps. Today, these are the only traces that are left of the monks.
A source of inspiration to great personalities
The beautiful view over the Hardangerfjord and the Folgefonna glacier has provided inspiration to many through the years. Not least such well-known personalities as Edvard Grieg, who composed many of his best known works at Lofthus. Tidemand and Gude found their inspiration for the world famous painting “The Bridal Procession in Hardanger” here.
The first time Nina and Edvard Grieg came to Hardanger was around midsummer 1877. They took lodgings at the farm at Nedre Børve, about 5 kilometres south of Lofthus, intending to stay for a while in the district. However, Nedre Børve proved to be rather remote and inaccessible, and before the onset of winter, Nina and Edvard moved into the Utne family’s hotel. But Grieg was unable to find the seclusion here that he needed for his work, and in the late autumn of 1877 he had a little cabin built on the Eidnes farm, from where he was able to work undisturbed. He did not like people listening to him while he was composing, and the cabin was built far enough from the farm to ensure privacy, or so, he believed. If he discovered a listener, even if it was his own wife, he closed the piano. While the cabin was being built, Grieg gave two concerts in Bergen to earn enough money to fund his winter sojourn in Lofthus. He remained in Lofthus, using the little cabin diligently, until the autumn of 1878. The friendship between Brita and Hans Utne and Nina and Edvard Grieg was warm, and the Grieg family visited Lofthus summer after summer.
Much of what we today consider to be the most valuable pieces of Norwegian music was created in Lofthus, including: The String Quartet in G minor, opus 27 / The Mountain Thrall, opus 32 / Album for Mandssang (The Album for Male Voices), opus 30 / part of “Peer Gynt”.
Large sections of the Holberg Suite were also composed in Lofthus, partly in Grieg’s composer’s cabin, and partly in the farmhouse of Arne Lofthus, another good friend from the village.
Visit Edvard Grieg´s original composer´s cabin in the garden of Hotel Ullensvang!
Hotel Ullensvang owns a “Kjenga” (beer bowl) dating back to 1846, the year the hotel was founded. The hotel has chosen to use this as its symbol and trademark. The drinking bowl was an ordinary household article on farms in Hardanger in the 19th century. Ale brewing has roots far back through the centuries, and on most of the farms, the farmer had a barrel of ale in the cellar.