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The insider's guide to Norway

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Norway is the world's best place to live, according to the United Nations Human Development Index. Here's everything you'd want to know about the Scandinavian paradise.

Why Norway?

The U.N. Human Development Index ranks countries according to a series of measures of national well-being, including wealth, life expectancy, health care and education -- and Norway scores highly across the board to top the list for the sixth year in a row. The average Norwegian can expect to live to be 79.6 years old and takes home $38,454 a year -- 40 times more than a citizen from Niger, the country at the bottom of the list.

How do other countries fare?

Citizens of Iceland, Australia, Ireland and Sweden can all feel pleased with themselves as their countries make up the rest of the top five. The U.S. features in eighth place, just below Japan but just better than Switzerland. But the report only illustrates how far Africa lags behind the rest of the world in terms of basic measures of quality of life. The continent fills the bottom 23 places on the 177-country list. Just above Niger come Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau.

How come life in Norway is so good?

The main reason is oil. Since the discovery of North Sea reserves in 1971, Norway has been the world's third-largest exporter after Saudi Arabia and Russia, exporting more than three million barrels a day, and the fourth-largest natural gas exporter. It controls around 50 percent of the oil and gas reserves left in Western Europe and in 2002 the net value of exports was $45 billion. Much of that wealth also flows straight into the Norwegian treasury with taxes on oil profits set at 78 percent, allowing for a generous welfare provision for the country's 4.6 million citizens. With a spectacular rugged landscape of fjords, glaciers and forests, Norway is one of the world's most spacious country with just 31 people per square mile.

Sounds too good to be true. Any down sides?

Unless you like snow, snow and more snow, coupled with long dark nights, the climate isn't that great. Average temperatures in winter drop below freezing. In the north of the country, which falls inside the Arctic Circle, the sun sets in November and isn't seen again until January. The flip side of that, of course, is the summer midnight sun. Even Oslo residents would probably admit that the Norwegian capital, home to around 500,000 people, isn't one of Europe's liveliest cities. And Norway's high cost of living doesn't make it a cheap place for a break with prices on average 38 percent higher than in the EU. On top of that heavy taxes on alcohol mean that a night out can take a heavy toll on the wallet. Environmentalists consider Norway's whaling fleet to be a blot on the national character.

Any famous Norwegians I should have heard of? They don't exactly fall off the tongue...

Well, there were the Vikings who spent several centuries acquiring a reputation as Europe's worst neighbors. And since then Norwegians have redeemed themselves by making their mark in every conceivable field of human endeavor. Nineteenth-century playwright Henrik Ibsen was and remains one of Europe's most influential dramatists -- to commemorate the centenary of his death Norway has declared 2006 "Ibsen year." Painter Edvard Munch's iconic "The Scream" is one of the art world's most recognizable images -- especially due to its unfortunate habit in recent years of getting stolen periodically (currently all versions of the painting are safely in their respective museums). Explorer Roald Amundsen was the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911.

More recently, pop stars A-Ha, who enjoyed success with the 1980s hit "Take On Me" are currently benefiting from a critical revival while baby-faced Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winning goal in the 1999 European Cup final.

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Norway: a land of vikings and snow.

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