When Ida Skibenes pulled up outside the Solstrand Hotel, her stomach was in knots, flipping between nerves and excitement.
The Solstrand is one of Norway’s most beautiful hotels, located just outside of Bergen, framed by fjords and home to over 125 years of history.
“It looks like a yellow castle, almost. It’s very beautiful. And it’s a very quiet place, there’s no traffic, it’s down by the sea,” Ida tells CNN Travel.
Every year, Ida’s Bergen-based workplace decamped to the dreamy surrounds of Solstrand for a couple of days of remote working. That year, 2014, was Ida’s first at the company. Her colleagues had regaled her with stories of Solstrand and she was excited. But her excitement wasn’t really about escaping from the city and relaxing among the mountains. It was all about Hanna Aardal.
Hanna was Ida’s coworker. When Ida started at the company, the two quickly clicked, but they were in different places in their lives. At the time, Ida was married, and focused on her relationship and settling into the new job. Meanwhile, Hanna was a single parent whose teenage daughter had just moved to the US to study for a year.
But as the months rolled on, their circumstances changed. Ida’s relationship fell apart, and she went through a divorce. Hanna adjusted to her daughter being abroad, and started spending more time socializing with coworkers. With time, Hanna and Ida grew closer.
“Our energies matched,” is how Ida puts it. “It was always more fun to be at work when Hanna was at work.”
“I think we kind of had the same kind of humor, so we became friends quickly,” says Hanna.
Hanna and Ida started working together on a fun side project, a short mockumentary in the vein of “The Office,” showcasing the quirks of their workplace. The film was set to be screened at the Solstrand retreat.
The two worked on the project out of hours, and started sharing regular dinners and drinks. They messaged regularly, often texting one another goodnight.
Reflecting on this period today, Ida and Hanna suggest they were “dating without realizing.”
“I was used to dating men, and I had never been in a relationship with a woman,” says Hanna. “Looking back, it’s kind of obvious that we had feelings for each other.”
Ida didn’t know if Hanna would be open to dating a woman. And she didn’t know if her feelings were reciprocated, or if they were all in her head. Still, Ida felt there were signs suggesting the relationship was something more.
A few weeks before the Solstrand trip, the two had stayed up late at Hanna’s home, chatting. When, at 2 a.m., Ida suggested she should head home, Hanna had taken her hand and asked her not to leave. It felt like a “turning point,” at least to Ida. But she left all the same – they’d both been drinking, and she felt the conversation had to be addressed under different circumstances.
Solstrand, Ida decided, was the perfect opportunity. Especially when Ida and Hanna were coincidentally chosen to room together.
“I had feelings for Hanna, and I definitely had a crush on her,” says Ida. “But if it was all in my head, then I needed to clarify that. And we were going to work together. So I just decided that if we end up in the same room, that’s a sign for me to actually do something about it.”
Plus, Solstrand was a beautiful, romantic setting.
“At least if she had turned me down, I wouldn’t be in like this dump somewhere. I would still be in a beautiful hotel,” jokes Ida.
Ida brought up the topic at the end of the first day in Solstrand. It was late in the evening, and the two women were lying in their separate twin beds.
Hanna’s response surprised them both.
“I was kind of starting to say ‘I know that we have become close friends and everything, I love you like a friend.’ But then, while I was saying it, I realized that of course, it’s something more,” recalls Hanna.
“I freaked out when she told me that,” says Ida. ” I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is not happening.’”
After the initial shock, the conversation continued.
“We talked, we kissed. And then we kind of just settled down and decided that we would figure things out eventually,” says Ida.
The next day, Ida and Hanna were preoccupied with a busy day of meetings and presentations. They didn’t address what happened the evening before, but it was a tradition at their company that everyone presented greeting cards to their Solstrand roommates at the end of the trip.
In Ida and Hanna’s cards, they put their burgeoning feelings in writing. And Ida excitedly messaged her close friends the news.
“I texted, like, three thumbs up, ‘We made out!’” says Ida.
“But other than that, we kept it quiet for a long time.”
Hanna needed some time to come to terms with her newly acknowledged feelings.
“I had been in some relationships, but mostly I had been a single parent and very self-sufficient in a way, and not very good at close relationships. So I think it was really scary and exciting at the same time – and confusing.”
Both Ida and Hanna were also aware that they weren’t just risking a friendship, but a working relationship too. For Hanna, this added to her trepidation.
“I think I was really afraid to mess things up between the two of us,” says Hanna. “Because we were working together, it would have had greater consequences if I messed up – which I guessed I would – at some point.”
Ida and Hanna took it slowly, but they gradually grew even closer. Six months after their conversation at Solstrand, the two were on another work trip, and they decided they were ready to tell their colleagues. Later, back home in Bergen, Hanna shared the news with her daughter.
“She was really happy for us,” says Hanna, recalling that her daughter joked it would have been weird to have a man in their house of women.
“She came out to us, two years later, so it’s a very gay family,” adds Hanna.
Return to Solstrand
Hanna and Ida moved in together in 2016, not long after they shared the news of their relationship with their loved ones. They started discussing marriage, and decided that, when the time felt right, Ida would be the one to propose.
“I love surprises, and Ida hates surprises,” Hanna explains.
Ida knew exactly where she wanted to propose: Solstrand. Three years after they voiced their feelings aloud for the first time, Ida and Hanna found themselves back at the historic hotel on the annual company retreat. The company had just broadcast the traditional office “mockumentary,” when Ida interrupted proceedings.
“She just got up in front of everyone and said, ‘There’s another video’ and she gave me a box of Kleenex because I’m a crier, I cry all the time. And then she had made this really sweet and romantic video with music, portraying our relationship, and ending with the proposal.”
Wiping away happy tears, Hanna said yes.
“Would have been really awkward if I hadn’t,” she jokes today.
“I was very nervous,” recalls Ida. “Maybe I told, like, a couple of people before we went, but five minutes before I was going to show the movie, I ran around and I told everyone.”
Her colleagues were delighted, and encouraged a panicked Ida to go for it.
“I had a complete meltdown, got two glasses of wine and two cigarettes, and then I was good to go,” says Ida.
“It felt very right to do it at that hotel with those people, because they’ve kind of tagged along for the entire entire journey of our relationship. So it was exciting, and a lot of fun. Especially the part where we got to celebrate with so many people that love us and want us to be happy.”
Following some postponed pandemic wedding plans, Ida and Hanna got married in summer 2022. The long-awaited ceremony took place outside, in a Bergen park near the couple’s home.
“It was a really special celebration,” says Hanna, recalling a day of sunshine and festivities.
Embarking on a journey
Hanna and Ida no longer work together. When Ida left the company a few years ago, her colleagues gave her a gift card for a romantic weekend away at Solstrand. The couple look forward to returning, and hope one day to celebrate 50 years of marriage at their favorite hotel.
Hanna and Ida describe their years together so far as a “fascinating and fun journey.”
“It’s been this feeling of having your best friend there, all the way. Like, whatever happens, you have your best friend, and it makes you feel like things are going to work out eventually,” says Ida, who adds that becoming a step parent has also “changed her life” and taught her a lot.
Hanna says she’s learned a lot from Ida too.
“Ida is very brave,” says Hanna. “She’s a lot wiser than me when it comes to relationships and emotions. And she is very brave in daring to talk about things, when things get tough.”
“We got close very fast and kind of have this complete trust in each other, so we can be ourselves. I’ve never been in such a close relationship before and it changed my life in many different ways. And also having a partner who also loves my daughter and being a family – a bigger family.”