There are times, on the drive between the ski resort of Hemsedal and Oslo, when the white winter landscape reminds you irresistibly of the American west. Human habitation is sparse. ice forms on lakes beside the road, a black ribbon between snow covered fields and forest.
And while one summit near Hemsedal roughly mirrors the outline of the Matterhorn, the abiding impression of Norway’s ski mountains is reminiscent of those in much of the US, whose profile is more rounded and less dramatic than that of the Alps. It is perhaps no accident that the Norwegian fjell (mountain) has become fell in English.
It had been over two decades since my only other ski trip to Norway. Then I was somewhat underwhelmed by what I saw as the modest nature of the terrain. This time, with a wider choice of slopes open. I was pleasantly surprised. The two resorts I visited, Geilo and Hemsedal, would be excellent options for over-50s skiers with nothing to prove. The latter gets a but raucous at weekends and during public holidays but for most of the time both seem far from the madding crowds in major Alpine resorts. You might even be tempted to abandon downhilling for cross country skiing, on the many kilometres of track which stretch out into the countryside.
The whole experience feels different. I arrived on a Crystal Ski charter at a snowy Fagernes airport, whose little terminal, apparently, had only one check desk. From there it was about two hours to Geilo and the four star Finest Hotel Vestlia Resort, whose corridors were lined with antique furniture, including boxed in wooden beds. This being close to the winter solstice, daylight house on the mountain were limited. As twilight reduced visibility and a brisk wind began to whip the snow I did not venture out after lunch – though on some floodlights made skiing later possible for hardier souls.
A century or so ago the area around Hemsedal was one of the poorest in Norway, where the proportion of residents seeking new opportunities in the US was among the country’s highest. Things looked up with advent of hydroelectricity but it was tourism that really made the difference. Some local farmers milked their cows in the mornings and evenings, manned the ski lifts in between – and even drive taxis in the evenings.
Hemsedal’s skiing is more varied and challenging than Geilo’s. There are some lovely, long cruising runs, especially the newly opened, 5.1 kilometre run from Totten to the centre of town. Until this season it wasn’t possible to ski to the centre on piste. There are plans to build a new lift back up but for the time being you need to catch a bus to the resort’s main base, which is some distance away.
A word about the food. It’s far from boring. Scandinavian new wave cooking has reached here, too. At the Harahorn hotel restaurant (a 20 minute taxi ride from Hemsedal but worth it) I ate a wonderful dinner which included smoked trout with apple with the smoke still curling in the jar it was served in, dried moose with a small bowl of intense chanterelle soup, venison cooked to pink perfection and pureed cloudberries with goat cheese ice cream. Which prompts a word or two about prices. A meal like this doesn’t come cheap – but then nor does eating out generally in Norway. Three courses with wine at Harahorn would start at around £85, based in the value of the £ against the Norwegian Krone at the time of writing. A very meaty goulash soup with bread in one slopeside restaurant cost around £9, a god size burger with fries in an other approximately £15.
Our transfer lift between Geilo and Hemsedal arrived a little late. The driver had been held up behind a lorry, which had run into an elk on the road – an incident which add to the feeling of similarity with North America.
Crystal Ski offers one week, half board packages at the Finest Vestlia Resort Hotel in Geilo or at Hemsedal’s Finest Skarsknuten Hotel including flights from Gatwick. Sample prices in early March: £795 and £875 respectively. A cheaper option would be self catering. The operator offers one of the beautifully equipped Forest Cabins in Geilo, for example at £750 for a week stating on March 1.
NB: these prices were correct at the time of writing but may change at any time.