The evenings are closing in, the leaves are turning to brown in preparation for their fall, temperatures are sinking. Soon the early morning routine will involve an extra few minutes being factored in so that the car windscreen can be defrosted. How easy it is to shelter inside, lamenting the passing of another summer and seeking comfort in a steaming mug. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Winter doesn’t always have to be about cowering in hibernation. If a certain level of exhilaration and physical excitement is needed to keep you satisfied, this could in fact be your opportune season.
A point I have made to many people is that you don’t have to be a fitness freak or to fit the ‘exercise junkie’ stereotype to enjoy wintersports. I mean, OK, personally I am an outdoor-loving sports-crazy thrill-seeker, so I realise I may not seem the best person to tell anyone this, but many people who don’t share my willingness to physically exert themselves have waxed equally lyrical about the joys of skiing/snowboarding getaways. While the sensation of freedom and the adrenaline rush of hurtling down a mountain is what lights an icy fire inside me, some enjoy a more leisurely meander down the gentler, windier slopes, taking in the stunning scenery as they do so. Those is search of a more gruelling workout can seek out the cross-country trails, which, just like the downhill pistes, can be enjoyed in a solitary or social setting. Away from the slopes, the presence of a ski resort often brings a certain vibrancy to what would otherwise be a remote and isolated community, meaning restaurants (there’s nothing quite like a day on the cold mountains to whet one’s appetite!), cafés, bars, saunas and spas tend to abound in the nearby vicinity.
There is still a big issue though: location. For the vast majority of people, snow-topped mountains just don’t seem to be lying on the doorstep. There are a few places where you can ski on a wet carpet-like surface, but it’s just not the same. Many of my early skiing escapades with my family were preceded by some practice runs in Kilternan in the south of Dublin, but beyond honing the technique these artificial ski centres lack much appeal. If you really want the full mountain and wintersport experience, nothing rivals making a full-blown holiday of it, spending a week or so in or near the mountains and taking on the snow after fuelling up for the morning with a hotel buffet breakfast.
The question, then, is where to go. Andorra is a good place for novices, with plentiful ski schools and package holidays, while the French Pyrenées offers some beautiful resorts such as Saint-Lary, Piau-Engaly and Puyvalador. The northern Italian region of Trentino is also a popular spot, with the underrated resort of Monte Bondone a hidden gem. The latter also has ski-in-ski-out access to charming and cosy hotels and additional activities such as late-night tobogganing for those who just can’t get enough of the snowy slopes.
However, when I trek down memory lane and up the snow-topped mountains, there is one country that stands head and shoulders above the rest in my backlog of skiing experiences. Norway, with its towering mountains, super-fresh Scandinavian air and reliability for consistent snow, is a wintersport haven like no other. With resorts such as the expansive Hafjell and the smaller but well-equipped Tryvann, along with other attractions such as bobsleighing and gazing in awe at the miraculous wonder that is ski-jumping, this nation of rugged beauty merits both the cold and the price tags (both of which are consistently considerable). So, as you gaze out the window at the dreary grey sky blissfully dreaming of whiter pastures, allow me to fill your wishful thoughts with a few specific recommendations…
Tryvann: Starting small
With the yearly week-long holidays something of a family tradition, my childhood post-Christmas periods were enlivened by counting down the days until the next skiing getaway. As a 16-year-old, who had already slid and tumbled down plenty of pistes in Scotland (yes, my first skiing holidays were in fact in Scotland, a fact that tends to draw funny looks from people) Andorra and France, Tryvann gave me my first taste of Norwegian skiing. Located a short drive from the capital city of Oslo (which, by the way, seems like a largely unremarkable city), the small resort more than lived up to my expectations of Norway being the real deal. It does tend to crowd somewhat on weekends, with locals flocking out from Oslo, but on weekdays it runs like clockwork, their rapidly efficient ski-hire allowing one to get kitted out and on the slopes in no time. Lift queues also move nicely, meaning that not too much time is wasted between runs. As for the slopes themselves, they consist of a nice variation for beginners and intermediate skiers, with a network of green runs (for beginners) in a secluded area, hidden away from the speedsters, while several interlinked blues (the next easiest level after green) allow skiers to travel slightly further. More daring skiers have several red runs (the second most difficult) to choose from, some of which are short but exhilarating and some of which allow for a longer run to the bottom, while one black slope (for advanced skiers) provides a real challenge.
As I unbuckled my boots at the end of that initial day of snow-filled fun, it was difficult to say what exactly it was that had me in such high-flying humour. ‘Brilliant!’ I enthused as my grandmother enquired as to how it had all been, flushed with adrenaline after a few hours of letting gravity and two pieces of wood bring me careering down a mountain. On paper, it seems like an average resort, as my above description of it probably implies, but there was just something extra about skiing here that set it apart from its more southerly counterparts. The thickness and smoothness of the snow, without any of the half-melted puddles of slush that pop up in the afternoons in sunnier climates, allow for uninterrupted, unhindered movement, while the view from the chairlifts (which, for those of you who are as of yet unfamiliar with ski resorts, are moving benches which you sit on at the bottom of a ski slope, which then hoist you into the air on a thick cable before carrying you up the mountain and depositing you at the top of some slopes) of the pointy strikingly-green trees and the vast white and grey mountains for miles around eclipses anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
With its small size though, Tryvann probably wouldn’t keep many skiers amused for an entire week, especially those who desire some real challenges on the black pistes. But with its ease of access due to its proximity to Oslo, it’s a fantastic place to start the holiday before heading further north to Hafjell, the real real deal. Don’t go tearing straight up there, though! There’s something else in the Oslo vicinity you should see first…
Holmenkollen: Those magnificent athletes, flying without machines
Any who have seen the recent film Eddie the Eagle, or who have availed of regular access to Eurosport as part of their TV package, will have a rough idea as to what ski-jumping is. But some things just aren’t the same when seen from the other side of a screen, and the magnitude of a real-life ski-jumping hill is certainly one of them. As well as playing host to many international tournaments throughout the winter, the colossus at Holmenkollen contains a museum built into the back of the hill detailing the history of skiing. After perusing the ancient equipment on display and watching the audio-visual accounts of the sports origins and developments, visitors can then take a lift, followed by some gruelling stairs, up to the top in order to enjoy the view taken in by the pros before they take flight. No jumping off, though. Not that many people would want to when they see the steep slope disappear out of sight and realise that the landing area would only become visible when they were already in the sky.
Yet despite the sheer magnitude of the drop and the seeming craziness of the very idea, there are some who can use this construction as more than an impressive viewing platform. Not for some extreme dare, but because it’s what they do, it’s how they live their lives; travelling around from one cold climate to the next, forever trying to eclipse the distances of their rivals as they leap into the sky. If you time your visit to Holmenkollen nicely, you can see these brave athletes in action at one of the many tournaments that take place there. On one of my now several visits to Norway I had such fortune, standing and staring in awe as jumpers took the leap. So fast as they hurtled down the in-run, so graceful and elegant as they became airborne, folding their long skis upwards towards their bodies to create that oh-so-miraculous gliding position, so surreally superhuman as they flew through the sky before landing with such precision and swiftly sweeping up into the circular out-run where they calmly slowed to a halt, it was unlike anything my then-18-year-old-self had ever seen before. With a sizeable crowd in attendance, some waving the flags of the countries they were supporting and some merely enjoying the spectacle, the atmosphere was one of joviality, infectious enthusiasm for wintersport and widespread appreciation for what is truly a special feat of human athleticism. There is no event quite like a ski-jumping competition, and there is no experience quite like being at one.
Hafjell: Where the greats have skied!
Further north and further into the Scandinavian cold lies the sleepy town of Lillehammer, host city for the 1994 Winter Olympics. Our one visit to the town of Lillehammer was a rather unremarkable one, wandering the empty streets in the early evening with the impression we had landed in a snow-soaked ghost town. Eventually finding one open restaurant, we barely had time to finish our Chinese meal before being rushed out the door so that they too could lock up for the night.
So Lillehammer itself might not seem worth venturing so close to the Arctic Circle for, but it’s what lies outside the town that merits the trip. Hafjell, where the downhill skiing events of that particular Olympics took place, is the place to be, the place to stay and the place to ski. Despite the general lack of enthusiasm amongst Norwegians for downhill skiing – the more arduous cross-country skiing is sometimes referred to as ‘real skiing’ by the locals – one would be hard pushed to find a better resort for it than Hafjell. With a vast array of slopes catering for all levels of proficiency, some spectacular high points which can be reached by gondola, and snow that is generally in ready supply but with the slopes nevertheless kept in ideal condition, a zealous mountain-lover could explore the pistes and trails up here for weeks on end without growing bored.
Some of the resorts become floodlight-illuminated when the sun goes down, enabling another fantastic experience of skiing under lights. The area at the bottom of the slopes also provides plenty of amusement after dark for those who have had their fill of snow during daylight hours, with ample restaurants, cafés and bars to satisfy the well-whetted appetites of those coming in from the cold. (Be warned: It does get pretty damn freezing up there. We experienced -17°C at the top when we went in January one year so make sure you wrap up well!) The range of accommodation available in this zone and the consequent ease of access to the resort every morning makes staying here a preferable option to trekking out from Lillehammer.
So all in all, we now have the itinerary for quite the amazing winter break. Two ski resorts, one of them every inch an Olympic venue and deserving of such a title, and an incredible spectacle at the ski-jumping. That’ll do, surely? But no, there is something else. Something it would be an absolute travesty to miss out on during a visit to the Lillehammer area. Something we did miss out on during our first visit, as it had just closed for the end of the season, and we had to go back in the depths of winter the following year for a second bite at the cherry. Before packing up the woolly hats and scarves and flying back to the sofa and fireplace, there are some cool runnings to be had…
Lillehammer Bob and Luge Track: Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme…
Get to Lillehammer for bobsleigh time! My intrigue about the Lillehammer Bob and Luge Track began, not in Norway, but in the comfort of my family home in Laois, Ireland. Upon learning of the existence of a track near where my parents had booked an upcoming holiday, where one could actually participate in this extreme sport I had gazed at in wonder on many an eyes-glued-to-Eurosport occasion, it became something of an obsession. I was going to go in a bobsleigh. I would actually get to ride in one of those vehicles, so simplistic yet so ingeniously-designed, that hurtled around an icy track at such breakneck speed. Throughout the months of counting down to our Norwegian escapade, I read the description on the track’s website more times than I care to remember. We acquired a copy of the film Cool Runnings, which I watched several times over, feeling increasing affinity with those courageous Jamaican bobsledders the more I thought about the upcoming 2-minute adventure in Lillehammer. I began to save money especially for the occasion. As far as I was concerned, nothing was going to stop me going in one of those bobsleighs.
Nothing, that is, except for the crushing news from our taxi driver that it had closed up the previous week, not opening again until the beginning of the following winter season. Myself and my sister tried to delude ourselves that he was wrong, that maybe he had made a mistake, but a check online the following morning confirmed the worst. What a blow. The bobsleigh dream, having grown so much over the previous few months, had now been deflated. As fantastic as this entire holiday in its entirety had been, it was hard not to feel somewhat gutted.
Back home we went, and the bobsleigh dream refused to die. Cool Runnings remained a favourite, and that track in Lillehammer, which we came so near to and yet so far from, continued to prey on my mind. So imagine my delight when my parents decided that Hafjell was worth a second holiday the following winter. This time for the New Year, so we could spend the first week in January there. Slap bang in the middle of the winter, surely the track would still be open then.
Lo and behold, it was. With very childish excitement for the 17-year-old that I was at the time, my eyes widened as we spotted some real-life sleds on the way into the reception. Having paid up, myself and my sister were soon sitting in the back of an old-fashioned van, trying to catch every possible glimpse of the track we were headed to the top of. Upon reaching the top, we put our helmets on with shaking hands, feeling a mixture of excitement, adrenaline and fear that can only be understood by someone who has taken on the bobsleigh experience. Squeezing ourselves into the rather unglamorous sled, our pilot calmly assured us that everything would be OK. Softly-spoken and seeming very much at ease, he matter-of-factly told us that he had been working as a pilot at this track for some years now, having been a several-times Norwegian champion in his younger days. ‘We’re in safe hands then!’ my sister said with a nervous laugh.
One point worth clarifying is that tourists paying for a ride in a bobsleigh are not expected to do the running push-start done by competitors. Nor are they expected to move a certain way when turning, or to do anything at all other than sit there and enjoy the ride. A professional driver sits in the front position and controls the sleigh, while the ride begins with said driver pulling a rope attached to the tunnel ceiling in order to get the sleigh moving in a downwards direction. So don’t worry about the need to train and or to attain knowledge of bobsleigh technique, all will be taken care of by the pros.
As for the ride itself, words will have a hard time describing it. Reaching a blistering speed within seconds of sliding down from the starting point, the sleigh’s movements cause one’s head to jerk and jolt from side to side while the view changes so rapidly it feels like being in a video clip that’s on fast forward. On some sections of the course the sleigh careers around perpendicular to the ground, with negative g-force keeping its riders in their seats (any who undergo the experience are afterwards presented with a badge welcoming them to the 5-g Club, along with a certificate). Surreal, exciting and exhilarating, the whole thing is over so quickly, but the memory lasts forever.
Initial visitors to Norway might begin to feel doubts almost immediately upon disembarking the plane. Temperatures remain consistently on the floor, some of its more well-known cities such as Oslo and Lillehammer don’t seem to offer too much and price tags are invariably of a hefty nature. But if a wintersport wonderland is what you’re looking for, this is the place. Start small with a day or two on the slopes at Tryvann, and have a look at the ski-jumping hill and museum – or even better, take in a competition – at Holmenkollen while you’re in the Oslo area. Once you feel you’ve got your ski-legs, head up to Hafjell and ski or snowboard to your heart’s content, albeit with one morning or afternoon put aside for a rip-roaring ride at Lillehammer Bob and Luge Track. With just this simple plan to follow, you could very well be in for the winter break of a lifetime!