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Good Ski Guide
Alf Alderson heads to the home of skiing for some cross-country and downhill action.
There seemed to be some misunderstanding. Fellow skiers looked upon my trip to Norway to try my hand at cross-country skiing as a soft option – an easy pootle through the woods, which should be no problem for a committed downhill skier.
Well the fall I’d just taken – which must have been the twentieth of the morning – was gonna leave the kind of bruise that doesn’t come from soft options. And not only was I struggling to maintain my balance on these elongated toothpicks, I was sweating like a fat lad in a bun shop from having to ski uphill as well as down.
But that was after just one hour on the trails around Gålå in southern Norway and my cynicism was ill founded, as later that same day my instructor Jacob had sent me out on my own on an easy 12-km loop across the upland plateau of the Peer Gynt Ski Region, where the slopes were gentle, my falls were less frequent, and the scenery was out of this world.
For Norway in January is very different from the alpine areas of the Alps and Rocky Mountains. The high latitude and generally clear skies result in a bright, low-angled light that picks out the surrounding mountains in magnificent detail, and each day is framed at either end by beautiful pastel shades on both sky and snow as the sun sinks very slowly beneath the horizon from its already low trajectory.
And once you’ve mastered the basic technique of cross-country skiing – which for any competent alpine skier won’t take much more than a morning – you can go out and discover these unforgettable winter landscapes on some 600 kms of trails around Gålå.
If you prefer to relax at the end of the day rather than having a banging time in a bar or club – and believe me, you’ll want to relax after a few kilometres of cross-country – this is also the place to be. Dive into a frugally ‘heated’ outdoor pool then rush headlong into the sauna to experience the classic Scandinavian cliché, then vegetate over a drink in your hotel bar before dinner, after which you can maybe wander through the snow to Gålå’s one public bar and jostle with the other three customers. Your inability to speak Norwegian won’t be a problem in getting into conversation with them, since most Norwegians speak English with considerably more flair than the average Premier League footballer.
For anyone not completely addicted to the thrill of hurtling downhill at high speeds, cross-country skiing has got to be worth considering at least once in your skiing career, for it gives you a chance to see mountains as they really should be seen – free of ski lifts and hordes of skiers and boarders, and under your own steam, which will make you feel far more worthy than a ride in a gondola ever can.
Even better, at Gålå. There’s also a limited amount of downhill skiing available on runs that are invariably coated in dry, powdery snow so if you do want to get back to the familiarity of wide skis and fixed bindings, this will keep you happy for a day or two.
However, if you really must have downhill and downhill only, the place to head for is Voss. Easily accessed for a long weekend from the UK, there are a modest 40 kms of piste here, mostly above the tree line, which vary from easy cruisers to steeper, bumpier options along with some fun off-piste.
If you visit after a fresh fall of snow you’ll find Voss is the archetypal Scandinavian ski town, from a skating rink on the frozen lake just beneath the cable car to the cosy outline of the snow draped hotels and homes tucked beneath pastel-shaded mountains.
Norway is the home of skiing and you can sense that it’s in the blood of the locals. Children here will be on cross-country skis by the time they’re two, and onto downhill skis a couple of years later, so with the long winters it’s quite possible to have spent something like 300 days on skis by the time you’re 5 years old.
Despite it’s low altitude of 3,120 ft Voss still has just under 3,000 ft of vertical, and the modest height and rolling mountains have a feel of the Scottish Highlands about them. The resort has recently invested heavily in snow cannon allowing for Voss to offer a snow guarantee even if Mother Nature refuses to do her winter stuff. The region also has a very long season, with skiing starting as early as the beginning of November some years and continuing to Easter (it’s possible to ski later but there aren’t enough people around after Easter to make it worth keeping the lifts open).
Even at the height of the season crowds are scarce. On my visit in late February not only were the World Freestyle Championships in town it was also a Norwegian school holiday, yet lift queues were non-existent, the pistes were uncrowded and to top it all the sun shone continuously.
Which just goes to show that whether you head for the back-country on skinny skis or the pistes on carvers, you’ll always have plenty of Norway to yourself.
GÅLÅ SKI ARENA
Gålå (www.gala.no) is in the heart of the Peer Gynt Ski Region, which has over 600 kms of linked cross-country trails and a small number of lift-served downhill slopes when you want a break from your skinny skis.
The trails are used for training by the Norwegian, Italian and German cross-country ski teams, and unlike many cross-country trails in the Alps, those at Gålå are high in the mountains rather than tucked down in the valleys, giving superb views of the nearby Jotunheimen and Rondane mountain ranges.
The trails are marked by coloured posts, but the colours are just a means of identification and don’t reflect the downhill grading system.
BOX OUT – GETTING THERE
Alf Alderson travelled to Gålå with Inntravel (01653 629000) www.inntravel.co.uk) and stayed at the Gålå Hogfjellshotel, a cosy traditional Norwegian mountain hotel located beside the ski trails. Prices start from £623 per person per week including flights from Heathrow to Oslo and transfers on the superb Norwegian railway system. Ski rental is £40 for six days, lessons are £43 for three 90 minute sessions.
Inghams (0208 780 4433 inghams.co.uk) offer week and weekend breaks at the historic four star Fleischer’s Hotel in Voss. A week’s half board costs from £457 based on two sharing, including direct flights from Gatwick to Bergen with Braathens, and transfers to Voss. Flights are also available at a supplement from Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Weekend breaks start at £422 per person for three nights half board based on two sharing. Ski packs can be pre-booked; six day adult lift pass starts from £55; six days ski & boot hire costs £75 and three days ski school costs £57. Free lift passes are available for children under 7 years if wearing a helmet.