My daughter Molly is triumphant; arms raised high, her ski sticks even higher as she points to the heavens in celebration. Two short days with a young Swedish instructor called Lars and our nine year old has advanced from snow-ploughing her way down the slopes to parallel skiing and has just glided down a red slope, with the promise of a future Olympian. It’s a moment to treasure in the family annals, made more memorable because it’s an empty slope, with only her parents as witness on a beautiful, blue-skied April day. We’re bathed in sunshine, fresh crunchy snow from last nights fall underfoot and only the sound of bird song interrupting Molly’s shrieks of joy. It’s a perfect Winter Wonderland. Easter holidays in most Alpine resorts means no snow at all or hordes of over excited late season skiers swarming down the slopes like speeding locusts. Here in an area nicknamed the Scandinavian Alps, two hours flight north from London, with the minimal weekenders from Oslo back at work we have this glorious resort almost to ourselves.
To say Hemsedal is bliss for children is like saying they quite like Christmas. This tiny Norwegian village is a blueprint for everything a ski resort should be, no bling or designer kit but snowmen and sleigh rides, mini mogul fun runs, circular cross country tracks that run for miles and skidoo racing for speed freaks age 12 and up. It’s impossible to get bored. This is our second visit and already the small village at the foot of the peaks feels like home, a place that’s easily familiar and impossible not to be drawn back to time after time. It helps that we’ve found a perfect cabin, ski in for most of the year, with an open fire and a hot tub on the wooden terrace. It’s a cosy triumph of wood and glass, rugs and comfy sofas, and sits on the upper reaches of the mountainside, looking down on the red, green, blue and black runs that converge at the resorts epicenter; the Alpine Lodge. From the living room in the far distance the mountainside is sepia tinted with the spiny winter pines stark against the white of the snow. Inside couldn’t be more lovely, the fire burning, the sauna heating up to ease aching ski legs, kids squealing as they run from outdoor hot tub to snow drift and back in, while Dad rustles up melt in the mouth steak and stir fried vegetables.
We’re lazy skiers and like to quit mid afternoon and while away our post ski hours watching others speed down the mountain from our terrace Hot Tub, zigzagging like demented ballet dancers across the dazzling white snow. There are 45 runs in all including some fabulously long blues and reds, that meander down the mountains offering a combination of challenge and solitude that’s hard to find elsewhere. The double diamond black run glints to our far left and tantalizes the kids from their bubbling outdoor bath. It fills me with fear but remains their ultimate ski ambition, forbidden until they reach 12 years old. For a family like us, with a super skier father, accomplished children and still tentative mum it’s a perfect combination of challenges. The lifts are open from 9am to 4.30pm all year but there is also early morning skiing from 7.30am a couple of times a week and evening skiing on three nights for those who can drag themselves away from the fireside.
A draw to fellow Scandinavians and a smattering of Dutch and German tourists Norway’s appeal for British visitors is as undeniable as it is under exploited. Empty slopes, English speaking natives, charming and child friendly ski instructors and a guides and a genuine mountain lifestyle, not conjured up to please visitors but lived year in and year out by these hardy northerners. Moose roam the mountains, saunas are ubiquitous, and locals still ski to the shops. The resort at Hemsedal is made up of a cacophony of wooden cabins clinging onto the vertiginous slopes, of varying architectural styles, from Disney style old world to glass and steel Bauhaus, a couple of less exceptional apartment buildings clad in pine and the uber modern Skarsnuten Hotel, sitting loftily above the rest with it’s lopsided triangular roof . The floor to ceiling glass windows allow for vertiginous vistas and a breathtaking view from the dining table.
Despite its picture perfect setting and welcoming family atmosphere, surprisingly Hemsedal remains a Scandinavian secret with so few Brits that we stand out on the slopes! I admit the frills can be in short measure, fluffy towels seem to be an anathema, duvets on double beds come in single size so ‘individuals’ aren’t compromised and the food is simple but delicious and based around a few basic ingredients, mousse and elk, beef and lamb, salmon and trout and the ubiquitous potato. A new Tapas bar caters for anyone looking for more international fare. People’s first reaction when you mention Norway is the expense and it’s certainly not cheap. If our government taxed alcohol to the degree they do here, where a glass of beer can cost £8 and up, there’d be a revolution. The Norwegian’s acceptance of such punitive law making is a tribute only to the stoicism of the population. That said if you opt mainly for self-catering, no challenge with three well stocked supermarkets in the tiny town and stock up on wine at duty free you’ll be no more out of pocket than at one of the swish Swiss resorts like Verbier.
Perhaps the thing we like most is the opportunity for activities other than relentless skiing. A day after Molly’s mastery of parallel we’re off on a new adventure, skittering along a high flat plateau, in sleighs, pulled by a team of panting dogs. The sun is dazzling as it glints on the lake we’re zooming across, the candyfloss clouds and pinnacled pines reflected in the thawing surface like a trapped unwater world. In summer here, late May until late August, the area briefly returns to being two interconnecting lakes surrounded by the ubiquitous pines but for the rest of the year it’s a frozen landscape, worthy of the Snow Queen, that belongs mainly to Johan and his team of Hemsedal Huskies and the occasional cross country skier. Two hours flying along as fast as our dogs can carry us, and a few tumbles along the way and we’re back at base camp where untying the huskies from their harnesses is nearly as much fun for the children, who’ve all developed their favourites, as the actual sleighing.
Not that it’s only about the kids – flinging myself downhill at speed has never been top of my list and if it weren’t for having children, despite my Scandi roots I might never have darkened another ski slope again. A cross-country odyssey holds far more allure with it’s full body work out and isolationist opportunities. During a morning on the local cross country tracks a ridiculously attractive instructor from Learn2ski , Sire Halle; with a three foot blonde plait and cheekbones to die for, tells me that such ‘classic skiing’ has developed serious prestige and is now seen as a marker of a good businessman or woman (in Norway boardrooms actually are 50/50 male and female because they had five years of all female shortlists to ensure they achieved equal representation). Downhill designates you a daredevil and thrill seeker but the need for focus and endurance make cross country the ideal test for aspiring Master ‘s and Mistresses of the universe. An annual race, called the Birkebeineren, from Rena to Lillehammer see’s Norway’s top industrialists compete against each other while the newspaper city pages have a field day comparing the bosses skiing skills to their companies performance.
After a morning of energetic cross-country for mum, three hours of ski school for the kids and a downhill orgy for Dad we mark our last day with lunch high up in the hills at an extraordinary oasis called Harahorn made up of a handful of delectable wooden cabins, from romantic huts for two to family sized , sauna-boasting delights. Here you’ll eat some of the finest food available outside the capitol. In the long yellow dining room, in dappled sunlight with it’s communal refectory table, blazing log fire and sweet smelling candles we are served up mouth melting river trout , on a bed of celery mash that’s devoured enthusiastically by all the family. Washed down with a mountain friendly chilled Riesling, ( parents only), and followed with a Cloudberry sorbet our gourmet happiness is complete. While the kids talk jabber excitedly about their mornings skiing adventures Jason and I gaze out at the snow piled, pine forested wilderness all around and muse about next years return visit.