Jane Anderson and her family eschew the Alps and Pyrenees and instead head north for winters sports and skiing in Geilo, in Norway.
I’d like to claim that we’re one of those families who’ve been proficiently navigating the ski slopes for years, our kids Scarlett 12 and Fin 9, at home in the snow, me and their dad Steve, comfortable on black runs. The reality is very different.
The kids have done one days skiing in the Czech Republic a few years ago, I have a smattering of ski trips under my belt from way back in my twenties. Steve is a complete novice! So where an earth to turn to for a successful first family ski trip? We put our faith in experts at Ski Safari, who recommend Geilo in Norway.
We set off in the February half term, our journey there an adventure in itself. After our quick flight to Oslo, we’re on the Airport Express Train platform bound for Oslo’s main tran station. There’s a magical ‘whispering voice’ in the platform floor telling us in seductive Norwegian tones that, “Some people travel and are always relaxed, no rush, others who stay at home always seem in a hurry.” Very true I think. I’m warming to Norway in the sub zero temperatures.
We board the famous Olso-Bergen train for what turns out to be the most scenic trip I’ve been on, EVER! The three-hour journey into Norway’s heartland takes us past vast frozen lakes with tiny ice skaters on the flat white, cloud hanging low in mighty fjords, icy beaches, pretty villages with red wooden cabins and mighty fir trees against tiffany blue skies. Compared to UK trains, it’s slick as you like with wide comfy seats, a soft play area for small kids and delicious food. We tuck into cold beef with mustardy mash and tasty pizzas.
It’s dark by the time we reach Geilo. There are lots of families piling off the train and on to waiting coaches to take us just a short drive to the foot of the slopes and the gorgeous Vestlia Resort, a four-star plus that feels like five. The kids have a manic celebration in the deep snow – chucking snowballs and flinging themselves down to make snow angels.
Vestlia Resort is slap bang at the foot of the slopes, so a great family choice as it’s truly ski in, ski out. It also manages to combine modernity with a traditional log cabin feel. The lobby is a soaring double height space with oversized wooden beams. There’s a huge crackling fire and beautiful sofas to flop on, yet it’s functional enough to cope with families traipsing through in their ski gear.
It has an avante garde feel with still shockingly raw paintings and drawings by Munch, arguably Norway’s best-known artist. Intricately painted antique wooden furniture, such as day beds and big chests dot the wide corridors. The children love clambering on them and there’s nothing uptight about this place. We have a family suite with a double bedroom and a very comfy red velvet sofa bed in the lounge-cum-kitchen dining room. Its dark wood walls and black and white photos of 1940’s skiers give it a calm atmosphere. And best of all is the view of the mountains.
Next morning we’re up early to collect our skis, poles and helmets. As this is the first day of the half term, the ski rentals shop is packed. It’s a bit chaotic but eventually we emerge suited and booted. The kids are assigned to Hendrikke and Steve and I to Knut, both strapping young local guys with ruddy faces and an enviable ease in the snow who have the task of teaching us. We all begin on the gentle nursery slope, making it down in one piece between the little kiddy slalom markers. We all master the art of the button lift between our legs, though Fin gets a bit gung ho and tumbles off at one point. It’s hard when you’re nine and full of beans not to get carried away with this new playground.
Hendrikke and Knut have a laid back teaching style but the minute anything falters they’re magically by your side to assist. Soon we’re heading up the second slope, that much higher and the view over the valley breathtaking. After our lessons we all head back to the hotel on our skis and try mastering the art of taking off heavy boots when you’re just used muscles you didn’t know you had, carrying all your equipment down a flight of steps. By the end of the week we cotton on to the trick of leaving your ski boots in the corridor outside your room instead of the cold store room, so that they’re nice and dry and warm when you put them on.
The greatest joy of Vestlia is its warm swimming pool, with a large picture window right out onto the snow. As we swim next to the mural of Norwegian mythical creatures, we can see the slopes turning blue in the evening light. It's a magical feeling sitting in the large Jacuzzi with other families all elated after a successful day on the slopes and there’s the added attraction of an 82-metre waterslide for the kids. We’re all beginning to understand why ski holidays become addictive.
Cleverly there’s also and adult-only spa at the other side of the hotel, a total sanctuary with heated relaxation beds, pool, hot tub, sauna, steam room and intensely relaxing treatments for aching limbs. Our morning ski lessons are going well. Adults and kids are now split, but Scarlett reports progress is good. They are soon coming down the mountain in a train of kiddies. If anyone falls, everyone stops and picks them up.
On day three we’re all taken on the chair lift to the ‘big’ slope. The kids work in partners holding poles to come down the slopes. They do exercises on how to stop and are gaining in confidence.
That afternoon we have a treat in store. We ditch our skis and wander down the snowy road, Fin like a puppy throwing himself into snowdrifts. Soon we hear the excited barks of husky dogs and we’re met by smiling Mari whose job title is ‘Musherinne’. We’re here for husky sledding and Mari tells us that the dogs only have one speed – hell for leather! Sledding with them is more like constant breaking! The dogs are raring to go, barking and jumping up. We’re on the valley floor with its vast planes of snow, some through the trees. The kids go with driver Alex, and Steve and I have our own sled, taking turns to stand behind and steer and brake, or sit snuggly in the sled and enjoy the sensation of tearing over the packed snow.
After our exhilarating ride, we’re invited to sit on wooden benches and reindeer skins around an impressive fire, suspended over ice, where we’re served warm lemonade in carved wooden cups and the strips of the local, sweet brown cheese on crackers. Alex tells us that these dogs are highly intelligent. “My friend has a dog that can lock the door!” Mari tells us a bit about Geilo folk. That they are generally known as being a little bit insular, but very dependable and they know how to look after themselves in this harsh but beautiful environment which only every reaches 15 degrees in mid summer.
During the week, Vestlia Resort reveals its other secrets too. Breakfasts are a huge spread of healthy delights along with the chance to make your own waffles and smother them in cream. In the evenings it’s a proper three courses with local influences such as venison stew with lingen berries – all with waiter service, some of whom we see on the slopes by day! The posh woodclad bowling alley in the basement proves another unexpected treat.
Back on the slopes, it’s our final ski lesson of the week. Knut show me how to take long parallel turns across the slopes and instead of trying to slow myself down with an undignified snow plough, I just head up the slope slightly. It’s so obvious, yet a revelation! As we take a second ski lift, I realise there’s a whole network of slopes behind the mountain. It’s an awesome sight and most of the wide slopes are between pretty trees. We’ve all progressed massively and are up and skiing, though I do notice Knut doing a sneaky 360 degree flip on a small jump and realize what novices we are still!
Saturday is our final days skiing, the atmosphere is more relaxed and we’re out on our own with the kids. We’re all feeling pretty confident and soon the kids are veering off through the narrow ski paths through the trees. I try to follow but find it really difficult to navigate the hillocks and tight turns. Next time round I ski on ahead to meet them at the bottom of the copse of trees, skiing ahead so I can take a photo. Scarlett emerges elated through the trees, but no Fin. After some anxious minutes of calling, Steve heads down the mountain to see if we missed Fin or to get help and I rip off my skis and clamber up through the trees with Scarlett, panicking inside.
It’s not a good feeling loosing your child on the side of a mountain. We’re both yelling, suddenly feel vulnerable. At last Scarlett says she hears him and there he is, by a tree that he bumped into, his skis flung off, thankfully fit as a fiddle. I’ve never been quite so pleased to see him but make light of it. Heading back down with him to find my skis and his anxious dad whose standing with a mountain rescue who’s ready to send out a search. She tells us how the snow absorbs sound. It’s a reminder of how these mountains are mightier than us.
That evening we have one final treat in store, a sleigh ride into town. As we’re waiting outside Vestlia in the snow, watching the night skiers zigzag down the yellow lit slopes, we hear sleigh bells and what appears to be a bear of a man with a colossal beard, clothed in a floor-length coat made of fur, tied with red cord, driving an ancient wooden sleigh with two burning torches at the rear. ‘Has Santa come for us?’ I ask a wide-eyed Fin. The driver later confirms that his coat is made from dog fur and is 200 years old, “I got it when I was little,” he says.We all snuggle between the reindeer skins and we’re off across frozen lakes and through the snowy forest where we glimpse what looks like aliens gliding through this winter wonderland with lamps on their heads (cross country skiers!). Eventually the red wood houses become more frequent and we’re heading into town, the mighty horse steaming in the frosty night with the effort of the upward slopes. Eventually we’re outside an old red, green and blue painted house which turns out to be Hallingstuene Restaurant.
We all snuggle between the reindeer skins and we’re off across frozen lakes and through the snowy forest where we glimpse what looks like aliens gliding through this winter wonderland with lamps on their heads (cross country skiers!). Eventually the red wood houses become more frequent and we’re heading into town, the mighty horse steaming in the frosty night with the effort of the upward slopes. Eventually we’re outside an old red, green and blue painted house which turns out to be Hallingstuene Restaurant.
We wave good-bye to ‘Santa’, and head inside to what looks like a series of cosy living rooms. Owned by renowned Norwegian TV chef, Frode Aga and his wife Berit Kongsvik, we’re in for a treat. The menu is based on what’s in season such as moose, reindeer, grouse or trout. We opt for the grilled mountain trout served on wooden painted plates. Here we learn our only word of Norwegian, ‘Tusen takk’. Thank you very much! It’s our sentiments entirely to Geilo. Despite our ups and one down, it turns out the kids are at home in on the slopes in just one week and we have all fallen in love with Norway. Result!