Norway's secret off-piste paradise
There is something about the Norwegian landscape that makes a ski area feel like wilderness, despite the lifts and pistes splayed over it. Rolling mountains with few trees extend softly into the distance to meet the sky, and thereâs a feeling of lunar space thatâs a dramatic change from more familiar ski settings like the Alps or Pyrenees.
Iâve had the same impression in the resorts of BeitostÃ¸len and Geilo, and cross-country ski touring around the Hardanger glacier. And Iâve had plenty of time to mull this over as, late one afternoon in April, our group ski tours upwards above Myrkdalen, a place Iâd never heard of before this trip. Itâs a scenic two hours from Norwayâs second largest city, Bergen, by train and shuttle bus, but despite the easy commute, the pistes are supremely quiet.
Weâd set off from the top of the resortâs highest lift, the Kari Traa drag up to 1,060m, bound for the Fi nnbunuten peak at 1,358m, but it seems a long way off as we slide upwards and the top of one deceptively soft mound segues into another.
Myrkdalenâs 22 beautifully groomed pistes spread out below and away from us, the total 30km of runs belying the extent of the ski area, since thereâs so much space between pistes. The low numbers also hide a wealth of ambition. Only developed as a ski resort from 2003, when local investors got together with a steady-as-you-go grand plan, inspired by an average snowfall of 18 to 24 metres, and proximity to Bergen and the better-known ski town of Voss.
There are now nine lifts, including two fast chairlifts; a four-star hotel opened in 2012; and a building that houses four-star apartments, a sports shop, and the ski school. A food shop, and more lifts, pistes and accommodation are all in the works.
Our uphill journey is an unintimidating tour for learners, a gently sloping climb, no edgy dropoffs, and the low altitude makes i t easy on the lungs, too. But when we arrive at the top it still feels like an achievement â" reaching a cairn of stones, somewhere to plant a flag or take a selfie, always helps. As do the views. The hotel and a terrain park mark the foot of the slopes, and snowy-roofed cabins line the pistes, all dwarfed by the all-encompassing white.
The descent is another surprise. Our instructor/guide Simon leads us down unexpected steepness off piste, before cruising late afternoon piste emptiness to arrive at the door of the hotel. Its Pudder Afterski bar is bright with dayglo-clad skiers, thanks to a weekend event celebrating all things 1980s, including an impressive ski ballet competition and a local covers band called Turbo Stipend. Fully engaged with the dress-up theme, they perform an ebullient late-night set that would do Val dâIsÃ¨re proud.
Our stay in Myrkdalen marks the start of a two-centre, four-night Freeride the Fjords package organised by the resort, combining two thoroughly exciting words as far as Iâm concerned, travelling by boat and train to a ski hotel only accessible by rail.
The journey is along the Unesco-recognised NÃ¦rÃ¸yfjord, and naturally the boat is full of tourists of all nationalities. Only our group is hauling ski bags on board, using the two hour cruise to the small fjord-side town of FlÃ¥m as a transfer to freeride fun.
Norway and fjords. Iâd seen the photos (who hasnât), read about their geography, but until we got on board Vision of the Fjords at the port of Gudvangen, a short drive from Myrkdalen, I didnât understand their majesty.
Dark 1,800m cliffs, topped with white, drop into even darker waters, still and mesmerising. Everyone on board is clicking cameras, touring the decks to gaze and point, chatter and gasp. But for me, the power of the landscape, the huge, sometimes frozen, sometimes thundering waterfalls, picturesque villages and smooth empty waters, shut out all human noise. Itâs cold, the wind is whipping, but thereâs no way Iâm retreating inside. I stand, half hypnotised at the prow, just watching, all the way to FlÃ¥m.
Here, along with many of the other passengers from the boat, we board the FlÃ¥msbana train, its carriages illustrated with symbols of attractions en route, from fishing and waterfalls to skiing, at our destination, Vatnahalsen. We climb through rocky emptiness to 820m, past lakes and cliffs, the leading engine curving ahead, clinging to precipitous edges as we clickity-c lack under reinforcements that look like something used in a Western to shore up a mine.
At the Kjosfossen station everyone leaves the train, so we join them without fully understanding why, to find an elbows-out melÃ©e of frantic snapping, itself much more fun than the object, a frozen waterfall.
Vatnahalsen is the last stop before the FlÃ¥msbana reaches Myrdal on the main Oslo to Bergen railway line â" our route back to the city at the end of the trip. Weâre so near to a major transport route, yet so far, too. Getting off the train, the seven of us are the only ones left on the platform, and the view is much more exciting than the waterfall. A wall of snow and behind it, just the hotel, skiers sitting out in the late afternoon sun, with a beer or tea in front of them.
Although it was built in 1896 and became a ski destination in the early 20th century, the hotel fell out of favour as resorts with lifts took over. But then Petter Andresen, a man with as much vision as those investors in Myrkdalen, realised it was the perfect venue for ski touring. Three years ago, he teamed up with the Aksnes family, who own the hotel, and made it his mission to put Vatnahalsen back on the ski map.
Inside, I fall in love with its quirkily decorated, comfortable living rooms and relaxed atmosphere, where ski practicality â" kit-drying room and a ski boot-friendly lobby with benches â" blends easily with comfort. The spacious bedrooms have big en-suite bathrooms, plentiful hot water and luxurious L:A Bruket toiletries. Thereâs a sauna, and views over a frozen lake, surrounded by mountains just crying out to be skied.
The hotel does have a ski lift â" one drag, servicing a short run for training, or children. Thereâs also cross-country skiing on the lake and we take a turn around it before dinner. But the main event is ski touring over the mountains surrounding it.
Myrkdalenâs Freeride the Fjords package includes the services of a mountain guide and ours, Roald Lande, arrives to talk us through the next days over dinner â" a buffet spread that includes locally-sourced organic vegetables and a hearty lamb stew.
We set out early, dropping down through trees to the lake, pushing across it cross-country style before starting our ascent up through a narrow valley. Our aim is the 1,700m peak of Tryvann, which involves a ski-touring climb of around 900m. The route up is not intensely steep, but that doesnât make the two-hour ascent any easier. The spring snow is warmer than expected, but becomes harder as we climb, promising good times on the descent.
Roald sets what is probably a slow-to-medium pace for him, but feels pretty cracking to me, and when lunch comes Iâm ready for the sandwiches we made at breakfast, and a chocolate bar called Kvikk Lunsj. Just saying the name out loud lightens my mood and makes the upward toil easier for a couple of vertical kilometres. Finally, another cairn to mark a summit, before a fresh-track descent on snow thatâs softened just enough to make turns swishily cruisy and easy, with views over that rolling landscape.
The frozen lake is turning from white to blue as the ice melts into spring. The other distinctive landmark is the red Vatnahalsen hotel where I know there are freshly-made waffles, coming ever closer.
How to do it
Myrkdalen has two Freeride the Fjords trips in 2019, March 27 to 31 and April 3 to 7. The package includes two nights half-board at Myrkdalen Hotel, two-day lift pass, transfer from Myrkdalen to Gudvangen, Fjord Cruise from Gudvangen to FlÃ¥m, rail journey from FlÃ¥m to Vatnahalsen, two nights full-board at Vatnahalsen and two days ski touring with a certified mountain guide. Prices start at NOK8,705 (around Â£800). Find out more at myrkdalen.no/en/freeride-the-fjords.
Mykdalen also offers short breaks combining a couple of days in the ski resort with a fjord tour and short stay at scenic Vatnahalsen, but without ski guiding. Prices start at NOK5,560 (around Â£515).
Norwegian flies direct from London Gatwick to Bergen, from Â£92 return. Travel from Bergen to Voss is by train, then itâs a resort shuttle bus or taxi ride to Myrkdalen. Travel between Vatnahalsen and Bergen is by train from nearby Myrdal on the main Oslo to Bergen line. Find out more at visitnorway.com and fjordnorway.com.
Eight reasons to stop over in Bergen
Walk around Bergen centre compris es largely of brightly coloured wooden houses, destroyed by fire a few times, but always beautifully rebuilt. Sights include Tanks school, which counts local boy Edvard Grieg among its notable alumni.
The fish market by the wharf has been a fixture in Bergen since the 1200s. Itâs lively, picturesque and sells fruit, veg and plants as well as seafood.
Many fine seafood restaurants serve the Norwegian catch, scenically set in the coloured buildings lining the wharf at Bryggen, as well as in the fish market. The brave can try traditional dried cod dishes.
Take the train
The FlÃ¸ibanen funicular starts in the centre and zooms in eight minutes from sea level to 320m, where there are spectacular views of Berge n, the harbour and the fjords.
Amuse the kids
Child-friendly activities include the Science Centre and the Bergen Aquarium, both a 25-minute walk from the wharf and market.
Central museums include the surprisingly attractive 18th-century buildings of the Leprosy Museum, and the higgledy-piggledy buildings of the Theta Museum in Bryggen, home of the Norwegian resistance during WWII.
Coffee shops abound, and a brew is best enjoyed with a cinnamon bun or a slice of hvit dame (white lady), a sponge, macaron, jam and whipped cream concoction covered in marzipan.
Visit a supermarket for Norwegian chocolate, from KitKat-alike Kvikk Lunsj to bags of Smash ! â" bite-sized, cone- shaped, salty, crunchy and delicious.Source: Google News Norway | Netizen 24 Norway