Booking in London Tourist
A trip to her homeland persuades Mariella Frostrup that Norway's reputation for frugality and 'flat' hills is wide of the mark
After trying her hand at dog sledding, Mariella takes a break. Photograph: Observer
The only sound as I slide along is the whoosh of metal blades on ice and the panting of the huskies. In every direction stretches a dazzling canvas of snow and pine with not a sign of habitation. We are intruders in this winterscape. Johan, the owner of the dog-sledding outfit, is our outrider, leading the way, surefooted as a deer as he careers ahead. Negotiating the bends between tree trunks at breakneck speed without the sleigh toppling brings shrieks of delight from the children. Three hours' flight away to the south the slopes of the Alps are crawling with humanity, but here in my native Norway we're far from that madding crowd.
I gave up trying to find our destination, Hemsedal, in the Lonely Planet guide. As far as I was aware it had been one of the country's most popular downhill ski resorts since the early 60s. Geilo has made a slightly bigger name for itself on the cross-country circuit, but that still didn't explain why a forensic search yielded nothing. But, though this area is renowned locally as the "Scandinavian Alps", such reticence to boast about their assets is typical of the Norwegian approach to life.
The pared-back nature of daily life in a country boasting the third-largest sovereign wealth fund is quite a surprise. A predilection for bling in similarly oil-rich nations from Saudi Arabia to Iraq has kept London's Park Lane car dealers in business through three recessions. Not so the Norwegians, who favour a Volvo from neighbouring Sweden. Instead of squandering their North Sea bonanza they've invested it, ensuring future generations enjoy the high standards of free education and healthcare that are the envy of the world. There are few countries where adults still favour "family bunks" and standard bath towels are the size of dishcloths.
Thankfully there's a newfound thaw in my countrymen's icy resolve. Where once pine-clad apartments with strip lighting were the order of the day, our accommodation in the hamlet of Totteskogen offered luxury. Five minutes from the children's slopes and set among a cluster of cabins, our home for the week, called Dinabu, was a medley of stone and wood, with floor-to-ceiling glass framing the mountain view, underfloor heating and not one but two log fires along with a small sauna and a huge boot room to put wet ski gear in to dry. Privately owned mountain retreats like ours are let by their owners only for a proportion of the year, so personal touches are everywhere.
A general view of the ski resort of Hemsedal in Norway taken from the top of the ski lift looking out towards the village. Photograph: Alamy
Among downhill aficionados the word "flat" often finds its way into descriptions of Norway's skiing potential, yet as I sat on our sunny terrace surrounded by precipitous pinnacles I put such comments down to malicious propaganda. Hemsedal doesn't boast the challenges of the Alps – of the 45 runs the majority are green and blue, but there are enough reds and blacks to keep my fanatical husband and children happy.
My favourite was a long, leisurely blue, winding its way from the top of the mountain, that took a good 30 minutes to ski and was virtually empty until the lower slopes. The only company on the descent was the whistle of the wind, the swish of my skis and the endless anecdotes of my seven-year-old son, who has an unparalleled ability to gabble and ski simultaneously.
Despite my Nordic genes I'll never be a champion skier. I'm brimful of fear, with not a gung-ho vein in my body, but my family are a different matter. I realised a couple of years ago during our debut ski trip that I was set to be a ski widow. Molly and Dan, five and six at the time, couldn't wait to hurtle down the slopes at terrifying speed. Such was their aptitude that my husband took them down their first black run on that trip. Luckily I only found out about it afterwards. My own earliest ski memory dates back to my kindergarten sports day just outside Oslo. I was five years old and lost courage halfway down the snow steps carved into the slope for our "fun run". I sat down and wept, and the snickering of my classmates still echoes down the decades.
Mariella and her children make snow angels. Photograph: Observer
On a trip to the town's supermarket, we stocked up on local cheeses, fresh eggs, pickled herrings, rye bread and other northern culinary staples for breakfast and lunch. Thanks to our gifted chef Karl, who turned up each evening to whip up local delicacies, from halibut with roast pepper and crème fraîche coulis to spring chicken with a purée of root vegetables, we had little compulsion to set foot outside after dark. Instead we curled up by the fire playing a game of gin rummy.
The focus on daytime family fun, from dog sledding to heart-stopping snowmobile racing on a circuit high up on a mountain plateau, along with a host of English-speaking instructors to teach the kids at ski school, proved more than enough to keep us occupied.
Until this year relative inaccessibility (a four-hour drive or ski-bus transfer from Oslo airport) diminished Hemsedal's appeal. A new flight from Gatwick to Fagernes airport, Leirin – with a 75-minute transfer – changes that, but hopefully won't spell the end of the empty slopes we enjoyed.
After a week in the mountains we stopped off in Oslo for a night and discovered a lurch toward sophistication and development that is transforming the provincial city of my childhood into a hub of art, design and culinary experimentation. A dockland development, Tjuvholmen (Thieves Island, because it used to be populated by, you guessed it, thieves) faces out to the archipelago, with a boutique hotel, The Thief, along with restaurants, coffee bars, ice-cream stalls and shops, culminating in a surreal manmade sandy beach littered with contemporary sculptures. The latest addition to this sprawl of low-rise modernity is the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, a symphony of glass and wood designed by Renzo Piano, where Damien Hirst's butterflies and Tracey Emin's tapestries hang among work by YSAs (Young Scandinavian Artists).
In Britain, we list perpetually toward the equator, convinced that we have more in common with our happy-go-lucky, laconic and increasingly bankrupt neighbours than our less-effervescent cousins towards the Arctic Circle. Yet as Scandinavia slowly conquers the globe with crime novels and TV series, design stores and fashion chains, you can't help wondering what other temptations they've been hiding from us.
Mariella's holiday was provided by visitnorway.co.uk. For more information on Hemsedal, go to hemsedal.com. For details of holidays, go to ski-norway.co.uk. Norwegian Air (norwegian.com) flies directly from various UK destinations to Oslo, with flights from £39 one way. SAS (flysas.co.uk) also flies directly from various UK destinations to Oslo. A new charter will run every Sunday from 20 December to 20 April. Book with Crystal Ski (crystalski.co.uk)