Skiing in a northern light: Norway is staging a comeback, both as a destination and as the setting for the Winter Olympics, says Chris Gill

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
It seems like yesterday that the flame of the Winter Olympics was extinguished in France, at the end of the controversial Albertville games - nominally based in that town, but actually spread over a series of holiday resorts from Meribel to Val d'Isere.

But the next winter games are already upon us, starting in just over two months' time, in Lillehammer, Norway. No, it's not that four years have slid past at unaccustomed speed: the winter games are being held again after only two years so as to put them permanently out of step with the summer games, and spread the Olympic jam more evenly.

For Norway, the timing looks good. Their ski racers have been doing even better than their footballers, and over the last few years the country has re-established itself as a ski holiday destination on the international market. Given good weather, good organisation and good race results in February, the Olympics could give Norway the boost it needs to secure its place in that market.

Once upon a time, in the Sixties, 15,000 Brits skied in Norway. By 1987, the number was down to 1,500 and the Norwegians launched a campaign to reverse the trend. Reverse it they have: last year the number was back up to 5,000 and rising despite, a general decline in British skier numbers.

The Lillehammer Olympics will form a sharp contrast to Albertville. For a start, the events will not be nearly so widely spread as they were in 1992.

The alpine skiing events will take place a little way from Lillehammer itself - 15km (10 miles) to the north, at the long-standing alpine centre of Hafjell, and a further 20km (13 miles) north at the newly developed hill of Kvitfjell, where all the downhill and supergiant slalom races will take place on a new and highly regarded course designed by Bernhard Russi. (The women's downhill was meant to take place at Hafjell, but test events last winter showed the course to be insufficiently challenging for today's women.)

But the Nordic events and key ice hockey matches will take place in Lillehammer, and luge/bobsleigh events at nearby Hunderfossen. The most remote events - the skating competitions at Hamar, 60km (38 miles) south of Lillehammer - are not far removed.

For the visitor to the games, the Lillehammer Olympics will be different in another important respect, too. This time, it won't be possible to take a skiing holiday with a bit of games- watching on the side - or vice versa. Lillehammer is a town of 23,000 people with only 1,800 hotel beds; not surprisingly, none of those beds is (or ever was) available to your average holiday- maker during the games. And the slopes will, in any case, be pretty well monopolised by the competitions.

Lillehammer, like Albertville, is not an alpine ski resort at all. Unlike Albertville, it is a very worthwhile cross-country centre, with long trails leading off across the hills to Nordseter and Sjusjoen. For downhill skiing, you'd be better off staying in Oyer, the even smaller rural community that includes the Hafjell mountain. With a vertical drop of 850 metres, eight lifts (including three quad chairs), a longest run of 5km (3 miles) and 23km (15 miles) of piste in total, this is a serious downhill resort for Norway - though its lack of infrastructure makes it more appealing to locals than to visitors from abroad.

Skiing in Norway is very different from skiing in the Alps, and difficult to recommend for those interested only in downhill. The resorts are limited in the extent of skiing and in most other respects, too. The scenery is more Pennine than alpine. The winter days are short and the weather can be harsh. The people are, I don't doubt, favourably disposed towards the British, but they are not among the most demonstrative. And I admit that I am put off by the punitive taxation of alcohol, which is sufficient to make a beer a day a real treat.

But for cross-country skiers Norway is in a different league from even the best alpine resorts. Valley-level trails offer a sense of adventure far removed from the tame tracks you're used to, while the high-level trails that criss-cross whole areas of the country show you cross-country as it originally was - a means of getting about.

And the lack of alpine glitz is doubtless appealing to some downhill skiers who find the trappings of the modern ski business intrusive.

The games run from 12-27 February 1994. Packages for spectators, with accommodation in Oslo hotels or local private homes, may still be available from Sportsworld (0235 554844). Tour operators offering skiing packages to Norway include: NSR Travel, Norwegian Travel Service, Headwater, Waymark, Inn-Travel and The Ski Firm.

(Photograph omitted)