When it comes to snowy holidays the Hemingway family is split. For the kids it is "Snow Fun", while for Mum and Dad the idea of trying skiing or even trying to stay upright on slippery surfaces is a categorical "No Fun". Over the past few years we have really enjoyed travelling in Scandinavia, but have never experienced winter there. This coupled with the kids' incessant nagging to go skiing with us rather than with assorted aunties, uncles and school friends, a business need to research the use of timber in domestic architecture and six return tickets on Ryanair led us to Norway.
The normal shenanigans began on the plane, eldest lad hiding the shoes of eldest daughter, and then persuading the air hostess to wake his 15-year-old sister up mid-flight with a totally uncool offer of a visit to see the pilot. Then on the bus to Oslo, having seen the bus driver eating pickled herring, us explaining that pickled fish was a Norwegian favourite, they were perhaps over-zealous in laughing at the cheesy music on the radio and asking to hear some Prefab Trout, Sole music, Cod Save the Queen, Mullet Kintyre, Prawn to be Alive, Whiting Shade of Pale, or some heavy rock from Whitebait.
We broke up the architectural research in Oslo with some shopping. Apart from a huge charity store full of cool vintage clothes right in the centre called UFF (where your money goes to Third World aid - a much better way to spend your holiday pennies rather than giving it to some globalised, homogenised designer label), shopping in Oslo is nothing special. But the kids continued their "fishy" jokes by asking Hennes shop assistants for Helmut Ling, Tommy Fishfinger, Halibut Hansen, Levi Trout, Kipper Ties, High Eels and Piking Shoes, and fell about laughing when, after asking for Skate wear, they were brought some baggy jeans and a hoodie.
If the shopping was ordinary the rest of the weekend in Oslo was not. We stayed at The Hotel Bastion and apart from never having to pay for a meal because of the delicious soup and crusty bread that was always free to guests in the lounge (which must have looked more like a Crisis at Christmas soup kitchen with six hungry Hemingways emptying the pan and devouring the bread every time we returned to the hotel), we were a few minutes' walk away from a square that had been turned into a skating ring with a temporary stage next to it featuring a live broadcast of the Norwegian Song For Europe. It is a shame that Norway keeps on winning Eurovision nowadays because the "Norvège nul point" doesn't ring true, but it did not stop this British jury scoring each song zero while skating like drunken halfwits. (That's everyone except Dad who knows his limits.)
Next stop was Hafjell, where the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics were held. Mum and Dad would have gladly stayed on the comfortable Norwegian Railways train (Richard Branson could do with taking inspiration for his businesses rather than his knitwear from Norway), but as we approached Lillehammer the skies cleared and the mountains and frozen rivers and lakes looked magnificent. Our apartment was just to our taste, all minimal and functional and totally wooden. It was a typically Scandinavian place (or should that be plaice?) and, to the excitement of the kids, "perched" (sorry about this) right on the edge of the slopes. Within 15 minutes we were in our gear, the lads in our Peter Storm and affordable Blacks gear eager to prove that we could stay as warm as the girls in their performance Lowe Alpine. Another 30 minutes later and we were on the slopes and the eldest three kids had disappeared up the lifts. We pratted about on the kiddies slope while the five-year-old put on skis for the first time and made his mum and dad look like unco-ordinated new-born giraffes.
The children returned raving about the powder snow (whatever that means), the lifts (they are the things I had vowed I wouldn't go near) and how uncrowded, varied and exciting the pistes (I cannot believe I am using bloody skiing terminology) were. I made it clear that I was not about to contribute towards it getting more crowded. They all agreed it was as good as, if not better than, anywhere else they had experienced in France, Switzerland or Italy. We said yeah, so what, we were going back to our apartment for a sauna.
We had expected Norwegian skiing to be dark, bleak and basic but Hafjell was wonderful. We were there in February and the sun stayed out from 7.30am to 5.30pm for the whole week. It was so lovely, the people so friendly and the snow so inviting that Mum and Dad decided to take the plunge and join some group lessons.
Mum did pretty well but, after two mornings, she said I required a class for "the skiingly challenged". As kids sped past me from all directions I kept thinking how lucky we are in Britain to be able to walk on non-icy surfaces and not to have to wear skis to go to Tesco. While the five-year-old came on a treat in morning ski school and Mum started to perfect her parallel turns, I decided to take a break before I broke something and headed off to the Lillehammer Museum of Art (a great piece of contemporary architecture in itself, and, before you ask, I couldn't find any fish-themed artists such as Jackson Pollock).
The fish jokes started again at the children's snowboarding lessons, with the instructor being asked if "he believed in Cod", and if is hair, which was long at the back, could be described as "a mullet". Crashing into each other resulted in the cry of "didn't do it on porpoise". But the joking ended when on the second day the youngest daughter broke her wrist. That was it for Mum. Her surprising and energising joy and new-found love of skiing evaporated and her jelly legs returned. She said that was the end of skiing for her.
We visited the ever helpful tourist office to find out what other attractions there were. They put us in touch with Trond, who was training for the Finnmark 1,000km dog-sledding five-day race and might let us join his training session. To our amazement and trepidation he said we could join him and his mate John on an overnight trip into the mountains with a stay in a simple hut. We met him and helped to prepare his 26 huskies and then he handed a sled to Mum and Dad, pulled by six strong and very excited huskies, and a sled to our 16-year-old lad pulled by five equally raring-to-go howling dogs. They pulled us through forests breaking virgin tracks through chest-high snow. Standing on the back of the sled and trying to steer with all the upper body strength we could muster, once we had learnt not to fall off we began to enjoy quite the most magical experience imaginable. We sped past enormous frozen lakes, up above the tree line, with no sign of humanity, only the tracks of reindeer, fox and wolves, with just the sound of panting dogs and the whoosh of the sled runners.
The evening was spent digging a track into the hut (which had not been used all winter), feeding the dogs finest Norwegian salmon, chopping logs and lighting the woodburning stove on which we cooked soup and getting wrapped up again and watching the awe-inspiring northern lights and listening to the complete and utter silence. The temperature outside was -10C but the hut heated up beautifully. We played cards, listened to stories about the gruelling 1,000km race Trond was about to undertake, and slept like logs.
The sunrise was magnificent, casting an orange glow over the forests below and the mountains above. We breakfasted, fed the dogs on more salmon and prepared the teams for a three-hour run back down the mountain. By the time we arrived back we all knew we had experienced something we would never forget.
There were still four days to go and the children wanted to carry on skiing and snowboarding (all except the poor broken-wristed one). Mum decided she wanted to give it another go and I agreed to give it one last shot. Then a miracle happened. On my morning run (where my breath froze creating icicles on my chin and my eyebrows turned white with frost), I managed to lose the lenses out of my glasses. When I put my skis on and started to go down the slope my fear went: I couldn't see how steep it was. The bumps seemed flat and I could ski - well at least to me it felt like skiing. To the rest it evidently looked like a frightened ape sliding down a hill.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Oslo/Torp airport from £50 return in November.
Double rooms at the Hotel Bastion (00 47 22 47 7700; www.hotelbastion.no) start from NOK990 (£82) per night during the week and from NOK895 (£75) at weekends.
One week in an apartment sleeping four at the Hafjell Hunderfossen Alpine Centre (00 47 61 249000) starts from NOK2,380 (£200) per week on a self-catering basis.
A return train ticket to Lillehammer, the closest station to Hafjell Hunderfossen, costs NOK265 (£22) return for adults through Norwegian Rail (00 47 815 00 888, press four for an English-speaker operator; www.nsb.no).
Hafjell Hunderfossen Tourist Office (00 47 61 27 70 00; www.hafjellhunderfossen.no).
Norwegian Tourist Board (020-7839 2650; www.visitnorway.com).Reuse content