Downhill from here

Mick Webb gets entangled with skis and dogs in Geilo while the kids leave him for dust
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The Independent Travel

"Complete novice", "late-starter" and above all "reluctant" would have accurately described my skiing status three years ago, when family and friends dragged me off to Geilo in the middle of Norway. Their plan seemed to be to spend an Easter week getting very cold, spending lots of money and risking life and limb by hurtling down a mountain. In the interests of damage limitation, while the other three adults and the four children settled into their downhill classes, I went for the apparently easier option of cross-country skiing.

"Complete novice", "late-starter" and above all "reluctant" would have accurately described my skiing status three years ago, when family and friends dragged me off to Geilo in the middle of Norway. Their plan seemed to be to spend an Easter week getting very cold, spending lots of money and risking life and limb by hurtling down a mountain. In the interests of damage limitation, while the other three adults and the four children settled into their downhill classes, I went for the apparently easier option of cross-country skiing.

After an hour of tuition with an amiable fellow called Rolf on comfortingly flat terrain, getting used to the technique required to glide along in the specially cut grooves, I found myself on my own and at the top of a proper slope. It was alarmingly steep, worryingly narrow and what was worse, as cross-country skiing (unlike the downhill version) has two-way traffic, a group of people were making their way upwards towards me, accompanied by a large, very furry dog.

I breathed deeply, nervously adjusted my snow-plough position and a few seconds later the dog and I were entangled in a snowy embrace at the feet of its owners. Luckily neither of us was hurt and, even more fortunately, the encounter took place in Norway - where such incidents tend to be accepted with good humour, by humans and animals alike. I was helped to my feet: "Engelsk, English?" How did they guess? "Lucky our dog was there to stop you hurting yourself." Handshakes all round, some more good-natured laughter and we went on our respective ways.

Geilo has a lot going for it as a ski resort: as well as its welcoming locals, there's loads of snow, good quality tuition and 25km of pistes for beginners, intermediates and advanced at a number of different centres. There's also a fantastic variety of cross-country trails across the vast, high Hardanger plateau or, when the weather is poor, beside the frozen lakes at the bottom of the valley. Not that the weather was bad after Easter, with sunny days taking the afternoon temperatures up to 12 positive degrees.

We settled into a daily routine: an over-leisurely buffet breakfast before making packed-lunches against the clock and rushing for the ski-bus. Then we'd go our separate ways: the downhillers attended classes in the morning and continued their ups and downs in the afternoons, which they did without having to queue for the ski-lifts, as the crowds which bedevil many resorts were negligible even at weekends. Meanwhile, I'd be off on my own, making more and more ambitious trips across the plateau, stopping for hot drinks at the refuges and passing the time of day with very occasional fellow skiers, hearing and sometimes seeing the almost perfectly camouflaged flocks of white ptarmigan.

Our party would meet up again at the end of the day to compare notes and bruises over hot chocolate before the very satisfying experience of skiing back to the hotel through a wood on a track, which was negotiable on both cross-country and downhill skis. Then there was time for a swim to ease the aches, a ritual spreading of wet clothes on the heated bathroom floor, a drink or two, the evening meal, a game of cards and to bed, exhausted.

By the end of the week, the children had all made ridiculously swift progress, the adults were a little less bad than they had been and I couldn't believe it had taken me so long to discover this sport.

This year we all returned to Geilo during the February half-term, having booked the holiday independently rather than via a tour operator or specialised company. As there was no space in the Bardøla hotel, we stayed in the much larger Highland, which is closer to the scatter of houses, shops and restaurants that make up the village of Geilo. We had some minor quibbles about the hotel: the pool was a bit cold, the packed lunches were a bit less copious and they were not included in the half-board price. On the other hand there were the same vast evening buffets, which the children loved and which featured enough salmon, in different guises, to satisfy a ravenous polar bear. Having learnt a hard lesson about Norwegian bar-bills, this time we'd imported a small off-licence's worth of wine and took it in turns to host the pre-dinner drinks. The good cheer encouraged by these aperitifs resulted in a dangerous lack of restraint when it came to ordering drinks with the meal, so the bar bill turned out even higher than on the previous visit.

In mid-February, the snow was better and it was colder, but still a long way from the -20C that we'd been led to expect at this time of year. There were three consecutive sunny days, which had the ski-instructors muttering about global warming and fearing for the remainder of the season. Even so, any untreated surface in the village was a sheet of ice and the temperature rarely rose above zero. The kids by now were on snowblades, surviving black runs and experimenting with the spectacular and lethal snowboards.

I decided to branch out and try my luck on the southern side of the valley. One day I caught a bus from outside Geilo's yellow-painted wooden railway station and got off at the next village of Ustaoset, after a 20-minute journey. From there it was a demanding but enjoyable 35km back to Geilo, starting with a trek across a frozen lake, where the skis made an eerie sabre-rattling sound on the ice. I skied up and down a small mountain but any over-confidence was kept well in check when I was overtaken by a young woman, who was towing her baby in a kind of buggy-sleigh.

For most of the journey I was alone with the snow, though a few trees and skiers began to appear as I got close to Vestlia, which is Geilo's self-contained ski-centre on the south side of the valley.

Good as it is, Geilo does have some downsides: experienced skiers tell me that the slopes are on the short side, and younger people might find the après-ski less than thrilling. From our point of view, it was good to have no pressing reason for moving from the hotel after dinner; we could spend time playing cards with our teenage children and collectively enjoy the post-dinner entertainment, provided by musicians with an almost perfect command of middle-of-the road English pop from the 1970s.

For most people the biggest drawback to the place is getting there. Geilo used to have its own little airport but this has now closed, so on both our visits we flew from London to Oslo. From here it's a four-hour rail journey, but an interesting one, as you climb gradually to the snow line, passing woods, lakes and the rather haphazardly dotted wooden houses; painted red, yellow, blue and looking rather temporary in the rugged landscape.

The day we left Geilo coincided with our first real snowstorm. You could hardly see the departure board as we waited on the platform for the 13:29 express to Oslo, wondering how delayed it would be. Yet it pulled into the station, emerging spectacularly from a huge white bow wave thrown up by its snow-plough, at 29 minutes past one on the dot.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways and SAS fly regularly from Heathrow and Manchester to Oslo; SAS also flies from Gatwick. Oslo to Geilo return by train cost us around NOK828 per adult (about £82); under 16s were half-price and under 12s free (on a family ticket). The website for the Norwegian State Railways is www.nsb.no.

STAYING THERE

Both the Highland Hotel (00 47 3209 6100) and the Bardøla Hotel (00 47 3209 4100 ) have family suites, which can accommodate two adults and two children. The rate at the Highland during the February half-term holiday this year was just over NOK16,000 (around £1,600) for a week (half-board).

Crystal Ski Holidays (0870 405 5047; www.crystalski.co.uk) provides packages to Geilo; Inntravel (01653 617788; inntravel.co.uk) specialises in tailor-made cross-country ski holidays.

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