Families: Ups and downs

Family ski holidays need careful planning, as Simon Calder found out to his cost
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The Independent Travel

On the very last night, the notion of "making it up as you go along" fell apart in spectacular fashion. I spent seven dismal hours shivering, sleepless and feeling silly. Let me explain the circumstances. The principle of taking Daisy (six at the time) and Poppy (nearly four) on a skiing trip had plenty of appeal. Besides the joy of a family holiday, they would get the chance to acquire a new skill. Their parents would reap a ski-dividend, too, rediscovering a pursuit that we had left behind at the door of the maternity wing.

But a winter-sports trip holds plenty of potential pitfalls. From a bitterly cold encounter with the Rockies one January, I knew the pain that can accompany the gain. There was no way to predict how two youngsters would react to skiing. We could have gone to a snow-dome (see page VI), but this cannot hope to replicate something way beyond their experience: a slippery mountainside, a long way from home. Buying a package holiday looked chancier than investing in Northern Rock. Instead, my wife, Charlotte, and I chose a risk-averse strategy based on some northern rocks. Not a skiing holiday; we bought a city-break with the prospect of winter sports attached.

We planned our trip for late in the season, to maximise both temperature and daylight. Norway was the obvious target, because once the calendar passes the spring equinox it benefits from over 12 bright hours a day. Norway has a beautiful capital, with plenty of diversions. We spent the first full day exploring the city's dramatic architecture and expansive parks.

My advance planning went awry with the choice of accommodation. The City Hotel turned out to be untidy, uncomfortable and unfriendly. We wrote off the cost of the second night there, and moved across to one of the city's top hotels: the Karl Johan, which offered an extraordinary good rate – the equivalent of £120 – for a big family room in a superb location with a breakfast buffet that would sustain a Viking invasion fleet.

The following day happened to be the first morning of the year for boat trips across the top of Oslo Fjord, so we took a day-trip across the harbour to the Bygdoy peninsula. This is the heart of Norway's maritime heritage, and its most-visited attraction, the Viking Ship Museum; it houses the reconstructed hulls of three vessels recovered from the fjord. Close by is the Kon-Tiki Museum, containing the balsa-and-bamboo raft on which the explorer Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Easter Island.

In deep midwinter in Oslo, it is possible to ski very close to the city; from the harbour you can see the ski jump at Holmenkollen. We had to go much further, and had a choice between Lillehammer and Geilo. The snow reports strongly indicated the latter, so we bought our tickets for the five-hour trip.

Norwegian Railways matches British train operators for eye-wateringly high "walk-up" fares, but there are compensations. First, children routinely go free, which meant we paid a total of around £80 for the one-way trip aboard the Oslo-to-Bergen express (Geilo is conveniently astride Norway's main line). Next, the provision for youngsters is extremely good.

The man at the ticket desk placed us in the family carriage. Now, in Britain, that is a euphemism for "if you're not travelling with children, keep clear", with a few token colouring books scattered around. Here, an entire on-board play area has been constructed, with toys, climbing frames and DVDs on offer. A trip as long as London to Glasgow and beyond by train passed blissfully for all of us. The landscapes, from fjords to fells, unravel in increasingly spectacular fashion.

I had imagined that we would be the only people decanting from the train at Geilo – "It's the week before Easter, the place will be dead quiet," I dimly remember asserting. In fact a couple of dozen people clambered down to a snowy platform. As I discovered when I started phoning around for accommodation, the week before Easter is actually peak holiday time in Norway. Everyone flees the cities for the country. No hotel could offer a three-night stay, so we booked in for a night at the big, functional Norlandia Geilo Hotel, switching the following day to the family-run Hotel Ro.

Our location was handy for the railway station, but a bus ride away from Geilo's main ski centre. Arriving midweek in a ski resort that has its regular changeover at the weekend has the bonus of a kind of "fast-track" at the equipment store, with no waiting and the helpful staff kitting us out in minutes. For commitment-phobic skiers there is another bonus: pay-as-you-go ski passes. Rather like the Oyster stored-value transport card in London, a few pounds buys a few dozen turns on the ski lifts, with prices depending on the altitude gains. The drag-lift on the nursery slopes costs less than the chair lift to the top of the modest ridge that wraps around Geilo.

Now for the crux: would Daisy and Poppy actually enjoy it? While Norwegian toddlers, presumably born on skis, whizzed down the mountain, Poppy was happiest when her skis were inside those of my Charlotte, gliding down some untroubling gradients. Daisy, with the benefit of a couple more years, took readily to the drag lift, and happily swished and swerved down the nursery slope while holding on to one of my ski poles.

Sensible locals had brought a good, healthy packed lunch. We depended on the big, crowded cafeteria, where chips comprised the least unappealing option.

After lunch we took the chair lift to the top of the green run. Poppy waddled down, nursed by Charlotte, but Daisy was gripped by terror at the way the ground fell away (evidently she has inherited my fear of heights). Trudging down a mountain while carrying two sets of skis and consoling my daughter, I was glad we had not committed to a whole week. Dinner, in the resort's pizzeria, was neither a joyful nor gastronomic experience; I consoled myself with a glass of beer, price £5.

A new day, a new hotel whose benefits included a packed lunch. Daisy had slept off the scares, and spent the morning gaining confidence on the nursery slope. Charlotte wanted to discover on her own how much ski memory her limbs had retained, so we checked Poppy into the bright and cheerful log cabin that served as a creche. Unfortunately, our youngest became distressed and after an unhappy half-hour we retrieved her.

The afternoon was a revelation. Poppy cheered up and took a few small wobbly steps of her own, and Daisy's streak of independence made a late appearance. As the light began to sink at the end of the day, she insisted we took the chair life to the top and skied all the way down to the valley.

Independence is excellent on two skis, but not always in travel. The girls were exhausted; we were two miles from our hotel; and the last shuttle bus had left. Charlotte managed to hitch a lift that took her and a slumbering Poppy across the valley to the Ro; I ended up carrying an exhausted six-year-old the same distance. But they chirped up in the hotel, where an excellent home-cooked dinner came as part of the deal.

Nothing could go wrong, I concluded as we boarded the train back to Oslo on our final day. I had not bothered booking a room in Oslo – after all, everyone was out of town so the hotels were bound to be empty.

Empty they were, but not in the sense of having rooms available. Nine out of 10 of the ones I tried were closed, even the disagreeable City Hotel. Because there is so little business transacted in Oslo during the week before Easter, 90 per cent of hotels (according to my survey, at least) shut down. The one in 10 that remains open thrives, to the point of selling out completely.

Oslo airport is one of the most beautiful in Europe, but that is not a reassuring quality when you are trying to find somewhere comfortable for your family to sleep. Daisy and Poppy donned every warm item of clothing they could, and stretched out to snooze happily on our snow jackets. As our adventure degenerated into misadventure, I ran through the Package Travel Regulations 1992. Basically, by booking a package holiday, you transfer all the risk to the tour operator from the moment your journey starts at a British airport (or Eurostar station) until you arrive back at the same point. As an independent traveller, you are on your own.

In April, the sun rises early in Norway, which warmed up the terminal and meant we could check in for the flight home. We have booked again for this winter – but for a full week, flying from Gatwick on a Neilson package.

Traveller's Guide

* Simon Calder and family flew on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow to Oslo, for a fare of £89 return each, booked two months in advance.

* After an unhappy night at the City Hotel (00 47 2241 3610; www.cityhotel.no), they transferred to the Norlandia Karl Johan (00 47 2316 1700; www.norlandia.no/karljohan).

* Details of rail services can be found at www.nsb.no. The train from Oslo to Geilo costs NKR421 (£40), though lower fares are available if you book in advance. A night at the Norlandia Geilo Hotel (00 47 3209 0511; www.norlandia.no/geilo) cost them the equivalent of £130.

* The family-run Ro Hotel (00 47 3209 0899; www.rohotel.no) offers exceptional value; the family paid £140 a night for dinner, bed, breakfast and lunch. The hotel invites you to "Send us an e-mail and we will give you a nice price".

* For more information on skiing in Norway, call 01443 828 818 or log on to www.visitnorway.com/uk