Fjord focus this winter
Matt Carroll heads to a little-known Norwegian wonderland for perfect powder on the pistes
Friday 09 November 2012
When it comes to skiing, the British tend to be creatures of habit. Every year the majority of us pack our woollies and make a beeline for the same mainstream European resorts, in France, Austria and Switzerland. I know this, because I'm one of that majority. Or at least I was.
Last season I decided to shake things up – to try something a little "off-piste" – by booking a trip to Stranda in Norway. Tucked away in the Sunnmore Alps in the west of the country, about two hours' drive inland from the town of Alesund, it has just 14 miles of skiable terrain – not much to shout about in relation to vast numbers of pistes and dozens of lifts on tap at the likes of Val d'Isère, Verbier and the usual European favourites. And yet, this is where many pro snowboarders, freeskiers and cool kids come each season, to get their kicks and build their kickers.
As for why, the answer is simple: powder. Bucketloads of it. Come the winter a conveyor belt of weather fronts scoop up water from the nearby Norwegian Sea, before dumping it all over Stranda's modest peaks. The high salt content makes it light and fluffy, and the fact that no one really knows about the place means you can have it all to yourself.
The other reason to come here is the scenery. Vast fjords surround the ski fields. Standing at the top of the Meraftaloypa run, I had an eyeful of the Unesco-listed Geirangerfjord – a vast body of petrol-blue water so calm that it looked as though you could just stroll right across.
Forget twee Alpine villages; this is an ancient land of myth and legend, where tempestuous gods rule the roost. As I strapped in for the opening run of the day, the blue sky overhead was blotched with clouds tinged grey, as though some giant had dipped his brush in the ink. On either side of the Geirangerfjord cliffs spilled straight into the water, and away in the distance I spied a house perched safely out of reach.
"A hundred years ago the only way to access it was by boat," said Knut, my guide. "You had to climb a ladder up the cliff-side to get to the door, so when the taxman came they'd simply pull the ladder up. A lot easier than sending your money to the Cayman Islands, no?"
The modest number of groomers here means you can whip through the piste map with relative ease. The resort is spread across a wide-open valley, both sides of which are laced with cruisy blues, a handful of reds and a couple of blacks. Knut and I began our day with a few relaxed runs. However, the real beauty of the place, and the reason why so many pros love to come here, lies beyond the piste markers – and you don't need to be a pro to get involved.
Sniffing out good powder usually requires early mornings and a hefty hike, but in Stranda it's accessible from the lifts. With our legs warmed up and eyes wide, Knut led me under the rope off the Alperittloypa run, into an expanse of untracked powder overlooking the Geirangerfjord.
The pristine white coating reminded me of the Christmas cakes my mother used to make and I was tempted as always to run my hand through the immaculate icing. This time there was no danger of getting into trouble with mum, so as we floated our way down towards the fjord on a carpet of white fluff, I leant in and scooped up handfuls of snow.
As you'd expect from a country with just five million inhabitants and 148,000 square miles, there's plenty of empty backcountry around Stranda if you're looking for serious adventure. But with so much snow and so few people, there's no need to wander far. Most of the runs Knut and I tackled were safely tucked away within the resort boundary; whenever we reached the bottom, we'd simply grab a lift and go back up for more. It was rather like cat skiing, but without the dent in your wallet, and by the end of the day we'd packed in 10 or so chunky runs.
The other great thing was that we were never far from a restaurant. The on-mountain eateries here serve spectacular fjord views with their burgers. (They weren't particularly expensive either, considering Norway's reputation: just over £3 for a hotdog, although the goulash was more expensive at around £10 a bowl).
There are no hotels at the ski hill itself. Instead Knut drove me half an hour down the road, to a futuristic "hotel" among the trees. In fact it was less a hotel and more a cluster of seven luxury cabins – all glass walls and heated floors, with a sauna and hot-tub just a short stroll along the path – built by Knut's own fair hands, of course.
Immersed up to my chin, with the bubbles easing away the day's aches, I spent a productive hour catching snowflakes on my tongue. Dinner was served in a restored farmhouse that now doubles as the main lodge. With the fire crackling away in the background and a silky glass of red to warm the cockles, I tucked into a plate of locally sourced lamb while Knut made plans to chase more powder. This set the tone for the rest of the week; fresh tracks by day, delicious dinners at night. It's a habit I could easily get used to.
The writer travelled with Norwegian, (020-8099 7254;norwegian.com), flies from Gatwick to Alesund.
The Juvet hotel, (00 1 47 950 32010; juvet.com), offers half-board accommodation for 1,750Nkr (£190).
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