Fun and games at Lillehammer

Norway's 1994 Winter Olympics site is now a top ski resort, says Stephen Wood. And there's a new event - moose-dodging
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The Independent Travel

Daylight is in short supply during the Norwegian winter. Even down in Lillehammer, only 180km north of Oslo, dawn comes late enough in mid-December to give skiers heading off to distant slopes a gloomy start to the day. And the return journey takes place in a curious twilight where the snow-covered ground seems to provide more illumination than the sky.

Daylight is in short supply during the Norwegian winter. Even down in Lillehammer, only 180km north of Oslo, dawn comes late enough in mid-December to give skiers heading off to distant slopes a gloomy start to the day. And the return journey takes place in a curious twilight where the snow-covered ground seems to provide more illumination than the sky.

This eerie atmosphere made what happened on the ride back to Lillehammer from the ski area of Kvitfjell seem all the more romantic. On a straight, deserted stretch of highway, the dark, massive shape of a moose emerged from the trees about 50m ahead. Built like a heavyweight boxer but with the long, slim legs of a supermodel, it climbed up the embankment, stepped daintily across the crash barrier and, as our car slowed to a halt, strolled across the road. On the far side the animal – whose back must have stood a good 2m off the ground – nonchalantly traversed another barrier, and disappeared once more into the forest.

Sensational though it was for me, such a sight is apparently quite common around Lillehammer in winter. So many moose cross this road – putting themselves and car drivers in mortal danger when visibility is poor – that they are guided by paths towards authorised crossing points, where drivers are alerted by temporary road signs. They are supposed to be permanent, but their popularity as souvenirs for foreign visitors means that they tend to disappear off to Germany almost as soon as they are erected. Not that this was of any concern to my moose, which was jaywalking.

The presence of a seemingly carefree moose population sets Lillehammer apart from most ski resorts. So, too, does the absence of skiing. There were once a few runs on a slope above the town, but its successful bid to host the 1994 Winter Olympics put paid to them. In their place is a single piste, which is short, steep, dead straight and ends in mid-air – the ski jump for the games was built on the slope.

All the Olympic facilities had to be created from scratch – not just the ice rinks and the bobsleigh run, but also two ski areas to the north of Lillehammer. The nearest, 15km up the valley, is Hafjell, which was originally designed to host all the downhill events. The local Olympic Museum's retrospective video of the games (which, it says, caused national rejoicing equalled only by that at the country's liberation in 1945) asserts that "nothing was left to chance" in their planning. That puts several coats of gloss upon the truth. There are two ice rinks in Lillehammer because, so I was told, the first to be built was so poorly insulated that spectators couldn't tolerate the cold inside. And there are two ski areas because the downhill course at Hafjell did not meet the required standard of difficulty: another, steeper course had to be created at Kvitfjell, a further 40km away from Lillehammer.

At its second attempt, the organising committee did such a good job that the main task of the marketing department of the small Kvitfjell area (which has a couple of hotels, 20km of pistes and a lot of expensive, privately-owned cabins) is to persuade ordinary skiers that not all its skiing is as fearsome as the Olympic downhill piste. Certainly, all I was able to ski – on the first day of a weekend trip to Lillehammer – was easy enough, even in the low cloud sweeping across the 1,025m mountain. To my disappointment, the Olympic piste was not yet open; but from the glimpses I got through the clouds (the name Kvitfjell, meaning "white mountain", seemed entirely appropriate), it looked worthy of its reputation.

The poor visibility – and the fact that other parts of the ski area were closed for ski racers' pre-season training – meant that I didn't stay long at Kvitfjell. After a snack and beer (£3.30 for 33cl, but only after 1pm) I headed back to Lillehammer for my meeting with a moose.

The following day dawned (eventually) to a clear blue sky as Asgeir Linberg, the marketing co-ordinator for Hafjell, drove me to the ski area. A former giant-slalom racer for the Norwegian team, Linberg explained that Hafjell has a long history as a skiing venue – his father raced there against the legendary Stein Eriksen in the early 1950s – but that lifts were installed only in the run-up to the Olympics. Now it is a proper resort, with several hotels at or near the lift base and ambitious plans to build a cable-car link across the lake to a new railway station on the line from Oslo airport, which is less than two hours away.

The ski area, set on a heavily wooded face, proved immensely enjoyable. Most of its skiing is intermediate, but there are some excellent unpisted slopes at the top, a delightful trail through the trees to the upmarket cabins of the Gaiastova area, and a steep, flying descent back to the base. I spent only a morning there, but the 26km of pistes could have kept me amused for a couple of days.

The drive back to Lillehammer was enjoyable, too – not because we saw a moose, but because my driver was an expert on the species. Regrettably, he was a hunter, with 150 kills to his name, but he also proved to be a mine of information on the animals' feeding habits (in winter moose eat up to 15kg of twigs a day), athleticism (despite weighting up to 700kg, they can clear obstacles 2.5m high) and value (his last carcass fetched nearly £2,000).

Thanks to the direct train from Oslo airport, the journey to Lillehammer is short and sweet: from Heathrow airport to my hotel took just over five hours. With the growth of weekend ski-packages, it is surprising that no company is offering short trips to Lillehammer. A regular shuttle-bus service to Hafjell makes the skiing readily accessible; the ski facilities are modern; the Nordic landscape is superb. And fortunate visitors get to meet a moose.

Packages to Lillehammer are available from Crystal (from £475 per week, half-board; 0870 848 7000, www.crystalholidays.co.uk), and to Hafjell and Lillehammer from Neilson (from £315 per week, self-catering; 0870 333 3347, www.neilson.com). Heathrow-Oslo returns on SAS (0845 6072 7727, www.scandinavian.net) start at £115.50; the train to Lillehammer costs about £20. Further information from the Norwegian Tourist Board (0906 302 2003, a premium rate call, or at www.visitnorway.com)

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