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“It’s like skiing through Narnia,” pipes up 10-year-old Ollie as we ride a four-man chair on the second day of a February half-term family ski trip to the Norwegian resort of Hemsedal.
And he’s right. We’re in what is dubbed the Scandinavian Alps but Hemsedal offers something a little different to the traditional Alpine ski resorts of mainland Europe. The word ski comes from an old Norse word meaning stick of wood and it has been a long held desire of ours to go on a family holiday to the home of skiing. Immediately you sense a more relaxed and chilled-out attitude among the locals and other holidaymakers.
The chairlift ride offers a good chance to scout out routes. We’re seeking last night’s fresh snow and some tempting looking off-piste among the trees. Apparently the boys went there on the first day of the wonderfully-named Adventure Camp group lesson and now they want to lead us through this magical place.
The trees, set against a perfectly blue sky and caked in icy whiteness, appear to have been frozen in time – which is what has prompted Ollie to chronicle the scene with reference to C S Lewis’ fantasy novels.
One thing you notice immediately about Hemsedal is that there’s plenty of not too extreme off piste to dip into. And it is incredibly accessible from the pistes, so if your children and you want to experiment you can do so in an easy and safe way. It is aspects like this that make Hemsedal a very clever family ski resort.
But where exactly are we? Hemsedal is on a similar latitude to the Shetland Islands and is a three-hour drive north of Oslo. It is set in a valley with the town or Sentrum a short five-minute free bus ride from the resort itself.
You can choose to stay in the Sentrum – which is where we were based – or in the resort itself. Accommodation here is split generally into the Alpin Lodge area by the nursery slopes or up on the hillside setting of Skarsnuten Panorama.
It is not high in a traditional skiing sense – the highest lift goes to 1,497m – but the snow conditions are superb due to its geographical location. The scenery reminds me more of the rounded hills of the Lake District rather than the jagged peaks of the Alps.
Package deals with two-hour charter flights from Gatwick to Fagernes (a local
airport around one and a half hours away by coach transfer) are available with Crystal Ski. Fagernes airport is a quirky experience for children as the terminal building is not that much bigger than the Thomson Airways plane that lands at it.
We had a bit of an issue on our outbound flight, which meant we had to divert to Oslo and eventually arrived in resort six hours late. More on that in Ben’s Blog – but it was quickly forgotten thanks to Hemsedal’s many positives.
On arrival we checked into the Skogstad Hotel in Hemsedal Sentrum. It’s the oldest hotel in town and sits near the river along with a couple of supermarkets, a bank, the tourist information, some ski shops, a petrol station, a ski rental place and a small collection of hotels and cafes.
The hotel was an ideal base for the week – friendly staff and comfortable, no nonsense facilities. There’s free WiFi but only in the lobby area, which is full of comfy sofas and chairs to chill out in. And there’s also a small sauna and steam area plus a gym, if a day’s skiing isn’t enough exercise for you.
The rooms are large and simply furnished. They are comfortable and functional and suited our family perfectly – mum and dad in one large room, the boys in the twin room next door. The breakfast buffet is good and the set menu dinner was excellent - protein and carbs and bags of flavour, including meat balls, chicken fillet, ribs and steak.
Up on the mountain, Hemsedal has a really friendly feel to it. It’s not brash and in your face, more inclusive and welcoming. Norwegian families love to ski together and this is reflected in the resort layout and features.
Hemsedal is compact and easy to navigate thanks to a simple piste numbering system. Every run bar one will eventually lead you back down to the central ski area so you never feel like you’ll get lost or lose your children.
And there’s a wide range of gradients to play with. The nursery area, which boasts six runs, fans out in front of the Alpin Lodge accommodation and retail development. There are also two greens (numbers 11 and 32) that are designated Lavfartsomrade, or slow tempo areas.
On a sunny day, some of the nicest morning skiing is to be found on Rogjin – pistes 13, 14, and 15 are great cruisy reds and blues, while dropping off these runs allow you to twist and turn your way down through the trees.
The bottom of these runs also leads to the start of the free-to-use timed giant slalom course which makes you feel like a real racer. My best time was 34 seconds – which was easily beaten by both our boys! Hemsedal also has a speed gun run and a skicross course.
Dotted in among the pistes are three terrain parks. The first only has beginner jumps, boxes and rails, while the expert park has competition-standard kickers. It’s a great place for young skiers to get their first taste of freestyle skiing.
The majority of the runs are blues and reds, but there are three steep blacks to challenge yourself on. Piste 6 is used for slalom competitions, while numbers 8 and 9 are where the Norwegian championship downhill courses – for the likes of Aksel Lund Svindal - are set.
New this year is piste 49, a 4km blue that runs all the way down to the river and Hemsedal Sentrum. You pass imposing walls of rock and thick pine forests as you ski to the valley floor. The run takes about 10mins and brings you out a short stroll from the Skogstad Hotel, so if you stay there it's a great way to end the day on skis rather than in a bus.
To get to piste 49 you have to take the Hollvin Express eight-man chair and then a button lift to drop down a green to the start of number 49. Be aware that button closes at 4.30pm, so get up the mountain in good time.
On Fridays between 7pm and 10pm, night skiing runs on selected floodlit slopes and terrain parks. Just for novelty value it is worth going back up the mountain – there was also something magical to ride the eight-man chair, often alone, in near darkness beneath star-filled skies.
The ski school is run by Skistar, the company that manages the pistes, operates the lift system and runs the resort ski rental service. They run 1.5 hour group lessons (for children from two years old and adults) over four days for £85. For more advanced children the Adventure Camp group lessons (4 x 3 hours) introduces them to tree skiing, off-piste and terrain parks for £110.
Remember all Norwegians speak perfect English, so your child won’t struggle with any language barrier in ski school. The Parallel Trails boys were in Adventure Camp with a young instructor called Frida. She was terrific and the boys enjoyed her enthusiasm and sense of humour.
Before we went I heard that skiing in Norway is "much more expensive" than more traditional destinations. Our practical experience of this February suggest, apart from alcohol, this isn't actually the case.
Let's start with the Crystal Ski Holidays package deal for a week at February half-term. The three-star Skogstad Hotel, half-board including flights and transfers, had a brochure price of £1,220 per adult and £1,103 per child. Another option in Hemsedal with Crystal would have been the self-catering Alpin Lodge apartments - £1,096 per adult and £746 per child including flights and transfers.
Compare this with a perceived expensive French resort - Courchevel for example. Crystal had the three-star Hotel Les Ancolies on a half-board basis including flights and transfers for half-term at £1,537 per person (no child reduction).
You could do a DIY trip to Hemsedal. Low-cost airline Norwegian fly Gatwick to Oslo and there's a dedicated bus from Gardemoen to Hemsedal. It takes 3.5 hours and an adult return is £60. Go with friends and you could rent a self-catering wooden cabin - a 12-bed place for February half-term 2016 would be £2,150. Or an eight-bed apartment in Snarsnuten Panorama at Christmas this year is £870.
So what about lift passes? Well a six-day adult pass in Hemsedal works out with the current Sterling-Krone exchange rate to be £155, with a child at £125. But under-sevens get a free lift pass if they ski wearing a helmet – a no-brainer (excuse the pun).
Compare this - as Sterling soars against the Euro - with a six-day Les Gets/Morzine pass for an adult at £135 and a child at £105. Or Villars in Switzerland where a six-day adult pass is £210 and a child is £135.
Although our two boys have their own piste skis, they were keen to play around on twin tips for a few days. So we walked into the rental shop next to our hotel and grab a pair for around £30 for three days. Seemed a pretty fair price to me.
Of course one thing is true, alcohol in Norway is very expensive. We had quite a dry week, but when we did buy a beer at our hotel (the blonde Gofa brewed in the hotel's own micro-brewery) it set us back £7. In one of the mountain restaurants a small draught beer was £6.50.
One trick is to buy your wine duty free as you leave Gatwick and when you arrive in Norway. Other drink prices on the mountain were £3.50 for a Coke and £3 for a Latte.
Each day we took lunch up on the mountain. The Skistua restaurant near the main eight-man chair and ski school meeting point became a family favourite because of its good portions and unhurried atmosphere.
The children's menu was good value, with a burger or sausage and chips for £5.50. While the main dishes of tasty lasagne with salad or juicy cheeseburger and chips, were around the £12/13 mark. I also liked how there were jugs of tap water and glasses available all the time at one end of the bar.
Family skiing holidays are expensive, but you should spend the money knowing they bring a whole load of benefits to your children's life experience and your family unit. So don't be put off considering Norway and Hemsedal because you may think you can't afford it. You can. And the home of skiing is worth every penny.
Sebastian, aged 12, says: "Skiing in Norway was a very fun experience and I enjoyed it very much. There were a lot of good snow parks and the runs were really good. The snow was great. It was a really good time and you’ll really remember it if you go there. In Norway it is a bit less busy and you feel kind of calm when you’re there. The Adventure Camp I did was really fun. We went to lots of exciting places; we went to the woods, skiing through trees and stuff. Our instructor was called Frida – her nickname was Friday – and she was crazy. The hotel was very comfortable and the food was good. It was very homely, which was nice."
Ollie, aged 10, says: "I really enjoyed filming with the GoPro. My favourite run was actually a green run because it had a lot of jumps and off-pistey bits. We went off-piste in the woods most of the time in our group lesson, which I really enjoyed. I learnt nearly how to do a 180 and learnt how to do a box in the park. The resort had very good snow conditions. It was fun sharing a room with my brother in the hotel and the bed was really comfy. I liked it that everyone spoke English as I could understand them better."
Above: The local airport at Fagernes
Right: The Skogstad Hotel
Below: Floodlit slopes for night skiing
10-year-old Ollie takes you down the free-to-ski timed GS course in Hemsedal