I’m not an outdoorsy, adventurous sort of girl. I like to kid myself that I might be, that there’s an audacious spirit in there somewhere that just hasn’t found the right hiking boots, but the truth is I get nervous walking down a steep hill.
So, when my boyfriend suggested a week in his family cabin in the Norwegian mountains, I was initially hesitant. ‘What is there to do there?’ I asked. ‘Ski,’ he replied. It wasn’t exactly music to my ears. Especially as this isn’t normal downhill skiing, this is robust, cross-country skiing. The stuff that requires strength, stamina and a level of fitness that has always eluded this sedentary, wine-guzzling Londoner.
We were heading to Ustaoset, a small town in the central-eastern region of Norway, 990 metres above sea level, on the far reaches of the Hallingskarret National Park, by a stonking great glacier and, when I arrive, a frozen lake. In short: this ‘town’, with a population smaller than most wedding parties, is in the middle of nowhere.
To get there is a four-hour train journey from Oslo, along the nation’s most popular railroad, snaking through forest-choked mountains and blue lakes on its way to Bergen. The train journey is actually known as one of the world’s finest for its spectacular views. It could certainly run for most comfortable, too; Norway has finessed the art of train travel, even if it does lose points for dining car coffee that tastes distinctly of Weetabix.
We reach Ustaoest at 7pm, after a day of travelling, yet it’s still blindingly bright. It’s a shock to the system to suddenly be surrounded by snow less than an hour after the lush greenery spied from the train. The station is tucked away in mountains dotted with tiny wooden huts. Various hues of red, blue and yellow; they are traditional, decorative constructions that look like gingerbread houses. Once the train chugs away there is not a sound to be heard. The remoteness is startling. Geilo, the country’s oldest downhill ski resort and the largest nearby town, is as tiny as Ustaoest; two hotels, various sports shops, a smattering of restaurants and bars and, bizarrely, a tattoo parlour. That’s it.
This is not a ski holiday many would be used to. It is not the Alps or, as my boyfriend calls it ‘Snow Disneyland for Adults.’ There are no clubs here with booming French techno reverberating off the mountains. There are no crowds of trust fund kids or screeching ski season gap yah students. No spas and resort hotels, champagne bars or all-night parties. This is a calm yet strikingly bleak environment that doesn’t feel especially inviting to foreign tourists.
Most of the huts in this area are second homes, passed down from generation to generation. Some are now up for grabs on Airbnb but it still feels rare to be here, like we’re crashing a private party. Skiing is pretty much a national sport in Norway and is undoubtedly the winter holiday of choice. Kids and grandparents here ski with as much ease as walking. They are even happy skiing uphill, which is probably the most monstrously unappealing thing I can think of.
‘I feel like I’m climbing Everest,’ says a girlfriend I had cajoled into joining us, as she followed me up a slope on our first day. ‘I’m sweating through everything.’ Cross-country skiing is tough work – part-enjoyment, part-back breaking toil. The hard slog is very much worth it. On my third day I manage the six-hour excursion to Hallingskarvet. After mentally composing break-up messages to my significant other on the trek uphill, I’m rendered speechless by the plateau we reach. Miles and miles of untouched frozen tundra. There were no ski lifts, no crowds, no interference from the real world. Ageless, timeless beauty. ‘This is what you climb for,’ my boyfriend says to me with a smug grin on his face. And he’s right.
Back at the hut I’ve earned my bubble bath and spot on the sheepskin-covered sofa. I’ve earned my hygge – and finally understand what it means. It’s all very well being cosy at home after an hour’s commute on the Tube, quite another when you’ve been traversing a mountain in -6 temperatures all day.
Skiing in Norway makes for a stunning holiday, but without the trimmings. Towards the end of our stay, we dabble in a bit of luxury, treating ourselves to a dip in the pool at Dr Holms, a hotel in Geilo dating back to 1909, but largely there is nothing here to splurge on. A trip like this is just pure old-fashioned adventure.