With his family ski holiday falling victim to Covid19 travel restrictions, Michael Wolstenholme, found a plan B which took him and his family over to southern Norwegian resort of Gaustatoppen to discover a hidden gem and a new family favourite.
“As gather my breath and wait for my wife to finish her last few turns and join me, I’m admiring the stunning view of the town of Rjukan in the valley below I realise what an incredible place this is”.
After the cancellation our New Year family ski holiday to the Alps due to Covid, a friend of mine suggested that Norway might be a good option, in particular an area called Gaustatoppen.
I’ve skied in Norway before and I have always found it to be a terrific experience, but the resorts do tend to be smaller and offer less verticals than most alpine resorts. Not wishing to belittle his idea I said I would have a look into it, but I had my doubts that it would match up with what we were looking for. However, if my years of skiing has taught me anything, it’s that it does often pay to listen to people with more knowledge and experience of winter sport than I do. I therefore set about researching the destination and seeing what it had to offer for a family ski trip.
Like me, you may be seduced by the thought of going to bigger alpine resorts that can offer hundreds of kilometres of skiing, an impressive number of challenging runs and lifts taking you to the top of 3,000-metre peaks. This is probably (in part) why Norway does not attract British skiers in their droves, despite its relatively accessible location. There are also fewer tour operators offering holidays to Norway, and much less in the way of a chalet market. There is also sometimes a preconception that Norway is hugely expensive for food and drink (more on this later). What Norway does offer however, is a colder climate and therefore pretty much guaranteed snow cover, plentiful flight options from the UK and magnificently beautiful scenery. Granted, its highest mountains may only be at mid-level station compared to some of the Alps, but you still get uninterrupted panoramic views of the mountainous landscape and generally skiing to a lower level. Nevertheless, I was still a little apprehensive about taking a trip to a resort that claimed only 35km of pistes. It did however have the added bonus of what looked like a superb off-piste challenge from the top of the 1,883-meter high Gaustatoppen mountain down to resort level. So, after further consideration, we took the plunge and decided to give Gaustatoppen a go.
Located a 2.5-hour drive from Oslo in the Telemark region in the south of Norway, the impressive mountain of Gaustatoppen rises above the town of Rjukan. ‘Gaustatoppen’ is actually the name of the mountain, but it is also used to refer to the high ground around it. The mountain itself is often claimed to be the most beautiful mountain in Norway and on a clear day it offers views of one-sixth of Norway. In the winter the mountain is popular with off-piste skiers and snowboarders as it offers an excellent freeride descent from top to bottom with striking views as a companion.
At the foot of Gaustatoppen mountain (and above Rjukan) at an elevation of 550 meters, is the main ski area (referred to as Gausta Skisenter) which is consists of a number of smaller areas dotted around a frozen mountain lake. Each section has a number of its own ski runs and the whole ski area is linked via a network of ski lifts. It is also all well connected by road and foot, only taking a few minutes to drive from one part of the resort to another. We stayed in the area known as Hovdestaul. Taking the road up from Rjukan, Hovdestaul is the first place you come to. Hovdestaul has its own ski area with a main slope which are ideal for learning and to practice technical skills. A very short hop from the base of this hill is the Sportell which is where we stayed. The Sportell is a modern Scandinavian design hotel which is a one-minute walk from the nearest ski lift and a child’s stone throw away from the stylish Fyrieggen mountain restaurant.
The Sportell also has a lovely restaurant (Restaurant Hovdestaul) which serves good quality, tasty Norwegian influenced dishes as well as some dishes which might appeal more to children such as home-made pizzas. The hotel also has a ski rental shop and ample parking (including electric charging points). The room we stayed in was ideal for families. It was modern and comprised of a master bedroom and a bunk room. There was also a good size dining/lounge area including a fridge and cooking facilities should you wish to cook for yourself. The television was Bluetooth enabled which meant we could stream a family film before bedtime. Our room also faced the ski slope which provided us with an awesome view – the sort you never tire of.
The downside of booking the trip late and during February half-term is that Gausta Skisenter does attract lots of families and school groups from across the Scandinavia who tend to book their ski lessons in advance. The result was that we really struggled to find any ski lessons for my wife or my daughter (who had never skied). Despite the fact that I have previously worked for a ski school and taught people to ski for a living, when it comes to teaching my own family, I much prefer to leave it to my fellow professionals. Somehow giving them the same instruction, but in a foreign accent whilst dressed in a red ski suit leads to more enthusiasm and concentration! It would have been ideal for Lilly to experience skiing in a children’s beginner group because personally I think that the first priority is for children to enjoy themselves on the snow, so it does not put them off in the future. Therefore, learning the basics in a group with other children in a fun environment is the best way to introduce them to skiing. Nevertheless, with no lessons available the only option was to attempt to get my 6-year-old daughter (Lilly) to be able to ski and to give my wife (Letang) some pointers to help her improve.
The ski school and beginner’s areas are located in the vicinity of the resort. From Hovdestaul, it’s either a 3-minute drive, or for those who can ski or snowboard, via a number of pleasant runs and a couple of lifts. Note, the green runs marked on the ski map are equivalent to blue runs just in case you think there are a lot of ‘tracks’ and no easy pistes. On our first day, we drove over to the Sentrum area – the part of the resort was the busiest part of the ski area. Combined with it being the busiest week of the year, it really didn’t feel crowded and I found there was always plenty of space available on the pistes to be able to ski how you wanted to.
In the following days, I managed to purchase a ski harness for Lilly. The harness is designed to let children ski in front of you whilst you hold each end so if they start going too fast you are able to slow them down. The ski area was ideal for this as all main lifts are accessed via some nice highway stye green runs (remember green = blue). This meant that we could all explore the whole ski area and have some good quality family ski time. Despite a couple of falls, ‘operation harness’ was largely successful. I also managed to explore the other parts of the ski area for myself and I really enjoyed it.
Although Gausta is a smaller resort than I was used to, I found the quality and variety of pistes was really good. There are some nice steeper runs and the easier slopes offer wide pistes with amazing views of the valley below. These are runs that you can do again and again and not get bored and I could see why my friend first recommended this place. Although this article is based on our experience form a family ski perspective, I also think that Gausta is a great option for those of you looking for a long weekend on the mountains.
Family ski holidays are not just about the skiing or lessons. The accommodation and ‘other things’ to do are also important considerations. On a sunny day, it is possible to take a family-friendly hike to the top of Gausatoppen mountain where there is a cabin serving waffles to reward you for your effort. The summit is also accessible via a funicular tramway for those not wanting to hike up 700 meters. It’s also worth taking trip down to Rjukan which has some good restaurants and a cracking leisure centre complete with water slides and outside hot tubs. The hotel also offers a regular shuttle bus down to Rjukan.
The town also has historical importance. It played an important role in the outcome of World War 2 where the Nazi’s aimed to use its heavy water production facilities to advance their atomic weapon aspirations. This is the area where the classic war film ‘The heroes of the Telemark’ was filmed’ which tells the true story of the Norwegian resistance’s sabotage of the Vemork Norsk Hydro plant in Rjukan that the Nazi’s were using to produce heavy water.
Finally, a note on eating and drinking in Norway for anyone worried about the costs. It’s not a budget destination but the same is true from most European ski resorts. However, each time I have skied in Norway, I have always been delighted with the quality of the food. Sticking my neck out here, I would say that a typical mountain restaurant lunch would now cost less (or be on par with) a lot of the well-known resorts that the lions’ share of British guests tend to visit. It’s a similar story with drinks. The price of soft and hot drinks is palatable but for alcoholic drinks, it is one of the most expensive places in Europe to indulge yourself. It’s not a huge departure from what you may pay now in the Alps, or indeed in some parts of the UK. In short, don’t let concerns over the price of food and drink put you off visiting this wonderful destination.
We had a brilliant time in Gaustatoppen and would return in a heartbeat. As a family ski holiday, it ticked all the boxes and has given us some cherished memories. I hope I have given you some food for thought for your next family ski holiday – think outside the box, you won’t regret it.
Fact box And Handy Advice
Where we stayed: Gaustatoppen Sportell.
I highly recommend this hotel. Rooms can be booked directly and tend to be cheaper than hotel booking websites. Currently, a room over February half-term ranges from 1,670NOK per night (£142) for a double room to 2,570NOK per night (£219) for a family suite (this is the type of room we had). Prices are fairly consistent throughout the winter regardless of school holidays.
Equipment hire: The Gaustatoppen Sportell offers equipment hire. Skis hire costs between 350NOK (£29) to 500NOK (£42) per day.
Lift pass: An adult lift pass costs 485NOK (£41) per day or for 6-8 days it’s 2,200NOK (£187). Lift passes for children under 8 are free but must have a lift card which costs 75NOK (£6.50).
We flew direct from Stansted on Ryanair, but Oslo is well served via other UK airports and airlines. Flight costs vary and tend to cost less than to the Alps.
A hire car is recommended. Driving form Oslo is fairly straight forward and takes around 2.5 hours. Please be aware that the GPS may plot the route that is quickest but not take into account that part of the route close to Gaustatoppen is closed during the winter. I speak from experience when I offer this advice. I would not want you getting bogged down in snow, having to get towed out by a local farmer and adding 3 hours to the journey! Instead make sure that when you reach the town of Notodden that you follow the signs to Gransherad and then on towards Rjukan.
We hired a car through Hertz. Petrol and Diesel cars are available but to help offset your holidays carbon footprint, why not hire an electric car. Norway has the largest amount of plug-in electric vehicles per capita in the world and as such electric car usage is high and you won’t have to look too far to find your nearest charging point. From Oslo, Gaustatoppen can be reached on a single charge on most new electric cars. We had a VW ID.4 which cost approximately £500 for the week.