Norway is the birthplace of skiing, predating the sport in Switzerland or Austria. It boasts 30,000km (18,600 miles) of marked ski trails.
From November until the end of May, cross-country and downhill skiing are both available, but don't expect the brilliant sun of the Alps. The days get long just before Easter, when skiing is best. Lights illuminate many of the tracks for winter skiers, proving to be especially helpful in January and February.
From December to April, daylight is limited, but it's still possible to have a full day's skiing if you start early. The bigger resorts have at least one floodlit downhill slope, and many towns and villages have a floodlit cross-country track (lysløype). The days lengthen rapidly in January and February. Mid-February is the most popular period, and accommodations prices are higher then. Early March offers a combination of good skiing conditions and low prices. Easter time is popular with Norwegians, and hotel prices are very high then. Beginning Easter Monday, low-season rates apply again. Skiing in the higher elevations is possible until May, and you can even ski all summer in a few places. For information about summer skiing, get in touch with Stryn Sommerskisenter (tel. 57-87-79-00; www.strynefjellet.com). The largest mainland glacier in Europe is at Jostedalsbreen, near Stryn.
Snowboard and skiing facilities in the country are excellent overall. The winter season is longer than in southern Europe. The bigger resorts in Norway have plenty to interest beginners and intermediate skiers for a week or more, and there are many black-diamond runs for the more experienced. Families can find free lift passes and helmets for kids under 7, plus plenty of nursery slopes and day-care centers. Lift passes are relatively inexpensive, rental equipment is often cheaper than in other ski countries, queues are usually short, and the slopes are uncrowded.
Norway is best known for its cross-country skiing, which is superb at ski resorts everywhere. An endless network of marked trails (skiløyper) crosses rolling hills, forests, frozen lakes, and mountains. Numerous small ski centers offer inexpensive ski rentals and tuition. All the downhill resorts also have extensive trail networks.
Norwegian ski resorts are known for their informality, which is evident in the schools and the atmosphere. The emphasis is on simple pleasures, not the sophistication often found at alpine resorts. (Incidentally, the word ski is an Old Norse word, as is slalom.)
Geilo and Hemsedal are the best-known downhill resorts for keen downhill skiers. Geilo has the most extensive lift system, but Hemsedal has steeper runs and more spectacular scenery. There is also good cross-country skiing near both resorts. The huge mountain area of Golsfjellet, between Hemsedal, Gol, and Valdres, is excellent for experienced cross-country skiers. The main railway between Oslo and Bergen serves Geilo directly and Hemsedal via a bus connection from Gol (3-4 hr.).
Geilo is our favorite ski resort in Norway because you can step off a train and onto a ski lift. Voss, its rival, has more folklore and better architecture. A lot of Geilo consists of large structures that evoke army barracks. But, in winter, the white snow is all forgiving, and you will have arrived at an alpine paradise. The best slope at Geilo is the Skiheiser, with 24km (15 miles) of some of the best skiing this side of the Swiss Alps. With 18 lifts and 33 ski runs, Geilo is competitive with any resort in Norway.
Trysil, in eastern Norway, is less famous than Geilo and Hemsedal, but it also offers good downhill skiing and a particularly fine choice of self-catering chalets and apartments with skiable access to the lifts. Trysil is easy to reach by a direct express bus service from Oslo airport (3 hr.). Of course, Trysil is more of a backwater and doesn't possess the après-ski life of more established resorts such as Voss and Geilo.
The Valdres area between Hemsedal and Lillehammer is famous for its scenery of rolling forested hills with high mountains in the distance. The Aurdal ski center has the unbeatable combination of superb cross-country terrain and good downhill facilities. A good base for both is one of the excellent chalets at the top of the downhill slopes. Direct bus service connects Valdres to central Oslo (3 hr.).
The owners of ski resorts in Voss, Geilo, and Lillehammer aren't going to fall over dead out of fear that Valdres is going to take over all their business (it hasn't happened so far). But many world-class skiers are increasingly frequenting this resort to avoid the crowds and to enjoy slopes at a more leisurely pace.
Lillehammer has been well known since the Winter Olympics in 1994, and the competitive facilities are world-class. The main downhill slopes are at Hafjell, 15km (9 1/4 miles) north of Lillehammer. The cross-country skiing through the gentle hills, scattered forests, and lakes of the Sjusjøen area is endless and particularly good for beginners. Lillehammer itself is more cosmopolitan than the other ski towns and has a wide range of shops and places to eat and drink.
We love Geilo's small-scale winter charm, but no other resort in Norway can compete with all the multifarious offerings of Lillehammer. Facilities here are more wide ranging and better organized than in Voss or Geilo. Lillehammer might lack charm, but it more than makes up for that with experienced instructors in its ski schools, good lifts and smooth alpine slopes, and sheer vastness. (It has 402km/249 miles of prepared, illuminated cross-country tracks.)
North of Lillehammer is the Gudbrandsdal valley, surrounded by extensive cross-country areas linked by two long-distance trails: "Troll løype" to the east and "Peer Gynt løype" to the west. Skiers of all abilities enjoy this area, and downhillers find several good ski centers. This region, including Gålå and Fefor, is especially well served by mountain hotels.
For those traveling with their own car, the Telemark area is easily accessible from Haugesund or Kristiansand (3-5 hr.). Gaustablikk, near the town of Rjukan, is the best all-around center, with several lifts and downhill runs of all standards, plus many kilometers of cross-country trails to suit all abilities. Although the skiing is good here, it lacks much in après-ski life, restaurants, and hotels.
Voss is well known and easily reached from Bergen in about 90 minutes by car or train, but the location near the west coast suffers from unreliable weather, particularly early and late in the season. It is well worth considering for a short break, though, or if you want to combine skiing with a winter visit to the fjord area.
Even though it's trying hard, Voss still has a long way to go before it overtakes either Geilo or Lillehammer. Nonetheless, it offers ski lifts, chairlifts, and an aerial cableway that can carry skiers up to 788m (2,585 ft.). We are especially fond of Mjølfjell, reached by going up the Raundalen Valley. This area offers some of the best cross-country skiing in Norway. Voss also emphasizes Norwegian folklore more than either Geilo or Lillehammer.