Geilo, Norway: Magic Sofas and Elk Steaks

Geilo, Norway – “There’s something so quiet and cozy about a snow-covered town, like it’s been nicely tucked up and put to sleep,” I was thinking to myself as I stepped off the ski train from Oslo, the none-too-large capital of Norway. The small snow-covered town where I found myself on this dark evening in March, shivering a bit in the sub-freezing temperatures, was called Geilo and although significantly smaller than the Norwegian capital, with only some 2000 souls to its name, it still manages to be one of the country’s key ski resorts with no less than 39 slopes, 20 lifts and 220 km’s worth of cross-country tracks. It might have looked sleepy upon my arrival under its fluffy blanket of white, but as it turned out there was plenty of life in this 100-year resort nestled amidst stunning mountain scenery alongside the Ustedalsfjord, some four hours north of Oslo.

Ski tourism has formed an integral part of Geilo ever since the late 19th century, with the first slalom race held in 1935 and the first ski lift that opened in 1954. When the railway arrived in 1909 this also heralded a new era for tourism and to coincide with its opening one of Geilo’s most impressive hotels, Dr. Holm’s, also opened up its doors. On the surface, Geilo just looks like a tiny village huddled below formidable mountains, but there is something here that not just takes people in, but also keeps bringing them back. It’s no coincidence that this has been one of Norway’s most lasting tourism success stories. Geilo has a lot to offer.

Norway's Geilo ski resort offers runs for all abilities. (photo: Marius Rua)

Norway’s Geilo ski resort offers runs for all abilities.
(photo: Marius Rua)

The ski season often starts as early as the end of November and then carries on right through to mid or late April. Although the winters are pretty long, not to mention pretty cold, this really lends itself to perfect ski conditions. During my stay in March temperatures hovered between 0 and -5ºC, with glorious sunshine from a bright blue sky, followed by the odd “snowpour” and some wickedly howling winds. There’s definitely less need for artificial snow in this area and the landscape all around me was covered in some six feet of powder, the nearby fjord frozen solid in most places.

As a resort, Geilo is particularly good for both children and the beginner to intermediate skier, something I was very grateful for, having had quite a lapse since I last stood on skis. This doesn’t make for a boring stay, though, as there’s plenty of variety whatever your ability with good options for the more advanced and adventurous skier. With as many as 39 slopes you can’t really go wrong, there will always be a new slope to try out and best of all, there are hardly ever any liftlines. Despite the resort’s popularity there’s a blissful sense of space, nobody jostling to get on the lifts, nobody cutting you off or ruining your time on the slopes.

Many of the lifts have the latest in high-tech equipment with, for example, heated seats. Be warned though, some of the safety mechanisms can be a bit hard to manipulate, something I discovered when I had the whole seat to myself, only to find that I didn’t quite have the muscle power to bring down the safety bar around me. Soon I found myself flying above the tree tops without anything keeping me in place – rather like flying on a magic sofa! This is not to say that they’re not safety-conscious at Geilo. Normally they’re very good at strapping you in, but as a one-off adventure it was quite nice, given that I couldn’t really have fallen out of my seat any more than you’re likely to fall out of your own sofa at home.

Geilo is a good place to break yourself in gently if you’re a bit rusty and soon you’ll find yourself back in the swing of things. Alternatively if you’re getting the hang of skiing for the first time, this is also the place to do it. All the ski instructors teach new skiers in their native language, whether it’s English, German, French or any of the Scandinavian languages. In fact, language in Geilo is never really an issue, as English is so widely spoken that life in the village is very easy. It also means that being sociable isn’t such a struggle and you can mix and mingle with visitors and locals alike. As a town, Geilo is used to tourism and very much at ease with its role as a resort. People are friendly and helpful, and there’s a large seasonal population from many parts of Scandinavia and the rest of the world who live here during the ski season.

Geilo offers over 220km of cross-country skiing. (photo: Marius Rua)

Geilo offers over 220km of cross-country skiing.
(photo: Marius Rua)

Downhill skiing, although undoubtedly the most popular activity, is just one of the many things on offer and as most people stay here a week, there’s plenty of time to try out the others. Easier on your knees and thighs, with far fewer broken limbs on average, cross-country skiing is still good exercise, if in a more gentle, less exhilarating fashion. Gliding along the well made-up tracks can take you all around the Ustedals fjord and beyond – in fact with so many tracks to choose from you could easily spend the whole week exploring, drinking in the scenery at a more leisurely pace. Many Norwegians prefer cross-country to downhill and often take enormous picnics for, as they put it, “going on tour.”

Snowboarders and freeskiers are also in for a treat as Geilo has one of Norway’s biggest terrain parks and Northern Europe’s largest half pipe – the Super Pipe at Fugleleiken. There are three freestyle areas to choose from and this has recently been the focus of big investments in Geilo. Myself, not feeling that brave, opted for a snowy, leisurely walk around the Ustedals fjord – yes, it’s a fjord, but you can go around it – crossing the frozen, icy waters to the other side. As I was crossing curiosity got the better of me and I strayed from the marked path to see if the snow would carry me. Do this at your own peril! Two seconds later I’d sunk down to my waist in the fresh powder and had to crawl and scamper my way back up on my hands and knees, panting in a most unseemly fashion.

After such exhausting adventures there was nothing for it, I was simply forced to spend some time recovering in one of the resort’s best bars, inside Vestlia hotel, right on the slopes. Après-ski in Norway can come across as a bit subdued, at least in Geilo, but that’s not to say it’s boring. In fact, given that most people speak English, this makes it quite easy to socialize and before I knew it I was discussing the best places to eat in Belgium with my fellow tablemate, an ethical banker from Ghent, who was specializing in those of us who are self-employed. Heartening financial advice for a freelancer like myself was coming my way absolutely free of charge and just as well – if there is one thing that does break the bank in Norway it is the booze. This really shouldn’t put you off as most things are otherwise reasonably priced including food and accommodation. The fact that you’re drinking in style also softens the blow a bit.

Click image to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window.

Click image to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window.

Bars in Geilo are plentiful and quite a few of them are up the actual slopes, although these aren’t allowed to serve alcohol until after 3 p.m., presumably to avoid nasty accidents among fellow skiers. In my humble opinion though, the very best, the ultimate bar, is to be found not on the slopes, but in the gorgeous, towering white manor house hovering over town, perched just in the right place to give you the best views of the mountainous surroundings – Dr. Holm’s Hotel. This hotel has had a speckled history to say the least, in the 98 years gone by since it first threw open its doors to the public. During WWII for example, the Germans took over the whole building, using one part as an administrative center and the other as a French-style bordello where their submarine personnel could come and “relax” when they were off duty.

Although no longer a bordello – far from it – there’s something exceedingly decadent about Dr. Holm’s, rather like a plush mansion or country estate and the first floor hunting lodge-style bar does induce you to sit back, relax and simply soak up the atmosphere. The place has the feel of days gone by, it’s charming in an old-world style, but posh rather than quaint. Although the bar is a great place to chill out after a day’s hard work on the piste, Dr. Holm’s renowned spa is perhaps even better. One of the largest and best equipped spas in Norway, it boasted two pools, a Jacuzzi, sauna and a Turkish steam bath with a whole host of treatments on offer.

Despite its size, or rather lack of it, you’re spoiled for choice in Geilo. Activities, accommodation, bars and of course, lots and lots of snow. Restaurants, on the other hand, are somewhat more thin on the ground, but the ones there are make up for in quality what they lack in options. Yes, there are the ubiquitous pizza places (Peppe’s Pizza being the most difficult of all to avoid) and you can get your burgers, Dr. Holm’s has even got a Bowl ‘n Dine, but Geilo is also a good place for the more adventurous eater who’d like to try out some Norwegian specialities.

As I didn’t want to be a culinary chicken I’d made a vow to only have Norwegian food during my stay and this led to some exciting discoveries. Reindeer meat can be good in a tortilla wrap and potato pancakes needn’t be stodgy. The highlight was a Norwegian restaurant called Hallingstuene that just looked impossibly snug, both from the outside and once indoors. The menu was definitely meat heavy, but elk steak in a chanterelle mushroom sauce with mashed potatoes and lingonberry (similar to cranberry) took some beating. Outside the wind was howling, whipping up a tremendous blizzard while I was inside by a crackling fire devouring my elk. Bliss…

In Geilo we have great winters...

In Geilo we have great winters…”
– Einar Øyo, Geilo Taubane ski area general manager
(photo: Nils-Erik Kjellman)

Not all animals are munched and chewed though. Geilo offers husky safaris, as well as reindeer and horse-sleigh rides. There’s also a chance to sign up for a beginner’s kite-skiing or snow-kiting course, something that’s become increasingly popular in the area. For such a small place there is great variety in Geilo and all things ski and snow are right at the top of the yearly agenda. As Einar Øyo, general manager at one of the ski centers, Geilo Taubane, puts it, “In Geilo we have great winters, one month of really bad skiing and then summer.”

Summer is not a bad time either, as the place is taken over by mountain bike enthusiasts, but that’s a different story. For now, suffice to say that it’s winter that reigns supreme here and that’s what keeps people coming back year after year for their annual fix of piste and powder, but also for peace and pristine nature, miles from pollution and everyday hassles. Geilo has that winter wonderland feel long after the snows of the Alps have melted – it is special.

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