Going off-piste for perfect powder

Skiers flock to the French and Swiss Alps every winter in search of slopes and white powder. But insiders are increasingly heading to the space and calm of Scandinavia for a more all-round ski experience, writes Martin Bewick

Too often skiing holidays can be hard work. The long queues, crowded slopes, instructors with the attitude of a drill sergeant and hectic apres-ski scene can leave you needing another holiday at the end of it all. Skiing in Scandinavia is different. The resorts of Sweden, Norway and Finland are smaller and less well-known than their Alpine counterparts, but they offer superb skiing conditions and top-class amenities amid wildly beautiful scenery.

“There’s a huge expanse of landscape in Scandinavia,” says Matt Nolan of specialist online UK tour operator ski-norway.co.uk and skilapland. co.uk. “The mountains are half a billion years older than the Alps. Look out across the huge skies, forests and frozen lakes, with no sign of man at all, and you think, ‘I’m in the wilds here’.”

Scandinavia’s resorts are also acclaimed for their facilities and “snowsure” conditions. The latter is a factor that might make the region a more attractive destination if predicted rises in global temperatures shorten seasons elsewhere. Analysis by the Ski Club of Great Britain shows that the sporadic snow conditions in mainland Europe in recent years has seen people hold off booking holidays and base their decision on snowfall. Reports of the bumper 2010/11 snow season in Scandinavia might mean people are enticed to experience new destinations in future.

The Scandinavian ski season also extends from November through to May - sometimes longer. Fewer skiers means the well-maintained pistes aren’t churned up so quickly, lift queues are rare and the resorts offer a relaxing, family friendly environment.

“Scandinavia is a hidden gem,” says Mr Nolan. “It caters mostly for the domestic market but most people speak good English. The quieter, wider slopes also make it a great place for children to learn.”

Sweden’s leading resort, Åre, on the shoes of the frozen Åresjon lake, is of modest size in comparison with the expanses of, for example, Trois Vallées in France. Further north, 200km into the Arctic Circle, Riksgränsen claims to be the world’s northernmost ski resort, where, in June, skiing under the midnight sun is a must.

Across Scandinavia, skiing through pine and birch forests offers a completely different experience to stark high-altitude Alpine runs, while extensive offpiste, cross-country and Telemark - “free heel” - skiing are popular. “In Norway, Hemsedal is known for its off-piste runs and some steep stuff,” says Mr Nolan. “Trysil is the Norway’s biggest resort and Lillehammer hosted the 1994 winter Olympics.”

Low-altitude skiing also has another advantage. In Norway the Lyngen Alps rise directly up from the deep blue fjords. “You’ll be surprised how good you’ll feel when skiing there,” says Bianca Wessel, founder of the littlescandinavian.com website, a UK-based Norwegian and keen skier. “You’re skiing at sea level so there’s a lot more oxygen than at higher altitudes,” she says. “There’s the most stunning scenery and everything from gentle slopes to big open mountain skiing.”

Mr Nolan describes the “fells” of Finnish Lapland as skiing in “paradise”. Close to Russia, the stunning wilderness of Ruka, with its log cabin accommodation, is home to cross-country, ski jumping and Nordic combined World Cup events. In Yllas you can stay in the ice suites of Snow Village, while at Levi a night in a glass-roofed igloo on the top of the fell makes for a an unforgettable night under the stars.

For the adventurous, expeditions in snow mobiles, dog-sledding and ice driving all add to the thrill of skis, while locals often end the day with a spa treatment or traditional sauna - an activity which, indicating perhaps how much skiing is second nature to Scandinavians, could have been designed as an antidote to a full day on the slopes.