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Ultimate chill out

Last month, as the country ground to a halt under a few inches of snow, I went in search of somewhere more able to deal with freezing conditions -- Norway.

Winter in Norway lasts six months. Relentless gritting and snow ploughs ensure Norwegians keep on the move. Winter tyres are compulsory and thermal underwear, while not compulsory, comes highly recommended.

The oil-rich nation of glaciers and fjords is less than a two-hour flight from Dublin and for that reason it's ideal for a short ski break.

There's an old Scandinavian saying that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet. Skiing is the national sport and children start learning from a very early age. So, what better place for a 'Mini-Me' (seven-year-old Mainie) to hit the slopes for the first time.

On arrival at Oslo airport it was all aboard the ski train and 90 minutes later and we were in Lillehammer, the town famed for the 1994 Winter Olympics.

It was here that I had my first real taste of Norwegian air. It was, quite literally, Baltic! At minus 25 degrees, Lillehammer was actually three degrees colder than my home freezer.

Thankfully our chalet at the Birkebeineren Hotel was really comfortable, and we blasted the heat up to 30 degrees. A hot chocolate for the little lady and a glass of wine for me, and we rolled into our comfy beds. Next morning, as we boarded the ski bus, we were told that, even for Norway, minus 25 was pretty damn cold. Thank God for thermals.

Hafjell Alpine Centre is located 30 minutes north of Lillehammer at the entrance of the Gudbrandsdalen valley. There are 15 lifts and more than 28 trails geared toward the beginner and intermediate skier. There's also a fun park for boarders, and the resort boasts the most extensive floodlight system in Norway. The floodlights illuminate 7km of runs prolonging the ski day that would otherwise finish at 3.30pm. The floodlights also allow for tobogganing, snowmobiles and ski-doos for kids.

It's a fantastic resort for young families and a particularly good one for school kids. All the ski-school instructors speak perfect English. When I returned at the end of Mainie's 90-minute lesson, I was flabbergasted. Not only was she skiing, she was positively bombing down the slope.



Sandwiches

In search of heat, we headed for one of the six restaurants in the Alpine Centre. The goulash soup hit the spot and the hot waffles with jam were delicious. But I couldn't help noticing seasoned skiers tucking into packed lunches. Why?

The reason became apparent when I went to the cash register. The soup set me back 82 Norwegian Kroner. That's €10! Suddenly a packed lunch seemed a pretty good idea. Next morning we hit the slopes with a knapsack full of sandwiches raided from the breakfast buffet. Again, the temperatures had dropped, but not enough to stop me skiing.

After dispatching Mainie to ski school, I headed for the gondola with Stephen, my instructor. While I'm not a good skier (a so-called friend nicknamed me "the human snowball"), I really enjoy it. But, for some reason, this time round something just clicked and before I knew it I was carving -- albeit not very gracefully -- but hey, I felt like a downhill skier and that was all that mattered.



Olympians

On the other hand, Mainie and her new buddies were skiing with all the grace and ease of future winter Olympians. Don't you just hate the way kids pick things up so easily?

Lunch beckoned and, as I watched others queuing up for soup, I felt pretty smug with my knapsack full of sarnies -- until I realised my sandwiches had frozen solid!

As the mercury dropped even further, we toyed with the idea of giving the Hunderfossen Winter Park a miss, but we persevered. Unfortunately, due to the extreme temperatures, many of the activities were unavailable, so we cut our visit short. However, I'm reliably informed the park is well worth a visit and that the horse-drawn sleigh rides are quite magical.

Despite my eyelashes sticking together with the cold, my frozen runny nose and my face feeling like I'd overdosed on Botox, I was determined to ski on our third and final day.

I'm sure our instructors thought we were crazy when we turned up for lessons. Correction: we were crazy. It was minus 27. I skied for 30 minutes and called it a day. Back at ski school, Mainie was already tucked up in the kids' play room with her two ski buddies munching shortcake and sipping hot orange squash.

With its great fjords, frozen lakes and mountains, Norway is breathtakingly beautiful. It's also breathtakingly expensive. If you're after a heavy night on the tiles, forget it. A pint of beer will cost around €8 and upwards, while you'll get little change from €40 for a bottle of house wine. If you do fancy a tipple or two, my advice is to stock up on the duty free at Dublin Airport. That said there are ways to cut costs. If you're not a drinker you can cosy up in a chalet rather than eat out.

If you're a teacher organising a school ski trip, it's definitely well worth considering. Helmets are compulsory for children under 13, but, unlike other European ski resorts, the majority of adults here wear them too. At Hafjell, all the ski lifts and runs lead back to the Alpine Centre, so it's very difficult, though not impossible, to lose a pupil. Also there are such tight restrictions on the sale of alcohol to minors that you've little or no worries about kids sneaking off to buy a beer.



Energetic

However for me, Norway is all about families. It's about watching Mainie find her ski legs and the realisation that, just like her mum, she's becoming hooked on an exciting and energetic winter sport. It's about her giggling with delight as she bombs down a blue run for the very first time.

As for the fact that I actually survived minus 27, you could say Norway will be forever frozen in my memory.


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