by Stephen Wood, The Telegraph, November 13, 2019
Who looks forward to a coach transfer, the traditional last leg of a journey to the mountains after a plane or train journey? No one. Narrow roads, hairpin bends, endless drop-offs: for most skiers and snowboarders, the transfer is the least enjoyable part of their trip.
On occasion, it is avoidable: the Swiss, bless them, make small railway trains that can climb mountains, albeit slowly. But when there is no alternative, the general rule for transfers is this: the shorter, the better.
That goes for families with young children in particular. They quickly learn the routine of an Alpine ascent. It begins with travel-sickness pills, healthy drinks, and a usually fruitless attempt to get seats near the front of the coach; and it ends with kids who need a change of clothes, a floor that needs wiping, and fellow passengers who need an apology.
But a new airport opening for the 2019/20 ski season promises to bypass a long transfer to one Scandinavian resort, and to virtually dispense with the transfer to another. The new facility, Scandinavian Mountains Airport, is in Sweden, very close to the border with Norway. Over on the Norwegian side lies Trysil, a family resort already quite familiar to UK holidaymakers; nearby in Sweden, catering primarily for guests with younger children, is Sälen. It is a ski destination created by merging what were originally four separate domains. Transfer time from the new airport to the closest of Sälen’s villages? Ten minutes.
What’s more, SAS has launched a route from Heathrow to the new airport, with the first flight on December 28, the opening date of the airport. Flying time is two hours. Even allowing for time spent in the arrival area, the journey should be one of the fastest from Heathrow to the slopes. Previously, getting to either Sälen or Trysil from the UK has entailed flights to either Oslo or Stockholm, then an onward transfer of between two to nearly five hours.
The airport is the brainchild of SkiStar, the Swedish ski-resort operator that owns Sälen, Trysil and four other ski areas in Scandinavia, plus one in Austria, St Johann in Tirol. The company was created by two brothers who made a fortune from waste management, and took over one of the Sälen villages, Lindvallen, in 1978. The finance for the airport was raised by SkiStar with the participation of a large group of regional businesses.
When I visited in the spring of this year, SkiStar looked at least to have chosen a good spot for its airport: fairly flat, big enough for mid-size jets, and surrounded by nothing but trees. On a site visit, however, two elements seemed to be missing from the bigger picture. No mountains were to be seen, and the snow on the ground was no more than patchy. Why would UK skiers want to come here?
The answer is that what Scandinavia lacks in altitude, it makes up for in latitude: that close to the Arctic Circle, the snow line is never far away in winter. The French had to build tower-blocks in the sky to get skiers up to snow-sure terrain; in Sälen, all that’s needed is a surface lift. Sure, the slopes of Scandinavia can’t compete with those in the French Alps, but for families with small children that is no bad thing. With Swedish ski instructors who speak perfect English and snow on the nursery slopes until the end of the Easter school holidays, Sälen is an attractive proposition for UK skiers with young kids.
At the end of last season, the weather was unusually warm: Sälen had had a full week of sunshine. The snow did get wet in the afternoon. But considering that the highest point in the ski area is at 860m, the pistes held up well.
Still based at Sälen, SkiStar now operates all the slopes there: the ski terrain forms a broad arc around the town, starting from Lindvallen’s slopes and running around the other three domains of Högfjället, Tandådalen and Hundfjället. It is possible to ski from one to another, but not with ease; the shuttle bus – which runs along the road that leads to the new airport – is a better option.
There is a total of 100 pistes in all colours, covering 82km in total; but with a maximum vertical drop of 303m, they tend to be short and sweet. Still, while the black runs are clearly age-appropriate, there are some good, long traverses, and my two teenage children (Lily and Stanley, respectively 15 and 13) spent happy hours in the child-friendly terrain parks and Fun Ride zones. In the latter, their favourite descent, dotted with the usual hazards, combined a bump-run and a corkscrew, which I found rather unsettling to the stomach.
If Sälen’s ski slopes and recreational areas (including a bowling alley and an adventure swimming pool) are clearly designed with families in mind, that is not the case everywhere. There is certainly nothing plastic or brightly coloured in the magnificent bar of Lindvallen’s flagship SkiStar Lodge, which looks as if it could have been entirely shipped in from Colorado. Between its slate floor and the heavily-timbered ceiling are two-and-a-half storeys of air, light and alpine views.
The catering at Sälen is mostly child-friendly, though there is a good, full-service restaurant with a Nordic menu. But the kids – mine and others – favoured O’Learys sports bar and the pizzeria.
Sälen’s guest visits amount to 1.6 million skier-days per season. Virtually none of the guests are from the UK – so far. Trysil, 40 minutes away by coach from the Scandinavian Mountains Airport, gets 1.1 million skier-days per season. Britons account for only six per cent of them, but our presence is considerable during the Easter school holiday period.
Trysil has a proper mountain, only 1,132m high but with 78km of descents, some of them genuinely steep. The resort is dominated by two Radisson hotels, one on either side of the mountain; they house not just bedroom but also shops, entertainment and sports facilities, so that older kids can amuse themselves without leaving the building. The sporting options in one Radisson include a FlowRider surfing simulator in the swimming pool.
At the end of a trip to Trysil a couple of seasons ago, my kids declared that it was their favourite ski resort. And that title – which it retains – was won in the bad old days, when it took two-a-half-hours on a coach transfer to get there.
How to do it
A week’s stay at the SkiStar Lodge Experium in Sälen Lindvallen costs from €1,606.50 B&B for two adults, one youth (under 16 years) and one child (under five years), including lift passes, bed linen, and cleaning, booked directly with SkiStar. An equivalent holiday in Trysil, at the Mountain Resort Leilighet, costs from €1397.50, also booked with SkiStar. Return SAS Go Smart flights from Heathrow to Scandinavian Mountains Airport with SAS cost from £155, including an 8kg carry-on bag and a 23kg checked bag.