Where the pros go for snow: Skiing in Scandinavia

Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen for CNNUpdated 24th October 2017
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(CNN) — "I came here for the early season snow," says our ski guide Mattias Åberg. "But I stayed for the atmosphere."
Mattias has taken us off the beaten tracks on the slopes of Ramundberget in Sweden.
We're traversing down the north side of the mountain, past brooks and birch trees whose branches hang heavy with freshly fallen snow.
Ramundberget is one of the resorts and towns that make up the Swedish ski area of Funasfjallen.
Thanks to the early snowfall, it's become a treasured training destination for alpine and cross-country teams who also benefit from lifts and slopes that are hardly overrun by people.
The Alps may offer longer runs, more glamor and glitz, but skiing in Scandinavia is often a laid-back alternative with well-prepared conditions for both families and adventurous pros.
Fewer fashion statements and partying; more friendly faces, solitude that lets you appreciate nature and -- in the case of Funasfjallen -- gastronomy that punches the weight of a small fjall, or mountain, destination.
Apres ski may be an afterthought around these parts, but when we carve our way through Ramundberget's impressive network of slopes, intertwined with patches of forest, we find a lunch spot unlike any other.
Do you have to tip the bear? Sweden's Fjallnas hotel.
Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen
Tusen (which means "thousand" and refers to the altitude we're at) is located a short glide from the lifts and looks like a decapitated cone clad in birch trunks.
Its award-winning architecture is inspired by traditional Sami tents, with the birch logs offering shelter from howling icy winds and providing a facade that blends in with the natural surroundings.
At the bottom of our forest off-piste run, we join up with the cross-country tracks that guide us back to Ramundberget's lifts.

Olympic heroes

These tracks are part of an impressive 300-kilometer network -- one of the largest in the world -- centered around a stadium hub in nearby Bruksvallarna.
With snow dropping as early as October, this is where the World Cup selection races take place and it's sometimes possible to spot local Olympic heroes on their morning runs.
At the stadium finishing line, where the LED display indicates a rather mild minus-6 Celsius for early January, there's another treat for those dedicated to the immersive winter experience: an igloo -- constructed from four joined-up domes -- which acts as a gallery for local artists, a wedding chapel and a hotel room.
Amazingly, the igloo isn't the most esoteric form of accommodation that Funasfjallen offers.
To experience that, we go to Fjallnas hotel, an hour's drive from Ramundberget.
The hotel has entertained guests -- including the Swedish royal family -- since 1882, making it Sweden's oldest mountain hotel.
As if its waterside location with panoramic views of the mountains wasn't impressive enough, it now offers the option to spend the night in a refurbished cabin located on the isolated banks of Bolagan Lake, in the mountain ranges that separate Sweden and Norway.
And it involves travel by snowmobile across frozen lakes and up mountainsides.
With the snowmobile hitting 20 mph, my travel partner puts on his skis, grabs the rope and handle, and flies behind, zig-zagging across the ice like Marty McFly in Hill Valley's town square.
Driving the snowmobile is Tony Luquero, a former electronics engineer from Newcastle who gave up his job, went traveling and ended up five years ago at the old hotel in Fjallnas (Malmagsvagen 33, Tanndalen, Sweden; +46 684 230 30).
The hotel has entertained guests -- including the Swedish royal family -- since 1882, making it Sweden's oldest mountain hotel.
As if its waterside location with panoramic views of the mountains wasn't impressive enough, it now offers the option to spend the night in a refurbished cabin located on the isolated banks of Bolagan Lake, in the mountain ranges that separate Sweden and Norway.
As we reach our destination at an altitude of 952 meters, Tony grabs a blue shovel to dig his way through to the front door.
Who needs hills? Snow sports in Sweden.
Lars Hinnerskov Erikson

Sunshine and silence

Inside the cabin -- built with thick trunks of pine -- are bunk beds, ice fishing tools and a wood-fired cooker, the Viking 30, which was transported here by helicopter.
"You just have to feed the fire all night and it'll stay warm," says Tony.
The adjacent building houses a sauna.
Surrounding us on a crisp sunny winter morning is nothing but silence.
And nature.
Back at the hotel, there's a warm wood-lodge feel to the reception and dining room here.
Golden pendant lamps hang over the tables, there are Scandinavian designer chairs and a zoo of stuffed animals -- including moose and a bear.
Outside, we soak in the spa's heated pool while snow hurls around our faces.
Inside, we're served reindeer, which is so flavorsome and succulent it makes a mockery out of beef fillet.
There are great things happening in the kitchens here.
In the village of Funasdalen, home to one of the alpine resorts and the area's first gondola lift, 24-year-old Emil Bertilsson runs the kitchen at Skoogs Krog (Rorosvagen 4, Funasdalen; +46 684 215 50).
All on his own.
His ambition is to create a self-sustaining restaurant that champions produce from the area.
He dries, pickles and freezes his produce to preserve it for the winter.
During an impressive eight-course dinner, Emil serves wild arctic char with dried dill, picked on the fjall in the summer; moose tartar with trout roe, rye bread and a zingy lovage oil; cloudberries from the mountains.
We came to Funasfjallen for skiing, for off-piste runs, the empty birch-lined slopes and mountain excursions, but it's the atmosphere that wins us over.World's best rail network? How to get on track in Germany

How to get there:

Wideroe flies from Oslo to Roros Airport in Norway, which is less than an hour's drive from Funasfjallen.

How to ski Scandinavian style:

Smile

Rule number one: put on a smile and say "hej" (pronounced "hey").
Scandinavian ski resorts are characterized by their friendly and relaxed attitude, and pretty much any instructor or guide encountered on the slopes is happy to assist in English.

Chase the daylight

It may have an early ski season, but Scandinavia can also have a very cold one.
The northern location means that January is one of the darkest months -- depending how far north you go, the daylight hours are few.
The best time to ski is from the middle of February until April, although many resorts have floodlights on the hills for night skiing.

Savor the space

Lines are rare at most Scandinavian ski resorts, but that's not the only reason it can sometimes feel like you've got an entire mountain to yourself.
One of the great misconceptions here is that off-piste is off-limits. There are plenty of off-piste opportunities -- as well as cat- and heli-skiing -- and because the ski destinations are less crowded than the Alps, it's possible to find untouched powder days after the snow has dropped.

Sweat

Hot in Scandinavia: Apres-ski saunas
Courtesy Innovation Norway
To really blend in with the locals, visitors need to embrace the sauna, which can be found in almost any hotel or cabin.

But don't sweat the money

Scandinavia has a earned a reputation as a pricey destination in recent years thanks to strong local economies and high living costs.
But with the Swedish krona currently struggling against major currencies, visitors to the region can take advantage of good value ski holidays.

Four other Scandinavian ski gems

Are (Sweden)

Better than the Alps? Åre in Sweden.
Courtesy Henrik Trygg/imagebank,sweden.se
Are is the most famous of Sweden's ski destinations and home of the 2019 alpine World Championships.
It can be reached directly by train from Stockholm or Copenhagen.
Crowds gather for its high runs and renowned ski schools as well as a vibrant after-skiing culture and nightlife that rival the best of the Alps.

Trysil (Norway)

Norway's Trysil: 70 kilometers of ski runs.
Courtesy Ute Foto/VisitNorway
Located three hours' drive from Olso airport, Trysil is Norway's biggest ski resort and an ideal location for family vacations.
There are more than 70 kilometers of slopes running down three sides of the Trysil mountain, and the cozy cabins scattered around the bottom of the hill offer accommodation with front-door access to skiing.

Riksgransen (Sweden)

Riksgransen lies on Sweden's Arctic border with Norway.
Courtesy Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se
Skiing in Scandinavia is cool, and it gets really cool in Riksgransen.
It's on the Swedish border with Norway, 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, making it Europe's most northerly resort.
The location gives it the benefit of late-season skiing in May and a midnight sun that lights up runs for evening skiing.

Stranda (Norway)

Big air is the draw at the Norwegian ski resort of Stranda.
Courtesy Jakob Hertz/VisitNorway.com
A place for less ordinary skiing.
Yes, there are alpine terrain and cross country tracks in Stranda, but it's the drops, jumps and powder adventures that attract off-piste enthusiasts.
The resort is located in what are known as the Sunnmors Alps, offering stunning scenery with mountain peaks scattered around like white Toblerone tops.
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