Mountain, meet fjord

Until recently, Stranda didn’t have the infrastructure to match the off-piste skiing and stunning fjord views. Now that’s changed, could it be Scandinavia’s next big ski resort?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, January 2015)

When Field Productions’ Filip Christensen first came to Stranda in 2008, he was “ utterly blown away”. The man behind Scandinavia’s leading ski-movie production company had never been before, but found “one of the most beautiful places in Norway, full stop. There’s backcountry skiing that rivals what you can find in the Alps, and all the way down the mountain you can see the fjord – but, amazingly, no one had ever filmed here.”

Christensen changed that, coming back every winter until 2011, and building a monster jump that has been behind some of the most iconic images and videos of skiing ever shot in Scandinavia – of skiers and snowboarders who look like they’re flying straight into the fjord below.

Swedish big-mountain skier Henrik Windstedt, who is one of the skiers shot for this piece, was there to film for Field Productions’ 2010 movie Side by Side, and remembers, “We’d get up super early, like 4am, and we’d be above the kicker as the sun was rising up over the fjord. It’s just a really, really beautiful place – in terms of scenery, there’s nothing like it.”

But despite being known for having the best off-piste skiing in Scandinavia, Stranda isn’t just for the pros. “There’s a lot of vertical, and you can ski right down to the fjord on a good day, but it’s not the steepest mountain,” says Windstedt. “It’s good for most levels of skiers, and you don’t need to work that hard to get powder tracks all to yourself.”

Since 1957, there has been a T-bar above the little village of Stranda, the centre of the small municipality in the Sunnmøre region that’s known for the famous Geirainger and Sunnylvs fjord, and for the nearby Grandiosa pizza factory, which churns out 24 million frozen pizzas a year (the “refrigerated evil” is so ubiquitous it inspired GrandiosaLAND, a book of frozen pizza-related stories).

Stranda’s first T-bar was hardly cutting-edge, though – back in the late 1950s, 330 shareholders invested NOK100 each, and the first T-bar was locally made and broke down regularly. As the official Strandafjellet website notes drily in its history section, “The ‘employees’ were mostly idealists… It is truly lucky that no one was badly injured.” There wasn’t a café until 1977, and even in 2008 Christensen remembers, “It was all old lifts and T-bars – it felt a bit backward.”

But that’s changed, and fast. In 2009, a new four-seater lift and restaurant were built on the “Furset” side of the valley, followed in 2011 by a state-of-the-art Telemix (chairlift/gondola) and restaurant on the Roald side, with the lift’s 618m elevation the longest in Scandinavia. There are now seven lifts and 18 pistes, even if the main selling point is still the free-ride skiing, which is easily reached from the lifts. You can strap on your skis at the top of the Roald lift, at 1,062m, and ski all the way down to the fjord, possibly making your own tracks all the way.

As of last year, the resort has been owned by a local consortium, which manages the Stranda Hotel in the village as well as the whole ski area (the ski resort itself is seven minutes from Stranda village), making everything more streamlined. “It really is a new era,” says Stranda’s marketing manager, Ellen-Beate Wollen, who also points out a host of other new developments, from a new family ski area to lights in the terrain park, meaning floodlit skiing and snowboarding from 6-9pm.

Wollen says that, while most visitors to Stranda are still Norwegian, more and more visitors from Europe and now Asia are latching on to the area, even if 50,000 skiers a year is a fairly modest number (Åre in Sweden attracts a million).

The Alpepass ski pass gives access to eight different resorts in the Sunnmøre Alps, and Wollen says a lot of visitors are mixing a visit to Stranda with visits to nearby attractions – like the world-famous Geirangerfjord, a beautiful 90-minute car-and-ferry ride away, or a stay at Juvet, the Modernist hotel whose glass-fronted rooms are designed like camera lenses. Many visitors have started taking boat and free-ski tours from Ålesund, with tour company Fjord Cruise Adventures offering trips on the Gassten, one of the last wooden warships ever built.

Part of the challenge is to house all the visitors. Today, there are around 500 beds at the resort and village in Stranda, including at campsites, with 62 rooms at the Stranda Hotel, though Wollen expects 200 new cottages to be built in the next decade. As with Geirainger, a small village that hosts Norway’s second-largest cruise ship port, the challenge is to grow but not sell out.

“Ultimately, this will always be a small place,” says Wollen, “and we want to keep its local character. We want to stay a little village, but a world-class one.”

Part of that means local produce – there are around 160 farms in the area producing milk and meat products, and it’s known for salted and cured meats, especially goat meat and cheese. At the Stranda Hotel you can eat local goat, salmon from a nearby river or trout straight from the fjord.
The other challenge is Mother Nature. If it’s a good season, you can get 5m of snow here, at least double the large Scandinavian ski resorts of Åre, Hemsedal, Trysil and Sälen. Last year, though, was fairly lean until a big snow dump around the Easter period, and the hope is that this year is better. “When it’s good, it really snows, and it’s really fun terrain,” says Windstedt. “It’s long, there’s tree-skiing and there are fun little features everywhere.”

And ultimately, says Christensen, Stranda is unique. “There’s nowhere else you get this mix of fjords and great skiing. On a good day, it’s world-class – great powder-skiing and, always, that view across the fjord. There’s really nothing like it.”

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