Board and lodgings for the cool gang

Tony the Tiger, Barbie and Action Man are among recent converts to snowboarding, and with the sport destined for Olympic status, now is the time to join them, says Tania Alexander
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The Independent Culture
I was attempting to interview a group of snowboarders at a competition, but no sooner had I expressed an interest in trying this rapidly expanding sport one day, than I was given a mighty shove from behind and went flying across the room. My left foot landed first and my brain went haywire. "Just seeing if you're goofy or not," explained the snowboarder. Then he added, "Nope, you're a regular."

Snowboarding is a daunting "scene" for skiers like myself, and the first problem you encounter is attempting to interpret this "shredspeak". I was relieved to discover that "regular" means that I ride naturally with my left foot forward on the board - so called because it is the most common way of doing it. Right-foot leaders are described as "goofy".

Snowboarding has rapidly come to stand for everything that is considered cool and marketable. Tony the Tiger in the Frosties advertisement wants to snowboard; and Eddie (Jennifer Saunders) recently proved that jumping on board is Absolutely Fabulous. Even Action Man and Barbie can be spotted on snowboards these days.

There are about two million snowboarders in the world and their numbers are expected to rise to three million by the turn of the century. In 1998, snowboarding will become an Olympic sport competition at the winter games in Nagano, Japan. In the US, meanwhile, four out of every five kids taking up a snow sport either start out on a snowboard, or makes the switch to one, before they hit their teens - it is predicted that by the year 2010 there will be more snowboarders than skiers.

What exactly is the appeal of riding a snowboard down a mountain? Well, the main attraction is that the learning curve is so much quicker than with skiing. Once you get past the initial hurdle of being able to stand up and make turns, you can soon cover terrain that you wouldn't dream of attempting if you had the same level of experience on skis.

Snowboarding has traditionally enjoyed a strong youth following -you'll soon realise that for many of its followers, it's not only a sport, but a culture - but now it is beginning to attract all ages. On the slopes you see parents who have been encouraged to have a go by their kids, and skiers looking for a new thrill. Guests with specialist company Chalet Snowboard, range from 20 to 50 years old, and 70 per cent have "crossed over" from skiing.

As one 40-year-old American boarder I spoke to explained: "After having spent the last 25 years on skis, snowboarding makes me feel young again. I find myself saying `cool' and `dude' a lot. I love the fact that I can go out the door and just grab the board and go, rather than gathering up a bundle of skis and poles. It also puts the mountain in a new perspective. As an experienced skier I haven't been near a green piste for years. As a new boarder, these slopes suddenly look terrifyingly steep again."

TUITION

If you want to learn how to snowboard, it's important to spend at least a day taking lessons. The first couple of days are really hard - expect to fall and fall again - so pack the Arnica cream to prevent bruising and try to get at least reasonably fit before you go. Once you've learnt the basics of stance, turning and stopping, however, the learning curve steeply escalates and by the end of the week you may even be snowboarding in powder. "Riding in powder is the ultimate - it's like riding on a wave," explained one 46-year-old snowboard convert, who took up the sport last season. "When you've experienced that, you get hooked."

"Snowboarding is easy providing you have the right instruction," says Martin Drayton, the British Snowboard Association's chief instructor. "Check that your instructor is properly qualified to teach snowboarding. Sounds obvious, but in France, for example, there is no recognised snowboard qualification, so there it's pot luck whether you end up with a good instructor or not." Specialist companies, such as Chalet Snowboard, can advise you on which snowboard schools are reputable. If you're not sure what standard of tuition you will receive in the resort, it may be worth booking a few sessions on a dry slope in Britain before you go.

BOARDING BASICS

The majority of boarders are so called "freeriders", which simple means that they enjoy riding the whole mountain, both on and off the piste. "Freestylers" have usually come to the sport via skateboarding, and hang out in the snowboard parks where there are jumps and "half-pipes" - a channel with sloped sides that has been carved into the mountain - to practice tricks on. These tricks include a "nose grab" (straightening out your leg, and grabbing the front of the board nwith your hand), riding out "fakie" (backwards), and the oddly titled "McTwist" (turning upside down in a spin).

"Back-country riders" are the the most daring, as they are in search of powder and unpisted terrain - like skiing it's always advisable to hire a guide when heading off-piste, both for safety and to get the best out of your boarding. Snowboard guides are not so easy to come by but several British tour operators - including Chalet Snowboard, The Edge, Thomson, Crystal and Panorama - are now offering the services of a guide. It's worth checking when booking your holiday how extensive this service really is in your resort.

WHAT TO WEAR

Snowboarding is such a dramatic sport that the people who do it like to dress down, in loose comfortable clothing with nothing garish or patterned. Today's snowboarder wants to look cool but is also looking for functional clothes that will keep them warm and dry. The most important items are a waterproof pair of trousers with reinforcement on the bottom and knees, and a tough pair of gloves, as whatever your level, you can expect to spend a lot of time with your backside and hands in contact with the snow. Don't buy a wild wacky hat as you wouldn't catch any self-respecting snowboarder in anything but a beanie or a baseball cap.

BOOKING A PACKAGE

Several British tour operators offer snowboarding packages. For example, The Edge is a new dedicated snowboard brochure from Inghams that features 10 resorts that are geared up to cater for the needs of snowboarders; Crystal is offering special snowboard weeks at several French resorts, which include a snowboarder welcome party, freeriding with snowboard escorts, half-pipe days, and entertainments both on the piste and apres-snowboard.

Thomson features seven snowboarding meccas (dedicated centres that cater for the advanced boarder), as well as 14 snowboarding resorts (places where you can snowboard that are often best suited to beginners). If you're not sure if the sport is for you, it has a "board and swap" scheme, that enables you to go back to your skis if you become bored with your board. And, if you know from the start that you don't want to devote a whole week to snowboarding, White Roc can organise three-day learn-to-snowboard weekends with your own private English-speaking instructor.

Many of the companies running snowboarding holidays this season have really done little more than repackage their ski holidays to highlight the resorts which are most suitable for boarders. Chalets, for example, featured in The Edge brochure, are also found in the main Inghams brochure, which means that skiers and boarders could end up in the same chalet. For many this isn't a problem, as they may well want to dabble in both activities during the week anyway. For those who don't relish the thought of having to listen to tales of "stem christies" (a clever turn) from a skier in a polo-neck, Chalet Snowboard organises chalet holidays in France and the US that are exclusively for boarders.

WHERE TO GO

One by one, the resorts have lifted their bans on snowboarding, so that apart from Aspen in the US, they now nearly all accept, and indeed encourage, snowboarding, having at last realised that it's good for business.

Once you've got past the first few days of learning to board, there are less gradients between the different levels of snowboarders, so most good snowboarding resorts cater well for all standards.

The French resort of Avoriaz in the Portes du Soleil, is the European centre of snowboarding with a dedicated area, a half-pipe, a slalom run, back-country rides and an excellent snowboard school. You can also buy a special snowboarder's lift pass.

Les Arcs, also in France, offers extensive snowboarding terrain with a half-pipe and fun park, plus lots of tree runs and powder. For boarders who like to party, Les Deux Alpes is a good choice as it has a great night life, good snow and plenty of opportunity for riding powder, as well as access to La Grave with all its steep unpisted runs. Thrill seekers flock to the off-piste at Argentiere, a trendy resort that's especially popular with Scandinavians.

If you are holidaying with partners who are new to boarding, there are good nursery slopes at La Tour in nearby Chamonix and some great tree runs at nearby Les Houches. Val d'Isere is another snowboarding haunt with challenges for all standards, two half-pipes, wide-open cruising runs, and a great night life.

Flims/Laax in Switzerland offers easy and accessible slopes for novices, plus a half-pipe and specially designed jumps for the expert boarder. The Swiss resort of Davos is welcoming to snowboarders with piste-map symbols indicating the best areas for riding, and a dedicated snowboard hotel, called the Boglenn-schanze, close to the lift station on the Jacobshorn slopes.

Saalbach/Hinterglemm in Austria is a superb resort for all standards, with dedicated snowboarding areas, a half-pipe, fun-pipe and special events such as the Festival Rave on Snow, which takes place 14 to 15 December. Always a cool place to go, St Anton has a new half-pipe and some fearsome off-piste. Ischgl, also in Austria, is committed to snowboarding, and has a fun park, half-pipe and extensive off-piste. Kaprun's glacier has a fun-park, half-pipe and boarder cross course. This is also a good resort to learn how to snowboard as it has a gentle beginner's slope and some confidence-building blue and red runs.

There are many superb resorts across the US with the added advantage of an extremely high standard of tuition from English-speaking instructors. Boarders who are in search of a tan should head for one of the Californian resorts such as Squaw Valley, which is where many snowboard videos are shot and which recently introduced the Pipe Dragon - the latest technology in half-pipe grooming.

Steamboat in Colorado has special terrain parks such as the Dude Ranch, which has a half-pipe; and the Sunshine Lift Line park which offers numerous varieties of jumps that go by such strange names as table top, roller, snake run, wu-tang launcher and fun box. There is also a snowboard park for kids and two new parks will open this season. Winter Park, about an hour-and-a-half's drive away, has three new terrain parks and has started offering snowboard lessons to people with disabilities.

The Canadian twin resorts of Whistler and Blackcomb offer the biggest vertical drop in North America. There is a fun-park, two half-pipes and a quarter-pipe at Blackcomb with mountain-patrol members on boards as well as skis to demonstrate their commitment to equal opportunities. There is a half-pipe on Whistler mountain and some exciting off-piste on the Whistler bowls. Heli-boarding (where you are taken to the top of the mountain on a helicopter, before boarding down) is also available.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Chalet Snowboard (01235 767182), has chalets in Avoriaz, Morzine, Les Deux Alpes and Lake Tahoe that are exclusively for snowboarders. It can cater for all standards and there are two guides dedicated to each chalet. Burton snowboard equipment is available to hire at discounted rates. Prices start at pounds 429 for a week's half-board accommodation, including your flights and guiding.

The Edge (0181 780 4422) has snowboard centres in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Canada. Prices start at pounds 374, which includes full-board chalet accommodation - you get a packed lunch to take up on the slopes - flights, hire equipment from leading manufacturer K2 (boots, boards and bindings), guiding service, and even apres-board events. Celebrity Weeks, featuring visits from some of the world's top boarders, are available.

Panorama (01273 206531) holds Snow-board Camps in conjunction with top British riders. Prices start at pounds 399, including half-board accommodation, and your lift pass.

Powder Byrne (0181 871 3300) runs snowboarding courses in the Flims/Laax region of Switzerland. Its three-day Board Meeting is a short introduction to snowboarding, which runs from Mondays to Wednesdays. You receive first rate instruction in small groups from English- speaking instructors. The courses are designed to cover all the basic techniques and cost pounds 95, excluding your board rental. During school holidays, including the half-terms, it also has "Board Crazy", which are five-day courses for 12- to 16-year-olds that cost pounds 150 for four hours of instruction each day, board rental not included. Its one-week packages start at pounds 764 for a scheduled flight, transfer, and half-board hotel accommodation.

White Roc (0171 792 1188) also offers snowboard weekends. Its three-day learn to snowboard weekend includes a two-hour lesson each day for three days, board and boot hire, and a private English-speaking instructor. There is a maximum of six people in a class. Prices start at about pounds 130 per person, if there are four boarders in your group. Long-weekend packages cost from pounds 390 and this includes scheduled flights, three-nights' half- board accommodation in a hotel, and car hire.

Crystal (0181 399 5144) organises snowboarding weeks from pounds 195 per person for seven-nights' self-catering accommodation in Chamonix, France. This price is based on five people sharing an apartment and includes flights. Additionally, you pay pounds 99 for three-days' tuition (three hours a day). Or have seven-nights' self-catering in Livigno, Italy, for pounds 175 - based on five people sharing an apartment - including flights. Tuition costs pounds 59 for two hours a day for three days.

Panorama (01273 206531) charges pounds 179 for seven-nights' self-catering in Andorra - for only pounds 40 you can get tuition three hours per day for five days. It also organises Snowboard Camps in conjunction with top British riders - from pounds 415 including half-board hotel accommodation, plus flights, six days' lift pass and guiding.

Thomson (0990 329329) organises trips to seven snowboarding meccas and 14 resorts. Prices are from pounds 204 per person - prices are based on six people sharing - for self-catering in Livigno, Italy, including flights. !

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