Skiing: 'Til snow falls in the desert...

Snowdomes are the future of indoor skiing. Soon we'll even be piste-bashing amidst the sand dunes of Dubai
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Global warming, bullying weather forecasters and chaos theory notwithstanding, there remains one climatic certainty: at this time of year, Arctic Scandinavia will be covered with snow. Or so I thought. But last week's planned trip to northern Finland had to be cancelled for the lack of a surface on which to ski. Disappointed but undaunted, I still headed across the North Sea last weekend, to a country where I knew skiing was guaranteed: The Netherlands.

Three years ago, I toured the stands at the World Travel Market, the annual event (this year's took place during the past week) in which holiday destinations hawk their wares to the British travel industry. In a rather juvenile mood, I asked representatives of some of the world's hottest and flattest countries what they had to offer a skier. The Dutchman to whom I spoke took this in good part, highly recommending his country's dry ski-slopes. This week, he could have come up with an even better response, because The Netherlands has upped its game and now shares with Japan the distinction of having the highest concentration of indoor, real-snow ski slopes ("snowdomes") in the world.

Until the mid-Nineties, the snowdome (based on snow-making technologies largely developed, oddly, in Australia) looked set to follow the hovercraft in never really getting off the ground: another clever idea that would never find a market. Few opened, and some of those that did - including one of the first, in Tsudanuma, Japan - soon closed. But, recently, interest has grown in some surprising places. Patrick Thorne, whose Snowhunter database fills many of the pages on the major ski websites, has been tracking developments around the world, taking a keen interest in the unusual ones, such as the indoor slopes at Waterfront City Centre in Pulau Batam, Indonesia and the Megamall Snowland in Butterworth, Malaysia.

But the most bizarre projects Thorne has come across are in California, Dubai and South Africa. The first, Gotcha Glacier, is soon to be built in Anaheim, forming part of a "sportstown" complex oriented towards boarding - on water as well as snow. Up on the glacier there will be two half-pipes, down at sea level an artificial beach and wave-making machines.

The peculiar attraction of the proposed "snow village" in Dubai is that it is set in a desert where temperatures can reach 50C. Inside the dome, where the planned facilities include a hotel and indoor gondola, the temperature will be a constant -5C, making it (in Thorne's words) "potentially the world's most surreal skiing and boarding destination".

The biggest of the three proposed projects - if it comes to fruition it will be the biggest snowdome of all - is the one planned for Cape Town. In the Zermatt Indoor Resort, the authentic atmosphere of the Alpine village will be replicated, with a church tower (to be used for abseiling), a mural of the Matterhorn and an audio system playing the sounds of church bells, barking dogs and, in the distance, a horse-drawn sleigh delivering milk. The planned ski slope, which winds for 610 metres with a 45-metre drop, would be the longest indoor piste in the world.

The latest snowdome project for the UK can't match this for imagination, but it has the virtue of being a certainty. Joining the existing snowdomes at Telford (very small, its slope a mere 30 metres long) and Tamworth (with a curving 150-metre slope and two "travellator" lifts), Milton Keynes will have an indoor slope in the Xscape leisure-and-retail development which is due to open in May 2000. Much wider than usual, at 60 metres, and 170 metres long, it will be Europe's biggest indoor snow slope, according to the developers, Capital and Regional Properties.

Xscape promises to have "1,500 tonnes of real snow" on its slope. The term "real" is, of course, a bit of a liberty: real snow is the fluffy stuff that falls from the sky, not the hard, granular material - rather like scrapings from a freezer - which indoor snow-making creates and maintains on the refrigerated surface. A friend, hearing that I was going indoor skiing, asked if it was worth his while going to the Tamworth Snowdome. The answer depends on where you're coming from. To an experienced skier such as him, used to real real snow in a real Alpine setting, skiing on a short slope inside a gloomy, windowless shed is bound to be somewhat depressing. But to the complete beginner, who knows nothing better than a dry ski-slope, it's a treat.

Despite the landmark status of the Riviera Snow Village - it was its opening, last month, that enabled The Netherlands to share with Japan the top spot among the world's indoor-skiing destinations, with five snowdomes each - it is not worth the detour, at least for British skiers. Located on a giant camp site in the middle of nowhere (to be precise, it's between Lelystad and Harderwijk, 12 kilometres from the nearest town of Biddinghuizen and 50 kilometres from Amsterdam), it has a slope which is just 40 metres long. I say "slope", actually it's an extremely narrow valley. The Riviera takes pride in the 19 per cent gradient of the main slope, quite steep for a snowdome (although only about half the gradient of a merely average outdoor slope); unfortunately, since beginners are noted for their inability to stop, the slope has to bottom out and then climb for a few metres, so that gravity can stop them.

The Riviera does, however, have one minor innovation. It's a snow village, so alongside the ski slope is a flat, nursery area designed for children. The little ones can play, have snowball fights and, in theory at least, make snowmen. (I didn't try it, but I have my doubts about whether man- made snow is ideal for construction purposes.) So there is at least one circumstance in which the Riviera Snow Village could come in handy. If your child has the unseasonal and unreasonable desire to play in the snow in August, you could always head for Biddinghuizen.

Riviera Snow Village, Spikeweg 15, 8256 RJ Biddinghuizen (00 31 321 331344); admission Fl.15 per hour. Tamworth Snowdome (01827 67905); admission pounds 15 per hour adults, under-16s pounds 10. Telford World of Snow (01952 200841); pounds 5 per hour adults, pounds 3.50 children, booking essential. Stephen Wood flew to Amsterdam courtesy of easyJet (0870 6000000;; return fares start from pounds 52.70