It used to be simple. People bought skiing holidays because they wanted to go skiing. Unlike the less single-minded skiers of other nationalities, we British – so the stereotype went – dedicated ourselves to high-mileage, dawn-to-dusk skiing.
Recently, however, surveys have revealed that we are spending less time on the slopes. As a result, most ski tour operators are now offering non-skiing activities, ranging from dog-sledding and snowmobiling to exploring the culture of Austrian cities and watching Italian football matches (the last two offered by Crystal). Some have added small, family-friendly resorts, weak on skiing but strong on tubing and tobogganing; and one, Neilson, has gone so far as to drop "skiing" this season, preferring to describe its winter-programme packages as "snow holidays".
There are resorts, however, where time away from the slopes can be put to more substantial purpose. Take Jackson Hole in Wyoming, for example: its skiing is legendary, but so too is its winter wildlife viewing, with bison, moose, bald eagles, bighorn sheep and many thousands of elk in the National Elk Refuge, plus the wonders of Yellowstone Park nearby. And for skiers who favour nightlife over wildlife, Las Vegas has potential, now that the local ski hill – Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort – is growing in scale.
Closer to home at Sierra Nevada, in southern Spain, there are a couple of contrasting alternatives to winter sports. Below the resort is the great European Islamic landmark of the Alhambra in Granada, and a further 90 minutes down the road is the Mediterranean resort of Marbella. True, the Med is a bit nippy for swimming during much of the ski season and the Alhambra's Generalife gardens are not at their best. But on the Costa del Sol, T-shirt weather can be relied upon, even in January. This season there is an added attraction, a new, upmarket hotel in Sierra Nevada, which has previously offered mostly uninspiring, mid-market accommodation.
When I set off to Malaga airport from London City, there was just one passenger in skiwear on the plane. I was surrounded by a more obviously Malaga-bound crowd, including nut-brown expatriates, a few paler holidaymakers and a handful of middle-aged women flashing shiny accessories, one with her nose in the latest issue of the Radio Times. At the gate I had heard a youngish man and woman discussing a forthcoming trial and displaying a knowledge of criminal procedure worthy of anyone at the bar or on the bench. We were, after all, heading for what in the 1980s was known as the Costa del Crime.
The new hotel in the mountains opened in mid-December. An offshoot of the Marbella Club, it's called "El Lodge", a name which would sit more happily on a roadside pub selling tapas. But the word "lodge" is appropriate since the new property, whose small lobby is hung with thick, blanket-like drapes which bear Native-American-style motifs, does feel more like a Colorado ski lodge than anything you'd expect to find in Europe. The exterior walls, and many of those inside, are built in log-cabin style.
In the Marbella Club's makeover, of an existing more prosaic property, the layout of the floors remained the same, except in the new basement (which houses the spa, ski room and kids' playroom). As a result, El Lodge's rooms are still small and the hotel can be rated no higher than a three-star because of its narrow corridors and ungenerous bathrooms.
The interiors, by the eminent hotel designer Andrew Martin, are eclectic. The bedrooms – mine with a doorway to the terrace only 22 inches wide – are in a fairly traditional chalet style with a few "statement" pieces. (Martin favours furniture that looks like luggage.) On the ground floor, to the left of the lobby, is a cluttered, shuttered games room/library furnished with half-a-dozen buttoned leather sofas; to the right is a dark, Paris-style bar with a distressed, 10m-long zinc bar top; and beyond it is the restaurant (with a rather eager-to-please international menu), whose melange of French-farmhouse tables, antler chandeliers and dark-wood beams might or might not be inspired by provincial Quebec. Having so many design styles is diverting, but it doesn't make the limited spaces seem any bigger than they are.
However El Lodge does have three great assets. First, the young, keen and charming staff; second, the spacious terrace, with wonderful mountain views; and third, the ski-in/ski-out access via the terrace. Once, in Colorado, I compared the ski access from a trio of five-star hotels and commended the Viceroy Snowmass near Aspen for having a piste just "20 paces and four steps (down)" from the hotel's side entrance. Here, at El Lodge, the skiing was 75 paces and 27 steps (down) from my bedside.
Sierra Nevada's ski area, below the 3,398m Veleta peak, has 18 lifts and a remarkable 116 pistes. Some are quite short: I think I may have blinked because I missed the 141m-long Playa. But the star run, Aguila, is an excellent, 6km ride from the top of the area to the bottom.
Frankly, this is an intermediates' resort: there are blue runs for nervous intermediates, blacks for the confident and reds in between. And although the quantity of terrain is substantial, the consistent orientation and gradient mean the area has only three days' worth of skiing in it, except for beginners. The local attractions down the hill are essential.
On the Aguila piste, the vertical drop is more than a kilometre; to get down to the coast you drop a further 2km, into a different climate zone. It was cold and icy high on the mountain, but not in Marbella (to which I drove directly, having previously visited the Alhambra in winter). The first thing I did on arriving at the Marbella Club hotel at nightfall was to put on a swimming costume and bathrobe, walk to the bottom of the grounds, and then – like the protagonist of John Cheever's short story The Swimmer – swim home via the saltwater pool, the freshwater pool and the small pool adjoining my villa. Rarely can après-ski have felt so sybaritic.
Marbella owes its existence as a beach-holiday destination to the climate – the temperature averages 23C year round – and to Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, who bought a derelict olive grove press on the coast and built a home, a guesthouse and finally – in 1954 – the Marbella Club, which now has 135 rooms and villas set in the glorious, dense foliage of its 10-acre site.
The well-connected prince brought royal and old-money families to the Club (so-called for its atmosphere rather than any membership requirement), plus mature celebrities, and made it a very classy establishment. It would be untrue to say that the Club has not changed, though Gunilla von Bismarck was one of my fellow guests and Count Rudi von Schönburg, a Club ambassador who served as its general manager for two decades, did graciously greet me at dinner. Still, the illusion of continuity is to be savoured.
Outside the entrance is the real world, with endless apartment blocks, a nearby Lidl supermarket and an abandoned concrete mosque or discotheque (actually a former bank, amazingly) which has been rotting for years. Inside, a seedling which Prince Alfonso smuggled in from Africa now shades a lawn on the path down to Marbella's splendid traffic-free promenade.
For those in search of cultural activities to go with their skiing, nearby Malaga has three major art attractions, the Picasso Museum, the city's contemporary art gallery and the new Carmen Thyssen Malaga museum. For those with kids, Benalmádena has an aquarium and Estepona a safari park. For the more adventurous, Andalucia's famous "white villages" hang from the mountains of the coastal range. Wherever you go, you'll feel the warmth of the Costa del Sol on your back. A temperature of 15C in early February? It beats any other ski destination I know.
Malaga is served by British Airways from Gatwick and London City; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Southend and Stansted; Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com) from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and East Midlands; FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Exeter and Southampton; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Edinburgh, Prestwick, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester, East Midlands and Stansted; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Blackpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds-Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and East Midlands; and Vueling (0906 754 7541; vueling.com) from Cardiff.
El Lodge, Sierra Nevada (00 34 958 480 600; ellodge.com). Doubles start at €299, with breakfast included.
Marbella Club, Marbella (00 34 95 282 2211; marbellaclub.com). Doubles from €420, including breakfast.
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