Cool in the pool

After a bruising day on the slopes, a swim is a great way to wind down. Stephen Wood scours Europe for the best resorts with pools

Snowboarding lessons are a real pain in the backside. True, measures can be taken to minimise the effect of repeatedly sitting down too swiftly on hard snow: I did hear of one learner who stuffed a hotel pillow down the back of her trousers (which set me wondering if that explained the generous cut of boarding garments). But, after a day's tuition, most new boarders find themselves looking over their shoulders in the mirror to study the damage, and then seeking ways to soothe their buttocks. This is how my romance with winter resort swimming-pools began.

Snowboarding lessons are a real pain in the backside. True, measures can be taken to minimise the effect of repeatedly sitting down too swiftly on hard snow: I did hear of one learner who stuffed a hotel pillow down the back of her trousers (which set me wondering if that explained the generous cut of boarding garments). But, after a day's tuition, most new boarders find themselves looking over their shoulders in the mirror to study the damage, and then seeking ways to soothe their buttocks. This is how my romance with winter resort swimming-pools began.

Les Deux Alpes in France is a good place to learn to snowboard, for two reasons. First, it has nursery slopes set above the resort, where the snow is better than at the base and learners don't have to put up with experts dashing past them to the lifts. Second, it has a heated, open-air swimming pool which is free of charge to lift-pass holders, plus a Jacuzzi (which costs just over €5/£3.60). After hitting the slopes, my recovery routine consisted of a few lengths of the pool to ease the hips and then a long session in the Jacuzzi, with the water-jets playing on my bruises.

The long-term effect of the lessons was not to make me a snowboarder, but a connoisseur of winter-resort pools. Not of those in hotels - usually no more than large baths, and therefore no justification for packing swimwear - but outdoor, resort pools which provide the exercise you don't get on a chair-lift, an opportunity to wind down without alcohol, and, often, a more interesting experience than that offered in your local municipal baths.

I have, for example, swum in the pool - at Portillo, in Chile - into which Austrian ski-racer Franz Klammer reputedly jumped wearing not only his full racing kit but also skis and boots. (By way of partial explanation, Klammer had just completed a course which ended close by.) The pool, which lies alongside the spectacular and much colder Laguna del Inca, has a sort of kidney-shape apparently redrawn by a Cubist; and it provided some solace to me on a day when all but one of the resort's lifts were closed due to avalanche risk.

Even more memorable was the quick dip at Jyvaskyla in Finland, after a morning's cross-country skiing. By way of a prelude, I sat in a traditional "smoke sauna" (the room is heated by a log fire, its smoke vented out at the last minute) until operating temperature had been exceeded, then marched across the snow in swimming trunks and descended a wooden ladder through a hole in the ice into a small pond. I don't recall letting go of the ladder; I do recall making my excuses (a series of gasps and high-pitched moans) and leaving the pond quite smartly.

The trouble is that, after a while, walking barefoot through the snow to a (usually) heated outdoor pool becomes commonplace, even when night-swimming at the health centre of the divine Aspen Meadows Resort in Colorado. So any connoisseur of winter-resort pools feels the urge to go out of their way for new experiences. Luckily, the Ritz-Carlton at Bachelor Gulch wasn't too far out of my way last January: I was already in Colorado, and the detour to the resort - attached to the Beaver Creek ski area - only involved a few hours' driving. In mid-2003 The Wall Street Journal had featured the Ritz-Carlton in a report on new and improved pools at luxury hotels, highlighting its pool-side fireplace as the "fanciest feature". Heated outdoor pools are 10-a-penny. But a heated pool-side patio on which guests could relax after their evening swim, wearing nothing warmer than a towelling robe? I couldn't wait to try that.

I'm still waiting. Set beside the steepish ski slope and enclosed on the other three sides by the Austrian-gingerbread, stone-and-log buildings of the resort, the pool is pleasant but fairly unremarkable, except for the copse surrounding the Jacuzzis: encircled by young-growth trees, the bathers looked as if they were taking part in some pagan ritual. As night fell, however, the stone brazier at the corner of the pool remained stubbornly dark. When I asked when it would be lit, I was told that ash carried on the breeze into the pool had irritated bathers and water-filters alike; and the pool-side was no longer heated.

The previous month, however, the Hotel Hochschober, at Turracher Höhe in the Austrian province of Carinthia, provided an unusual and utterly gratifying swimming-pool experience. The hotel backs onto a lake which - high in the mountains - is frozen in winter. Apart, that is, from just behind the hotel, where steam rises gently from the water within a small enclosure.

The idea of the lake pool originally came to Peter Leeb, the patriarch of the family which owns the hotel, after he had read in a newspaper that water becomes less dense as its temperature increases. He realised that, since warm water rises above cold, it would be possible to simply section off a portion of the lake and heat the water inside it. The pool he built in 1995 (after 10 years of planning, and at a cost of €300,000) has plastic walls to prevent the heated water from mingling with the rest of the lake; physics does the rest, keeping the warm water up at the top - where swimmers want it - and the cold down below. The walls hang down from a floating, stainless-steel structure; a net at the bottom keeps all but the smallest fish out.

The enclosure provides a natural environment, one which (because such a tiny proportion of the water is heated) does not affect the ecology of the lake. After a day's skiing in the surrounding mountains, to swim in the lake is a beautifully calming experience. And even getting out hardly diminishes the mood, thanks to the heated stainless-steel handrails. For the true connoisseur of winter-resort swimming, though, this season's improvements go maybe a step too far: swimmers no longer have to walk through the snow on their way to the pool.

Hotel Hochschober: 00 43 4275 8213; www.hochschober.at

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