Getting off the beaten piste
From 24-hour Arctic skiing, to the heights of Hawaii, to the world's finest snowdomes - it's not unusual, says Patrick Thorne
Saturday 09 October 2004
There's something magical about the land within the Arctic Circle. It's something to do with the pure air, the endless white world stretching off in all directions, the northern lights (if you arrive before night disappears for good in mid-May). You feel you've reached the northern edge of human habitation.
So, 250km north of the Arctic Circle, more than 1,500km north of Stockholm, it comes as a surprise that Riksgränsen was once Sweden's top ski destination, and it remains on the "must ski before I die" list of most dedicated winter sportsmen and women.
The reasons are not immediately apparent. The ski area fails to make it into the world top 1,000 either on area or height; the lifts are rather old and resort amenities limited; it's so cold and dark here that the season does not get under way until February, yet by June many people are skiing in shorts, as the temperatures are warm for the latitude, thanks to the Gulf Stream and maritime climate. The Atlantic is only 8km west.
But consider Riksgränsen's selling points: a cult winter destination heritage, 24-hour daylight from mid-May thanks to its latitude, with skiing and boarding possible at midnight from 22 May. The lift-served ski area may be limited but Riksgränsen is celebrated for its affordable heliskiing and near limitless ski touring across a huge area.
If you stay on the lift-served area, you'll find you can travel in relative safety down literally hundreds of different off-piste lines. The novelty of skiing down a piste that starts in Sweden, pops over the border in to Norway and ends up back in Sweden is another on the long list of attractions that makes Riksgränsen special.
Few ski resorts attract such a mix of participants from the full range of snow disciplines. Cross-country skiers, tourers, boarders, telemarkers and Alpine skiers all share the slopes amicably. You will see some people in the latest gear and some happy to bring out skis and boots that have seen more than 20 winters.
Unusually the lower terrain is the steepest, marked red and black but unlikely to cause significant problems for anyone of intermediate standard. It is all wide open, without trees or many dangerous drops so it is possible to ski off-piste between the runs in comparative safety, as many do.
Après-ski is a mix of room-based parties and larger gatherings in the bar beneath the complex which extends in to a night club - often with live bands performing. This has a grungy feel and a good selection of drinks - however prices are exorbitant, in common with all Scandinavian bars, thanks to high alcohol taxes, so most guests tend to nurse a small £5 beer through the evening. The atmosphere is usually buzzing in a surreal Seventies retro kind of way.
If you prefer a package tour to the Swedish Arctic, Crystal Active has introduced three-night adventures centred on the wonderful Ice Hotel, situated two hours from Riksgränsen. This amazing structure is rebuilt every winter from giant blocks of stunningly beautiful blue river ice. Among its many attractions, an Absolut cocktail in the ice bar is useful for small talk in bars for years afterwards ("Call that vodka on the rocks! When I was in the Ice Hotel..."). Alternatively, Crystal offers four-night trips to Finland including everything from reindeer sleigh rides and sea-ice crushing icebreaker trips to a swim in the frozen waters clad in a skimpy Thermo Dry suit.
Across in Finland, Inghams has made the Arctic ski resorts of Levi and Ylläs two of its most popular destinations, with the more traditional week of skiing here as in the Alps - except that you're likely to find a warmer welcome, better kids' facilities and a less commercialised feel than in most Alpine destinations.
Inghams also offers many non-ski activities, but neither Levi, with Finland's only gondola lift, nor Ylläs with its 500m vertical, should be underestimated as ski destinations. Both operate some 20 lifts serving around 40 trails each. This winter Inghams has also added the up-and-coming resort of Ruka, 25km from the Russian border and host to the World Freestyle Championships next March.
Ruka is a particularly cool destination by Lappish standards with boardercross (an exciting race course with bumps and bends), three half-pipes and two snowboard streets, washed down with some of the lowest lift ticket prices in Europe.
It's surprising just how many islands are suitable for skiing. In the Mediterranean, for example, Corsica, Sardinia and Crete all have ski lifts; Sicily has several ski centres, including two on Mount Etna, although recent eruptions have left drag lifts hanging precariously over lava flows.
Cyprus, however, has the best organised ski slopes in its Troodos Mountains, where snow cover is normally adequate from January to March on the slopes of Mount Olympus (1,951m). Although membership of the Cyprus Ski club is required to use the two drag lifts which serve six runs, it's easily purchased, just as skiwear and equipment are easily rented, so you still only need to pack your swimsuit.
The ski centre is an hour's drive from Limassol on the coast or the capital Nicosia - so you can be back on the beach after lunch. The Zeus piste is the most exciting and has seen several international contests staged on it.
In the Canary Islands there's no official ski area (although a few credible-looking websites would have you believing otherwise). There is, however, frequently snow to be found at the top of the cable-car on Mount Teide, Spain's highest peak, if you're happy to organise a little do-it-yourself snow fun.
A better bet, though, could be Hawaii where Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for "white mountain") is often topped with plentiful snow in the winter, as well as a dozen world-class observatories. You'll get fewer funny looks arriving here kitted out for the slopes than you might on Tenerife.
Other islands with ski centres to visit include Australia's Tasmania, Hohuansham on Taiwan, and many of Canada's coastal islands from Vancouver Island in the West to Newfoundland in the East.
Crystal (01235 824 325, www.crystalholidays.co.uk); Inghams (020-8780 4433, www.inghams.co.uk); Levi (00 358 16 643466, www.levi.fi); Riksgränsen (00 46 980 40080, www.riksgransen.nu); Ruka (00 358 8681231, www.ruka.fi), Ylläs (00 16 569721, www.yllas.fi)
Cyprus (00 357 2 365340, www.windowoncyprus.com/skiing.htm); Mauna Kea, Hawaii (00 1 808 973 2255, www.hawaiisnowskiclub.com/Mk); Teide Virtual Ski Resort, Tenerife (00 34 922 23 78 70, www.teideski.com)
Las Vegas Ski Resort (001 702 645 2754, www.skilasvegas.com); Nanshan (00 86 10 84286688, www.nanshanski.com); Madrid Xanadu (00 34 90 226 30 26, www.millsmadridxanadu.com); Tochal, Iran (00 98 21 2404001, www.tochalcomplex.com/carway.htm)
You would be amazed how many big cities have ski slopes within an hour's drive of the airport. Fair enough, they're usually small affairs, but if you need a quick snow fix when you've got half a day to spare on a business trip or city break, ask the city tourist office what's on offer. If you're prepared to consider one of the world's 50 indoor snow slopes or 300 artificial surface slopes your chances of success increase dramatically, even in July.
China's big cities are sprouting ski resorts at an astonishing rate. A dozen have grown up around Beijing in the past four years alone with the local skiing population growing from zero to half a million in the same period. Top of the pile is probably Nanshan (pictured), which has modern lifts, international standard trails, comprehensive snowmaking and is also home to the country's first international competition-standard half-pipe.
Other cities with snowdomes include Amsterdam, Adelaide, Bangkok, Hiroshima, Hyderabad, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Madrid and Singapore. There are more currently under construction in Auckland, New Jersey, Dubai and Bahrain.
If you prefer conventional snow slopes, though, you can't do much better than boarding the Tochal gondola, which departs from Velenjak Avenue in a suburb of Tehran. This is one of the world's longest, highest and cheapest lifts.
At the other extreme, in every sense, it's probably no surprise that Las Vegas has its own ski centre, although plans to build a snowdome there have foundered. The Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort is an hour's drive from The Strip and you'll be rewarded by three double chair lifts serving 12 runs and open from late November through to April. It's the ideal place to clear your head after blowing your holiday spending money on the slots.
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