Retro heaven: Seek out the old-school European ski resorts
Modern ski resorts may be comfortable - but where is all the vintage charm?
Saturday 07 March 2009
Skiers live in gilded times. This winter is proving to be "one of the best for snow in Europe in 25 years", according to the Ski Club of Great Britain. New lift systems with heated seats convey skiers and snowboarders effortlessly to the summit. No self-respecting resort is complete without a chi-chi boutique hotel and spa. We can even outsmart the weather, thanks to the piste-side battalions of snow cannon. Truly, this is modern skiing's golden age.
Yet there is something about this skiing revolution that can feel a little homogenised. When a Canadian ski company such as Intrawest is building a resort in France – Flaine Montsoleil, in Haute-Savoie – that looks exactly like its counterparts in Whistler, you know something is awry. Especially when the result feels disconcertingly like an Alpine village as scripted by Walt Disney.
Go to the US and you find personal greeters passing out platitudes and complimentary chocolates as you make your way home. All very nice and convenient, of course. But where's the character? The romance? The adventure?
At times like these, you may find yourself fantasising about a more innocent era, when fur was a legitimate fashion item, cable cars weren't worthy of the name unless they were rickety and terrifying, and James Bond was the typical male's primary role model. A time when Day-Glo one-piece suits were worn for their snow-repelling practicality rather than as some kind of ironic fashion statement, moustaches conferred a certain rugged manliness to a chap's face, and a night in with a fondue set was considered the height of sophistication.
So be thankful that it is still surprisingly easy to slip the boundary ropes and experience such an age of innocence. You wouldn't know it from reading most modern ski coverage, but certain areas of Europe's mountainous regions – some of the cosier nooks of the Swiss Alps, enclaves such as Italy's South Tyrol region – have remained proudly unchanged for 40 years.
Take Alta Badia, in the heart of the Dolomites in South Tyrol. The Alta Badia area consists of five lovely villages (Colfosco, Corvara, La Villa, San Cassiano and Pedraces) and is one of those lovely, self-contained continental ski areas that remain mystifyingly unknown to many UK skiers. There's a great pace of life here; affordable luxury and gourmandising are the order of the day.
A week at the Las Vegas Lodge is enough to make anybody feel like an extra in the 1976 thriller Cassandra Crossing. Much of this is down to the lodge's position. It is perched high in the skiing area in San Cassiano, which means that upon arrival, guests are picked up by a snowcat and whisked to the summit – preferably by moonlight for the full effect. Inside, the décor doesn't disappoint, with vintage stripped pine interiors in each room, and a bar and restaurant right outside on the slopes (where fur coats are still de rigueur).
Although the lodge isn't accessible by a ski lift, it is close to the main lifts, and real ski-in/ski-out access is the lodge's main selling point. It is a stop along the popular and demanding Sella Ronda circuit; the sheer number of one-piece ski suits on display will take your breath away as much as the impressive views.
If Alta Badia sounds a little too soporific, Cortina d'Ampezzo likes to think it is at the heart of chic skiing action. The town was built during the same 19th-century boom that gave us Chamonix. Today, however, it is a bona fide glimpse of what ski resorts were like 40 years ago: antiquated cable cars, wild mountains, some seriously steep slopes and grand architecture. As Gabriella le Breton puts it in Footprint's Skiing Europe guidebook: "They appear impervious to the pressure on ski resorts to renovate dated hotels and replace ancient lift systems."
Cortina's architectural élan certainly hit the mark with a generation of film location scouts. During the Sixties and Seventies, it was compulsory to set a film here if an injection of European glamour was required. Scenes from the 1963 original Pink Panther movie and the For Your Eyes Only (1981) instalment of the Bond franchise were filmed in the resort. You'll recognise the ice rink from the latter straight away. Stay at the Hotel de la Poste for the full experience; it was Ernest Hemingway's favourite, and much of A Farewell to Arms is set in and around the resort.
As for the skiing, you won't need the skills of Bond to make the most of it, although you might be a little intimidated by the imposing granite arena that circles the town. Cortina's beginner area is one of the best in the business, while the links to the Dolomiti Superskipass (a whopping 1,200km of pistes in 12 separate areas) should keep the more advanced members of the party happy.
Time-capsule skiing is also a speciality of the Austrian Alps, particularly in the lofty resort of Obergurgl. Newfangled devices such as snowboards are thin on the ground here. Thanks to the resort's height (it tops out at 3,080m if you include the links to neighbouring Hochgurgl), snow here is plentiful; a day spent gliding through the lower trees is to experience skiing from a more innocent era.
The talk in the lift queues is all about the legendary après ski sessions at the Nederhutte. Make sure you get there at 3pm to grab a table and experience this classic drinking session in all its glory.
Off the hill, things are equally homely. The Edelweiss and Gurgl Hotel is the sort of place that will cause even the most jaded traveller to become sentimental. The staff here aren't "have a nice day" automata and don't treat guests like future entries on their bank balance. Indeed, it feels as though they've been affording weary travellers the same welcome since the place opened back in 1889. And close to Salzburg, the Austrian Alps were featured in the Beatles' 1965 classic Help!
An old-fashioned type of welcome also awaits visitors to the Swiss Alps strongholds of Wengen and Mürren. These two ski resorts have one of the most impressive backdrops in the Alps, thanks to their position in the shadow of the mighty north face of the Eiger. Gaze up to relive Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy's efforts in the Eiger Sanction from 1975, then marvel that the intervening decades appear to have completely passed this part of the world by. The villages themselves are beautiful without being twee, and in the winter are accessible by rail only. The four-star Hotel Eiger in Mürren is probably the best stay in the village.
Mürren and Wengen are linked to the Jungfrau ski area and have some fantastic slopes. But the real draw for those on a retro ski pilgrimage is the chintzy Piz Gloria revolving restaurant above Mürren. This sits snugly atop the Schilthorn at a height of 2,970m, and was used as Blofeld's lair in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). The production crew paid for the restaurant to be finished, so today the place is a shrine to the cult of Bond, with an exhibition on the lower floor. Beginners beware: the piste back down from here is a particularly steep black. If in doubt, take the lift down, rather than get yourself into a 007-like scrape.
For many people, the thrill of the new is the most exciting part of the skiing experience. For those of us eager to hark back to skiing's real golden age, however, it is good to know there is a corner of the skiing world that will forever remain unaltered.
Las Vegas Lodge, Alta Badia (00 39 0471 840138; lasvegasonline.it)
Hotel Eiger, Mürren (00 41 33 856 54 54; hoteleiger.com)
Hotel de la Poste, Cortina d'Ampezzo (00 39 04 36 4271; www.delaposte.it)
Edelweiss and Gurgl Hotel, Obergurgl (00 43 52 56 6223; edelweiss-gurgl.com)
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