The complete guide to new wave ski resorts
As the appeal of the Alps begins to melt, Patrick Thorne goes in search of the pistes with pizzazz; the places where the lifts are high, the runs are long and the powder is deep, deep, deep
Saturday 31 January 2004
ARE THE ALPS PASSÉ?
ARE THE ALPS PASSÉ?
It's nearly a century since modern downhill skiing was invented in the little Austrian village of Lilienfeld. Since then, some 6,000 ski areas have opened in 80 countries worldwide - although most of us will only have heard of a fraction of them. Your options are more varied than they have ever been, but the Alps still takes up two thirds of the market. The premier division of ski resorts remains little changed, but smart use of new technology and spectacular new lifts has helped others to the top of the pile.
Lech (00 43 5583 21610; www.lech-zuers.at), across the Arlberg from hedonists' haven St Anton in Austria, does 'cool' very well. It's probably the only ski resort with its own yacht club and has embraced new technology to such an extent that it will call you on your mobile when there's fresh powder, and smoothly reserve you a space in the car park (numbers on the slopes are strictly limited to prevent overcrowding), while at the same time charging up your electronic ticket so that you can walk straight on to the lift.
The resort has been spending on lots of fast new chair lifts but, unlike most, has put style and comfort ahead of queue-gobbling. The base of one of the new six-seaters is housed within a glass structure that has been compared to the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris. The maximum capacity could be 4,320 people per hour but Lech decided to keep the figure down to 2,880 to make getting on and off a relaxed experience.
Courchevel (and specifically its highest part, 1850) (00 33 4 79 08 00 29; www.courchevel.com) has long been the place to ski for everyone from Gérard Depardieu to the King of Morocco. It hit the headlines in both the ski and fashion press last month when 'Chelski'-owning Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich popped by in his helicopter to offer owners up to six times the value of their properties in a bid to buy the smartest resort in France. Few jumped at the offer surprisingly.
IS SCANDINAVIA AS COOL AS IT'S COLD?
Norway was the most popular destination for Brits in the 1960s and 1970s and they're currently planning ahead for the increasingly serious consequences of global warming in the Alps. Investors are pumping money into leading resorts like Hemsedal and Trysil in Norway and chic Are in Sweden. The party crowd arrive each morning on the sleeper from Stockholm, having danced the night away in the disco car before hitting the slopes.
Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk), would have you go further north still to the neighbouring Finnish resorts of Levi and Yllas in Lapland, both among their top five destinations (and there are about 100 in the brochure). With an average five hours daylight in December or average -14C in January and February, it must be the proximity of Santa's home that draws them in.
IS ANDORRA EVER GOING TO BECOME FASHIONABLE?
Yes. The Pyrenean pimple attracted more Brits than Switzerland last season and is almost as popular as Italy. The lift-building boom of the late 1990s has slowed, however, and while you can still get cheap booze and cigarettes, package holiday and lift ticket prices are rising faster than in the Alps. Soon, telling people you're going skiing in Andorra will be a coded message that you're very rich.
But battle is afoot in the Pyrenees, with Spanish areas merging and growing in a bid to claw back some of Andorra's gains. Chief among them is Baqueira Beret, currently in the midst of adding a dozen lifts, one of the world's biggest expansion programmes (00 34 973 639 010; www.baqueira.es)
Pas de la Casa and Soldeu, the two Andorran areas that dominate the region have hit back by finally offering a joint ski ticket for their long since physically joined ski areas (00 376 808 900; www.grandvalira.com).
WHAT'S HOT IN NORTH AMERICA?
The burst of activity that began in the mid-1990s, with resorts everywhere building new base villages is slowly calming down. This phenomenon arguably occurred on the back of the meteoric success of Whistler, which attracts more British skiers than any other North American resort and is destined to get bigger still after the decision to host the 2010 Winter Olympics there was made last summer.
A cooler alternative to Whistler, and the name to drop if you're a serious skier is Fernie; as is - to a lesser extent - nearby Kicking Horse (which *
also has two super-cool, lift-top apartments). Once sleepy little backwater towns, along with Big White and Panorama these resorts are hoping to emulate Whistler's success. Kicking Horse (001 250 439 5400; www.kickinghorseresort.com) in particular is attracting British money as people buy up property to let. It has huge potential, and a reputation for deep, deep powder.
South of the Canadian border, the resorts to watch include Jackson Hole (001 307 733 2292; www.jacksonhole.com) in Wyoming. Always seen as a hardcore skier's mountain, JH has some swanky new hotels at the base and is the coolest place to hang out for Hollywood's A list. Harrison Ford has a ranch south of town and snowboards with his kids, Sandra Bullock is another local boarder, whereas Vice president Dick Cheney reportedly arrives at the slopes in a convoy of cars carrying his security entourage.
The first new ski area in the US for 20 years opened this season by Big Mountain in Montana. Moonlight Basin (001 406 993 6000; www.moonlightbasin.com) isn't in the British brochures yet but if you make your own way you could check it out before the crowds descend (lift and lodging prices are some of the lowest in the US).
The 11-year low in the value of the dollar is helping US destinations compete, but the planned introduction of the convoluted new visa requirements just as the new season begins next winter may kill off any boom, encouraging still more Brits to go to Canada instead when they want to fly west.
ANYWHERE A LITTLE MORE OFF THE BEATEN TRACK?
Iran would be happy to see you at one of its 20 or so ski areas, as would the Lebanon. Beirut isn't well known as a ski town, but Lebanon ( www.skileb.com; 00961 236623) does have half a dozen good ski areas, the largest, Faraya, less than 30 miles from the capital. The resort has been growing rapidly over the past 10 years but is now set to be dwarfed by the new tourism development Sannine Zenith, to be built nearby. The proposals for the giant facility, which will take up one per cent of Lebanon's landmass and include a new ski area, were put forward at a regional economic forum in Saudi Arabia last week. Sannine Zenith will be a low-density development emphasising health and well being with at least 70 per cent of its area left untouched and a million trees planted.
Iran banned skiing after the Islamic revolution, but the lifts started going again within five years, after the Ayatollah expressed his enthusiasm for sport. The ski trails were then sexually segregated, but today the rules have been relaxed and foreigners are made very welcome. The country's leading resort of Dizin (00 98 9821 8825161; www.skifed.ir) is remarkably well equipped with three gondolas serving a big vertical. Lift prices are probably the cheapest in the world at about £20 for a week.
If you want to follow in the footsteps of Bollywood stars, then Gulmarg in Kashmir has it all. Established by British Colonials a visit here takes you right back to the golden age of the sport, before the masses invaded in the 1970s. Tourism from the UK, centred on the superb and affordable heliskiing, gained ground in the early 1990s, only to be thwarted by the activities of Kashmiri separatists. Although local tourism officials insist all is well now, and a long-planned new gondola is being completed, there are still large numbers on Indian troops billeted around here. The Foreign Office warns against travel to the area.
WHICH ARE THE MOST EXOTIC DESTINATIONS IN THE BROCHURES?
The mainstream pioneers are Crystal - offering Portillo and Valle Nevado in Chile - and Virgin, which can take you to Korea and New Zealand. Valle Nevado is certainly the most fashionable resort in South America, stylishly designed by French architects. An easy drive from Santiago, it's the cool spot for the great and the good of Chile. Portillo is the more traditional choice and has a more North American feel, but it attracts the international race teams and celebrities. Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalholidays.co.uk) offers trips from June to September with brochure prices from £1,087 for a low-season week to £2,996 for a peak-season fortnight.
The Koreans' love affair with skiing continued after the Japanese fad ended 10 years ago. Indeed their bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics made it through to the final three in the knock-out decider. Virgin offers Dragon Valley, one of the biggest, with prices from £1,589 to £1,769 for the week. In New Zealand its Queenstown, the action sports capital of the country with several ski fields around, available from mid-June to early-October, prices £1,489 to £1,759 the week (0870 990 4212; www.virgin.com/holidays)
HASN'T CHINA GONE SKI CRAZY?
Yes, if you're passing through Beijing, or almost any other major Chinese city, you'll find a small ski hill nearby (there are more than a dozen to choose from in Beijing's case). Even hot cities like Shanghai are joining in, building snow slopes in giant man-made caves. China has gone from having almost no skiing 10 years ago to a target of 500 ski areas by 2010. Entrepreneurs are opening slopes all over - although often with inadequate rental gear and badly trained staff. However some slopes have been opened by returning Chinese expats who do know what they're doing, and are cashing in with slicker operations. Nanshan ( www.nanshanski.com) is one of the best, with chairlifts and a terrain park.
Russia too is seeing boom times thanks largely to the enthusiasm of President Putin. His favourite local hill near Moscow is Shukolovo where he can be found mixing with other skiers according to local media reports. Putin is also a fan of Krasnaya Polyana down in the Caucasus, which is growing rapidly thanks to a $1 billion (£500 million) investment. The president hopes it will become the base for a Russian winter olympics hosting bid.
Krasnaya's best slopes are located on the northern slopes of the Aibga Ridge with the longest 4km in length over a 1,200m vertical.
But in Japan, the world's largest indoor snow slope, a 20-storey high, 500m long structure built in Tokyo Harbour in 1992, was demolished in the autumn to make way for the capital's first IKEA.
NO DANGER OF SKI LIFTS ON EVEREST I HOPE?
Not lifts but one heliskiing operation has obtained permission from the Nepalese Government to operate tours in the mountain state, including the Everest region, if not on the mountain itself.
The terrain is so untouched by skiers and boarders the Himalayan Heli Ski Guides (00 33 6 23 08 08 26; www.heliskinepal.com) offers tour participants the chance to christen each run they make, being the first in the world on each descent. The routes and names are duly recorded in an atlas the company is creating.
WHERE WILL I BE SKIING IN FIVE YEARS TIME?
The newly elected Mayor Armando Enriquez of Mexican city Toluca has thrown his weight behind plans for a £60 million ski resort on the local 4,690m-high, and perpetually snow capped, Xinantecatl Volcano.
However the plans for the resort, to be located 20km south of Toluca, have not gone down well with local farming communities who own the mountain terrain and regard it as sacred. The farmers also fear excessive machine-made snow would blow down on to their fields and freeze their crops so the plan is currently stalled.
Plans by the military government of Burma to build a ski resort on 5,881m Mount Hkakabo Razi in the north-west of the country are also stalled. Obstacles to be overcome include the fact that the slopes are currently a 10-day walk through jungle, which is partly controlled by separatist guerrillas. The development also requires use of the airport at the leading northern Thai tourist destination of Chiang Mai over the border as the gateway point, but the Burmese and Thais have long been suspicious of each other, and Burma has currently closed the border.
Thanks to the efforts of British firm Briton Engineering, which has invented a hi-tech artificial snow surface, Snowflex (01484 689 933; www.snowflex.com), you can now ski year round in Denmark, Hong Kong or Portugal should the desire take you.
Even more exciting are several giant indoor snow halls planned for Dubai, as part of that country's much publicised vast investment in spectacular tourism developments. Several are now under construction and scheduled to open from 2006 (00 91 4294 99999; www.majidalfuttaim.com)
CAN'T I JUST WAIT FOR THE SNOW TO COME TO ME?
A recent flurry of snow has made the five Scottish resorts desirable for close-to-home skiing (ski. visitscotland.com).
The ski centres of Glencoe, Glenshee, Cairngorm, the Lecht and the Nevis Range are all easily accessible from elsewhere in the UK. And when that snow has melted away there are always the indoor snowdomes. The most recent one is at Xscape Castleford (0871 222 5671; www.xscape.co.uk) between Leeds and Hull on the M62, joining existing UK domes at Milton Keynes and Tamworth. At least another dozen are planned from Sussex to Glasgow.
The Beckhams didn't wait for snow to arrive near Manchester United, they moved to Madrid where the giant US Mills Corporation recently opened the biggest shopping centre on the continent, with one of the largest indoor snow slopes, using snow technology masterminded by British company Acer Snowmec. Xanadu is David and Victoria's pleasure dome (00 34 90 226 30 26; www.millsmadridxanadu.com).
24-HOUR SKI RESORTS
Several ski resorts in unlikely spots in the US Mid-West offer skiing around the clock - generally on tiny verticals with temperatures typically in the double digits below zero, so you really need to be keen. Paoli Peaks (001 812 723 4696; www.paolipeaks.com) in Indiana is typical; its 91m vertical is served by nine lifts. Here you can buy a Midnight Madness ticket, valid from 12am to 6am, for a bargain $28.
Otherwise, consider signing up for one of the 24-hour events that happen around the world each year, usually as charity fundraisers with a serious or fun race option. One of the best is at Mont Ste Anne (001 418 827 5281; www.mont-sainte-anne.com), by Quebec City each January (it's in the Inghams brochure).
You can choose to race from noon until noon as an individual, in a team and for fun or for glory. There's a non-stop party atmosphere and everything from speed massage services by the gondola lift to energy cocktails.
is eastern Europe a joke?
Not all the resorts in eastern Europe deserve to be a joke among skiers. Bansko (00 359 7443 8911; www.banskoski.com), a Unesco World Heritage area in Bulgaria's Pirin Mountains, has had a complete overhaul thanks to an injection of foreign capital. The new base development with modern, high- quality accommodation compliments the original, largely unspoilt traditional Bulgarian village located 12km away. The resort is adding a new ice rink, horse riding, bowling and sleigh rides to compliment lift and slope upgrades on the mountain.
To the south, the Serbian ski resort of Kopaonik may soon be back in the brochures as the formerly politically incorrect destination, which was bombed by Nato in 1999 but now has a democratic government, has notched up several years of stability.
Serbia's national tourism promotion body is currently pushing modern and well-designed Kopaonik with its 25 lifts, by far the largest of Serbia's winter resorts. The resort was popular with the British for nearly 20 years until the 1999 pull-out, and a spokeswoman for leading operators Thomson and Crystal stated that during that period visitor numbers were "quite high".
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