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Let it snow: The winter sports guide

There’s more to snow holidays than gunning down a hill on skis. How about ice climbing in South Tyrol, dog sledding in the Finnish Arctic or being pulled through the snow by a kite? And if that’s all a little too off-piste, we’ve also picked out the best downhill resorts, plus a picturesque spa for some slope-side pampering

Let it snow: The winter sports guide
Skiing in Verbier. Image: Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

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Winter sports in this guide

 

Cross-country skiing

Voss, Norway

Keep your eyes peeled for polar bears when you’re in this part of the world, especially if it’s late season. That’s when these furry beasts emerge from their winter slumber in search of a snack.

Even though you’re unlikely to see one, it’s best to keep your wits about you as you strap on Nordic skis and shuffle your way from the village of Jostedalen to the frozen Nigard Glacier lake. Unlike the trails you’ll find in many mainstream resorts, which often just take you in circles, the well-groomed tracks here lead out into pristine wilderness, where you’re unlikely to see another soul all day — save for the odd reindeer.

After a few hours of gliding, where the only sound is the crunch and squeak of snow under your skinny skis, you’ll arrive at the entrance to the glacier. From a distance, this mass of blue ice looks a bit like Superman’s lair — its walls smooth as glass. Even more eerie are the creaking sounds as the ever-moving ice shifts; provided you’re with a guide, though, it’s safe to pop inside.

After a day outdoors you’ll have earned a slap-up meal back at Torvis Hotel, a cosy clapboard building perched beside the petrol-blue Lustrafjord. Inside, it’s like the clocks stopped in the 1800s; the hallways full of stuffed animals and agricultural knick-knacks. Beside a crackling fire, with a whisky to warm your cockles, it’s easy to forget you’re only a few hours from the UK.

How to do it: Double rooms at Torvis Hotel from NOK 1,850 (£175), including breakfast. torvis.no

 

Winter sports holidays - Husky sledding in Rovaniemi, Finland

Husky sledding through forest, Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland. Image: Alamy

Dog-sledding

Rovaniemi, Finland

Best known as the ‘official hometown of Santa Claus’, Rovaniemi is also renowned as a dog sledding playground. On the edge of the Arctic Circle, this is the gateway to a winter wilderness, where ice and snow stretch for hundreds of miles.

Desolate it might seem, but for centuries the native Sami people have been eking a living from this beautiful land — something Valentijn, one of the BearhillHusky guides will no doubt enlighten you about on a five-hour husky safari.

Forget the cute, fluffy pets you’ve seen strolling round the park; these are seriously powerful creatures that think nothing of notching up 40 miles or so in a day. Weather permitting, you’ll probably be doing about 25 miles a day, so there’s no danger of your team running out of steam.

Glide through the taiga forest, just inches from spruce trees, your eyes watering from the rush of cold air and snow being kicked up by the dogs. Then, after lunch around the campfire, you’ll have a chance to take the controls yourself — a chance to appreciate just how much skill it takes to keep these excitable creatures under control.

How to do it: A five-hour Taiga Tour with BearhillHusky costs €219 (£174). bearhillhusky.com

 

Winter Sports Holidays - Hintere Schoentaufspitze Mountain, Solda, Italy

Hintere Schoentaufspitze Mountain, Solda, Italy. Image: Alamy.

Ice climbing

Solda, Italy

Located in the very north of Italy, on the border with Austria, the region of South Tyrol is famous for its legendary climbing — as well as legendary climbers, notably Reinhold Messner, who was born here and went on to pioneer solo ascents of the Himalayas without oxygen. So rather than spending your winter holiday whizzing down a mountain, how about climbing up one? Or, to be more precise, a waterfall. Although, as you stand at the bottom and peer up, the difference will seem negligible. Having booked a guide through Alpinschule Ortler, ask him or her to take you to the falls, located just below the middle station of the cable-car. From here you’ll get cracking views of the valley, and a constant stream of admiring glances from the skiers and boarders making their way up to the nearby slopes.

Having mastered your first climb, you could spend the rest of the week helping yourself to fresh powder — the off-piste here is superb. Either that or work your way through the Austro-Italian dishes on offer in most restaurants; South Tyrol is home to more than 18 Michelin-starred restaurants.

How to do it: A two-day ice-climbing course with Alpinschule Ortler costs €200 (£159). alpinschule-ortler.com

 

Winter Sports Holidays - Blue Marine suite at the Icehotel

Blue Marine suite at the Icehotel, Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. Image: Paulina Holmgren.

Ice hotel

Jukkasjärvi, Sweden

Why not give the usual chocolate box chalet a wide berth this winter and book yourself into a chic hotel suite made of solid ice? Located near the town of Jukkasjärvi, in deepest, darkest Sweden, the simply-named Icehotel is made from 40,000 tonnes of sculpted snow and ice blocks, created from scratch each season.

Every October, for the past 25 years or so, specially selected artists from all over the globe have descended on the site, tools in hand, to turn their sketches into epic sculptural suites. In all there are 30 to choose from, ranging from the weirdly incongruous (a Tube train emerging from a tunnel), to the downright strange (pole-dancing polar bears, anyone?).

Don’t worry, it’s not as cold as it sounds. Once you’ve squeezed yourself into a thermal suit and wrapped yourself up in the reindeer-skin sheets, it’s actually quite toasty — especially after a few vodka cocktails from the Icebar. But if this still sends shivers down your spine, the good news is there are ‘warm’ rooms to choose from, too.

Although the days here are short — it gets dark just after lunch — there’s lots to do. Whiz through woods on a dogsled, race across a frozen lake on a snowmobile, grab a chisel and scraper and have a go at creating your own ice sculpture?

One thing that will definitely put a smile on your face is an ice driving session in one of the hotel’s Minis. With an instructor on hand to keep you out of trouble, you’ll learn how to fling the car around sideways — which could come in handy if you decide to take the road trip to nearby Björkliden. This tiny ski resort lies on the edge of Lapland, with views all the way to Norway on a clear day.

How to do it: Three nights at Icehotel from £1,089 per person. discover-the-world.co.uk

 

Skiing

 

Winter sports holidays - Paragliding on skis, Verbier

Paragliding on skis, Verbier, Switzerland. Image: Corbis.

Verbier, Switzerland

Circling over the forest, a little too close for my liking, I’m beginning to wonder if paragliding on skis was one of my best ideas. Eventually we hit the thermals that will take us higher and higher, and before I know it we’re hundreds of feet above the ground.

The views over the Alps are impossibly, spectacularly amazing, and if being up a mountain is peaceful — the fresh air, the panoramic vistas — this is serene. And Verbier, from above, appears to be a quiet, peaceful Swiss town; its uniform, traditional wooden chalet-style architecture meaning it looks nothing like the world-famous ski resort that it is.

However, changes are afoot in Verbier. The five-star, designer W Verbier hotel, which opened last year, is something of a new concept for Alpine resorts: city hipster meets chalet chic. A new cable-car to Bruson, on the other side of the valley, has opened up pistes, via Le Châble, to those who haven’t discovered the full scope of the resort. And there are plans for another gondola to connect Verbier with other less-explored sides of the mountain.

“Verbier is a very technical resort,” says Thomas, my ski guide. I begin to see what he means as we explore the challenging runs and narrow pistes from its highest point, the summit of Mont Fort, at 10,925ft. Clambering up on foot you can make out two of the highest peaks in the Alps, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, a spectacular vantage point if there ever was one.

We take the black run down and I find my ski legs quickly. Thankfully, the big gap between February half-term and Easter this year means the slopes are pretty quiet — there’s very little queuing, if any, for cable-cars and chairlifts; and plenty of room for me to turn.

While I’m capable of tackling most runs, Verbier challenges me to be a better skier; more controlled, more considered in my turns and approach. Precision and weight transfer take precedence over speed, and it’s notable that my top speed of 52mph on day one drops to 40mph on days two and three.

Les Esserts and Savoleyres’ gentler pistes offer plenty of scope for beginners and intermediates, as does Bruson. But generally it’s experts who’ll get the most from Verbier, and as part of Les 4 Vallées — with 250 miles of runs and nearly 100 lifts — you could easily ski here for the rest of your life. Snow remains until early May at higher altitude.

But the pistes are only half of the appeal. The quality of the restaurants is also high, with traditional cuisine (raclette, tartiflette, fondue) sitting alongside sushi, tapas, pizza and gourmet menus. Après-ski here might not reach the extremes of some other Alpine resorts but the likes of the Farinet, Pub Mont Font and Le Rouge ensure the focus seen on the slopes continues into the night.

Although, with around two-thirds of visitors staying in private chalets, many prefer to keep themselves to themselves; this isn’t the case at W Verbier. Après-ski here begins at the bottom of the slope at Off Piste, its outdoor bar, and continues inside, at its club Carve. Designed in traditional chalet style, the W is an inconspicuous addition to Verbier (the trademark design features safely confined to the interior). Spread across four buildings, it’s a unique proposition in this part of the Alps; bringing an urban feel to a resort where hotels are in short supply.

But even the presence of such glamour doesn’t deflect from Verbier’s main attraction: superb skiing with a knowing nod. verbier.ch.

How to do it: VIP Ski offers seven nights at Chalet Mont Fort from £1,079 per person, based on two sharing. This includes return flights from Gatwick, transfers, catered chalet-board breakfast, afternoon tea, an evening meal on six nights, wine, wake-up drinks, and canapes on the first and last evening.

Words: Pat Riddell

 

Winter Sports Holidays - Chalet Merlo, Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise

Chalet Merlo, Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise, France. Image: Alamy.

Sainte Foye Tarentaise, France

I’m sprawled on my back, legs wildly kicking, skis momentarily crisscrossing and clattering against each other. The fierce sun’s rays beam down on me and, with desperate determination and sweat beads streaming down my forehead, I try and wriggle myself out of this sorry mess. The reality is I’m hurriedly trying to hoist myself up on the child’s ski lift. Yes, the child’s ski lift. I glare at the kids gliding past me, dumbfounded at their elegant form and gutsy moves. Looking them up and down, they can’t be more than eight. No wonder they look so smug.

“Relax, Helen,” my guide, Elaine, bellows as she effortlessly drifts towards me. “I’ll sort you out.”

I’m not alone — all ski virgins are at risk of being shamed by tots on the slopes who skim the snow’s surface with speed and style. I, on the other hand, have had trouble remaining upright during my morning’s lesson.

The simple pleasures of this trip are far outweighing any self-conscious nonsense, however. I’m in the pretty French resort of Sainte Foy Tarentaise, in the Rhône-Alpes region. Most ski buffs unwittingly drive straight past on their annual pilgrimage to the nearby resorts of Val d’Isère and Tignes, missing its impossibly cosy chalets tumbling down the hillside. I’d heard horror stories of crowded slopes and cool-as-they-come snowboarders shimmying past at breakneck speeds. Yet here in Sainte Foy the tracks are quiet, the attitude’s chilled and the intimidation factor is low.

After a couple of hours regaining my balance and composure on the nursery slopes, Elaine thinks I’m about ready for the ski lift and a green run, “with a bit of blue in,” she teases.

I barely notice the looming mountains around me — their peaks submerged in puffs of cloud — as we shuttle high into the cool air; my mind distracted by how to slip off the ski lift. But once I’ve steadied my poise, I’m soon cruising downhill, zigzagging here and there on a tree-lined run. There’s just the odd skier who slips quietly past. A resounding silence takes hold — with the exception of my occasional deep breathing and exclamations as I tumble. It’s a tense 20 minutes or so, as muscles I haven’t felt in years begin to strain, but I triumphantly laugh on my approach to the nursery slopes. “I actually just skied!” I declare to anyone who’ll listen.

“Not many people had heard of Sainte Foy until a couple of years ago,” says Elaine, as we take a breather. “The powder here is top-notch, there are tons of untracked routes, and it’s cheaper than Val d’Isère, too.”

Slumped in deckchairs and overlooking the nursery slope, I knock back an espresso and smile up towards the beaming sun. I’ve been seriously missing out — on Alpine mountain air; on the thrill of ploughing downhill; on languid lunches in cafes teetering on the slopes. And on tartiflette — the cheesy, potato gratin dish of choice for the ski jet-set, which had me drooling when I first tried it in my plush pad. The US-owned Chalet Merlo sits in the nearby hamlet of Le Miroir, where, in summer, Tarine cows graze gentle peaks and walkers patter down shady forest paths; while winter brings a pristine blanket of snow, exhilarating descents and a whole gaggle of winter sports extremists.

Each evening I kick off my shoes and snuggle into the mezzanine den with a glass of wine and some guacamole and nachos. Apres-ski at the six-bedroom chalet is more hot tubs and haute cuisine than boozy nights and debauchery. During one evening of fine dining, I polish off a three-course dinner of Thai beef salad, roast duck in a thick, plum sauce, and a tarte tatin — all washed down with a local red. Having spent late afternoon soothing my aching muscles during a yoga session and a massage — all at the chalet — there’s only one spot that can top it all: giggling into my Champagne flute and slipping into the outdoor hot tub, I know I’m sold.

How to do it: From €7,350 (£5,890) a week in winter, based on 12 sharing, half-board, with a Champagne aperitif, wine, and daily resort transfers. Helicopter transfers from Geneva or Grenoble start at £300 per person each way and take 25 minutes door to door. chaletmerlo.eu

Words: Helen Warwick

 

Snow-biking

Savognin, Switzerland

The small, little-known resort of Savognin is one of the most picturesque in the Alps. It overlooks the Surses Valley, an hour down the road from St Moritz, and in places on the mountain (particularly the toboggan course) it feels like you could fly straight off the peak and out over the villages below.

There are nearly 50 miles of largely easy-going ski runs to explore, but the real attraction here is all the other activities you can do, including snow biking. Imagine a BMX, but with little skis instead of wheels, and you’ll get the idea; avoid careering into the scenery by leaning, and digging your feet into the snow to slow down.

If the snow bike proves too hairy, then how about something mellower, like airboards, which are basically inflatables that you lie on. Along with all these daredevil activities, the kids’ facilities here are excellent, too, making Savognin ideal for a family break. savognin.ch

How to do it: Iglu Ski offers three nights in Savognin from £104 per person. igluski.com

 

Snowkiting

Alpe d’Huez, France

On paper, being pulled along the snow on skis by a large kite strapped to your chest sounds more than a bit bonkers. And yet you don’t need to be an expert skier to give it a go. Provided you can make a few turns, the qualified instructors from Alpe Vol Libre will show you the ropes on Col du Poutran — at an altitude of around 6,560ft — where you’ll learn how to take off, land and handle the kite safely. Once you’ve mastered the basics, the sky’s the limit. There’s tons of free-riding terrain to explore here, and with a kite pulling you along at speeds of up to 50mph you’ll be able to make 160ft jumps as you go. From here, head to legendary après bar, La Folie Douce, to celebrate your new skills.

How to do it: From £37 per person for a taster session. alpedhuez.com  lafoliedouce.com

 

Winter sports holidays - Tobogganing, Obergurgl

Tobogganing, Obergurgl, Austria. Image: Bernd Ritschel.

Tobogganing

Hochgurgl, Austria

For most of us Brits, our experience of tobogganing extends to sledging down a field once or twice a decade, when we finally get some decent snow. But at the Austrian resort of Hochgurgl, they set their sights slightly higher. Here, you’ll find the mother of all toboggan runs.

The purpose-built course threads through the trees for over a mile, via a dizzying array of switchback bends. Your ears will pop as you drop from 7,054ft, to 6,234ft in the village of Pill. It’s open daily, from 9am to 4pm, but the best time to go is after dark on a Thursday or Friday, when it stays open until 10.30pm. With the floodlights on, it feels even faster as you take a running start from outside Sporthotel Ideal and fling yourself down the freshly groomed slope.

At the bottom you’ll find the Downhill Grill, which does a mean steak. Afterwards, pop to the Umbrella Bar next door for a cheeky schnapps.

How to do it: Night tobogganing, €13 (£10.40) for adults; €9 (£7.20) for children. Sledge hire, €5 (£4). obergurgl.com

 


Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)