Go Off The Beaten Piste This Winter Season
With the winter ski season coming, the craving for that soft white powdery piste is starting to kick in, and you might be thinking, where should I go? With so many options where can you go to get this year's fix of adrenaline rush and the feeling of that fresh scripts wintery wind in your face as you ski down chosen run: blue, red or black. For this season we want you to set your sights beyond Val d’Isere, because we have a list of some weird and wonderful mountains from which to hurl yourself.
Ukraine isn’t high on most people’s bucket list right now, what with the Russian annexation of Crimea being a possible stepping stone on the path to World War III. But the FCO is only advising against travel to Donetsk and Luhansk on the eastern tip of the country, as well as Crimea itself. Tucked away in the west, close to the Polish, Slovakian and Romanian borders, around a nine hour drive from the capital Kiev, lie the Ukrainian Carpathians, where you can find fantastic skiing without the seething mass of people – or the prices – of Europe’s more celebrated destinations. The biggest and most famous of the resorts in the region is Bukovel, the largest ski resort in Eastern Europe, with more than 60 pistes including eight black runs.
But if you want to attract real wanderlust kudos, head to Dragobrat, the highest ski resort in the country with breathtaking views and some seriously challenging courses. Things are a little rough and ready here, and it’s not recommended for beginners, but if you’re a seasoned skier searching for something new, you’ll find a lot to love. Most visitors hitch a ride in a four-by-four to tackle the mountainous roads and stay in family-owned guest houses (there are loads in the nearby town of Yasinya), where you can sample one of the 30-oddd varieties of Ukrainian borscht. Make sure you relax after a hard day’s skiing at a local banya, a sauna in which you’re beaten with birch leaves before being dunked in a freezing-cold tub – that’ll get the blood flowing to weary legs.
JAHORINA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Nestled amid the snow-capped mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina is Jahorina, the country’s biggest and most popular ski resort. Situated on the peak of the same name, and ablut a 40 minute trip from the capital city of Sarajevo, Jahorina once hosted the women’s alpine skiing events of the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Since then the resort has suffered mixed fortunes, not least of which the Bosnian war and siege of Sarajevo, which saw the slopes of Jahorina weaponised with artillery batteries and the mountainside littered with landmines. While the guns have been removed and most of the bombs have been safely destroyed – all of the bordered runs are now safe – the remote chance of being exploded while skiing off piste adds a certain frisson to proceed-skull-and-crossbones signs demarcating dangerous areas in which you might get yourself obliterated.
Built for the Winter Olympics, the Hotel Bristrica is located 1,620 metres above sea level and has been recently refurbished all around. It’s currently the ideal spot to stay, right up on the mountain, 12km from the nearest town of Pale and connected to the slopes by a newly built road. Plans to construct a gondola connecting Pale to the resort have been placed on standby, along with a slew of related upgrades including two new runs and advanced snowmaking capabilities. Once the funds are raised and the improvements to the resort made, locals hope Jahorina can regain its prestigious sporting status.
MOUNT ETNA, SICILY
Mount Etna has two main ski resorts situated on its north and south sides, called Piano Provenzana and Rifugio Sapienz Micolosi respectively. As well as offering both downhill and alpine skiing, the twin resorts provide the low-level, but not insignificant risk of sudden death by falling into a bubbling pit of molten rock.
Europe’s tallest volcano, this explosive Sicilian hill is one of the most active in the world, and erupted as recently as March of this year when it injured a BBC News television crew who’d been wandering in the area. Though your instincts may scream otherwise, skiing on Mount Etna is about as risky as it is anywhere else in the world, with established pre-warning systems ensuring the resorts only operate when the mountain is least likely to suddenly explode in a hellfire of magma and steam.
Snow’s typically on the peak from the end of November to April, and the mild Mediterranean climate keeps the slopes warmer than the frigid conditions found up Italy’s northern mountains. The unique terrain here means slopes are exceptionally smooth (you are skiing on a plain of cooled lava) and devoid of any tall trees (they have all been violently blasted away by the frequently exploding mountain you’ve somehow decided to slide down). If you don’t mind pretty much ruining your skis, you can also visit in the summer months to ski down Mount Etna’s ash-covered slopes.
Unless you’re a jet-setting piste junkie, you probably haven’t heard of Yabuli, but it’s the biggest and best resort in China, and one that’s well worth a visit for experienced skiers. Located in Heilongjiang Province in the north-east of the country, Yabuli Sun Mountain, part of the Changbai Mountain Range, is where the Chinese ski teams train, which hints at the quality of its slopes.
There are nine intermediate to advanced pistes to test those used to the crowds at Val d’Isere or Chamonix will be pleasantly surprised by the lack of people. Facilities here include heated lifts, snow machines and groomers to ensure the perfect level of powder. The Sun Mountain Hotel is a five star lodge built on the mountain within snow-balling distance of the ski lifts, while the Yabuli National Forest Park Ski Resort Hotel is a short drive away.
In truth, Yabuli isn’t quite up to the standards of the best European alternatives, but as a three or four day addendum to a business trip in the region, it’s a great way to see a part of China that lies well of the international tourist trail.
LAS LENAS, ARGENTINA
If you’re serious about skiing, you’ll have heard all about Las Lenas. It’s something of a mecca for extreme skiers due to its vast network of off-piste slopes. It’s one of the largest Andean ski resorts in Argentina, comprising 27 runs and a ski-able surface that’s the same size as the City of London. Sure, you can be led around a polite piste by an instructor if you choose, but the thing that makes Las Lenas unique is the pureness of the powder and the freedom to be found away from the slopes, flinging yourself off cliffs and zipping down narrow chutes.
Situated in the western part of Mendoza province, it’s far away from any of Argentina’s big cities, too, making it less crowded than comparable resorts – which means less time queuing for lifts. There’s a dramatic 1,190m vertical drop to tackle and 39,000 acres to explore, after all.
It’s so vast there’s even a space theme running throughout, from the name of the lifts to the name of the hotels at the foot of the mountains in the village.
Most accommodation, many of them ski-in ski-out, can be found here along with some serviced apartments if you’d rather be self-sufficient. Even if you’re not staying there, it’s worth visiting the Piscis Hotel in particular so you can say you lost your spending money in the highest casino in the world. The season in Las Lenas runs from mid-June to mid-October, so it’s the perfect getaway for skiers who can’t wait for the season to start.
The full name of this resort in central Japan is so long, even the locals can’t be bothered pronouncing it. Tanigawadake tenjindaria Ski Resort usually goes by the much more manageable Tenjin, which roughly translates into “weather god” in English because, you guessed it, there’s a lot of weather. The snow is pretty constant and deep here, meaning its reliable place to hit the slopes. In the Gunna district of Japan, it’s 30 per cent beginners slopes, 40 per cent intermediate and 30 per cent advanced. However, there are lots of side-ways and back-country to explore, with beautiful tall trees to test your slaloming skills and breathtaking peaks to admire.
Going off-piste without a guide is foolish, however, as the deep snow also means there’s a high risk of avalanches. In fact, Nishi Kurosawa, also known as Avalanche Alley, is notorious for them. But keep in with the locals and on top of the weather forecast, and you’re in for plenty of the top quality white stuff.
It’s all about skiing here and there are few distractions in the local area. The nearest place to stay is Tenjin Lodge, a basic set-up with a choice of western or Japanese rooms and a place to hire out gear. Drive half an hour down the road and there’s a bit more choice in Minakami, a quiet town with great kaiseki dining options at Ryokan Tanigawa. Spa fans will also want to drop by Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku, a traditional hotel with tatami rooms that’s home to one of the largest outdoor hot springs in Japan.