Arriving back to a very sultry Bangkok after six days meandering around a warm Northern Thailand on the Eastern and Oriental Express train, has got me thinking about cooler climates and opportunities in Asia for hitting the slopes. While catching up on her email today, Lara mumbled something about heading to Hokkaido in Japan in winter for a story. Yes, please.
We’ve spent almost a decade and a half in the northern hemisphere, and November is the time of year when I usually start to think about heading to the snow. I’ll either try to persuade Lara that she desperately needs some time in front of a fireplace with a good book and a glass of something special (all of which would benefit her right now) or I’ll find an affordable destination for a week of solo snowboarding until Lara can get away.
When we lived in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I’d head to Lebanon for a couple of quick trips each season, like a big wave surfer hunting down a giant swell, having monitored the weather charts for favourable conditions.
Then in January we’d both head to Europe for 2-3 weeks for Lara’s winter work holidays, generally to Italy (she loved Cortina), Spain (we like Baqueira-Beret), France (we had a friend from Megeve), Switzerland (I was a fan of Zermatt), and Austria (Lech remains one of my favourite snowboarding spots in the world). One year we even did some skiing in Morocco.
Since we took to the road in 2006, we’ve tended to opt for more affordable winter sports destinations like Bulgaria (for Bansko) and Poland, countries where we could settle in for a while. On our grand tour in 2010, we escaped to Zakopane for a few days from Krakow, where we’d rented an apartment.
So, if you’re thinking of hitting the slopes this winter but are not sure where to go, here are some of my favourite places for snowboard and ski escapes – spots I like to return time and time again (not places compiled from the internet for a top 10).
Lech Zürs is one of my favourite resorts. Anywhere. A pretty town split by a small river, it’s very eco-friendly and snow-sure, with fine restaurants and plenty of decent accommodation. It’s also the only resort where I’ve begged the snow to stop falling so I can get some rest. Extensive terrain and jaw-dropping off-piste opportunities. Great for non-skiers too. We’ve also stayed in Zell am See, which while it has a pretty lake setting, is no match for Lech for sophisticated travellers.
Megève is not France’s most snow-sure destination (go next door to Chamonix for the crazy off-piste experience) but the town has charm by the snow-shovel full. When it does dump snow, however, the more languid pursuits of hanging out in cafés and digging into local fare, from hearty heart-stopping specials to haute cuisine hangouts, are sidelined for uncrowded powder.
Cortina d’Ampezzo has a soft spot in my heart because it’s here that I really learnt to snowboard. Just like Lech, there is ample terrain and the charm of a town nestled between majestic mountains. Except that it’s Italy. Think women with furs and dogs with diamantes, crazy ski instructors, and food worth coming down the mountain for at lunchtime. And good coffee.
While there has been some stories written about winter sports in Lebanon, ironically there has been far more written about Ski Dubai. However, just one hour north of Beirut (or half an hour for a local in a BMW), Faraya-Mzaar, a decent ski resort complex awaits from the dawn of every New Year. These days known just as Mzaar resort, there is a great system of linked fields here with crowds mainly on the weekends and only in the mornings – the afternoons are for ‘disco naps’ before partying the night away.
Around 60km south of Marrakesh is the resort of Oukaimeden which comes alive just after the New Year, just like in Lebanon. While it’s Africa’s highest ski resort, most would be hard-pressed to name another one, which is evident from my experience there. It’s basic stuff, with only one real lift and a couple of runs that were nothing more than rock-hopping when I visited. But worth a visit just for the fun of it and beauty of the landscape on the drive there.
Because Lara is an easily-distracted skier and I snowboard, in Switzerland I’ve had to stay considerably neutral. We’ve visited Klosters, where Lara found the town charming and loved the walking, while I had a ball exploring the extensive ski fields which include nearby Davos. It turns out that Prince Charles, a fan of Klosters, has pretty good taste as the lodges and restaurants are fantastic here. We’ve visited the eternally glamorous resort of St Moritz (admittedly staying in the nearby village of Pontresina), home to an astonishing array of wintersport activities and expensive restaurants with truffle menus. Do them. I’ve also spent plenty of time in Zermatt. The Matterhorn towers above the village and indicates its snow-sure nature and the no-car traditional village is a delight with plenty of great dining that makes you want to burn off the calories the day after a big dinner.
Getting there From Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we’d tend to use any one of a handful of low-cost airlines for the short-haul trips and one of the premium UAE airlines for long-haul. Over the last six years we’ve also gotten used to using the European low-cost airlines and trains. Holiday Hypermarket usually has some great ski package deals to Austria, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, among other destinations. We’ve yet to hit the snow from our new base in Asia, but when we do we’ll keep you posted on how we get there.
Got any favourite snowboard and ski escapes? I’m keen to test out Asia’s snow, so all tips welcome. Please do share them in the comments below.