Daily Express, January 10, 2009
FALLING FOR THE SWISS SLOPES
Ski sceptic DUNCAN CRAIG becomes a convert on a trip to the laid-back, traditional Alpine resort of Adelboden
TO ME, skiing has always had the faint whiff of a cult about it. It has the peculiar rituals, the weird outfits and that army of evangelical followers who will not rest until you, too, have seen the light. “Come. Join us. It will change your life.” No thanks, I’d taken to telling them, I’ve already chosen Scientology.
These people are nothing if not persistent, however, and last year I finally succumbed. Joining me on my debut trip to the Alps was my partner Eleen, a fellow first timer. Our destination was the low-key, high-altitude resort of Adelboden in Switzerland, 4,440ft above sea level and just 40 miles from Bern.
On a sunlit afternoon in late February, we arrived. This was more, we quickly realised, than the 21st century had managed. Weathered, picturesque chalets and enticing family-run shops clustered around a sleepy main street that appeared little changed since the erection of its medieval church tower.
For our introduction to the slopes we were assigned Andreas, recently crowned Best-Looking Ski Instructor In Switzerland. As we met, he flashed us a huge grin, his gleaming teeth and matching shades set off by a deep tan. We smiled back, Eleen’s genuine.
Adelboden is the gateway to an enviable 150km of pistes which dissect the Alps to the south of the village. To go up, you must first go down, via a 150m gondola ride to the main ski-hire centre on the valley floor. With Andreas’s assistance we picked out ski jackets and salopettes (trousers), which fitted snugly over the many thin layers we were advised to wear.
Even snugger were the specialised, clip-buckle boots. Skis are determined by boot size and your weight, taken on scales. “This is the bit the ladies don’t like, ” grinned Andreas, like a man who knew what they did.
Bundling into one of the main gondola’s six-man pods, we found ourselves alongside a German couple (Adelboden attracts mostly Swiss and German). Their banter was impossible to comprehend; their excitement was not.
Twenty minutes later we alighted at the first station and emerged on to the slopes. My first impression was of a domed, flood-lit theme park, so implausibly pristine and comprehensively harnessed was the natural environment.
Skiers and boarders of every shape and age zipped by at the culmination of slopes that began in the far distance; chairlifts slid silently overhead through clear skies; the air was invigoratingly fresh. The scene was both frenetic and supremely ordered.
I insist on a hopelessly premature go at the Jungle Book-themed kiddie slalom, a no-win situation if ever there was one
The process of learning to ski follows a satisfyingly exponential curve. Day two is incomparably easier than day one. But day one is like trying to ride a bike for the first time, wearing flippers.
We worked on balance and posture, on walking uphill with skis splayed, or at right angles to the nursery slopes, and on the all-important snow plough – a sort of pigeon-toed handbrake.
Being male and so an inveterate show-off, I insisted on a hopelessly premature go at the Jungle Book-themed kiddie slalom, a no-win situation if ever there was one. “Day one is no time for heroes, ” said Andreas, chuckling, as he scraped me off the remains of Mowgli.
Day one is the time for sore feet, however. We found the perfect place to soak them at our hotel, the Solis Cambrian. Adelboden’s accommodation options are limited yet varied. At one end of the scale is the wonderfully traditional Arena Hotel Steinmattli, with its friendly service, unrivalled position, and clientele of jovial, moustached Europeans; the Cambrian, an oasis of chic modernity on the village perimeter, occupies the other extreme.
As part of its sleek spa complex it boasts a bubbling outdoor pool with views of the spectacular Engstligen Falls and distant peaks. Here, we wallowed until wrinkly before feasting on Mediterranean fare at the hotel’s Nova restaurant and retiring to our snug room in the eves with its wallmounted plasma TV and under-bed lighting.
Under Andreas’s patient tutelage our progress was rapid. We soon mastered the beginner’s descent, in which you zig-zag back and forth using the snow plough. We moved on to parallel turns, in which skis stay aligned as you tack your way down on a more linear trajectory. Falls, more comic than painful, were inevitable.
My first “blue run”, a weaving, motorwaywide 5km descent, left me beaming. We did it again, and again, until I had to be forcibly dragged off to lunch, taken at Chüejer-Stuba restaurant, a lively, unpretentious eaterie which doubles as a cowshed in the summer and serves a delicious cheese fondue on its sun-drenched terrace.
On our last day, we were adjudged ready, with some persuasion, for a “red run”. Steeper and narrower than the blue, this flowed from the resort’s highest point. The Alps fanned out before us, seemingly paint-splattered in the late season, and for the first time all week we could see our breath.
Five exhilarating minutes later, whooping with delight, we slid to a stop at the bottom – converts to the cause, and ready to go out and spread the word.
* GETTING THERE: Crystal (0871 231 2256/www.crystalski.co.uk) offers seven nights, half-board, at Arena Hotel Steinmattli from £655pp (two sharing), including return flights from Heathrow, Manchester or Birmingham to Zurich and transfers. Solis Cambrian Hotel & Spa (dialling from UK: 00 41 33 673 83 83/www.solisadelboden.com) offers rooms from £125 per night, B&B.
Switzerland Tourism: 020 7420 4900/www.myswitzerland.com
Adelboden Tourism: www.adelboden.ch