Engelberg

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I am very aware that a couple of weeks ago I teased a couple of photos from my recent ski trip, but didn’t actually give any details of where I was. Since then I have been super busy working on other things, and I’ve only just had the chance to sit down and share some more.

I spent 3 days skiing in Engelberg, Switzerland. Don’t let my photos of sunny, blue skies and fresh, white snow deceive you, I actually took all the pictures on our last day. Our first day on the slopes saw us skiing in some of the wettest conditions I have ever experienced. It took me back to my days working as a videographer in Kitzbuhel, Austria, where I would have to go out on the slopes no matter the conditions. It rained up to 2000m. Myself and my two friends I was skiing with were all soaked. And I mean drenched right through to our underwear soaked. When we stopped for lunch, we had to wring out our gloves. Visibility was also poor, I couldn’t see more than a couple of metres ahead and the light was so flat that I had no idea what my skis were hitting. Luckily, thanks to the ridiculous price British Airways wanted to charge me for ski carriage, I had rented skis rather than take my twin-tips. Although they were heavy to carry around compared to what I’m used to, a solid pair of carvers were definitely the better option. On our second day, the rain subsided but visibility still wasn’t great. We managed to do quite a bit of exploring on the lower slopes during those first two days, though. The snow was skiable, just hard work on the legs because it was a bit slushy (my calf muscles felt like someone was trying to stretch them and use them as a tightrope!).

Then, exactly as predicted by the weather forecast, the cloud disappeared, the sun came out and we got to see the beautiful landscape around Engelberg. As well as what was in front of our skis, of course.

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At 3,238m the Titlis is a fun ski area. Although the pisted area isn’t huge, there’s enough to keep you occupied for a few days. The area is famous for its off-piste skiing, although has had it’s share of avalanches. I saw quite a few people venturing off-piste, even when there were small avalanches still falling around them, but I wasn’t about to risk it.

Obviously not wanting to miss a tourism, and therefore money-making opportunity, the Titlis mountain is also home to Europe’s highest suspension bridge. Every day, busload after busload of tourists turn up to catch the gondola to the top and see the views from the bridge. There are also a lot of opportunities for them to part with their cash at the top station, including a very expensive Swiss watch shop and a photo booth where they can have a holiday snap with their favourite celebrity superimposed next to them. Most of the day trip tourists, ie not skiers, were visiting from Asia and seemed to be just as excited to have their photo taken in front of cloud as they were to see the actually scenery. I couldn’t help but think that if it was British tourists they’d be demanding a refund if the weather and the views weren’t anything but perfect.

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If you are lucky to be there on a clear day, the views from the top of the mountain are spectacular. And, from the point of view of the day trippers, I guess we’re the crazy ones for choosing to travel back down the mountain on two very thin pieces of wood with hundreds of other skiers whizzing past us.

Useful Info

To get to Engelberg I flew British Airways from Heathrow to Zurich £130 return (EasyJet also offer flights from the UK to Zurich).

2 hour train from Zurich Airport to Engleberg, changing at Lucerne, costs 44CHF one way.

I booked a bed in an 8 bed ‘crash pad’ at Spannort Inn for 60CHF per night. The Inn is right next to the train station, and they also have private rooms. There are no self-catering facilities, but they have a nice Swedish coffee shop and restaurant on the ground floor and you can pay extra for breakfast. There are lots of restaurants to choose from in Engelberg, but it is recommended you book a table to avoid disappointment.

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Vegan Skiing

There are 2 reasons I am not a food blogger:

  1. I don’t have a camera phone, so if I wanted to take a photo of my food I’d have to pull out my full size SLR camera. This can be slightly awkward in restaurants, especially when you’re eating with other people.
  2. On the odd occasion I have managed to take a photo of my food, I’ve always forgotten to take the shot until I’m already halfway through eating it. So, the photos don’t do the food justice to say the least.

With that being said, as a gluten-free vegan who likes to travel, probably the most common question I get asked is ‘what are you going to eat?’ So, I try to include some posts on my blog about what I’ve eaten and where on my trips.

Ski trips in particular seem to confuse a lot of people. I guess they have assumptions about what there is to eat in ski resorts. And, if it’s all pasta, fondue and pastries then I will surely starve!

When I’m the one planning the trip, I tend to opt for self-catering accommodation unless I’m staying somewhere that is specifically aimed at vegans. That way, I have much better control over what I’m eating. Unless I’m staying miles away from the nearest supermarket, preparing my own food is the easiest way to go. On my recent ski trip to Les Arcs and La Plagne, however, I was travelling with omnivores who did all the booking. I made sure to check out our hotel’s website before we left, and I was pleased to discover that the L’Aiguille Rouge serves all buffet meals. This is the next best option for me after self-catering. L’Aiguille Rouge is part of the Belambra chain, and there was plenty of food for me to choose from on the buffet at every meal. Apart from checking the ingredients a couple of times, I didn’t have to make any special requests for my meals. I’m sure, though, that had I needed to ask the restaurant staff for suitable food they would have happily obliged. They were all super nice, and nothing was too much trouble for them. They even had soy milk on the breakfast buffet, so I was able to get my morning coffee!

Out on the slopes, I would recommend the vegetable stir-fry with rice noodles at Le Sanglier Qui Fume in Les Arcs 1600 and Le Chalets de l’Arc at Les Arcs 2000 for their quinoa salad.

 

La Plagne

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When I go to ski a new area and the rep asks me if I want to upgrade my lift pass, it always seems like a rhetorical question to me. Of course I want to explore as many slopes as I possibly can!

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Thanks to the shiny, sparkly Vanoise Express (with 2 levels to choose from and a glass floor) the ski areas of Les Arcs and La Plagne are now connected to make one super snowy playground. I had been to La Plagne once before, but it was pre-season and for a training course. Unfortunately, that week had consisted mainly of sitting in boring workshops in the hotel and eating awful food (the catering team were on a training course somewhere else). So, I was interested in going back to La Plagne and seeing what it’s like when you’re actually allowed to enjoy it.

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I would recommend skiing from Les Ars to La Plagne, or vice versa, only for advanced skiers. For one, you have to give yourself enough time to get back otherwise you’re stuck on the wrong side of the mountain for the night. Also, it’s a bit of a bottle neck either side of the Vanoise Express. Even after all the snow we’d had the week I was there, these connecting areas were both very icy and full of bumps. I can only imagine how tricky it is in poorer conditions. Once you get into La Plagne proper, though, the skiing is as nice as it is in Les Arcs (although I have heard the higher elevation of Les Arcs is a more popular choice when there isn’t much snow).

I loved the limited time I had skiing in La Plagne, and I would definitely return there to explore more.

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Les Arcs

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As I sat on the 4 person chairlift, letting it carry me up the mountain, I seriously questioned my choice in hobbies. The wind and horizontal snow had the combined effect that I can only describe as like having someone throw popping candy at your face – repeatedly and for the entire time you are outdoors. The bad weather had resulted in the chairlifts, only one of which had bubble covers to protect you from the elements (guess which lift had the longest queue), operating extra slowly. Thus prolonging the torture and making a lie of the sign at the bottom which proudly announced they could get you up to the top of the mountain in only 4 minutes. I couldn’t even distract myself with the view. It turns out that, in this part of France, the fog and cloud zooms in quicker than it does in San Francisco, and I could barely see more than a metre in front of my face. The loud, and therefore very close, cannon blasts announcing controlled avalanches did nothing to comfort me. Also, I was in the middle of reading The Hunger Games trilogy, which I think only added to my paranoia.

It’s at times like these that I make a vow to myself to learn a sport associated with warmer climates. Like surfing, for example. Yes, I decided, I definitely need a beach vacation this year. However, for some reason skiing is one of the sports I have had relative success in, and so I found myself fighting the cold, wind and heavy snow in January in the French ski resort of Les Arcs. Back when I used to work whole winter seasons, I had the luxury of being a fair weather skier most of the time. If the weather was bad and I didn’t have to be up the mountain, I didn’t go. When you only get one week skiing a year like I do now, though, you feel obliged to be on the mountain as much as possible.

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To be fair to Les Arcs, when the wind isn’t against you and there are no avalanche blasts sending tremors through your skis, the skiing is very good.

Les Arcs is split into different levels, the main ‘villages’ named after their elevations. I expect this is to save the embarrassment of people such as myself who struggle to pronounce French names. We stayed at Les Arcs 2000, the highest point with accommodation, although the ski areas do go above 3000m. There are pros and cons to basing yourself so high on the mountain. When the skiing is good, you literally have the mountain on your doorstep. However when things go wrong, you’re stuck. On the third day of our trip, for example, the bad weather led to most of the lifts at Arcs 2000 being closed and an avalanche closed the main road, preventing the ski buses from operating. There was little more I could do than sit in the hotel and watch the windows vibrate with every avalanche blast.

Les Arcs 1950, as the name suggests, is a mere 50 metres below Les Arcs 2000. Don’t expect this to mean a casual stroll up a path between the two, though. Although there is only 50 metres between them, it’s 50 metres of near vertical mountain. You’re not allowed to walk on the road (as if you’d want to), and the regular ski buses take a good 10 minutes to transport you between the two. There’s also the option of taking the Cabriolet, the shortest gondola ride I have ever seen. This genius little piece of engineering runs from early morning to 11.30pm, apart from a 30 minute break they take every evening. So it’s also good if you want to hit the apres ski or head to 1950 for a few drinks after dinner.

I’ve not skied in France a huge amount, but my general impression of French ski resorts is that they are purpose  built. Huge concrete tower blocks of hotels tend to dominate the landscape, and you get the impression that enjoying the view was the last thing on the architects’ minds. Most of the Les Arcs area reinforced this opinion. Les Arcs 1950, however, is a pleasant surprise. Skiing into this quaint little village, with it’s carved wooden house fronts and Christmas decorations, reminded me of many Austrian alpine villages that I have visited. When the temperature dropped well below zero and the wind was so strong I could barely stand up on my skis, I retreated to the Wood Bear Café and warmed up with a coffee.

When bad weather closes the lifts at 2000/1950, and the road is open, it’s advisable to catch the ski bus down to Les Arcs 1600. Even when most of the links are closed elsewhere in the area, you can usually ski 1800 from this point as well. Beware, though, the weather might be better at this elevation but it still comes in quick. It was clear and sunny when I first got on the lift at the bottom, but I could barely see more than a metre in front of me and had lost all feeling in my face by the time I got to the top.

Les Arcs has lots of great terrain to explore, but if you’re going there (especially in January) be prepared for all weather types – possibly even all in one day!

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Arcalis

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I have to admit I’d never heard of Arcalis before my trip to Andorra this year, so it was a nice surprise to discover that it is part of the Arinsal/Pal lift pass.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAArcalis is known in the region as being more of a locals’ ski area. There is no resort or town there as such, and as most of the skiers in Arinsal are beginners, few venture over on the 40 minute bus journey. Our Crystal rep, Jake, recommended that we ski Arcalis earlier in the week, before the weekend rush. His advice was spot-on. We had two days in Arcalis, and the conditions were quite a bit better than in Arinsal or Pal. The runs still weren’t groomed all that well, as I discovered when I hit a patch of rocks at full speed and had to pick my way through whilst hopping on my skis, but they at least looked prepared for something other than beginner skiers. The far side of the mountain still suffered from the high winds that had also hit Arinsal, though. AtPENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA one point I threw myself into a tuck, pointed my skiers straight down the mountain, but felt like I was going nowhere because the wind was blowing me back up the hill again.

A couple of the runs were closed off to the public, due to youth slalom races, which was a shame. What was open was good fun, though. The freestyle area, an entire mountain dedicated to whatever you want, was also opened on the second day we were there. I didn’t fancy trying it on my own without someone who knew the area, so that will have to wait for another time.

Arinsal and Pal

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThe last time I visited Andorra, about 18 years ago, Arinsal and Pal were two very seperate ski areas. At the time, I was an intermediate skier and what Arinsal had to offer was enough for me so I never visited Pal. They were in the process of building a new ‘gondola’ to connect the two areas, so I was excited to try it out during my trip in January this year.

I have to say that the Arinsal ski area is not like I remembered it at all. I thought I had a very clear picture in my head of how it looked, but the reality was quite different. Although a small area, it is lots of fun. And, it all comes down to one base, which helps if you’re skiing in a group with different ability levels like I was. Arinsal is very much a beginners’ resort, with everything geared towards helping them get through their first week of ski school. The slopes are managed well in that respect, with beginners having their own (very good) area that is easy to avoid. Unfortunately, high winds closed most of the chair lifts in Arinsal whilst we were there, and I did question why they had replaced the old drag lifts with them in the first place. After all, if beginners learn on drag lifts then they never know any different.

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On my third day there, when the wind had died down a bit and more lifts were open, I discovered that the new ‘gondola’ connecting Arinsal to Pal is in fact a cable car, and as such is unable to open whenever it is windy, snowing, cloudy or anything other than perfect weather conditions. I think it was open one, maybe two days out of the six that we were there. Instead, in order to ski Pal I had to catch a bus to La Massana (about ten minutes down the road from Arinsal) and then get into a gondola there to access the system. There is a free ski bus to La Massana that runs a couple of times a day, but be aware that it doesn’t seem to run when it snows. This seemed strange to me, after all surely people need the bus service more when there is snow. The local bus seemed to manage better in the adverse conditions, and it was only 1.80 euro to La Massana. My advice to experienced skiers would be to stay in La Massana instead. Then, you can always ski Arinsal too when the cable car is open.

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Pal is much less affected by the weather conditions as it is tree lined, and is also a much bigger area. The pistes zigzag across three peaks, so you can even do a little tour. Even on the weekend, when ‘locals’ from Spain travel up to use the slopes, it was very quiet on the mountain. There was a small queue for some of the chair lifts, but I could always find an empty drag lift to use instead.

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Returning to Andorra

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERATwenty years ago I learnt to ski in Pas De La Casa, Andorra. It was my first trip to the principality, and also my first experience of snow sports. Two years after that first holiday to Pas, my family and I returned to Andorra for another week’s skiing in Arinsal. Fast forward 18 years, and I have once again travelled to Arinsal to ski.

I’ll be honest, of the four of us in our group, none of us had a particular desire to return to Andorra. Without wanting to sound negative, the principality exists because it is tax free, and has few of the redeeming features of other ski areas. The views over the Pyrenees are breathtaking, although not quite as scenic as the Austrian Alps. The ski areas offer pistes for all levels of skier, but due to the geography of the region are small, far apart from each other and difficult to connect up. On the plus side, I’ve always found the people in Andorra to be friendly, and nowhere near as aggressive on the slopes as their French neighbours. And if you’re looking to spend some money, there is that tax free shopping.

So, why did we choose Arinsal? The answer is simple. Snow has been poor in most European ski areas this winter, and Andorra’s location makes it the most likely to have pistes open while still within our budget. When you’re a skier, you’ll chase the snow pretty much anywhere.

The other thing that I’d forgotten about Andorra until after we’d booked is the four hour transfer from the airport in Toulouse up into the mountains. I think I’ve been softened by working in Austria, where the longest transfer is two hours. We did stop for a break in Tarascon, just enough time for everyone to grab a coffee and go to the toilet (facilities on ski coaches are notorious for freezing in the winter).

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Once we’d arrived in resort, my first task was to find a shop that could wax my skis ready for the next morning. I usually service my skis myself by hand, but every few years I like to have them put through a machine so I get the best out of them. For the past ten years, every resort I have visited has only offered machine servicing. Annoyingly, the one time I actually want my skis put through a machine, I visit seemingly the only resort in Europe where the technicians like to service skis by hand. With all respect to those technicians, I could have done that myself. So, with my skis over my shoulder, I trudged up the hill, further and further into Arinsal, until I found someone who could help me. Then, we headed along to our Crystal Rep Jake’s welcome meeting where we pestered him with about a hundred questions (which I then promptly forgot all the answers to and asked him again the next day), grabbed some food, and it was time for bed and dreams of skiing.

Back on snow at long last

As you may have guessed from my change in gravatar photo, last week I got back on my skis and in the snow. Unfortunately, as a result I am once again nursing bruised ribs. Most people presume I suffered the injury during an impressive fall on my skis, or in a crash with another mountain user. But no, just like the first time I bruised my ribs 18 months ago (falling off a stationary treadmill), I hurt myself in such a stupidly simple way that only I could. I bent down to pick up my ski pole. Yes, that was all. And that small movement, which I had already carried out numerous times that morning, led to my belt and ski pants digging into my side and causing me intense pain for the past 6 days (plus quite a few more to come, I’m sure). Luckily, this ridiculous injury happened on the last day of my holiday to Pila, Italy, and before that moment I’d had an amazing week.

It felt so good to be back on my skis again, and we were really lucky with the snow conditions and weather that we had in Italy. As well as skiing Pila, I also took advantage of a ski-away day to Courmayeur. So all in all, apart from the constant feeling that someone is trying to stab me in my side with a biro, a good week. Here’s some photos to prove it.