Grab a piste of Olympic action in Russia’s Sochi
Next month’s Winter Olympics in Russia – where Chemmy Alcott will compete for Great Britain — are not without controversy. There could be protests over Vladamir Putin’s anti-gay laws and there are fears of violence from neighbouring Islamist insurgents, but once all the medals have been handed out, intrepid skiers will find no shortage of challenges some 36 miles north of Sochi on the Black Sea.
The main skiing mountain is Rosa Khutor where all the Olympic downhill and snowboarding events will be held. From its peak, the vertical drop down to the end of the lowest run is a creditable 1380 metres. Admittedly, the variety of pistes on which you can make this descent is fairly limited, ranging from a steep, thigh-burning black, to a series of long, intermediate-level runs.
The state-of-the-art gondolas and four chairlifts were all working flawlessly when I was there. The pistes, groomed to corduroy at the start of each day by spanking new snowcats, are lined with artificial snow-making machines.
When I stopped at a piste-side café serving tankards of frothy lager while belting out Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ from enormous loudspeakers, I felt as if I could have been at one of Austria or Switzerland’s snowiest small resorts. Better still, the slopes were as crowd-free as the most exclusive mountains in the Rockies.
The scene was similar down the valley in Gazprom Laura (named after the energy giant, a major investor). The cross country skiing will be held at this smaller resort, which also has some pretty impressive slopes for downhill – as might be expected since this is where Putin has a large, opulent chalet of his own.
I also spent a day skiing a third mountain, Gornaya Carusel, where the Olympic ski jump has been built. Only a few runs have been cut out of the forest, but I found some fabulous off-piste, with chutes and bowls of thigh-deep powder. On another descent I swished along beguiling trails through forests of deciduous birch and beech trees, their bare branches blasted by wind and snow into monster-like natural sculptures.
Most of the tourist accommodation is in Rosa Khutor village. I stayed at the four-star Radisson Park Inn, a 220-room four-star hotel at the heart of a Disneyesque confection of baroque facades and gilded roofs, not to mention a bizarre Venetian bell tower.
My room faced the River Mzymta, along whose icy banks a fast, efficient and futuristic-looking train whisks passengers up to the mountains from Sochi airport.
A quick word to Putin here: Make things a bit easier would you Vlad? Getting a Russian tourist visa is infernally complex, not to mention expensive. Nor are there any direct flights to Sochi. I went on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.
But the Olympics will undoubtedly put Krasnaya Polyana on to winter sports map. Make a note of it for a different kind of skiing holiday.
Nothing quite beats the thrill of whizzing down the same pistes as the world’s greatest skiers.
And when you realise that here in the Krasnava Polyana mountains there was no resort at all only seven years ago, it makes the experience even more arresting.