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Monday, February 4, 2013
As the birthplace of Alpine skiing and an early home to snowboarding, the Swiss canton of Graubünden has long been at the cutting edge of winter sports. Mark Shields visited the resort of Laax, where innovation is a tradition.
It was nearly 150 years ago that Alpine skiing as a tourist attraction was first proposed – and like so many of history’s great ideas, it all started with a bet.
St Moritz hotel pioneer Johannes Badrutt struck a wager with four of his English summer guests to return for the winter of 1864: he would pay for their return to London should they not enjoy it, or extend his hospitality to them indefinitely if they did.
The Englishmen, so the story goes, did not leave until Easter.
Forward-thinking though he was, it’s hard to imagine that Herr Badrutt could have envisaged the future for his home region of Graubunden and, in particular, Laax, lying over the peaks to the west.
Laax was one of the first resorts to see the potential of snowboarding in the mid-1980s, seeing its counter-cultural appeal for a new generation of winter sports fans, and still enjoys a reputation for innovation as one of the winter capitals of the ever-expanding freestyle scene.
But this is Switzerland – meaning that behind the bohemia is a clockwork operation that leaves nothing to chance.
After a two-hour flight from Zurich and a 70-minute riverside journey on Switzerland’s famed railways, we arrived in Chur, the country’s oldest city, for a 45-minute bus transfer to Laax itself.
In the UK, planning a journey involving three modes of transport and allowing just minutes for transfer is usually recognised as the first sign of madness, but the Swiss integrated transport system’s fate-tempting posters – ‘Imagine a country where public transport is always on time’ – were as good as their word.
That seamlessness of operation was to become a theme of the trip.
Situated in Graubunden, the largest of Switzerland’s six cantons, the main resort at Laax is nestled at 1,100m on the side of the Grison Alps.
The mountain is owned by the Weisse Arena Group, which also owns all of the lifts, hotels, restaurants, ski rental shops and ski schools you are likely to use during your stay.
The intention is to make it a one-stop shop, the work of a single mind designed to remove the hassle and inefficiency from that most potentially uptight of down-times – the family ski holiday.
And for the majority of the time it works.
Anyone with first-hand experience of the willpower needed to raise, dress, equip and deliver children to early-morning ski lessons will appreciate the sheer logical simplicity of the resort’s design.
Our accommodation for the weekend, the Hotel Signina, was 50 metres from the main piazza around which huddle the majority of Laax’s bars, cafes and restaurants, the new RocksResort apartment complexes and the main lift up the mountain.
You can hire equipment from the foot of the lift and store it there overnight in the heated lockers, meaning your usual morning cargo of ski boots, poles and skis is replaced by a single locker keycard.
That coordination gives the resort a cosy feel, and means the quality remains high throughout.
The facilities complement rather than compete with each other, affording a few adventurous touches – how many ski resorts can boast Asian fusion restaurants in the league of Nooba, serving pad thai in the snow?
Innovation and luxury abounds: from Porsche-designed chair lifts (the fastest in the world), to lift passes you can buy on your mobile, from the fantasy characters teaching children about their surroundings in their ski lessons, to the bar with the 1,000-bottle wine list.
That uniformity, of course, will not appeal to all and the downside of the lack of competition means that a holiday in Laax is unlikely to be your cheapest option, particularly with the strength of the Swiss Franc.
There were times when I felt a pang for the chaotic hustle and bustle that is so often part of the best holidays abroad.
But that is not to say there’s not character in abundance: a moonlit hike to the Swiss chalet-style Tegia Larnags restaurant, serving up rich, golden fondue from its hiding place deep in the snowy firs provided the most atmospheric moment of the weekend.
After an Alpine speciality like that, it’s only right to get home, as the locals do, with a spot of night-tobogganing. Eating too much cheese can have that effect, I find.
But all of this is just the background to the real attraction, which you discover only when you’ve strapped on your boots, fastened goggles and risen high above the clouds.
The 235km of slopes are enough to keep skiers of every ability challenged, with runs spread across so many peaks that the crowds are dispersed quickly and calm is restored to the majestic views across the valley.
But it’s when you turn your back on the piste and feel the knee-deep powder or the sheer blank walls of the half-pipes that you begin to get a feel for what sets Laax apart: the freestyle.
And the beating heart of freestyle in Laax is the 2,228-metre-high Crap Sogn Gion: featuring four snow parks, 90 obstacles and Europe’s biggest half-pipe.
Next week, Laax will hosts the 14th Burton European Open, drawing 300 of the world’s finest freestylers to inspire holiday-makers, like me, of more humble talents.
The resort is an ideal training ground for those whose ambition sometimes overshoots their ability – freestyle guides will show you the ropes and have you grinding rails and boxes within a morning.
Pristine swathes of the mountain are safety-checked daily – but left untouched – meaning skiers in search of adventure can venture off-piste without needing an expert’s eye for snow conditions.
It’s a powder playground, on the grandest scale.
Given that backdrop, it might seem strange that the undoubted highlight of my weekend came in a converted tennis hall by the side of a main road.
The Freestyle Academy is an adrenaline junkie’s dream, the first facility in Europe to combine a skate bowl, kicker ramps and a dry slope ski jump – the Big Air – all under one roof.
Designed as a year-round training facility, it sees pros rubbing shoulders with beginners as mountain bikers, scooter riders and bladers line up alongside skiers and boarders for a chance to launch themselves through the air into the foam pit.
The friendly coaches cater for everyone – dare-devil children can try the Flying Ants class, learning to trampoline before most can walk – and after an hour-long induction (and signing the obligatory disclaimer), I was left to explore the centre for myself.
As an experienced skier but freestyle novice I was wary initially, but the course builds your balance and coordination step-by-step, and it wasn’t long before I was hurling myself enthusiastically into the foam.
By the time I had hauled myself and my skis to the top of the Big Air, a small queue but impatient queue had formed behind me.
Watching a boy of no more than about 12 – a graduate Flying Ant? – steel himself and tip off down the sheer drop was enough to galvanise me too, and it was all I could do to keep my skis straight and my lunch down as I plunged towards the base of the jump, before being tossed up and deep into the pit.
Despite two days of picture-postcard skiing, it was that moment in Laax that will stay with me the longest – managing something that had previously been out of reach, and discovering the thrill of the new.
Departing the Alps with a sense of excitement and achievement, I think I know how those first guests of Herr Badrutt might have felt.
This might just catch on.