Two years ago my husband and I decided we want to do mountain skiing. It seemed like a lot of fun, excitement, adventures, etc etc. We did not, however, know how to approach this new cool sport. In my imagination, I was graciously skiing downhill with my ski poles moving in the perfect alignment with my body, and my goggles happily reflecting the beautiful winter sun. However, it all turned out to be a little different from this idyll. When I tried mountain skiing for the very first time, I could hardly get off the lift, let alone do any moves on my own. I ended up skiing on the children’s slope (you know, the one you get on with a moving rubber ‘escalator’). So much for a great beginning.
So after the first humiliation had rubbed off, we decided to take things seriously and enrolled in a ski school in our hometown of St. Petersburg. The funny thing is that our ski lessons actually took place inside of a shopping center. We were basically skiing on a wet carpet that was constantly moving up. To be honest, it was far from real skiing but it was a great practice nonetheless. Well, at least we learned how to tighten our ski boots!
This season, we thought it’s high time we actually did some real skiing, in the real mountains, with real skis. We bought our own equipment and clothes. We asked out long-time skiing friends for their advice and guidance. And we finally went to a ski resort, the first one in our life - Finnish Ruka.
2-hour daylight, deer Rudolf, and Finnish Christmas
Ruka is located in the northern part of Finland, about 1,000 km (600 mi) from St. Petersburg, close to the Russian border. In fact, Russia is so close we could actually see it from the slopes. We were there during the Christmas holidays, so naturally, there were a lot of Finnish families that came there for vacation, and the whole resort was rather busy. We didn’t book in advance but were lucky enough to end up in a lovely room in the hotel called Ruka Tupa that even had its own kitchen and - naturally - a sauna. However, even though Ruka is perhaps less popular than other Finnish resorts like Rovaniemi, I do recommend to book in advance, to get the best deal and location.
The slopes are rather slight, which was perfect for our beginner’s level since we mostly stuck with green and blue. According to the map, there were some red and black slopes as well but I did not dare test them in person. Although the highest slope is only 490 m (1600 ft) high, to me it seemed like the coolest thing on earth to be able to get down, all by myself, even if it wasn’t as graciously as I had imagined.
What I also liked about Ruka is the fact that the slopes are surrounded by the trees, and one of them even passes by a deer stall where the deer Rudolf and Rosa live. I kind of find it very romantic to ski among the trees. Makes me feel a little bit as if I were free riding off the track, you know. Another great thing was all the snow that Ruka had. This was a snowless winter in St. Petersburg, feeling like moody November most of the time, so it was refreshing to see some real clean snow for once.
One of the downsides of the Ruka trip was the ski instructor that we requested from the Ruka ski school. He was of age, very friendly and amicable, but completely lacking the kind of ski teaching skills we were looking for. The most useful thing we learned from him was how to get on a lift properly. So when booking a ski lesson, try to inquire about a specific instructor, in order to take the most out of your training.
The resort location slightly works to its disadvantage as well. With the shortest days of the year, the daylight only lasted for just about two hours. It wasn’t too bad, really, but I wouldn’t mind skiing with a bit more sun to enjoy.
As you probably know, Sochi hosted the Olympics in 2014, and it was a tremendous success for the Russian team, if not the government. The amount of money that is said to have been spent on the construction was just as shocking to some as the fact that the Russians won 13 gold medals and took the first place in the unofficial team offset. To accommodate the skiing teams and tournaments, three new resorts were built - Rosa Khutor, Gorki Gorod, and Gazprom. We stayed in one of them - Rosa Khutor.
To do the government justice, the ski resort turned out great. The equipment is new and shiny, slopes will be suitable for any level from beginners to pros, and the infrastructure is quite all right, too: lots of hotels, cafes, and bars. A great advantage of Sochi is that it is located more to the north than the Alps, and the mountains are pretty high. Due to this fact, there is plenty of snow to ski: when we were there at the end of January, there was 300 cm at the peak.
The biggest downside of Sochi is that all three parts of the resort are separated ski pass-wise, meaning that you will need to have a different ski pass for each part. Taking into account that a ski pass was around 120 euro for 3 days, it comes out pricey. Uh oh, and two people can't use the same ski pass, either! The good news is that Putin and Medvedev (Russia's Prime Minister) are skiers, too, and allegedly they gave orders to restructure the resort so that people will only need one ski pass to go to all three parts of it. We'll see.
Another drawback is the prices. Rosa Khutor turned out to be super expensive: we could easily pay around 12 euro for a Carbonara when normally it costs 5. But in general, Sochi was great, and I would definitely recommend going there. It could be one of the nice alternatives to the Alps if the authorities eased the visa requirements for foreigners.
Chamonix: the heart of the Alps
When you think about mountain skiing, what place comes first to your mind? Norway, Sweden or perhaps something else?
For me, this place has always been the Alps. It's like the Alps are the equivalent of downhill skiing (although the sport itself comes from Norway). And so I was very glad when my husband's cousin invited us to join them and rent a chalet in Chamonix.
The town is located in France on the very border with Italy and Switzerland. To say the place is picturesque is to say nothing: it is stinkin beautiful. The mountains around the adorable little town with its narrow streets and Alpine architecture: I can't really explain it well enough. We rented a nice chalet not far from Chamonix, and really close to cable cars.
The great thing about Chamonix is that one ski pass allowed us to visit several ski resorts, including one in Italy and a more remote one in France, some 50 km from Chamonix. It cost around 300 euro but to me it seems like quite a fair price, given that we could ski in all the different resorts.
Another experience that is definitely worth trying is going up Aiguille du Midi, a stunning 3,842m high mountain. It can be accessed directly by cable car; some people go up there with their skis and then descend off the slope from the top. If you are not very keen on freestyle riding, try going into the balcony that is completely made of glass, so that whoever is standing inside of it, can see all the way down. They don't allow cameras or phones inside of the balcony, in case people drop them and scratch the floor. They also ask everyone to wear special slippers, in order not to damage the glass surface. Totally awesome.
One of the biggest disadvantages of Chamonix was a lack of snow. You can tell the global warming is not a joke by simply looking at the slopes. Some of them had so little snow, they actually had to shut them down. By the end of the day, because of the sun, huge bumps would form at the end of the slope, making it difficult to navigate. The snow would get wet, heavy and slippery; almost impossible to stop at times. But the view and feeling make you forget almost all of the difficulties.
Which place would I name my favorite for mountain skiing out of these three? It's really hard to tell; they are so different, and everyone has its own pros and cons. Next year we are planning to ski in Finland, Sochi, and the Alps again, so we will see.