In hindsight, perhaps it was a little foolhardy, but I blame it all on giddy enthusiasm.
On our first afternoon at Club Med’s latest ski resort – gleaming snowboard, and brand-new boots in hand – the notion of waiting until the following day to join a snowboard class was more than this snow-virgin could stand. The long flight via Paris and Turin was a distant memory and all I wanted was to get my board stuck into some powder.
Which is how I found myself standing atop a dangerously steep red slope that first afternoon. The slope scraped down to speed-inducing ice; a beginner’s piste this was not. The fact that I’d never held a snowboard before, let alone strapped one securely to both feet and pushed off down a hill seemed irrelevant.
“If in doubt, fall on your arse,” advised my wise, but equally novice, snowboarding buddy as he pushed off into thin air. Oh so helpful.
But there was bravado and bragging rights at stake; I couldn’t exactly ride the lift back down, now could I? So I ignored the prospect of the next day’s lessons and threw myself down the slope, making up the finer points of staying upright as I went along. It wasn’t glamorous, it probably wasn’t very safe, but it was a heck of a lot of fun.
And ski holidays are undoubtedly an avalanche of fun, particularly when they – like this one – take place in one of Italy’s most famous ski domains.
Set in an amphitheatre of snowy slopes, Pragelato Vialattea is the newest offering from the Club Med group, and is its first ski resort built in the style of an Alpine village. The pitched roofs and winding pathways of this spread out resort marking a welcome change from the monolithic tower blocks that scar mountainsides across the Alps.
That’s not to say this is a small resort. Pragelato Vialattea has over 200 rooms, but because they are grouped into clusters of snow-capped chalets, the effect is of charming village, not busy resort.
I’ve never really been one for resorts – preferring the trials, tribulations and occasional adventures of solo travel to the packaged product – but when it comes to ski holidays I reckon it’s all about the slopes.
Green slopes, red slopes, black slopes; virgin powder and well-groomed pistes. You’re not there to meet the locals and soak up the culture, to seek out cosy eateries and hang about in the village square. You’re there to ski or snowboard, finish and klaar.
And on that front, Pragelato Vialattea is perfectly positioned.
As our first full day dawned with 30cm of fresh powder on the ground, by 9am there was already a queue forming outside the Pragelato ski lift. One of the selling points of this new resort is that there’s a ski lift just a few steps from your chalet, and a gentle blue run meanders right back to the heart of the resort. Ski in, lift out; what a pleasure.
Boards stowed and a bumpy cable ride later, the lift deposited my snowboard partner and I, emboldened by our death-defying descent the previous day, into a white wonderland. Below us lay the village of Borgata – little more than a few small restaurants and a handful of lifts – and beyond, the pistes of Vialattea.
Vialattea – in case your Italian’s a little rusty – translates as ‘Milky Way’, and with over 400-kilometres of ski runs it is a paradise for anything snowy. Perhaps no surprise that this region was the heart of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.
We boarded down to Borgata, our unpractised thighs yelping in pain already, and then hopped a chair lift to above the bustling ski town of Sestriere. For those with a slightly less cavalier approach to learning to ski and snowboard, Sestriere is where Club Med offers the ski lessons included in the package price.
Instructors are readily available – and probably advisable – and the range of runs in and around the village caters for everyone from green-slope beginners to black-piste professionals.
Boarding, and falling, our way past the lessons we opted for a telecabin to the windy summit of Mount Fraiteve, towering above Sestriere at a decidedly chilly 2700 metres. From the summit, a range of pistes lead down to the popular village of Sauze d’Oulx, while further afield lifts and runs snake over into France allowing you to ski and snowboard into Claviere and Montgenevre and back to the resort in a single day.
We didn’t make it as far as France, but on my second day on the slopes – perhaps emboldened by my death-defying DIY snowboard lesson – I made it down from Mt. Fraiteve and through thigh-deep powder slopes back towards the lifts of Borgata. Back up to 2500 metres and down steep icy slopes to the top of my last run of the trip: a three-kilometre gentle piste through pine forest and back into the heart of the Club Med resort.
After six hours on the slopes, we were done. Happy, but exhausted. Tired, hungry, thirsty and ready to get out of clothes caked in crushed snow, we had had enough of the slopes for the day.
Which is why I might have been wrong earlier. A ski holiday isn’t all about the slopes. Because unless you have the skills and stamina to spend 12 hours on the mountainside, chances are your burning calves and tired arms will drive you back to the village by mid-afternoon.
And right about then you don’t want to be stuck in a dingy apartment with a small kitchen for self-catering. You want a cold beer, a hot bowl of pasta, perhaps a shaving of good local Parmesan and – later – someone to rub down your aching limbs.
At that moment, stumbling into the warm embrace of the La Trattoria restaurant, I was rather happy to be in a resort. No wandering the town trying to find a restaurant in my price range, no scratching around for Euros and converting back to rands. Club Med resorts are all-inclusive, so it was as simple as taking a table, ordering a drink and choosing a meal.
And meals were perhaps one of the pleasant surprises of my visit. With space for upwards of 700 guests, I expected food at the resort would be about quantity, not quality. Happily, I was wrong.
While Il Piemonte is the resort’s more formal restaurant that’s popular in the evenings, La Trattoria is ideal for lunch between and after runs. Styled as an informal delicatessen and eatery there’s a casual selection of fresh pasta, pizza and antipasti boards. As you’d expect for Italy, the Parma ham is exceptional.
Sated and refreshed, there were still a few hours left in the day before dinner, and I joined a number of other weary skiers heading straight for the Club Med Spa by Payot.
It’s a stylish spot with treatment rooms set away from the central heated pool, and picture windows letting in mountain views of distant peaks dusted in snow.
However, I traded the views for a massage and the restorative steam of the Turkish hammam, and readied my tired legs for dinner.
My snow-capped cabin was just a short walk away, the beds had been made and a lengthy dinner was in the offing. For a first-time resort holidaymaker, and a snowboarding virgin to boot, I was a convert on both fronts.
For more on Club Med Pragelato Vialattea, visit www.clubmed.co.za or call 0860 258 293.