Exotic skiing

Where to go skiing off piste and off the beaten track.

You have done Whistler, descended the pistes of Gstaad or slipped into your lycra on the slopes of Japan's Nagano resort. So where next? Here's our pick of places to ski if you want to silence dinner party guests with your very off-the-beaten-piste exploits:

Lebanon

Marketed as the Middle East's foremost ski resort, Faraya-Mzaar does not show any of the hallmarks of the 20 years of internal and external conflict that near-ravished the Mediterranean nation. What Faraya-Mzaar does offer is a truly continental alpine resort in one of the most unlikely of places.

Nestled on the side of Mount Lebanon, Faraya-Mzaar is 40km outside of the cosmopolis of Beirut and can be reached by car within one hour and fifteen minutes. Upon arrival the prospective skier will be greeted with 42 slopes of all magnitudes and over 60km of tracks.

While beginning a descent from the resorts top elevation of 2465km, skiers can gaze at other summits in the Lebanon Mountain range that cascade into the Bekaa Valley and if weather permits, tender a view of the Mediterranean Sea crashing into the shores of Beirut.

Those also angling for some Lebanese culture to go with daily pilgrimages on the pistes will not be disappointed. All of the tiny country's most renowned relics are no more than half a day voyage. The close proximity of the Greek and Roman ruins of the Fagra and Baalbeck Archaeological Site One make for essential viewing.

Skiers that have grown accustomed to the finest resort lodging will be pleasantly surprised by the five-star accommodation at Faraya-Mzaar. The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Intercontinental Hotel Mountain Resort and Spa Mzaar. Around 65km from Beirut airport, the resort boasts over 130 guest rooms and 20 suites of all persuasions. It has three onsite and two offsite dining establishments, a 24-hour bar as well as the Crystal nightclub. Hotel San Antonio and Auberge Swiss also have strong reputations.

The resort's apres-ski includes over 25 bars, and restaurants. The famed Casino du Liban is a mere 35 minutes drive from the resort. Reopened in 1996, the luxury entertainment complex is now complete with a 750-capacity showroom and the exclusive Salles Prives room that caters to those needing VIP therapy.

Russia

Judging by the emergence of a new Russian upper class, it was inevitable that the country would produce a burgeoning ski industry as it ditched the hammer and sickle. Within the Caucasian chalk circle of Southern Russia, the Black Sea resort of Krasnaya Polyana has emerged as the pre-eminent choice among a growing class of Russian skiers, which include its athletic president, Vladimir Putin.

An hour's drive from the immensely popular and exclusive Black Sea resort of Sochi, Krasnaya Polyana has been anointed the nexus of Russia's bid to rival the Swiss Alps and personally described by Putin as "the future Russian Davos." The President could well be right, as Russians have long refuted Mont Blanc's claim to be Europe's highest peak, suggesting it is in fact the motherland's own Mount Elbrus, which is also turning into a lucrative ski destination.

Unless staying downhill at one of Sochi's numerous resorts is more to your liking, the best access to the slopes is gained by staying at the Radisson SAS Lazurnaya Peak Hotel.

At 550 feet above sea level and situated in the middle of the Caucasus Mountains, the Radisson SAS allows guests access to spas, indoor swimming pools, Turkish baths and those infamous Russian saunas, among other services. The hotel's lodging too presents numerous options for the prospective skier, with 10-luxury villas on-sight and a separated presidential villa for VIPs. The hotel is also fully equipped with a fine selection of Russian and international restaurants, a nightclub and bar that serves up the finest in domestic vodka.

First class apartments around the mountain can also be rented through agents for between $185-220 per night.

Daily tickets at Krasnaya Polyana are seemingly another advantage over its glitzy counterparts, costing around $10 for a daily pass and $60 for a weekly. Rentals of new equipment will also set you back $10 per day.

As one of the area's few non-glacial terrains, the wind influence of the nearby Black Sea means that pistes with vertical drops of between 800 to1100m are remarkably smooth. With a season that that peaks between mid-January and May, the more daring skier has the option of partaking in one of the five daily heli-rides that generally last an hour.

A huge influx of cash and continental know-how is flowing into the region and this is likely to be a destination for those who like to gloat about being one of the 'first' to go to what is sure to become an internationally-renowned resort.

Bolivia

Bolivia's Chacaltaya resort holds claim to two of the skiing world's more prestigious honours. Peaking at 5,620m, it is not only the world's highest lift-served ski resort but also collects the title of the ski resort closest to the equator. Closed in the Southern Winter due to blistering gales and torrid snowstorms, Chacaltaya is only accessible on weekends and is best skied between November and March.

Outside of Argentina and Chile, the Bolivian resort is the only other recognised ski resort in South America and has the somewhat dubious claim of boasting the oldest and fastest lift on the continent. Tours are generally arranged from La Paz and lift passes are $4.

The adventurous are dropped 150m below the summit where Lake Titicata can easily be viewed, along with Bolivia's capital, La Paz.

Although several pistes exist, skiers are encouraged to jet down the main run, the Pista Central Slalon, but are also repeatedly warned to plough before the bottom as the run feeds into a cliff.

Given its altitude, Chacaltaya is unexpectedly not an advanced course. However, intermediate skiers are recommended that only highly experienced skiers normally tackle the resort due to the rarefied air.

The resort's only lodging is extremely spartan but the 30km proximity to La Paz means that most skiers will recover in the hotels of the world's highest capital city. Five-star hotels are abundant in La Paz and the city is indicative of Andean culture, with the immortalised San Pedro prison tour a uniquely Bolivian highlight.

La Paz's Hotel Europa offers facilities such as an indoor pool, jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish baths and massage services to quell the ache of bones and ligaments. Further unwinding and gastronomic indulgence can be found at the onsite El Solar rooftop restaurant or accompanied by a dry martini or spot of maize at the Le Balcon piano bar. Rooms are priced between $90-$355 for overnight stays.

Another lodging option is Hotel Presidente, where suites start at $185 per night. The hotel also sports two restaurants, a whisky bar and plenty of health amenities to guide the exhausted skier down from the searing heights. According to Bolivia's geographers, Chacaltaya may not be around in 20 years due to hasty glacial movement, which suggests plentiful bragging rights for skiers of all persuasions.

Finland

Largely unknown outside of Northern European spheres, Finland's Levi and Yllas resorts attracts skiers and apres-ski revellers who want to parallel turn above the artic circle. Both resorts are among the nation's biggest ski draw cards, and close enough to each other for the ski-mad to check out both.

Yllas is the more classic resort with a history that dates back to the 1930s and is home to Finland's largest ski runs. It is also extremely well equipped to deal with an influx of skiers and enjoys one of Europe's longest seasons, which runs between October and May.

The optionality of the resort also caters to all skill levels and skiing codes, with 43 downhill slopes, off-piste skiing and 320km of cross-country trails available. A day pass costs €27.

A definite upside to the Yllas experience is the accommodation and entertainment. Completed in 2003, The Hotel Yllas Saaga has cemented its reputation with natural stone spas and VIP saunas. During peak season, prices range between €120-160 for a double room, which includes use of spa and health club facilities.

With a private sauna in every room and private apartment, Hotel Yllaskalto is a tempting proposition to the skier who has successfully dominated Yllas' forbidding slopes.

Levi, Finland's newest skiing mecca is 40km from Yllas and consists of 45 slopes, 21 lifts and 8 slope restaurants. Experienced skiers will also be lured by the opportunity to tackle the World Cup slope that climaxes on a 52-degree angle and also to hit one of 12 floodlit pistes for night skiing. Daily lift passes are €26.

On paper, Levi's K5 Hotel clearly provides the best accommodation option for skiers accustomed to the finer resorts. Suites range between €259-275 per night, while twins should cost you between €108-169, and all rooms come equipped with satellite TVs, DVD players and private saunas.

The onsite apres-ski is not shabby either. With a "Northern lights" bar, wine cellar and a la carte restaurant where skiers can feast on reindeer, fowl and bear, the archetypal ski lifestyle can be easily achieved at K5.

Both resorts are within 40km of Kittila Airport, which is directly connected to Helsinki, and Paris and Zurich during the ski season.

Turkey

Palandoken ski resort is large enough to seriously contend for the Winter Olympics in the not too distant future.

Located in Turkey's Northeast and 25km from Erzurum Airport, Palandoken has established a reputation as one of the nation's three most popular resorts and the most akin to a European one. Easily connected by plane through Istanbul, Palandoken presents the keen skier with over 40km of pistes and several five-star hotels to unwind in.

With a season that lasts over 150 days (10 December to 10 May), allows the chance for one last swoosh before the incoming Summer. The altitude of the skiing area begins at 2200m and descends 900m down the mountain. Suitable for all levels and temperaments, Palandoken veterans point to the seldom-found powdery snow as a major draw card.

Others routinely note that the abundance of high quality of accommodation, apres-ski delights and relative proximity to the archaic city of Erzurum are the resort's major selling points.

A stone's throw from the runs, the Polat Renaissance Erzurum has all the properties of an up-market ski resort, with a distinctive Turkish flare. Naturally, Turkish baths are in no short supply but the hotel does have the distinctive advantage of being one of the few places where you can ski by day and by night smoke a hookah and gaze at belly-dancers. Other dining experiences include an onsite patisserie, vitamin bar and an array of bars/lounges and nightclubs. In the peak skiing period, doubles will cost no more than €130, less when May approaches.

With Kremlinesque architecture, the four-star Palan Otel is a more than adequate alternative.

For the truly adventurous

For those skiers who snigger in the face of danger - both on and off the slopes - a prolonged period of bragging rights can be guaranteed in any of the following ski resorts.

A resort that is gradually luring skiers back to the lush Himalayas is India's Gulmarg. Since conflict in Kashmir erupted and continued sporadically, India's skiing class have routinely eschewed the macabre region in favour of the gentlemanly resorts in North America and Europe. The nuclear declarations of India and Pakistan didn't help business either.

Founded in 1927 by two British army officers as the Ski Club of India, Gulmarg enjoyed immense popularity in the pre-independence era with an atmosphere to rival Europe's alpine skiing's golden age of the 1940s and 1950s. In today's glory days, those game enough to venture to one of the world's highest lift-served ski resorts can partake in Heli-skiing, stare down the face of a 1550 metre vertical drop and, weather permitting, play 18 holes on the world's highest green golf course (2732 metres above sea level).

However, the majority of both domestic and international skiers may still have a significant problem with the clearly visible Indian battalions and the fact that Gulmarg is situated 25km from the line of control.

Although not officially a military hot spot, jet-setting alpine afficionados have been slow to recognize Iran's emerging ski resorts. Situated about 100km North of Tehran and established by the former Shah in 1969, Dizin is the playground for Iran's nouveau riche and is among the 40 highest resorts on the planet.

As a result of the Islamic revolution in 1979, the governing authorities deemed the sport as indicative of Western decadence and closed the doors until the Ayatollah, a noted sporting doyen, decided to promote the slopes. The restrictions on dress code and sex segmentation still exist for Iranians, but the few foreigners brave enough to tackle the bureaucrat-laden resort are generally exempt from such policies.

Those foreigners hitting the pistes of Dizin are generally known to lodge at one of Tehran's four or five star hotels like the Azadi Grand Hotel or Esteghlal Grand Hotel. Hotels around Dizin are widely described as sub-par tenements. Dizin does have the advantage that none of your friends are likely to have skied there and may end up choking on their gluwein as they lose to this ultimate trump-card of one-upmanship.

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