Sloping off

Get ready, get set, ski! Kaye Holland heads to the Italian Alps to lose her skiing virginity 

It’s the middle of winter – the time to stay indoors and hibernate, right? Wrong. According to my ski aficionado friends, this is the moment to wrap up, stride out and hit the slopes. Only somehow – a tad embarrassing this -  I’ve reached the ripe old age of 33 and never been on skis.

This is partly because I always thought of skiing as a ridiculous wallet emptying exercise (when you factor in prices for ski passes, boots, accommodation and food, ski holidays can be bankers’ bonus expensive). It’s also partly because when winter rolls around and Europe is shivering under a dark blanket, I’m all about jumping on a plane to place where the sun is shining, the sand is the colour of icing sugar and cocktails are flowing. And it’s definitely down to the fact that I have never found the thought of skiing and all that it entails – read struggling into deeply unsexy thermals and balaclavas – much fun.

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But travelling should be about new experiences, correct? So, inspired by the Sochi Winter Olympics,  I decided that 2014 was the year that I would, GULP, give skiing a go. Subsequently one Wednesday in February, I made my way to Limone Piemonte (also confusingly, called the Riserva Bianca).

Never heard of it? Prepare for that to change. Located approximately a 90 minute drive south of Turin,  Limone Piemonte is late out of the tourism starting gate and doesn’t attract the constant influx of skiers that Courchevel and Cortina do. But we can probably all survive a skiing trip without bumping into the Sloane rangers… Limone may be something of an overlooked  skiing land, but it’s one worth acquainting yourself with if you want character and local charm  – rather than inflated prices.

A good night’s sleep at the Grand Palais Excelsior – a gorgeous alpine resort that runs like clockwork  - saw me awake excited yet with a certain amount of fear and trepidation in my heart, about making my debut on the slopes.

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First though I had to be fitted out with skiing boots. Beginners, be warned: the boots are heavy, hard to put on and can hurt. (Three weeks down the line, I’ve still got welts on my calves from where the boots cut into my skin). It was a bit of a faff to be honest – so much so that I did briefly wonder whether skiing would be worth the effort (great expectations always leave me as disappointed as Miss Havisham).

Happily, however, it was. My fab instructor – the saintly Claudia Trova – soon had me snow-ploughing down the beginner friendly slope and (the charmer!) declared me “a natural”. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but I did quickly find a rhythm and felt pleased with my progress – namely that I never fell (I had expected to spend a considerable amount of time on my ass).

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For me personally, the most challenging part was mastering the ski lift – getting on and off is tougher than it looks. But it was worth it when I reached the summit and was instantly rewarded with views of blue skies and towering white mountains. I felt, quite literally,  on top of the world.

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Image courtesy of Rob Freeman

I had arrived in the Riserva Bianca  feeling frazzled, with work worries on my mind. But after my first morning swishing through perfect  powdery snow, I could barely recall my boss’ name – yet alone the deadlines and to do-lists I had been concerned about.

And after a couple of hours in the Grand Palais Excelsior’s lovely spa  later that afternoon, I had forgotten all about the office. Following a relaxing session  in the sauna and steam room, I felt rejuvenated and ready for the evening ahead (apres ski is an important part of any ski trip, I’m told.)

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There’s not a great deal to do in Limone Piemonte at night but eat, but then that’s arguably the attraction of the place. The hearty Italian food I enjoyed at Il San Pietro  was just the tonic after a long day on the slopes. However if the fabulous five course meals have you fearing for your waistline, panic not: you are after all burning up calories skiing. Or at least that’s what I told myself as I munched my way through a basket full of delicious breads. The wine list at Il San Pietro (Limone is a region famous for its wines) is a further pull and sommeliers are on tap, to help you navigate the extensive menu. But patrons who prefer beer or spirits won’t be disappointed either (Italians like to have a good time and more often than not this involves a strong drink).

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The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur but the next morning after a croissant and large cappuccino (note: do not make the mistake or ordering a cappuccino after 11am, , as one of our group did, as it’s considered the height of bad form), I was ready to get back on the slopes – this time at the Mondole ski district.

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Image courtesy of Rob Freeman

The mountains here are undoubtedly beautiful and there’s a huge variety of slopes (although only experienced skiers should tackle the tricky black slopes and off piste terrain). However frustratingly after a few runs, we were hit by a blizzard and forced to seek refuge at Rifugio Ristorante Il Rosso (+39 335 6071010).

Here we buoyed our spirits over polenta and Prosecco, swapping stories of our skiing escapades before weaving wildly down the slope to the Stalle Lunghe Residences – aka our accommodation for the night. Sadly the in-resort customer relations at Stalle Lunghe  still leave a lot  to be desired but a final dinner at the fabulous Osteria Le Stalle restaurant (+39 347 8009641) had us smiling once more.

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Our friendly, not frosty, waitress revealed that while the Riserva Bianca is best known as a winter destination, it’s actually a location for all seasons. Visit in spring and you can witness nature emerging from its slumber. Visit in summer and you can hike and bike along the miles of mountain trails. Come in autumn and explore the charming small town or simply enjoy the quiet of elevated territory. And if you find Limone Piemonte a tad too peaceful, the city of  Turin – with its wide selection of elegant shops and the famous Turin Shroud – is within easy day tripping distance. Bottom line? The Riserva Bianca is, I thought after a few glasses of heavenly Italian wine, the kind of place where I wished I had a vacation home.

If you’re still questioning “Chalet or shan’t I visit?” then consider this. Yes times are hard and money is tight but life is short too and having found my ski legs, I’d say that there’s no better way to embrace winter than by hitting the slopes at the Riserva Bianca. I’m going back next year.

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Image courtesy of Rob Freeman