Off the beaten piste: winter sports in weird locations

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Alpine huts, chocolate crêpes, outdoor hot tubs and gallons of glühwein. These things probably spring to mind when you conjure up images of ski or snowboarding resorts. But what about active volcanoes, African sunsets and a warming plate of rogan josh at the end of an invigorating day on the slopes? Après-ski isn’t all fondue and saunas, you know; check out 10 unlikely spots where you can enjoy the white stuff.

India

Two members of ski patrol at Gulmarg, India. Image by Julian Love / AWL Images / Getty Images.

Political instability, bears, high altitude, a heavy military presence – India’s Kashmir region doesn’t exactly sound like the idyllic ski resort of holiday brochures. But despite the issues, the hill station of Gulmarg (www.skihimalaya.com/gulmarg) in the Himalayas continues to attract a trickle of hardcore winter sports fanatics. Facilities are sparse, but do include the world’s highest runs accessible by gondola, boasting no shortage of snow (and yes, it is sometimes referred to as ‘curry powder’). The most important piece of kit you can hire here is a local guide – don’t think of venturing off-piste without one, however impressive your skiing prowess might be.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan doesn’t boast an actual ski resort just yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a little on and off-piste action.  Bamyan Province was the first in the country to establish a tourist board and one of the initiatives to entice visitors to central Afghanistan is the Afghan Ski Challenge (www.afghanskichallenge.com). The 7km race (also open to snowboarders) takes place each March and offers its adventurous participants a true taste of ‘outback skiing’. Amenities are basic as best – there are no lifts, no mountain rescue, only the most basic medical care and racers need to be totally self-sufficient.

Hawaii

A couple at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Image by Dahlquist Ron / Perspectives / Getty Images.

Adrenaline fiends can get a double fix on Big Island in winter, tackling the slopes of Mauna Kea (White Mountain) in the morning and enjoying some surf after lunch. The dormant volcano isn’t called White Mountain for nothing, but just because there’s snow doesn’t mean this is an easy slope to ski down. This is true wilderness skiing (or snowboarding), where a 4x4 is your only lift and facilities are entirely absent. The vertiginous slopes are not for novices – the uninitiated skier is better just visiting the mountain for its superb astronomical observatories or sticking to sipping cocktails on the beach. Visit www.skihawaii.com for more information.

Chile

It could be a scene from a James Bond movie: slaloming down a snow-covered peak as a stream of molten lava chases you to the mountain’s base. Fortunately, the Villarrica volcano isn’t quite that volatile, but while it hasn’t erupted since 1971, it is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile’s Lake District. It’s also the site of a well-established ski resort (www.skipucon.cl), operational in the southern hemisphere winter. Use pretty Pucón as a base for exploring the mountain’s 20 runs, which are particularly popular with snowboarders.

Greece

The typical trip to Greece tends to include sunny days and sandy beaches rather than snow-covered mountains and ski resorts, but if you visit in the winter months, there are plenty of the latter scattered about. For a country you don’t tend to associate with winter sports, the resorts are comprehensive and offer a range of runs for skiers and snowboarders. Dilute time on the slopes with a little historical sightseeing, or if you prefer to stay on the piste, you can get a taste of Greek mythology on slopes boasting names like Aphrodite, Hera and Hermes.

Mongolia

Snowy slopes in Mongolia by Einar Fredriksen. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Skiing on the steppes might seem an unlikely option, but Mongolia does boast a sole skiing resort (www.skyresort.mn), 13km from Ulaanbaatar on Bogd Khan Mountain. Beginners are well served and there are also a few runs of interest to more advanced skiers. The old ‘it’s-too-cold-to-snow’ story seems relevant here, and while you can bank on nose-numbing temperatures that plummet way below zero, the white stuff is often provided by snow cannons. While you’re in the area, don’t miss a visit to the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, a colossal sculpture of the emperor on horseback.

Lebanon

Mzaar Kfardebian (www.skimzaar.com) is by far the most popular of Lebanon's handful of skiing resorts. Usually boasting a healthy covering of natural snow, the resort is just an hour from Beirut, so can easily be done on a day trip. Skiing first arrived here in the 1960s and today Mzaar has a comprehensive selection of slopes – 42 runs in fact, covering some 80km. Downhill skiers, snowboarders and cross-country skiers can all enjoy the season from December to April.

Lesotho

The ‘kingdom in the sky’ lies entirely above an altitude of 1000m, so it seems only right that this tiny African country counts a ski resort among its attractions. AfriSki (www.afriski.net) sits at over 3000m in the empty east of the country and comes to life each June. Natural snowfall is common and machines are on hand to compensate if the weather doesn’t behave. There’s just one run, as well as a beginners’ area and a snowboarders’ park. The resort is isolated, so on-site entertainment plays an important role – think impromptu cabaret and house shooters taken while hanging upside down from a snowboard anchored to the ceiling.

Morocco 

Skiers in Morocco by jobdodane. CC BY 2.0.

Snowfall is erratic and equipment can be hard to come by, but if you’re looking for an unusual travel tale and some value-for-money adrenaline action, then Morocco’s slopes fit the bill. The main resort is Oukaïmeden in the Atlas Mountains, a mere 80km from the markets and monuments of Marrakesh. The season is short, starting in January or February and lasting until April. If snowboarding in Northern Africa isn‘t enough of a cool story, how about a little heli-skiing (where lifts are replaced by helicopter rides atop the slopes), also popular in Oukaïmeden.

South Africa

Although better known for safaris and surf, South Africa also boasts a downhill ski resort.  After extensive refurbishments, Tiffindell Ski Resort (www.tiffindell.co.za) reopened in 2013. Sitting in the Eastern Cape, hugging the border with mountainous Lesotho, Tiffindell opens to skiers and snowboarders for three months in the Southern Hemisphere winter. Boozy après-ski in the on-site pub, claiming to be the highest in South Africa, is just as much a part of the experience as a day on the main slope (and there is just one).

One to watch: North Korea

It would be the epitome of offbeat skiing and, while it seems unlikely, Kim Jong-un does have ambitions to build a winter sports resort in the Hermit Kingdom. Reports from within the country state that runs are already being constructed on Masik Hill in Wonsan, and once up and running, the 'world-class' resort will be open to foreign visitors...