Can’t make it to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi? Create your own competition by trying the coolest events in the world’s best spots.
It’s the Winter Olympics at its most mentally chilling: Lycra-ed figures in oversize skis hurtling down jumps, launching off at 90km/h, dangling mid-air, then landing safely (hopefully) on the slope below. These must be the bravest (or daftest?) athletes at the party. So join them! Utah’s Olympic Park, near Salt Lake City, hosted the 2002 games. The paraphernalia’s still there, with expert coaches to guide squeaky-bummed beginners off 2m-high jumps – or higher, if they dare. If not, the Extreme Zipline starts at the top of the K120 ski jump, so amateurs can experience the thrill (and terror) of making the leap.
Admission to Utah Olympic Park is free; paid-for guided tours run daily.
Lake Weissensee may have the only skating academy based on natural ice, but it’s not necessarily a good place to learn. After all, it’s tough to concentrate on your double salchows when you’re surrounded by such scenery: a seemingly endless frosted mere, largely untouched by tourism development and hugged by the Gailtal Alps. Distracting, to be sure, but this is the ultimate place to skate. From mid-December until early March, the 6.5 sq km lake freezes over, an ice master supervises the circular rinks (up to 25km long) and everyone from hockey players to horse-drawn-sleighers enjoys a super slide.
Lake Weissensee is 120km from Klagenfurt airport. The nearest train station is Greifenburg, 12km away.
Bobsleigh, Lillehammer, Norway
Bombing down a bobsleigh track, reaching speeds of 120km/h and facing forces of 5G really looks like something you should leave to the experts. But in the small town of Lillehammer – Norway’s oldest winter resort, on the shores of Lake Mjøsa – they’ll let almost anyone have a try. The 1994 Winter Games were contested here, and the 1710m-long Olympic bobsleigh run is still open for action. Tackle its turns like a pro in a four-man bob (with a pilot), or opt for a rubber bob-raft, which still hits 100km/h. In summer, wheel-bobs negate the need for ice.
Lillehammer is 180km north of Oslo. The bobsleigh track is at Hunderfossen, 15km outside of town.
Toboggan, Cresta Run, St Moritz, Switzerland
Crazy men on planks of wood have been hurling themselves down Switzerland’s Cresta Run since 1885. This historic toboggan course is 1.2km long, carved afresh from the Engadine Valley’s ice each year and using the landscape’s natural contours to twist, turn and plunge 157 vertical metres to the hamlet of Celerina. The course record (from top to bottom) is a frightening 50.09 seconds; beginners brave enough to try must start from the Junction, one-third down. The skill is in balancing speed and technique, using special raked boots to brake and steer round the corners – without coming an icy cropper.
Cresta Run (www.cresta-run.com) is open Christmas to late February. Riders must be over 18 and male – women aren’t allowed.
Ice hockey is the official sport of Canada. Indeed, the Canadians invented it in its current form in 1875. So no wonder they’re pretty good – and maybe a little obsessed. Experience this adulation in Toronto: visit the Hockey Hall of Fame to see a lot of memorabilia, get close to the famed Stanley Cup and shoot against a virtual goalie. Then try to get a ticket for a Maple Leafs match, to watch the breakneck brutality in action. If you fancy having a go yourself, hire a stick and skates at any public rink and join a game of ‘shinny’ – hockey’s more civilised relation.
Plan your visit on Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame site (www.hhof.com).
Great Britain doesn’t win many Winter Olympic medals. So when the Women’s Curling Team came home with the gold in 2002, the nation got excited, even briefly obsessed by this slippery sport (think bowls on ice, with sweeping). The champs all hailed from Scotland, undoubtedly the place to give it a whirl: the Royal Caledonian Curling Club has taster sessions, which teach basic stone and broom skills. For further inspiration, the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame at Edinburgh’s National Museum displays the ‘stone of destiny’ – the rock that clinched victory for the GB team.
Royal Caledonian Curling Club runs ‘Try Curling Sessions’ (www.royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org).
There are bigger slopes, maybe even better ones. But do they have snow monkeys, hot springs and locals with a fondness for playing with fire? The deep-powder pistes at Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, so the area has pedigree – and 35 resorts close by, dumped with lots of snow. But it’s more than that. Stay at the ancient village of Nozawa Onsen to ski by day and warm up by night – either at its 13 sotoyu (free public baths) or its Dosojin Fire Festival, an official ‘Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property’, where men of 25 or 42 flame-fight everyone else.
Trains run from Tokyo to Nagano (90 minutes); Nagano to Nozawa Onsen takes 75 minutes by bus. Dosojin is held on 15 January.
Snowboarding, Wanaka, New Zealand
Want the Winter Olympics to last all year long? New Zealand’s slopes offer excellent boarding action from June until October, the perfect complement to a snow season spent in the north. Four mixed and marvellous ski areas ripple out from the lakeside town of Wanaka: beginners’ favourite Cardrona; cross-country-focused Snow Farm; Treble Cone, for keen off-pisters; and Snow Park, for half-piping, freestyling fiends. Better still, take your board aboard a chopper to access the biggest heli-ski area outside North America – the powder is untouched, the gradients intense and the views spectacular.
In Vermont, the hills are alive with the sound of swooshing. Just outside the charming old village of Stowe sits the Trapp Family Lodge, home of the legendary Von Trapp family singers (immortalised by Julie Andrews and co in The Sound of Music). The real-life clan emigrated here in 1950, bringing an Austrian love of cross-country skiing with them. In the 1960s their Alpine-style retreat became the first Nordic resort in the country; now, 100km of trails – groomed and back-country – criss-cross this pretty patch of New England mountain and forest. It’s enough to make you burst into song...
Come winter, the Rideau Canal – which wends right through the Canadian capital – turns into the world’s largest skating rink. When the mercury plummets to a consistent -10°C or less (typically January– February), a 7.8km stretch of the canal, from the Parliament Buildings to Dows Lake, becomes a-glide with Ottawans. It’s a fairy-tale way to view the city. And there’s no need to rush – while you could speed-skate for Olympic exercise, it’s better to take it gently, stopping frequently en route: stalls selling hot chocolate are set up right on the ice-encrusted channel, so you needn’t even unlace your blades for a brew.
Capital Skates (Mackenzie King Bridge) and Dows Lake Pavilion offer skate hire, Monday to Sunday, 9am/10am–10pm.