If you want to build a world-class ski destination from scratch, first find yourself a decent mountain with varied terrain and reliable snow cover. Track down unlimited funds, proven know-how and a passionate patron from the political world stage. I skied in Krasnaya Polyana this week and it has all these ingredients. Where? I hear you ask. The name doesn’t trip off the tongue like Val d’Isère or Whistler. But that will change in a fortnight’s time when the Alpine World Cup comes to Russia.
As Didier Cuche and co kick out of the starting gate in the men’s downhill on February 11, television viewers in Alpine countries and North America are in for a treat. They will get the first glimpse of the new resort being developed for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Crystal Ski has jumped smartly on the bandwagon and with Turkish Airlines is offering holidays here. It hopes to develop a niche business as Krasnaya Polyana develops into what I see as an attractive alternative to North America. It has comparable skiing – and can be reached in half the time. Prices on the ground are similar to those in France.
For compelling commercial reasons, new ski resorts are rare. In the short term, they lose money. The last one built with international pretensions was Kicking Horse in Canada, which has failed to realise its moneymaking potential and was sold in December by its Dutch owners for an undisclosed sum.
But this is Russia. Vladimir Putin – whether prime minister or again president next month – is a passionate skier and the power behind the project. He is acutely aware in global PR terms of the importance of a triumphant Games. It is happy coincidence or cunning planning that the election takes place soon after the World Cup, which will be seen not just around the world but by millions of potential voters.
Putin has sanctioned the construction of four new resorts here, close to one another. In theory, they will one day be linked to form a Caucasian Trois Vallées of the East, with 200km of pistes and superb off-piste opportunities. However, local politics is likely to play a role: the resorts have separate lift passes and rivalry is intense. A single lift is required to link the two biggest – as it was between Pas de la Casa and Soldeu in Andorra, whose authorities took 30 years to agree on a joint pass.
Sochi itself is a seaside, not snow, destination. It sprawls for six miles along the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, close to Georgia, with palm trees, beaches and echoes of Biarritz and Bournemouth, and lies an hour from the resorts by road, though this will be cut to 25 minutes when a rail link is completed. It has an international airport that allows it to be the hub of the Games, just as Vancouver was in 2010. All the ice skating will take place here, in a 12,000-seat stadium.
The city has undergone radical change since its Soviet-era role as a summer R & R camp for factory workers. I stayed at the Grand Hotel Rodina, built in neoclassical Stalinesque style and reopened as a five-star property with subtropical gardens and spa.
But it is the development of the skiing that is more remarkable. Krasnaya Polyana is the region where the four resorts are being built. Until last year it had three tired double chairlifts at the resort of Alpika, which is closed for the construction of the bobsleigh, skeleton and luge courses. Now there’s a clutch of gleaming gondolas and high-speed six-man chairs at the other three.
By far the most developed and appealing is Rosa Khutor, venue for the men’s and women’s downhills, plus the other alpine skiing events. It’s evolving so fast that they haven’t printed a proper piste map yet. The number of lifts is increasing monthly. So far there are 38km of pistes, served by a three-stage gondola and five other lifts. By 2014 there will be 18 lifts and the groomed terrain will have doubled in size.
I confess I expected to find yet another Eastern European resort, at best a turbocharged Borovets. The lifts would be new, but the terrain and village adequate rather than exceptional. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
So far the village is a shell, with no shops or restaurants yet apart from the rental outlet, which offers spanking new Salomon boots and skis. But it’s an attractive shell, reminiscent of Les Arcs, Tremblant and Whistler. This makes sense because the Russians enlisted the French Compagnie des Alpes (CDA), the world’s largest ski resort owner, to oversee the development. CDA has close ties with Intrawest, which built Arc 1950 along with the two Canadian resorts. Strangely, the Disneyesque architecture looks comfortable and reassuringly familiar in its Russian setting.
A metre of fresh snow softens the image of work in progress, with earth-moving machines and concrete mixers churning around the clock on both banks of a rock-strewn stream. Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut, used to fish for trout here in pastoral tranquillity. Today, I can’t imagine he’d catch more than a piece of plastic sacking or a strand of electrical cable. Supposedly, traditional wooden buildings once stood here, but all that remains is one ancient windmill.
The three-star Park Inn, where I stayed, is the first of nine hotels to open. Teething problems apart, it makes a sensibly-priced base from which to explore the skiing – all 1,720 vertical metres of it. On paper this gives Rosa Khutor more top-to-bottom skiing than Whistler, Tremblant or Val d’Isère – although for now, the first of the three gondola stages has no piste back to the resort, so in real terms the drop is 1,150m. Sweeping down perfectly groomed pistes or through fluffy powder, it’s easy to imagine you’re in the West.
But unexpected sights bring you back to reality – such as girls tottering around on the snow in 5in stilettos and slinky outfits only otherwise seen in Courchevel 1850 or in Russian fashion magazine.
Then there is the security. Never before have I been through a metal detector before getting on a lift. Putin’s chalet enclave adjoins the five-star Grand Hotel Polyana in the neighbouring resort of Gazprom, setting for the Nordic events. Putin was in St Petersburg during my visit, but his pal, the president of Belarus, was enjoying lavish hospitality at his expense. The hotel was closed during his stay and it’s not uncommon for a whole resort to shut down during a VIP visit. Visitors from abroad who come for heli-skiing pray Putin will have engagements elsewhere, because when he visits, a 50km no-fly zone is enforced. Foreigners are advised to carry their passports at all times.
However, my advice is that Krasnaya Polyana is well worth a visit before the Games. For now, stay in Rosa Khutor or Gazprom, but in future the adventurous should consider the fourth resort of Gornaya Carusel (Mountain Carousel), which has some of the most challenging skiing and sensational off-piste terrain. There’s a gondola in place and a similar vertical drop to Rosa Khutor, but the pistes are limited until next season, when there should be some 80km of completed runs.