Time Out discovers that a weekend on the pistes is within your reach
As winter-ravaged holidaymakers flock to the Middle East to lap up the sun, those already living here dream of swapping the yellow stuff for a bit of white. But can you leave your desk on a Thursday evening and be on the ski lifts by morning? Read on, book your seats and don’t forget your scarf.
Lebanon Think ‘Middle East’, think desert, camels and palm trees. But who thinks deep powder snow? Once the winter arrives, the region’s wealthy young things have little else on their minds. With flying times from Bahrain as short as one hour 50 minutes, you can be on the pistes before dinner is served.
Ski Just over an hour’s drive from Beirut lies Mzaar, a ski resort established in 1957 that now boasts 80km of ski tracks and over 42 trails ranging from 1,850m-2,465m. The highest point offers one of the most spectacular views you’ll find in Lebanon – on a clear day you’ll spot the Bekaa Valley, Laqlouq, the Cedars and the coast, all from one point. The Mzaar’s wide laidback blue and red runs are perfect for beginners and intermediates and even the absolutely inept will be cruising by the end of the week. The runs may prove a little tame for the more advanced, but there are challenges to be found off-piste or on the peaks of Mzaar, Jabal Dib and Warde. It is always advisable to hire a guide from one of the ski schools to show you new tracks and offbeat areas; don’t get overconfident – pride comes before a neck-breaking fall.
For the non-skiers in pursuit of a more cosmopolitan atmosphere in the snow, Mzaar is famous for its goings on, après-ski and sometimes hedonistic New Year parties. The clientele – mostly Lebanese and Arabs, many of them fabulously wealthy – seem to save their energy for the après-ski on the terrace of La Refuge restaurant, located within the InterContinental Mzaar, which backs onto the slopes. And for those of you that love to pose, people watch and enjoy the sunshine, it’s the place to come for the day, weekend or season; you’ll almost forget that you have a job to get back to.
Stay The InterContinental Mzaar (www.ichotels-group.com) is the most luxurious hotel in the area, with real ski-in and ski-out services and a direct connection to the slopes. The views of the mountains are jaw-to-the-floor stunning and there are all the bells and whistles (gym, pool, restaurants etc) you’d expect from a five star, plus a fair few surprises, including a bowling alley, game zone, cinema and hair salon. Standard rooms start at around US$230 (BD84.5) a night.
A far cannier alternative is a small, intimately run chalet, bed and breakfast or self-catering option, but these tend to get booked up well in advance. Of these, the Merab (www.merabhotel.com) is an attractive and intimate three-star family-run chalet hotel situated in the heart of Mzaar. Recently refurbished, the place offers singles, doubles and suites with a kitchenette. Doubles start from around US$110 (BD40.5) per night.
Eat & Drink There is a diverse range of cuisine: Lebanese, French, Italian, international and various ‘alpine specialities’ are all well represented. If you’re eating on the mountain then you are limited to the InterContinental’s offerings (and the associated price tag), but eating in the village tends to be a more informal affair. If you’re feeling trendy, try Igloo, which serves grilled meats, salads and appetisers during the day and transforms into a club after midnight. For something more seasonal, La Fondue does exactly what it says on the tin.
Season The season runs from the end of December to mid-April.
Pay Bahrain Air flies from Manama to Beirut for BD112. Visas can be bought at Beirut airport. Lift passes start at US$31 (BD11.4), US$56 (BD20.5) at weekends. Gear rental shops are scattered along the highway as you ascend to the resort, with plenty more concentrated around Faraya village and Mzaar itself.
Ski No, we aren’t mad. Yes, it can be done. (Although there are obviously restrictions.) Iran has two high-standard ski resorts within an hour’s drive from Tehran – Dizin and Shemsak – both of which boast excellent facilities and breathtaking views. Dizin is a little more than 40km from Tehran, and can be reached by car in just over an hour – arrange a driver when you book your hotel. It’s huge, too, with as many as 23 separate runs, 12 chair lifts and three gondolas.
The resort caters to all levels, with intermediate and advanced routes snaking down from Sichal Peak, Mount Damavand (3,550m), intertwining with the beginner routes about halfway down. Locals are known to take the lift straight to the top, taking the main runs down to the restaurant area and pitching up for the day, so many of the alternative pistes are wonderfully quiet if you will but explore.
The extraordinary sight of people skiing in full local dress may not be new to some, but newcomers be warned: recording the scene for posterity is likely to cause upset. Iran, as you might have heard, is a tad sensitive. Ski lifts are segregated, women may be asked to cover up, and it goes without saying that après-ski beverages are limited to strongly brewed espressos.
Stay If you need proof of the resort’s aspirations, look no further than the hotel tariff list. Hotel Dizin, situated just next to the lift station, starts at US$75 (BD27.5) per night, swiftly escalating to US$250 (BD92) at the top end of the scale. It’s not a wonderful place, but it’ll keep you warm, and the staff bend over backwards to make you comfy. For something a bit more local, a rural cottage can be had in Dizin Village for a more manageable US$60 (BD22). Everything can be booked via www.letsgoiran.com.
Eat & Drink Food options are limited, though the local variation of KFC (SFC) will thrill those who like to live on the edge.
Season The season runs from the end of November to mid-May.
Pay Gulf Air flies between Manama and Tehran for BD180. Visitors should make sure their passport is suitable for travel to Iran. Checking with the Iranian Embassy in Bahrain (17 722 400) beforehand is a necessity. Gear rental is available from the resort and a lift pass costs US$10 (BD3.6) per day.
India Ski There’s certainly no reason why you couldn’t be on the Himalayan slopes by mid-afternoon on Friday. Jet Airways fly from Manama to Srinagar around 10pm, arriving (after a stop in Mumbai) at around midday. From there it’s a short drive to Gulmarg, a jewel of a resort set in the Himalayas.
Skiing the Himalayas sounds like the kind of thing you might attempt in the opening moments of a 007 movie, but the deep powder snow at Gulmarg has been sculpted with a nation used to dust and heat in mind. Perfect for Bahrain dwellers, then. A complete day of lessons can be had for as little as Rs250 (about BD20 – the cheapest in the world?), with a couple of nursery slopes nestled on Gulmarg golf course, and there’s great Facebook fodder to be found in hiring a pair of mid-’70’s wooden skis (read: planks) and being dragged around by a ‘ski-wallah’. Intermediate snow hounds will be happier around the gondola’s mid-station, a mound known as Kongdori, which can get as crowded as a Bollywood gala, while anyone born with a board at their feet will enjoy risking an Everest-sized pratfall on Mount Apharwat (a mere 4,125m), which also boasts the world’s highest gondola station. With the longest run trailing 6.5km, you can ski the roof of the world and never once get bored. Jai ho!
Stay Nedous Hotel (www.nivalink.com/nedous), next to the resort golf course, works up a cosy welcome from Rs3,000 per night (about BD24), without board. The staff are excellent with children and renting your own snow-bound cabin (from Rs4,500/ BD36) is an adventure in itself. Elsewhere, Hotel Highlands Park (also run by the Nedous family; www.hotelhighlandspark.com) is something of an institution, having held its ground since the mid-’60s. It’s also one of the only places in town to indulge in a bit of après-ski. Double rooms start from Rs7,000 (BD56) per night.
Eat & Drink Gulmarg is not known for its nightlife, but revellers will inevitably find their way to Bakshi’s restaurant, a slightly beaten-down joint given to throwing impromptu parties at a moment’s notice. It does serve great food, and being one of the only nightspots in town, it’s nothing if not busy. Season The season runs from mid-December to mid-April.
Pay Jet Airways flies from Bahrain to Srinagar, via Mumbai, (prices vary - check with the airline). Visas need to be obtained in advance from the Indian Embassy (17 712 785). Gear rental is available around the village and daily passes to the top of the gondola are around Rs1,200 (BD9.5).
Ski Currently, flights into Kazakhstan don’t quite fit the weekend schedule, but if you’re looking for three nights on the slopes midweek, Chimbulak, 25km into the hills surrounding Almaty, has some novice-friendly skiing and a snow park designed for boarders.
The best time to head into the hills is midweek – the locals are strictly weekend snow freaks, so you’ll find the slopes virtually empty. Things to bear in mind at Chimbulak include an unfortunately high chance of mist and a particularly high chill factor – the pistes are naturally shaded by the peaks for most of the day. With the longest run at a little over 3.5km, the resort is great for a couple of afternoons, but by the third day you might be looking for something to do in the city itself – we recommend hitting the market. Stay The resort has its own fairly dowdy hotel, but with the city a brief drive away you might as well play the field. At the top of the pile, the InterContinental (www.ichotelsgroup.com) is only one of a handful of plush ‘new’ hotels in the city. The rooms are suitably inviting and the service is top rate. You’ll pay for it, however, with rooms starting at US$391 (BD143). It’s about 4,000 tenge (BD10) return trip for a 30-minute taxi ride to the ski lodge at Chimbulak from the hotel.
Eat & Drink When in Almaty, eat like a herder. Local dishes are heavy on the flesh (horse and wild goat in particular). Both these meats are prominent on the menu at the popular Gakku restaurant on Nikitina Street.
Season The season is officially open between October and May, but things may look a bit bare before the end of November. Pay Etihad flies to Almaty via Abu Dhabi for around BD320. Visas can be obtained from the Kazakhstan Embassy in Abu Dhabi (+971 2447 6623). Lift passes can be had for 4,000 tenge (BD9.7) during the week, and 5,000 (BD12.1) over the weekend. Gear rental is available at the resort.