Skiing in Niseko (Hokkaido) in April

Having been regaled with many tales of glorious skiing in Hokkaido (both before and since our arrival in Japan), we were keen to experience it for ourselves at the first opportunity. School broke up for the Easter holiday on 31st March when many of the resorts are already closing down, but at the beginning of March the snowfall had been good enough that Grand Hirafu in the Niseko area expected to be operating through to the Japanese Golden Week holiday in early May and so we took the gamble and booked a trip.

It was a good decision. The flight north to Sapporo was an easy 90 minutes, made more comfortable by it being a wide-bodied aircraft with 9 seats across. Collecting a hire car was also straightforward, in the sort of we have a process, and that process has been designed to cope with foreigners way that probably becomes frustrating when you have been here a while, but for which I am still new enough to the country to be grateful for. The car turned out to be essential, both because the cheap transfers from New Chitose Airport are winter-only, as well as to get between the four different ski areas (Hirafu, Annupuri, Niseko Village and Hanazono). During the main season there are high altitude ski links as well as a shuttle bus between the areas, but both had finished for the season. Luckily our car was upgraded to an SUV which allowed our rental skis to fit in too. It is worth noting that only Hirafu is a proper village with independent restaurants and shops, the others are just ski areas with few other services. In particular Niseko Village is confusingly not a village at all: it is just a collection of car parks to allow access to the lifts, and a large Hilton hotel!

Our first day on the slopes was a perfect blend of skiing through soft snow in warm sunny conditions: I had been worried that the start of spring would mean skiing on slushy-ice but actually the volume of snow here means that even when it gets a bit warmer, the snow gets denser and claggier, so it is like skiing through buttercream not ice-skating. There are a reduced number of runs available as the snow recedes in certain areas, especially lower down, but the slopes are also practically empty, so it has proven a great opportunity to have a relaxing few days of enjoying the tremendous scenery in the sunshine, exploring the different ski areas and practising techniques.

On and off the slopes, it feels like we have travelled to a different country, not just a different island within Japan! French ski resorts are busy, bustling, places squeezing as many people and buildings into whatever space the geography permits—not unlike Tokyo—but here the village has a car-centric, low-density, feel. The large number of international visitors also means that café and restaurant staff all speak excellent English, contributing to the feeling of this being an easy and relaxing holiday. The two Australian-style cafés in Hirafu village has also given us a chance to enjoy a wider variety of western-style food (and coffee!) than we have found in Tokyo—a welcome taste of home after two months away.

On this Day: Samoëns 2020

January 2020—a month late for “On this Day” but I wanted to try out the newly release Luminar Neo and realised I had never posted any photographs from this trip.

First impressions of Luminar Neo upgrading from Luminar 4 are that it is a completely new program and consequently as a 1.0 release there are a number of features from Luminar 4 are not implemented yet. There is also (yet another) new interface which will take some getting used to. Skylum have promised frequent releases so I expect the gap will close shortly—for now I will be sticking with Luminar 4.

Val Thorens

Fresh snow every day made for an awesome ski holiday, albeit we are now completely spoiled for future trips! The constant snow fall did mean poor visibility every day except the last, but the snow was so soft there was plenty to ski anyway.

The last day did gift us with photogenic blue skies and bright sunshine, which was just the icing on the cake as we explored off-piste areas with untracked waist-deep powder.

Val Thorens, at 2300m, is the highest ski resort in Europe. Part of the Three Valleys ski area, it also had a good party atmosphere—this was definitely a fun holiday. Low visibility and high winds meant we did not make it over to Meribel and the rest of the Three Valleys, but with snow this awesome we did not feel we missed out on anything!

Whistler Magic

Flying ten hours to a ski resort when there are so many within a couple of hours seems like a bit of an odd thing to do, but Whistler has something of a reputation for being superior to the best Europe can offer and I was keen to find out what all the fuss was about.

Downtown Vancouver from the Lions Gate Bridge

So was it worth the flight time? Undoubtedly the answer is “yes”, for many, many reasons. The first thing that strikes you that everything is incredibly well organised—from the hotel shuttle buses, to the lift queuing systems which all have dedicated lines for ski schools and single riders to ensure no seats go unused during busy times. The next thing you notice is that while the resort is pleasantly small—everything you need is within easy walking distance—the ski area is huge with nearly 200 varied trails including tree runs and glaciers. The runs are divided between two mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb) but both are accessible from Whistler village so transferring between the two is quick and easy; next year there will also be a gondola linking the two mountains.

Other highlights include the general friendliness and welcoming nature of everyone we met (although the majority of the resort staff seemed to be British or Australian, Canadians were a minority!), the free mountain tours (really useful given the sheer number of pistes!) and those of us taking lessons universally agreed that the ski instruction was superb. Although the brochure indicated that groups could be as big as 10 people during busy times, we were lucky enough to never be in a group of more than five, all of very similar ability. Highly recommended.

Balkan Skiing

Last year I learned to ski at the Bulgarian ski resort of Pamporovo. It was great: lots of snow mixed with some gloriously sunny days, and fun nights out. Pamporovo is quite a small resort though, and by the end of the week we felt we had exhausted the runs suitable for our level, and the night life was limited to two good places. We were impressed by Bulgaria though: excellent value for money, very modern/new resorts and equipment, and very beginner-friendly, so this year we thought we’d go to Bansko which has a lot more runs than Pamperovo, and as a new resort built around a 1000-year old, World-Heritage Site small town, would offer a little more character in the evening.

Continue reading “Balkan Skiing”

Winter Holidays

I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to take up skiing! We’ve just got back from a fabulous week of skiing in the Bulgarian resort of Pamporovo. It was a lovely resort for our group of beginners—still a little “up-and-coming” in many ways, but at least it had some charm which I hear is lacking in many ski resorts. The Hotel Zora was also excellent: only 3-stars in terms of facilities (it had no swimming pool or jacuzzi) but the rooms were pleasant, clean and modern, and the food wasn’t bad either. The nightlife was a little disappointing: we had a lot of fun as there were some nice bars with cheap drinks and dance floors, but sadly they were often just a little empty.

The obligatory photos, taken by myself and Seán.