Welcome to Sochi in the North Caucasians, an entirely alternative Olympic setting to either the Alps or the Rockies – or anywhere else. But first need to get to grips with the local geography.
Sochi is a seaside resort, the Russian answer to the Cote d’Azur that snakes for 60 urban miles along the Eastern shore of the Black Sea, close to the Georgian border. The bustling town is a sort of Russian Bournemouth or Biarritz complete with palm trees, beaches and fin de siècle buildings. Importantly, it also has an international airport –
But Sochi its critics say that Sochi is not a ski resort. No, but then come to that, nor were Albertville, Turin, Calgary, or Vancouver. Technically it would be perfectly possible for France to host a winter Olympics from Nice, so no reason why Putin couldn’t do it from his own seaside. Up in the mountains, there’s snow.
The mountains rise steeply from behind the lake, and a brand new ski area was developed entirely for the Games. Astonishingly, the Russians developed the region of Krasnaya Polyana – 25 miles away – by building three ski resorts almost from scratch.
High-speed rail and road links have cut the journey time from Sochi to the ski resorts to just 25 minutes. Of course, it’s only been possible because of the bottomless patronage of president Vladamir Putin, who is a passionate skier. He has a palatial home in Gazprom, the smallest of the four resorts. His regular visits may explain why this is the only ski area we’ve ever come across where you have to go through a metal detector before boarding a gondola.
Krasnaya Polyana is the area where the resorts have been built. Think of it as a Russian Trois Vallees (although they’re still an awful long way from joint marketing). The separate resorts are located within a few minutes of each other, but all have separate lift passes. In theory, with a total 200km of pistes and superb off-piste opportunities, they should by now have joined forces. However, rivalry between the resorts 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.
Until recent years the only skiing here was served by three ancient double chair-lifts at the resort of Alpica which has now transformed into the resort of Gornaya Carusel (Mountain Carousel), with 20km of pistes and three-stage gondola. But the real joy here is the exceptionally challenging and enjoyable off-piste.
Now there’s a clutch of gleaming gondolas and high-speed six-man chairs scattered across Krasnaya Polyana. Most developed player is Rosa Khutor, venue for both the men’s and women’s downhills, as well as the all the other Alpine skiing events. There are 18 lifts and 80km of piste rising to 2320m, and the architecture resembles a mix of Les Arcs, Whistler and Tremblant. This figures, because the French Compagnie des Alpes, the world’s largest lift company, was given the task of developing the slopes and the village – and it had a hand in all of the others. What their French technicians have managed to create is a world-class resort with a vertical drop of 1150m.
The terrain isn’t ideal for beginners and, although the ski schools have decent reputations, not all the instructors speak English. But sweeping down the 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 five-inch stilettos and slinky outfits only otherwise seen in Courchevel 1850 or in Russian fashion magazines.
Where to Stay
You can stay in a choice of nine hotels in or near the ski areas, including the smart Dolina 960 located in the Gorky Gorod shopping mall at Krasnaya Polyana. We stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson at Rosa Khutor, which makes a good base from which to explore the skiing – all 1720 vertical metres of it. On paper this gives Rosa Khutor more top-to-bottom skiing than Whistler, Tremblant or Val d’Isere.
It’s also possible to commute from Sochi itself. Grand Hotel & Spa Rodina is the leading hotel in the city and its best room is the Ralph Lauren suite, combining classic style with ethnic ornaments and the latest in technology. Hyatt Regency Sochi has 200 bedrooms and suites, a spa and swimming-pool. All of this is a far cry from the Sochi of the Soviet era, when it was a summer holiday destination for factory workers.
The region is hoping that its time in the spotlight will have lured international holidaymakers for the future. Eventually it will provide up to 90,000 hotel beds and has a target of five million annual visitors by 2020.
While rich Russians are a familiar sight in resorts such as Courchevel and St Moritz, only 2% of the Russian population has ever put on skis. Sochi hopes to change that by developing its domestic market, but it seems unlikely that large numbers of skiers from the main Alpine countries will make the long journey.
Those of us used to skiing in the Alps and North America will be in for a culture shock. Much of the food is quite stodgy, there’s a lot of processed meat and eating out is expensive. But on the plus side the skiing is world-class, rental shops stock the very latest equipment, and be sure to visit the local spa, the British Banya, where signature treatments involve lying on a stone slab while being beaten by birch twigs, meditation inside a smoke-filled wigwam, and being boiled in the Russian version of a hot tub: a giant cauldron suspended over an open fire. The fire-and-brimstone apres-ski couldn’t be more different from the Alpine experience.
The 2014 Olympic Winter Games were held at Rosa Khutor on the Aibga Ridge, with the Nordic events at Psekhako Ridge. See also our features on where to get an Olympic buzz, the top Olympic skiers of all time, and The Top Female Olympic Skiers of All Time.