The Swiss ski resort of Laax offers quiet pistes, impressive freestyle opportunities, chic architecture and a hipster vibe. Rosie Fuller investigates.
“Of course older people can freestyle,” says ski instructor Basil Weber. “You just need the motivation… and to not be afraid.”
The ski resort of Laax, just a couple of hours from Zurich, is described as one of Switzerland’s best-kept secrets. It’s well-known and popular among the Swiss, but barely heard of in the UK. In particular, Laax is a top destination for freestyle skiing – the sort of skiing that involves halfpipes, rails and impressive aerial stunts. With four snowparks aimed at freestylers of all abilities, from beginner to pro, and the world’s largest halfpipe, Laax has won the World’s Best Freestyle Resort for the last two years at the World Ski Awards.
I’m determined to prove Basil right, that freestyle isn’t just a sport for the kids. But standing at the top of my first ever box – a hard-plastic feature that you ski on to, slide along and jump off when you reach the other side – my motivation is replaced by terror, even though Basil has talked us through the techniques for overcoming the obstacle: weight forward, skis parallel, focus on where you want to end up. When I finally go for it – slowly – the buzz is amazing, and I immediately go back to try it again with more confidence.
If you aren’t tempted to try any tricks, there’s plenty for the regular skier at Laax too. The resort comprises the villages of Flims, Falera and Laax itself, with a lift pass connecting all three, offering 225km of pistes, from wide, sweeping reds and blues, to tougher blacks and marked off-piste runs. The highest point is the Vorab Glacier, at 3,018m, and 70% of slopes are between 2,000m and 3,000m. Lift queues are rare – the pistes were wonderfully clear on our January trip, despite near-perfect conditions – and at busier times, locals recommend heading to the quieter Grauberg lift, where you can access some of the best red slopes on the mountain, including a pretty, winding, tree-lined run down to Flims base station.
The resort feels modern, hip and carefully designed – a refreshing change to many resorts I’ve visited in the past. Starting high, the Galaaxy summit station at 2,250m, a focal point for skiers throughout the day, was refurbished for 2018, and has been transformed from an unattractive concrete building with a canteen-like eatery, to a funky restaurant that offers locally sourced food, as well as healthier options like salads and smoothies. Its new white and grey camouflaged exterior blends in with the scenery, and upstairs there’s a working space called The Bridge, with meeting rooms and a small cinema, so you can hold a business event in the morning and hit the slopes in the afternoon.Back down in the villages, we stayed at the Riders Hotel, which has also been given a facelift and reopened in its current form at the end of 2017. Formerly a hostel with uninviting dorms, it now welcomes families and couples to its chic, minimalist rooms. There’s a well-stocked gym, yoga on Fridays and vegetarian three-course evening meals at weekends. With regular live music and a funky nightclub in the basement (you can’t hear either from the bedrooms), there’s a youthful, hipster atmosphere. If you prefer traditional luxury, try the Waldhaus Flims Alpine Grand Hotel and Spa, offering a selection of 4-star and 5-star rooms, three restaurants, two bars and an expansive spa area, including indoor and outdoor pools, a sauna, a steam room and a new 24-hour fitness studio.
Eating is exceptional, both in the resort and up the mountain. For a unique outing, have supper at the Gondelhalle when the Travelling Restaurant comes to town. The Gondelhalle stores gondola cars over summer, but for a few months every winter it’s transformed into a restaurant, with a different theme each year. 2018’s offering sees brightly coloured décor that even features a slide, as well as fairy lights and candelabras on the tables. The five-course dinner, with choices including steak tartare and lobster bisque, is delicious. The restaurant moves on in March, and when it returns for 2019 it will be completely different all over again.For something more traditional, a short, torch-lit walk up the hill from Laax base station takes you to Tegia Larnags, a rustic, cosy restaurant offering Swiss specialities like rösti and fondue. The stroll back down helps work off all that cheese. And for fine dining out on the mountain, have lunch at Ustria Startgels, a couple of lifts above Flims, where dishes such as polenta or grilled meat are cooked over an open fire, and the wine list is extensive.
After my success on the box, my freestyle ambitions broaden. I tackle a kicker – the freestyle word for a jump – in the beginner’s snowpark, gaining a few inches of air that take my breath away. We even have a go on the world’s biggest halfpipe, skiing a small way up its daunting seven-metre-high walls, and leaving even more in awe of the freestylers who jump that height again as they perform flips and spins on the way down.
And the freestyle doesn’t finish on the slopes. Laax’s indoor Freestyle Academy has trampolines and training jumps where skiers and boarders (as well as skateboarders) can practise tricks. For the biggest buzz of the holiday I attempt a ski jump on to a giant airbag, skiing down a huge ramp made from a prickly, doormat-like material. You only need to be an intermediate skier to give it a try, and bragging rights to friends back home are enormous once you have.
Laax is an excellent ski destination to add to the list. Transfer times from Zurich are short, making it a good option for a weekend trip too. If you’re looking to try something a little different with your skiing, or have kids that want to do some tricks, the freestyle element is a bonus. It’s also a leading resort when it comes to the environment. Laax’s eventual aim is to become the world’s first self-sufficient alpine destination, and with temperatures in the Alps rising faster than average because of global warming, other resorts should be – and are – taking note of its many green measures.
The only thing the resort lacks is traditional après ski. There aren’t bars blaring out cheesy Euro-pop tunes, where you can neck a few beers before dancing on the tables in your ski boots. But the peace is welcome, and you can still get that post-slope beer – it will just be somewhere quieter, more hipster, and altogether more Swiss.
Flights: Swiss flies directly to Zurich from many UK airports including Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester.
Transfers: Hotels can organise transfers but there’s little need as public transport is so smooth. Take the train to Chur, and then the waiting connecting bus to Laax. See www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk