Colin Nicholson, The Daily Telegraph, December 19, 2013
I meet her every winter at the airport – the ubiquitous woman in the spaghetti-strap top and flip-flops. And every year we part company when the departure gates are called, she heading to some far-flung beach, I to the snow-clad mountains. But this year her straw hat rested gently on my ski helmet in the intimacy of the aircraft’s overhead compartment as we flew together to Malaga, in southern Spain. It was only there that we went our separate ways for, strange as it may seem, the beaches of the Costa del Sol are just two hours from the ski resort in the second-highest mountain range in western Europe – the Sierra Nevada.
Given that we were further south than some parts of Tunisia, just how much snow could there be? Rather too much, in fact. On the pass up from Granada we were turned back by the Guardia Civil as our car didn’t have winter tyres. So we ended up briefly stranded in a small hostel in the olive groves, drinking local rioja until an enormous four-wheel-drive coupé from El Lodge came to our rescue.
El Lodge is a remarkable retreat that stands out in a resort that is a pleasant mix of whitewashed buildings with wooden balconies, modern hotels and apartments, and snow-laden trees. It is a four-storey Finnish log cabin jutting on to the piste, and if the hotel looks fit for a king, that’s not far from the truth.
Originally intended as a private residence for Juan Carlos I in the Seventies, it was bought and reopened last season by the owner of the Marbella Club, the Mediterranean resort made famous by Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor, among others.
And the taste of the sea was not far away when we dined in its restaurant on caviar, scallops and lobster, albeit under lights decorated with reindeer antlers and ibex horns made of resin. Creaking up the stairs, we found the mountain-safari theme continued in the 16 rooms and four suites. Chests of drawers had been created from travel trunks, and cow hides covered the bed, where – at 7,000ft (2,100m) – our day’s journey through olive groves, then blizzards, metamorphosed into a night of crazy dreams.
Skiing straight from the lodge on to the slopes the next morning, we were blissfully unaware that the convivial chaos of the previous day had not stopped when we woke. Drivers searched for their cars in giant snow-drifts and queues for the gondolas looped around the main square. We found a short cut to one of the two main gondolas out of the principal village of Pradollano. In half an hour we were on the roof of the world.
There are no trees above the village and a constantly gyrating radio telescope scouring the skies added to the lunar feel. But looking down the even slopes back to Earth, we could make out Granada in a huge swathe of Andalusia stretching north before us.
In the Alps, such carefully groomed slopes would have turned into motorways for fast, frenetic skiers. But here our nervous fellow skiers lacked that competitive drive. So, unintimidated, we enjoyed some leisurely runs, before reckoning that a sun-drenched lunch was in order while we waited for the queues to subside.
Back at the lodge, we tucked into breasts of duck and shanks of lamb on the sun deck, and basked in the warmth to the sound of Iberian beats. By the time we had finished, the queues had gone down, so we took the gondola to the mid-station of Borreguiles, where we had a choice of lifts fanning out across the valley. We headed to where the pistes drop down into the Valle de San Juan. Here I could ski, unguided, through the plentiful light, dry powder that is typical of the Sierra Nevada, while my partner could ski along the red runs beside me.
We toasted our exploits with sundowners back on the lodge’s terrace, as we watched the pistes glow orange, and our hands felt as frozen as the mojitos we were clutching. Later, we warmed up in the lodge’s pool, sauna and steam room before dinner, and vowed to start early the next day. We had only scratched the surface of the Sierra Nevada’s 65 miles of pistes.
It was another blue-sky day, with plenty of snow. Another, more subtle, sign told of our luck with the weather. The highest huts all wore a shock of white beard with long icicles standing perpendicular to the walls. This means only one thing – intense wind. Indeed, on the day we arrived we were told that only one of the 19 principal lifts had been open for this reason.
For our part, we enjoyed the glacial colours of windblown ice sheets in the Laguna de las Yeguas, the area over the ridge from the observatory, which, to our delight, had opened that afternoon. This is irresistible to off-piste skiers because, in a resort populated by intermediate skiers, the powder is relatively untouched.
Only one thing was missing. I had been told that from the highest skiable point at 11,000ft (3,300m) you could see the sea. But with the lifts about to close, all we had seen to the south was a cauldron of bubbling cloud. My legs were dead, yet we pushed ourselves to make the lift one last time. And at the top, we saw in the distance a curious light, its twinkle strangely familiar, yet out of place. The mist suddenly parted to reveal the shining, shimmering Mediterranean, where the woman in the spaghetti-strap top was doubtless sunbathing.
British Airways offers return flights to Malaga from £78 in economy, departing London Gatwick, and from £476 flying Club Europe from London City. The return fare with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) starts at £93. Argus offers seven days’ car hire from about £25.
Where to stay
The Marbella Club offers a Ski and Sun package with two nights at El Lodge and two nights at the Marbella Club from €910 (£770) per person, based on two sharing and including breakfast, use of the golf course (handicap required) and one transfer between the two properties, but not flights and other transfers. Small Luxury Hotels of the World offers a seven-night package to El Lodge from €2,135 per person, including breakfast, but not flights or transfers.
A six-day lift pass costs from €212 (£183). See sierranevada.es . Skiset offers six days’ ski and boot hire from €67.42. The British Ski Center offers individual lessons from €38.54 per hour and group lessons from €145 per person.
Where to eat
MC Grill: Despite its name, the restaurant at El Lodge serves excellent fresh seafood, not just meat. Calle Maribel 8, Monachil.
Ruta del Veleta: This restaurant offers fine dining in the nouvelle cuisine tradition. Edificio Bulgaria, Calle Pradollano.
Casablanca: Wood-lined bar-cum-restaurant known for its fine-quality meat. Edificio Impala, Plaza Pradollano (958 480830)
Other options for ski and sun
Mount Etna, Italy: Sicily’s famous volcano has two small ski resorts, Piano Provenzana (with one piste) and Rifugio Sapienza (five pistes). Both are 90 minutes’ drive from the seaside resort of Taormina. The best months to ski there are January and February.
The Cedars, Lebanon: Beirut, with its Mediterranean beaches, is a two-hour drive from this, the best known of the six ski resorts in the Mt Lebanon range and a favourite of the architect Zaha Hadid. Its 2,000m elevation means the season is relatively long here: mid-November to late April.
Serra da Estrela, Portugal: Three hours’ drive from sunny Lisbon is this ski resort, with nine pistes. It’s very good for learners and intermediates. February is usually the best month for snow.