Skiing in Switzerland: Allison Pearson learns to cross-country ski in Pontresina

imageIf you don’t learn to ski in your youth, every year it gets harder to take the plunge, says Allison Pearson. But the self-proclaimed ‘scaredy-cat Mum’ found her ski legs in the Swiss resort of Pontresina.

To be honest, I was not the most promising candidate for midlife skiing lessons. “But, darling, you’re scared of heights and you hate falling over,” Himself pointed out when I suggested we spend last February half-term in Switzerland. He had a point, but I was not going to be deterred by anything as irritating as male common sense.

A friend had told me that the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina was heaven on earth. I was emerging from a rather tenacious depression and I hoped that skiing could clear my head. I craved the grandeur and the stillness of the mountains. I wanted that silver air in my lungs. I had visions of myself as Audrey Hepburn in Charade, swathed in sable and sipping a hot chocolate in a café on the glittering slopes waiting for Cary Grant. Clearly, I felt a powerful attraction towards the après part of après-ski. All I needed now was to figure out the ski part. And not fall over.

If you don’t learn to ski in your youth, every year it gets harder to take the plunge. By the time I got to university, the skiers I met were invariably black-run cowboys with stories of limbs snapped like Toblerone. I was invited to join several chalet parties in my twenties, but I didn’t fancy the idea of myself as the only adult on the nursery slopes being condescended to by five-year-olds, in French.

I didn’t think about it again until I had children of my own. By the time mine were 11 and 14, they were clamouring to go on a family skiing holiday. Their plan was that scaredy-cat Mummy could tuck herself up in the hotel with a good book and a glass of glühwein while Evie, Tom and Daddy spent exhilarating days on the slopes.

The alternative was that scaredy-cat Mummy could conquer her fears and learn to balance on two lolly sticks while falling off the side of a mountain. Thank God, there was a third way.

Pontresina, a picture-book village tucked just around the mountain from imperious St Moritz, turns out to be one of the best places in the world to do cross-country skiing – or langlauf as it’s known. It has 130 miles of tracks beside frozen rivers and through forests. Downhill skiers look down, quite literally, on skiing on the flat, considering it to be dull, middle-aged and generally lacking the excitement of falling down the side of a mountain on lolly sticks. To me, it sounded perfect: unlikely to induce a hospital visit, plus it turned out to have magical weight-loss properties, but more of that later.

The first best thing in a week full of wonders was the railway journey from Zurich to Pontresina. We paid a little extra to travel in a glass observation car at the front of a red train that was Changing-of-the-Guard smart. It licked over the mountain passes and, as we climbed higher and higher, against the shimmering escarpment of snow we caught sight of a flick of its scarlet tail coming around an earlier bend. Only in Switzerland could a train be both on time and orgasmic.

The Grand Hotel Kronenhof is another sight guaranteed to lift the heart. A fairy-tale wedding cake set on the frosted hillside of the village of Pontresina, the hotel is as beautiful inside as the landscape is without, which is a bit like saying Monica Bellucci and Sophia Loren are both attractive women. A first glimpse of the 1872 salon, with its delicate painted ceilings and gilt-curlicued furniture, and my child-friendly alarm started shrieking. Uh-oh. How many antiques were there for the Small Boy to kick over in here? Mercifully, although the hotel has a neo-Baroque grandeur, it is relaxed and cheerful rather than prissy and uptight.

We were shown to two pretty, spacious interconnecting rooms on the first floor, overlooking the Roseg Valley glacier. As we drank in the panorama, the Small Boy, never one to be easily impressed, exclaimed: “Cor, it’s so cool. Like the picture on the Evian bottle.”

Next morning, we established a pattern for the next six days. After a humongous breakfast in what must be one of the prettiest dining rooms in Europe, the children met their charming instructor, Miriam, and jumped into a minibus to go off to the slopes for their lesson. Himself and I made our way down into the village for our introduction to langlauf. If I say so myself, I did magnificently during the first 10 minutes. But enough of being measured for boots in the shop. Outside in the snow, things got a little slippier.

Cross-country skis are narrower and lighter than the downhill variety and only the toe of your boot is attached to the ski, which is more comfortable than having the entire boot strapped to it, and also means you can go over a variety of terrain. Well, you can if you remain vertical and learn to push forward in a smooth, gliding motion, which feels a lot like skating. Luckily, we had an instructor who was immensely patient and didn’t mind me grabbing his arms, leg and head throughout the lesson. At least, I don’t think he minded; if he did he was far too Swiss to say so.

Himself was soon swooshing along the narrow, prepared ski furrows like Christopher Dean and even executing showy-offy stops. I inched along, struggling to achieve the right mixture of forward motion and downward pressure. I was encouraged to see people of a much greater age mastering the basics nearby. After an hour, I got an excited inkling of what it would feel like to be doing it right. And I hadn’t fallen over once.

Back at the hotel, we met up with the children, who were rosy and boastful after a morning on the mountain and eager for reports of scaredy-cat Mum’s disasters. Frankly, I think they were disappointed not to see me in plaster. Down by the hotel’s skating rink, we found the Pavilion restaurant, which is a small, unfussy hunting lodge if you happen to be Marie Antoinette. “What kind of pampered idiot would sit outside on chairs in the snow and eat lunch covered in giant furry rugs?” asked Himself, turning to find his family doing just that. From now on, I am going to refuse to have a toasted sandwich without an accompanying view from Where Eagles Dare.

I had been told that the Kronenhof spa was famous, but I admit I was dubious. In my experience, hotel spas combine fake Orientalism and indifferent, extortionate treatments with relaxing music, which generally sounds like Andy Williams falling off a cliff. This one was something else. Evie got it right when she said it was like the lair of a James Bond villain. Off a spectacular central swimming pool, with astounding views over the glacier, there are saunas, whirlpool baths and saltwater grottoes in which you can sploosh, bake or just lie back in a darkened tank and pretend you are Jonah in the belly of a very nice whale. Except when I stumbled into one mixed sauna with rather too much bratwurst on display, it was bliss.

The next few days were among the happiest I can remember. When we weren’t taking lessons, we walked for mile upon mile through the snowy forests. It was like falling through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. Except, this being Switzerland, it was a magical kingdom with excellent signposting. We always ended up at some remote chalet restaurant, by an iced lake, eating soup with cheese and cliffs of local bread, then took the bus home – the local charabanc being a horse-drawn sleigh with tartan rugs to burrow under.

One day, we took the children for lunch in nearby St Moritz with its mountainside street of designer stores: it was like Bond Street with vertigo. Fun for an afternoon, but we were glad to take the train back to the hushed haven of the Kronenhof.

Make no mistake, this is a five-star hotel in every sense; but you get what you pay for. Everything was made so easy by Wauther, our master planner, and other eager, smiley staff, that even scaredy-cat Mum eventually found her ski legs. I felt as though I had consumed my body weight in delicious food and hot chocolate, but by the end of the holiday, and vast amounts of exercise and silvery air, I had lost five pounds without even trying.

Evie, Tom and even doubting Dad declared it one of the best holidays ever and, one day, when we’ve saved up, we’ll go back. My friend was right about the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina. The real heaven is going to have to pull out all the celestial stops to match the one in Switzerland.

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