Skiing in high summer – on a glacier

Escaping the desert heat 3,000 metres up in the Alps: an introduction to glacier skiing for winter sports fans based in the Gulf.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-FeeWhen much of the region is roasting in the high 40s, the idea of chilling on a glacier is refreshingly appealing. But would you want to book a whole ski holiday on one – in summer?

High above the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee, in the next valley along from Zermatt, lies the Fee Glacier. Every year, in the middle of July, it opens to skiers, snowboarders – and anyone who wants to cool off in high summer in grand style.

It sounds like a gimmick. And you can be sure that when you tell anyone of your plans, you get the same questions: Aren’t you going to fall down a crevasse? Isn’t summer snow horribly slushy? And can’t you just wait for winter?

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-Fee

Morning warm-up

As we snow addicts all know, there is never a bad time for skiing. But there are good reasons, too, why the summer snows attract not just amateurs but also national ski squads and top coaching organisations.

The Warren Smith Ski Academy, based during the winter in the nearby resort of Verbier, has decamped to Saas-Fee every summer since 2002. “We find our clients often progress faster in summer,” Warren Smith told me. “The altitude and the regimented nature of the environment make for more intense training, more focused on physical performance.”

It is hard, though, to imagine skiing at all on the first morning of the course, as you carry your skis through the pretty, car-free village, past hikers in their summer finery and chalets decked with flowers. A cable car carries you high above the treeline; a second whisks you, ears popping, over a wilderness of rock. Finally you ride the world’s highest underground funicular until you emerge on the flank of the glacier, your eyes dazzled by the pristine whiteness and your heart racing in the thin air up at 3,500 metres – about double the altitude of the resort.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-FeeUp here, three T-bar lifts serve 20 km of piste, smoothed by grooming machines. The pylons are movable, for this is a slow-flowing river of ice; the sight of gaping crevasses in other parts of the glacier are an effective reminder not to head off-piste. In the distance, freestyle skiers twist and corkscrew through the air above the snow park – the venue for the annual British Freeski Camps, where top slopestyle and half-pipe athletes come to train.

Warren and his team of instructors divided us by ability into groups of no more than eight, and had us looping the lifts as we practised a string of drills to fine-tune our technique. Doing this in summer made sense: with no other slopes to tempt you away, you’re happy to work for hours on end on technique – and you soon see the results.

Apart from 15-odd minutes for a picnic lunch on the snow, we skied until the lifts closed at 1pm. Back in the resort, we would spread out on the lawn at the back of the hotel and Warren would guide us through a sequence of athletic stretches.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-Fee

After-ski stretch in front of the Hotel du Glacier

Most of the afternoons we were free to relax or hike. We could visit attractions such as the world’s largest glacier ice pavilion or the world’s highest rotating restaurant, or indulge in activities from summer tobogganing to climbing via ferratas or whizzing down mountainsides on giant freewheeling scooters. Several in the group had travelled with non-skiing partners – so as well as a daily fix of snow, they had time for a conventional summer mountain holiday as well.

I loved our base for the week, the Hotel du Glacier, opened in 1901, and disarmingly relaxed, despite its 4-star status. A photo display at the entrance introduces all the staff – their hobbies, childhood ambitions and dreams, from the manager to the dish washer and the housekeepers; it is one of the most inclusive, welcoming and friendly places I have stayed.

On two afternoons we gathered in the hotel lounge to watch videos that the coaches had made of our skiing earlier that day. Surprisingly, the same basic errors in technique kept cropping up – even among the experts. We also saw how each of us had a weaker turning direction – and over the week the coaches worked with us to develop exercises to strengthen our weaker side.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course in Saas-Fee: dry-land exercises in front of the hotelThe Academy places a big emphasis on biomechanics, and one morning Warren and his team had us leaping around the lawn behind the hotel, practising the athletic movements we would need to make dynamic ski turns. At first, our legs and arms flailed everywhere, but we repeated the jumps until we could keep our hips, knees and feet the same distance apart – a prerequisite for controlled turns. We worked on increasing the flex in our ankle joints, and practised exercises to strengthen muscles in our legs that would help us maintain our stance in uneven terrain – and prevent injury.

The next morning, up on the mountain, I could feel a marked advance in the control I had over my skis. And over the week as a whole, I noticed big improvements: flexing my ankles more in order to edge the skis better and so carve more effectively, switching from steering with my feet to steering with my more powerful thigh muscles, activating my core muscles to prevent my body buckling when tackling bumpy terrain, and working on a host of techniques from quick jump-turns to thrilling high-speed carved giant slalom turns.

Decoration on a restaurant in Saas-Fee

Sculpture outside a restaurant

Others were equally enthusiastic. Jackie Hampton, a New Yorker based in London, thought the “quality of the course was phenomenal, the instructors fantastic. I’ll definitely do summer skiing again.” Julián Gay Meca, a currency broker who describes himself as Spanish/French, and who had previously only done four days’ skiing, said he was “very pleased with the experience, my improvement, the staff, the town – not pretentious, down-to-earth, lots of activities.”

The resort will see more visitors from the Gulf, too, if the national tourist board has its way. Given the strength of the Swiss franc and the weak economy in Europe, Switzerland Tourism is focusing on key markets elsewhere – including Gulf countries – to bring more summer tourism, especially to mountain resorts. Last year, ST opened an office in Dubai, its new headquarters for India, the Middle East and Africa, and in the first five months of 2012 saw growth of nearly 20% from Gulf countries compared to the previous year.

Some have already made the discovery. Dubai resident Simon Longley is regional director for a construction consultancy, and the veteran of four ski trips to Canada and some 20-odd days at Ski Dubai. “It’s been nice to come somewhere fresh and see some trees and greenery. The instructors have been very good, very patient, and I’ve enjoyed the terrain – you can really practice consistently what you’ve been learning. And Saas-Fee is a lovely village, there are so many things you can do in the afternoon. It feels like two holidays, you get the best of both worlds. So yes, I’ll be back on the glacier another summer.”

View from Saas-Fee towards the Fee Glacier

View from Saas-Fee towards the Glacier

  • From summer 2013, The Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com) is running its summer training courses in the Italian resort of Cervinia. Courses run from 29 June to 7 September; £508 for five days’ tuition, including lift pass.
  • The Academy has organised special rates at the Hotel Mon Reve (www.duglacier.ch): 60 euros per person, per night, half-board (85 euros in a single room).
  • The Academy also runs autumn courses from November 2 to 30; £605 for five days’ tuition, including lift pass. Half-board accommodation 65 euros per person, per night (93 euros in a single room).
  • The British Freeski Camps take place from 13 July  to 3 August (www.britishfreeskicamps.com).
  • For information on skiing and holidays in Saas-Fee: Hotel du Glacier (www.duglacier.ch); Saas-Fee (www.saas-fee.ch); Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com).

Strictly Come Cruising

P&O is launching Strictly Come Dancing cruises, complete with the show’s famously fastidious judge Craig Revel Horwood. Ballroom virgin James Bedding signed up for the inaugural trip – and inevitable humiliation

 

Craig Revel Horwood and James Bedding on P&O Oriana's Strictly Come Dancing cruise

Craig Revel Horwood plus aspiring dancer © Sam Pelly

Somewhere over that watery horizon lies the Sahara, I thought, as I lurched past one of the windows of my floating ballroom: what a strange place to be learning the cha-cha-cha. And then I trod on someone’s foot, and decided I really should concentrate.

Not least because I was on the inaugural Strictly Come Dancing cruise, and my dance partner and I seemed to be on a collision course with Craig Revel Horwood – of all the judges from the Saturday-night TV show, probably the most dreaded for his withering put-downs.

Surely here, I thought, far from the landlocked calm of a BBC studio, in the middle of the Atlantic, he would be more forgiving? If I looked less like a ballroom dancer than a drunken dodgem driver, I figured I could always blame the ocean swell. Unfortunately for me, the sea today was as flat as a dance floor.

Katya Virshilas and Pasha Kovalev, two of the professional dancers from Strictly Come Dancing, give a show on P&O's Oriana

Katya Virshilas and Pasha Kovalev © Sam Pelly

This was just the first in a series of themed Strictly cruises to be run by P&O in conjunction with the BBC. In July, enthusiasts will dance their way up the Norwegian coast on Oriana; a further seven voyages are planned for 2013. The inaugural cruise – on Oriana, to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries – took place earlier this month [June], and Telegraph Travel was invited to take an exclusive peek.

Perhaps it is only inevitable that Strictly is broadening its horizons. The show has run to nine series in the UK, the most recent final attracting 13 million viewers. The format has been licensed to 40 countries; every week of 2011, a locally produced version of the show was on air somewhere in the world. After conquering six continents, Strictly is set to take on the high seas.

And cruising would seem the ideal format. As with most cruise holidays, the schedule for the inaugural Strictly voyage on Oriana offered dance classes and ballroom evenings for passengers, as well as tributes to the musicals and other shows by the resident theatre company. But the cruise also featured special extras, from performances by professional dancers on Strictly to an interview with Craig Revel Horwood – and a contest for passengers chaired by the famously fastidious judge.

Craig Revel Horwood

Craig Revel Horwood © Sam Pelly

The mere thought struck horror in my knees. I have a troubled relationship with dance. After an ugly struggle with salsa and two drawn-out but ultimately doomed attempts at tango, I settled on jazz dance – happily, you don’t have a partner to exasperate. I went several times a week for seven years, until I moved home. I suppose the fact that after 1,000 hours of classes I still enjoyed the challenge of the “Absolute beginner” level confirmed that my talents lie elsewhere, but I adored the exercise, the discipline, and the luxury of losing myself for an hour in intoxicating music without ever having to justify myself to anyone. Which is why the idea of performing to Craig gave me a feeling akin to seasickness.

I joined the cruise in Madeira. Glamorous costumes from the show glittered around the decks of the Oriana, and at the main ballroom, Harlequins, couples were practising their moves for the evening’s dancing.

I was relieved to learn that the ballroom is located conveniently close to the medical centre – and impressed by the stamina of one passenger who had used both. “I was jiving in my ballgown,” said 67-year-old Pauline Johnston, from Banbury, “when I caught a heel in the fabric, went flying, and broke my arm in two places.”  That was at 11.30pm – yet she carried on dancing until 2am, before having it X-rayed and plastered. “I should be wearing a sling,” she said, “but you can’t dance in a sling, can you? I’ll put it back on now, though, in case I’m caught.”

Pauline’s friend Alicia Mumford – whom she met through dance classes back home – was less impressed. “It’s amazing the lengths someone will go to to get Craig’s attention,” she said. “But it worked.” Now Pauline proudly sports a Craig autograph on her plaster cast.

Not all passengers I spoke to confessed to a passion for Strictly. Many had booked more than a year ago, before P&O had announced the theme of Oriana’s cruise. But the popularity of the trip’s Strictly events suggested there were plenty of closet fans on board, too. The 674-seat Theatre Royal was overflowing for a lyrical and emotional performance by two professional dancers from the show, Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe; their grace clearly rubbed off on the rather less youthful audience, which leapt to its feet with astonishing agility to applaud.

Craig Revel Horwood interviewed in the theatre of P&O Oriana

The Craig Revel Horwood interview © Sam Pelly

The theatre was packed again – 15 minutes before opening – for the interview with Craig Revel Horwood, who charmed passengers with tales of 30 years working in the theatre as a dancer, choreographer and director. They queued in large numbers, too, to be photographed grinning with the Strictly judge whose strictness has made him the pantomime villain they love to boo: his damning assessments have ranged from a withering “cha cha cha chavvy” for Patsy Kensit to “overwhelmingly awful” for Ann Widdecombe.

What crazed cruise passengers, you might wonder, would subject themselves to such merciless critique on their holiday? A pair of honeymooners, for starters: Daniel and Jenifer Simpson boarded Oriana the day after their wedding, with just three hours’ sleep, and were soon selected with two other couples to compete in the Strictly Come Dancing Showcase. At the rehearsal, Jenifer confessed it was “nerve-racking – we’ve only been dancing ballroom six months.”

They certainly had a tough act to follow: a dazzling and sensual display of Latin dancing by a second pair of professionals from the show, Katya Virshilas and Pasha Kovalev. Next, the pros joined Craig at a desk to watch as each of the competing couples took it in turns to glide across the melodies of a long, lyrical waltz.

Strictly Come Dancing Showcase - passenger competition

The Strictly Come Dancing Showcase © Sam Pelly

The audience applauded rapturously, but Craig sweetened his words for no one, not even the happy couple: “A complete and absolute honeymoon disaaaster: lumpy, wooden and nervous.” The gentleman in the next couple fared even worse: “a personality bypass – completely charmless, darling.” After some gentler words from Katya and Pasha, the honeymooners seemed heroically positive. “We expected Craig to be honest, and he was. It’s encouragement – we’re going back to the dancing lessons, we’re definitely not giving up. We’d come again even if only to watch the professionals dancing – it’s by far the best holiday we’ve had.”

For my own trial – in the form of a dance class, with Craig as guest expert – I wanted to be well prepared. Nutrition was clearly not going to be a problem, with six restaurants to choose from, including two waiter-served restaurants and two fine-dining restaurants (for an extra charge). And a healthy appetite? I was struck by how mine grew every day.

As for exercise, I must have spent hours ambling indecisively from one counter to the next in the two all-day buffet restaurants – not to mention wandering the corridors of the ship, because even after three days on board I could not remember where anything was. I even managed a short stroll around the elegant 18th-century streets in the heart of Lisbon, before feeling unexpectedly peckish and stopping for a bite.

Julie and Simon Curtin, resident dance instructors on P&O Oriana's Strictly Come Dancing cruise

Julie and Simon Curtin, resident dance instructors © Sam Pelly

Back on board, I was impressed by the spacious top-deck gym, and its fleet of treadmills and exercise machines. These faced a panoramic window looking out over the bow and across the open sea – unusually for a gym, you feel your exertions are actually getting you somewhere. I fancied riding one of the cycle machines and pretending I was single-handedly powering the world’s biggest pedalo. I also wanted to try one of the early-morning classes – yoga, “fab abs” or “stretch and relax” – but I found that by the time I had hiked to the front of the ship, scaled a couple of flights of stairs and glimpsed the ships’ resident dancers working out, I was hungry enough to go straight to breakfast.

When I arrived at my packed dance class – beginner’s cha-cha-cha – I knew I had little chance of out-classing Patsy Kensit. The resident dance instructors on this year’s Strictly cruises, Julie and Simon Curtin, demonstrated the steps, and as I moved from one partner to the next, praying that for once I wouldn’t kick any shins or crush any toes, I tried desperately to relax and enjoy myself – pretty much impossible, when Craig stopped to watch.

His feedback was no surprise. “You were nervous, stiff, agitated, wooden – as if you had a rod placed firmly up your arse and you weren’t going to release it.” He gave me 4 out of 10 – and some encouraging tips, too: “Work on your technique, especially your footwork, and you will get that lovely licentious lascivious hip action we’re looking for.” As for our overall standard as beginners: “very, very poor – but how brilliant and brave of everyone to try, it’s fantastic to see you all dancing!”

Maybe that’s the important thing – just to keep dancing, regardless of talent or technique. Simon and Julie told me about the partially sighted 94-year old gentleman they taught Argentine tango on an earlier cruise; about passengers with learning disabilities, and others in callipers, who they had all led onto the dance floor. The Curtins only took up dancing in their early 40s, inspired by Series 2 of Strictly; they applied to join P&O 18 months ago, intending to do two or three cruises a year – and have already clocked up 21.

Craig demolishes my cha-cha-cha

Craig demolishes my cha-cha-cha © Sam Pelly

I began to fantasise that I, too, although still painfully clumsy at 50, might nonetheless one day blossom as a dancer, and twirl my way around the globe. Craig was supportive: “I think if you were 90 you could have a dream to run away and be a dancer,” he said. He was also uncharacteristically diplomatic: “I would be concerned for your mental welfare if you said you wanted to be a professional dancer,” he said, “but you could become a pro as a teacher.”

I was not the only passenger to be inspired. After one of the shows, I bumped into the very first couple I spoke to on Oriana: Philip and Karen Norman – retired police officer and civil servant, respectively – from Pontypool in South Wales. They had booked the cruise – their seventh – before the Strictly theme was announced; neither had even watched the show before last year. “We danced 30 years ago, but gave up,” said Karen. “This has definitely sparked something. We’re signing up for classes as soon as we get home.”

If the idea of Strictly Come Dancing cruises catches on, as I suspect it will, the world’s floating ballrooms will soon regain the popularity they enjoyed during the glamorous age of the ocean-going liners. And I know I’m not the only one dreaming of dancing into the sunset for decades to come.

Pasha Kovalev, professional dancer from Strictly Come Dancing, gives a show on P&O's Oriana

Pasha Kovalev © Sam Pelly

  • James Bedding stayed at Reid’s Palace Hotel in Funchal, Madeira, before boarding the cruise. “Charming” category rooms cost from about £255 per room per night, including buffet breakfast and all taxes. “Deluxe” rooms cost from about £458. Book through Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; www.reidspalace.com).
  • P&O Cruises (0843 3740 111; www.pocruises.co.uk) is running seven Strictly Come Dancing cruises in 2013, between May and October. A 13-night cruise on Azura (A311N) from 11 to 24 May, 2013, sails from Southampton to Madeira, the Canaries, Cadiz, Lisbon and back to Southampton. “Getaway” fares cost from £1,361 per person based on two adults sharing including all main meals, entertainment and most facilities. (The cruise to Norway, departing 14 July 2012, has sold out.)