Go for the Gold
Where to Win Your Own Winter Olympics
While we may not all be able to compete in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, here are some incredible places to plan your own competition and try out a few of the most exhilarating events.
Ski-Jumping, Park City, Utah
It’s the Winter Olympics at its most mentally chilling: Lycra-ed figures in oversize skis hurtling down jumps, launching off at 55 mph, dangling midair, then landing safely (hopefully) on the slope below. These must be the bravest (or daftest?) athletes at the party. So join them! Utah’s Olympic Park, near Salt Lake City, hosted the 2002 games. The paraphernalia’s still there, with expert coaches to guide squeaky-bummed beginners off six-feet-high jumps – or higher, if they dare. If not, the Extreme Zipline starts at the top of the K120 ski jump, so amateurs can experience the thrill (and terror) of making the leap.
Admission to Utah Olympic Park is free; guided tours cost $11, and run daily on the hour from 11am to 4pm.
Figure-Skating, Lake Weissensee, Carinthia, Austria
Lake Weissensee may have the only skating academy based on natural ice, but it’s not necessarily a good place to learn. After all, it’s tough to concentrate on your double salchows when you’re surrounded by such scenery: a seemingly endless frosted mere, largely untouched by tourism development and hugged by the Gailtal Alps. Distracting, to be sure, but this is the ultimate place to skate. From mid-December until early March, the four-square-mile lake freezes over, an ice master supervises the circular rinks (up to 15 miles long), and everyone from hockey players to horse-drawn-sleighers enjoy a super slide.
Lake Weissensee is 75 miles from Klagenfurt airport. The nearest train station is Greifenburg, seven miles away.
Bobsleigh, Lillehammer, Norway
Bombing down a bobsleigh track, reaching speeds of 75 mph and facing forces of 5G really looks like something you should leave to the experts. But in the small town of Lillehammer—Norway’s oldest winter resort, on the shores of Lake Mjøsa—they’ll let almost anyone have a try. The 1994 Winter Games were contested here, and the mile-long Olympic bobsleigh run is still open for action. Tackle its turns like a pro in a four-man bob (with a pilot), or opt for a rubber bob-raft, which still hits over 60 mph. In summer, wheel-bobs negate the need for ice.
Lillehammer is 110 miles north of Oslo. The bobsleigh track is at Hunderfossen, nine miles outside of town.
Toboggan, Cresta Run, St. Moritz, Switzerland
Crazy men on planks of wood have been hurling themselves down Switzerland’s Cresta Run since 1885. This historic toboggan course is three-quarter-mile long, carved fresh from the Engadine Valley’s ice each year and using the landscape’s natural contours to twist, turn and plunge over 500 vertical feet to the hamlet of Celerina. The course record (from top to bottom) is a frightening 50.09 seconds; beginners brave enough to try must start from the Junction, one-third down. The skill is in balancing speed and technique, using special raked boots to brake, and steer round the corners – without coming an icy cropper.
Cresta Run is open Christmas to late February. Riders must be over 18 and male – women aren’t allowed.
Ice Hockey, Toronto, Canada
Ice hockey is the official sport of Canada. Indeed, the Canadians invented it in its current form in 1875. So no wonder they’re pretty good—and maybe a little obsessed. Experience this adulation in Toronto: visit the Hockey Hall of Fame to see a lot of memorabilia, get close to the famed Stanley Cup and shoot against a virtual goalie. Then try to get a ticket for a Maple Leafs match, to watch the breakneck brutality in action. If you fancy having a go yourself, hire a stick and skates at any public rink and join a game of ‘shinny’—hockey’s more civilized relation.
Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame is open 362 days a year, 9.30/10am– 6pm; adult tickets cost C$17.50.
Great Britain doesn’t win many Winter Olympic medals. So when the Women’s Curling Team came home with the gold in 2002, the nation got excited, even briefly obsessed by this slippery sport (think bowls on ice, with sweeping). The champs all hailed from Scotland, undoubtedly the place to give it a whirl: the Royal Caledonian Curling Club has taster sessions, which teach basic stone and broom skills. For further inspiration, the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame at Edinburgh’s National Museum displays the ‘stone of destiny’—the rock that clinched victory for the GB team.
Royal Caledonian Curling Club’s ‘Try Curling Sessions,’ usually free, last two hours.
Downhill-Skiing, Nagano, Japan
There are bigger slopes, maybe even better ones. But do they have snow monkeys, hot springs and locals with a fondness for playing with fire? The deep-powder pistes at Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, so the area has pedigree—and 35 resorts close by, dumped with lots of snow. But it’s more than that. Stay at the ancient village of Nozawa Onsen to ski by day and warm up by night—either at its 13 sotoyu (free public baths) or its Dosojin Fire Festival, an official ‘Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property,’ where men of 25 or 42 flame-fight everyone else.
Trains run from Tokyo to Nagano (90 minutes); Nagano to Nozawa Onsen takes 75 minutes by bus. Dosojin is held on 15 January.
Snowboarding, Wanaka, New Zealand
Want the Winter Olympics to last all year long? New Zealand’s slopes offer excellent boarding action from June until October, the perfect complement to a snow season spent in the north. Four mixed and marvellous ski areas ripple out from the lakeside town of Wanaka: beginners’ favourite Cardrona; cross-country-focused Snow Farm; Treble Cone, for keen off-pisters; and Snow Park, for halfpiping, freestyling fi ends. Better still, take your board aboard a chopper to access the biggest heli-ski area outside North America – the powder is untouched, the gradients intense and the views spectacular.
Short flights link Wanaka to Christchurch; by road the journey takes five hours. Queenstown to Wanaka is an hour’s drive.
Cross-Country Skiing, Vermont
In Vermont, the hills are alive with the sound of swooshing. Just outside the charming old village of Stowe sits the Trapp Family Lodge, home of the legendary Von Trapp family singers (immortalised by Julie Andrews and co in The Sound of Music). The real-life clan emigrated here in 1950, bringing an Austrian love of cross-country skiing with them. In the 1960s their Alpine-style retreat became the first Nordic resort in the country; now, 100km of trails – groomed and backcountry – criss-cross this pretty patch of New England mountain and forest. It’s enough to make you burst into song...
By car the Trapp Family Lodge is 2.5 hours from Montréal and six hours from New York.
Speed-Skating, Rideau Canal Skateway, Ottawa, Canada
Come winter, the Rideau Canal – which wends right through the Canadian capital – turns into the world’s largest skating rink. When the mercury plummets to a consistent -10°C or less (typically January– February), a 7.8km stretch of the canal, from the Parliament Buildings to Dows Lake, becomes a-glide with Ottawans. It’s a fairy-tale way to view the city. And there’s no need to rush – while you could speed-skate for Olympic exercise, it’s better to take it gently, stopping frequently en route: stalls selling hot chocolate are set up right on the ice-encrusted channel, so you needn’t even unlace your blades for a brew.
Capital Skates (Mackenzie King Bridge) and Dows Lake Pavilion offer skate hire, Monday to Sunday, 9am/10am–10pm.