“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
– Harry Lime. From The Third Man
If The Third Man was made today, Harry would be talking about Zai skis in place of cuckoo clocks -and having been lucky enough to try them out on a recent trip to Laax in Switzerland, I can pretty much guarantee that. The small Zai ski factory in Disenter produces a relatively low number of skis, but what is produced is made with love and passion. For comparison, a ‘regular’ brand ski may take less than 10 minutes to produce; a Zai ski will take no less than three hours, and up to six. They are made by craftsmen using the best materials available and the goal is always to produce the best ski possible; design and cost are secondary – it’s all about the ski.
Following the factory visit we got to test ski the range on the slopes of Laax and the difference was immediate and, frankly, extraordinary. Whether this is because I’ve always used hire skis, I can’t say, but the second you step into them and move off they feel different – they are so smooth you glide across the snow. On the piste they’re equally as impressive, cutting through, making you feel like a much better skier.
These are not cheap skis (these are very, very expensive skis) but if you are interested in trying them out they offer a hire, sorry, concierge, scheme across Switzerland. All the details can be found at the Zai website.
The Laax resort comprises three villages, Flims, Laax and Falera, in the Graubunden area of southern Switzerland, around 1h45m from Zurich by car. We took the train which offers lovely views across the lakes and mountains though does take a little longer. The resort hosts 235km of pistes, four snowparks and the largest half pipe in the world – more on that later. There’s been a lot of investment over the past five or so years, so the main areas are new, modern and well designed – the hire shops have lots of room (joy!), there are lockers in the right places to store your kit, escalators where you need them and everything’s at hand.
The main village, Laax, hosts the rocksresort, a series of newer apartment blocks right at the bottom of the slopes, close to the 15 minute gondola up to the mountain. What’s interesting about Laax is that it’s all owned and managed by one company, the Weisse Arena Gruppe, which, while rare in Europe, will be a familiar setup to anyone who’s skied in the US.
This company run the resort’s lifts, hire shops, restaurants and pretty much everything you’ll use. It means that from the main website you can book all you need for your holiday. It also means that there can be a lot more investment to the resort – sometimes in quirky ways. As an example you shouldn’t miss the Lavadinas chairlift, and while it seems odd to recommend a chairlift, when it’s designed by Porsche, it’s worth a look. After filling up on a hot dog and a beer at ‘sausage station’, climb aboard, and if the weather’s good the heated chairs rotate so you’re looking out over the mountains, not at a never-ending line of pylons. Next season will see another new lift built, this time designed by Pininfarina.
If you want to make everyone at home jealous with your skiing antics, it’s worth downloading the Laax app and paying for their wi-fi. It’s available just about everywhere – even up the mountain – so there’s no more waiting to get back to the hotel to get your fix of smug. It’s another example of where the ‘all-in-one’ resort approach has benefits.
A few minutes walk from the resort centre is the Laax Freestyle Academy, a vast warehouse full of ramps, trampolines, mats, bags, tightropes, half-pipes and foam pools. It’s here you can practice your jumps before hitting the freestyle parks. It’s open from 1.30pm and once you’ve had your induction, you can enjoy the activities unsupervised for three hours per session. A great way to spend a few hours behaving like a kid.
Laax does freestyle *very* well, with four parks across the resort as well as a dedicated freestyle piste. The parks range in difficulty, starting with the smallest of jumps and bumps, to Olympic size behemoths. The P60 freestyle piste is a great way to see what the experts can do. It winds its way down the mountain with never-ending jumps, rails, humps and bumps. Once that’s conquered, head over to the halfpipe – this can be as exciting and dangerous and terrifying, and as fun as you want it to be… It just depends on how high you want to go up the sides…
Other restaurants worth mentioning around the resort:
- Grandis Ustria da Vin: a smart wine/cheese/meat bar and restaurant at the resort base.
- Nooba: you know Wagamama? That.
- La Vacca: steak in a teepee, on the slopes. What could be better?
- Stalla: open fire, local dishes such as raclette, fondue and cold meats.
- Tegia Larnags restaurant about 20 minutes walk uphill from Laax base. Traditional food (try one of the many varieties of capun), good service, extensive wine list and schnapps… schnapps you dip your bread into before you dip that into your cheese fondue before you eat it. When you’re done you can sledge back down to the resort from the restaurant.
A quick tip: up from La Vacca restaurant at the top of the Nagens bubble lift is a ski hire shop. So, if you need to change your gear, you can do it there without having to go down the mountain. Good thinking.
I stayed in the Riders Palace hotel, which offers a range of accommodation from dorms to suites. It’s very stark in design – all bare concrete and neon and is very much aimed at young skiers and snowboarders. It hosts a club downstairs that’s very popular, so if you are staying in the hotel, and clubbing isn’t your thing, bring ear plugs. The suites are great and very well equipped with a massive bath, a PlayStation and sound system.
This was my first time skiing in Switzerland, and while it’s more expensive than many resorts and may be a little clinical in parts, I do like the model – the serious investment makes a big, big difference. Laax is certainly worth looking into if you’re a more independent skier (or especially a snowboarder or freestyler) and you’re after something different from the standard week-away trip. Watch our video guide below for further insight into the resort and its highlights.
Planning your trip…
- To plan your visit to Graubünden, book your flights with SWISS into Zurich, an hour and a half away from the region. SWISS operates direct to Zurich from London City, London Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Dublin. The all-inclusive fares start from £65* one-way, including all airport taxes. To book visit www.swiss.com.
- For further information visit the Graubünden website.
- Riders Palace shared room (bunked beds) from CHF 39.00 per person incl. breakfast buffet, taxes and services.
- For a double room in the Bündner Haus (the traditional one next to main house) you pay from CHF 85.00 per person incl. breakfast buffet, wellness, taxes and services.