They look like giant grey sugar cubes. They’re halfway up a mountain in the middle of Switzerland. And they’re about to put the pretty, little-known resort of Laax on the winter sports map.
Over the past 30 years, innovative design at ski resorts has come mainly from across the Atlantic. The “high-tech mountain village” style of contemporary apartments – large rooms with all the mod cons, hot tubs, sun-deck balconies and ski-inski-out facilities – took off in the US and Canada in the 1980s, blazing a trail across North America’s mountains.
The Alps lagged hopelessly behind, as many resort owners were content to retain tired old buildings that they knew would fill out season after season. Why bother blowing cash on something new?
Now the sugar cubes of Laax could be about to change all that. I met Reto Gurtner, the extrovert president of Rocksresort, at the site that he hopes will start a European fight-back against North America’s slick resorts. Two of the planned 11 cubes have recently opened, with the rest to be rolled out by 2011.
“Skiing has not grown in Europe the way that it has in North America over the past 15 years,” Gurtner says, stroking his goatee and gazing out from beneath a floppy flat cap. The reason, he argues, has been the fragmented ownership of cable cars, hotels and ski-hire shops in European resorts.
The resulting lack of cohesion has caused misery to millions of skiers. “For a long time it’s been too complicated,” he says, as he swipes a card on a security pass to enter one of the cubes. “For the first day after check-in everything is boring: you have to go to the hire shop and go to get ski passes. Boring. For mothers on family holidays, it’s a pain.”
At Rocksresort things are different. Skiers can buy lift passes, hire skis, purchase equipment at shops, and pay for meals at mountain restaurants using the swipe card that opens their apartment.
At the start of trips, holidaymakers drive into a vast car park that spreads out beneath each of the buildings. They then walk to a check-in desk, where they are given ski passes and sent to an adjoining fitting room to pick up skis and boots.
After this process, which takes about 20 minutes, they simply drop their skis in warmed lockers, and take a lift up to their swanky apartments. All the usual first-day ski fuss is over … quickly. “There is not another resort in the Alps that can offer this,” says Gurtner, who hired consultants from Whistler in Canada to bring in the necessary technology.
But it is the striking look of the immense buildings that is catching people’s attention, with Design Hotels, the ?ber-cool (and ?ber-fussy) hotel group, already signing up Rocksresort to its stable of architecturally cutting-edge properties. “With clean lines and consciously minimalist exteriors finished in rough-hewn stone,” a spokesman says, “this hotel succeeds at blending in with its environment, while standing as a bold design statement.”
The Cubist look was inspired by the history of the region, which had the “biggest landslide of all time” 10,000 years ago when rocks tumbled from nearby mountains. “We originally wanted to call the resort the Rolling Stones, but we thought a certain rock group might object.”
Each cube is covered in quartzite from a local quarry (4,000 tonnes will be used) and is dotted with large, irregularly shaped mirror-glass windows. The apartments are sumptuously decorated, with bedrooms made to look like wooden mountain cabins, Italian sofas, bathrooms that convert into steam rooms, and slick kitchen units.
There are also high-definition televisions, broadband internet and a selection of restaurants and bars at the foot of each cube. One drinking hole, already opened, is called the Crap Bar (“crap” means stone in local dialect). On my stay, drinkers lined the long granite bar chilling out with bottled beers while listening to ambient music – no sign of the manic crowds you get at some resorts.
Everything is right by the Laax cable cars, and when I tried out the slopes on a long weekend I was impressed by the wide selection of intermediate skiing. There were few Brits about. Picturesque pine trees covered much of the hillside. Most slopes had restaurants at the top.
My guide, Werner Dietziker, a 69-year-old who has been working at Laax for 35 years, showed me the pretty, quiet village of Falera and took me to the highest point near the glacier, which was closed because of high winds. Queues for lifts were not long – my visit took place during a quiet week in December.
Dietziker, who told me to “ski like you’re driving a car” (a technique tip that miraculously worked), said that some locals had been doubtful about Rocksresort, but had since been won over by the unusual designs. He owns an apartment in Falera and says that he won’t rent it out because “I don’t like strange people coming in” – a common problem in Swiss resorts where many properties are empty most of the year, resulting in a shortage of holiday rooms.
We go for a coffee at a mountain-top caf?, and when I reach for my money, Dietziker says. “No, no, no, I insist.” And he pulls out his own swipe card – such as the ones guests are given. The waiter doesn’t blink an eye and takes the card for payment.
Perhaps Laax’s giant sugar cubes will be the beginning of a European comeback. It’s good, at least, to see an Alpine resort giving it a try.
Swiss (www.swiss.com/uk) to Zurich from £89.
Rocksresort (www.rocksresort.com) has a week in a two-bedroom apartment from £637, or a week in a four-bedroom apartment from £1,018. Signina Hotel (www.signinahotel.com), a stylish hotel that adjoins Rocksresort and is run by the same company, has B&B doubles from £86 a night.
Crystal (0871 9710364, www.crystalfinest.co.uk) offers a week’s self-catering from £515pp, including flights from Gatwick and transfers, based on four sharing.
Week-long lift tickets from £200 for adults, £132 for teenagers and £66 for younger children.
Plaun Station has a bar and snack caf? with traditional dishes at a fraction of the price of other on-slope restaurants.
The bars in the village of Flims, connected by a short free-bus to Laax, are bustling. The Crap Bar in Laax is the busy spot.
Where to Ski and Snowboard 2009 (Nortonwood, £16.99), an excellent all-round guide.
First published in The Times, February, 2009