Gudauri: The perfect ski resort you’ve never heard of
The best value ski destination for 2018 certainly isn’t in the French Alps. And no, it’s not Bulgaria or Romania either. You don’t need a visa to get there, and you’re not going to break the bank buying flight tickets. A week-long, all areas ski pass will set you back less than £70, and fresh, natural powder is guaranteed. Are you on your way to the airport yet? If not, pack up your skis and go.
This year you need to ski in the little Eurasian country of Georgia. The Caucasus Mountains stretch between the Black and Caspian Seas, and from November until April they’re cloaked with plenty of snow. Georgians and Russians in the know have long come to Gudauri in pursuit of soft white powder, but as direct flights have now started from Europe, skiers from further afield are likely to be hot on their heels, snapping up a bargain. We boarded a Wizz Air flight from London Luton to Kutaisi (Georgia’s second city), and headed straight to the slopes.
The climb to the ski area is along the Georgian Military Highway, a twisting mountain road with spectacular (if occasionally nerve-biting) views. Mist hangs in the valleys, cloaking settlements lower down. The air temperature was cold but we were well-dressed for the weather, and in any case the car was warm. We passed medieval churches wrapped in snow, and occasional villages tucked in for the winter. It’s indisputably a scenic drive, though not necessarily one during which you want to be behind the wheel.
Gudauri is at the bottom of the mountain, with its 22 pisted slopes zigzagging up behind to a height of well over 3,000m. Lifts will get you to the top of Mt. Sadzele (2,196m), but as heli skiing here is a bargain you can easily start your run higher, then race any way you like across the untouched snow.
It is the huge expanse of slopes and the relative low number of skiers which makes Gudauri so appealing. It’s never busy, except for on a holiday weekend. Flying up in the helicopter, or paragliding if you prefer a low-tech alternative, the mountainscapes are nothing short of magnificent. Occasional birds of prey circle overhead, soaring on the thermals and no doubt watching the tiny skiers darting about far below.
Here there’s always space to try something new: you’re not going to be cut up by reckless speed skiers or by a line of precocious toddlers from the ski school. On the soft, fluffy snow besides the beginner slopes we spent a morning attempting to freeride. English-speaking instructors on hand, but if you do want to go it alone (as we did), plenty of enthusiastic amateurs will also stop by and show you how it is actually supposed to be done. Had we been a little more consummate we might have tried out the snow park, but on this occasion it was far more entertaining to watch other boarders pirouetting like ballerinas in the sky before landing more-or-less balanced beneath the jumps and spraying bystanders with snow.
Sunset comes around half past five in Gudauri, and when it does you want to be down off the mountain. The temperature plummets after dark, which is reason enough, but you also have to make the most of the après ski.
The Georgians, you see, take their drinking very seriously indeed. This is the country, after all, which invented wine making 8,000 years ago. In the intervening years they’ve had plenty of opportunity to perfect the arts of both viticulture and drinking. In fact, you could say that wine is a national pastime. A carafe of good locally produced wine in one of the slope-facing bars will set you back around £3-£4, and you’ll usually get a round of beers for a fiver. The national dish -- khachapuri -- is a molten mass of cheese and egg upon a pizza-like base, and quite the perfect reward for a tiring day boarding or skiing. It puts a fondue to shame and as you’re on vacation it is absolutely, 100% calorie free (in our dreams).
If you want hundreds of kilometres of perfectly pisted slopes, refreshed each night by snow cannons, and to be surrounded by well-heeled Brits who had bit parts in Made in Chelsea, Gudauri’s not for you. But if it’s the mountains which are the real draw, you’re as happy off-piste as on, and you want to spend your nights partying for a song, you can’t do any better than this.
Traffic Travel (www.traffictravel.ge) has seven-night ski packages in Georgia from £650, which includes half board hotel accommodation, transfers, ski passes, and boot and ski hire. Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) flies from London to Kutaisi return from £48.