Skiing in Japan: What makes it so special?

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The thought of skiing in Japan conjures up many idyllic images. You know the ones; people skiing through waist-deep powder, snow-capped volcanoes in the background and steaming bowls of ramen for lunch. These are the images we see on the front of the brochure or the home page of the website. But there’s got to be more to this exotic culture than that, right? 

What is it that makes a winter visit to Japan so different from any other ski destination in the world? And how is a first-time visitor transported experientially through the environment, tradition and culture to discover the real heartbeat of the place? 

Travel is a journey for the senses, which makes Japan an experience that goes way beyond the cover of any marketing collateral.

So, here are a few things you might be lucky enough to feel, sense and have a first-hand perspective on during your next trip to the land of the rising sun.


Tradition: The old-school resort skiing rules have relaxed.

Historically, many skiers were wary of Japanese resorts because of the rumoured prohibition around off-piste skiing. Like all rules, there were good reasons to have them; Japanese people by nature are quite risk averse. They do not enjoy exposure to situations where injury might prevail (this is even at the core of the Japanese ski instruction methodology). So, the decision was made that skiing in the trees was forbidden. Naturally the Japanese complied. 

As Westerners began flooding into the resorts all those years ago the Japanese were perplexed as to why people would want to go into the ‘dangerous trees’, in fact, powder skiing wasn’t all that popular either for the same reasons. Well, it’s time to spread some new rumours because Japanese resorts have moved with the times, especially in the last 5-10 years. Many resorts now have dedicated tree skiing areas, professionally gladed and patrolled for safety. There is convenient access for those who want to do some hiking or touring to ski in the backcountry, though if you prefer to stay on the lifts, there are off-piste gates that give you access to powdery pillows and the steeper slopes of the side-country.

Consider this, when you ski the trees alongside the Japanese you are experiencing the result of an evolution where Japanese values have melded with Western influence to provide a world-class skiing experience. It’s unique, safe and crazy exciting all at once, and therefore very Japanese. So, if you are a hard-core lifelong skier who’s avoided Japan for whatever reason, it's time to come and see what all the fuss is about.


Culture: Japanese food, in Japan, is an experience that will surprise you.

It’s an undeniable fact: there’s Western Japanese food… and there is provincial Japanese food. They cannot be compared. While there might be mind-blowing Japanese restaurants in many locations around the world, they will never live up to the experience of eating out in Japan, especially around the ski resort areas, which are quintessentially rural villages that serve locally specific delicacies.

If you have to duck to get through the front door of a local Japanese restaurant, you know you’ve struck gold. And if that restaurant maxes out at eight seats and only takes two sittings each night, then get ready for something special. Chances are you’ve had a tip-off from a local on where to find this place and how to book, because they are famously hard to locate, usually have no online presence and the person taking bookings will certainly not be speaking English. Get ready!

Once you are seated you will notice that you are surrounded by a myriad of cartoonish figurines, decorated cats rhythmically waving their paw at you and dust encrusted Japanese Anime, all standing proud on a shelf watching over the tiny room as an intensely focused chef weaves minor miracles in the kitchen. Sometimes there will be a menu, and some of the dishes may sound completely foreign, even when written in English (Chicken skin gyoza? Nabe hot pots?) ... But those in the know will simply order the Chef’s recommendation - they know what’s best.


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Environment: Skiing through Birch trees and down volcanoes with monkeys and Kamoshika is an otherworldly experience for every skier

Bare white trunks without a leaf or pine needle in sight go whizzing by as you glide down perfectly gladed runs through the lightest powder snow in the world. The thin narrow trunks give way to well-spaced pathways through the powder and the snow falls so lightly, like it’s in no particular rush to arrive on the ground. For those of us who have spent many years skiing through the Evergreen varieties, with their tree wells and low boughs positioned perfectly to snag us on the way past, skiing through Birch trees is a unique experience that every skier needs to try. And when the sun comes out, make sure you look up to see the Birch trees ‘pop’ in front of an intense blue-sky background as flakes of snow blow around carelessly in the clearing air. 

Like most things in Japan, the environment is subtle, intricate and unconventional. Everyone has seen a picture of a snow-covered volcano, but until you witness one emerge through the clouds painted pink on a clearing afternoon, or better yet, take a helicopter ride to stand at the lip of the dormant crater, only then will you understand their silent command over the villages and lands below. 

And while you might have heard that you can visit snow monkeys that bathe luxuriously in the onsen (natural hot springs), did you know you can ski with them too? Especially if you are exploring the backcountry and off-piste areas, you may be lucky enough to see them monkeying around, so to speak, at the bottom of the valleys near gently bubbling mountain streams.

The Kamoshika is the most sacred of all the animals found in the Hakuba Valley.

Many locals will describe it as a type of bear, pig or goat… but the Kamoshika is in fact a Japanese serow; a ‘goat-antelope’ found in the dense woodland of central Honshu. After being nearly hunted to extinction, the Japanese government passed a law in 1955 designating it as a “Special National Monument”, thereby saving the species so everyone can enjoy an encounter with these curious animals... before they bolt away up the hill through the snow.




It’s impossible to capture experiences like these in a photo, which is why we say come over and
immerse yourself in the tiny moments that make skiing in Japan so special.


What to buy the skier who has everything?

Whether it’s Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, Hanukkah or your best friend’s most recent lap around the sun; we are all ears when it comes to great gift ideas for the passionate skiers amongst us. The problem is, most of these die-hard winter people are also gear junkies who have most of the latest gadgets and toys… so what on earth do you buy them?

The struggle is real, so the Mabey Ski gang have put our heads together to come up with some ‘out-of-the-box’ gift ideas that you will most likely not encounter in your local ski shop.

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Leki Hot Shot Poles

Leki have always made some of the best ski poles in the business, but they’ve gone a step further here and anticipated some of the most pressing needs that skiers encounter on the hill by inventing poles that essentially replace your hip flask. Unscrew the handle, fill with up to 200ml of your favourite ‘sports tonic’ - and you’re away. The poles come with all the high-end features that Leki is known for; namely, the Trigger S system which allows you to click in and out of your poles effortlessly. End of the day chairlift rides are about to take on a new meaning.

Check out the poles online.

GBP £114.95


What started as an accessory, has now become a necessity after this simple but oh-so-practical goggle protector exploded onto the scene. Made of recycled bottles, the Gogglesoc™ is a stretchy microfibre cover that is designed to be used when your goggles are not in use. They are indispensable; use them in your backpack, on top of your helmet in a snowstorm, skinning up the mountain or when they get tossed aside at après. They will keep your lens dust-free, dry and you can clean your lens with them if you need. They come in a tonne of colours and designs, and if you are like the team at Mabey Ski, you can order a few hundred through a custom order with your own special artwork and give them to your ski crazy friends for years to come.

Click here to find out more.

USD $14.95

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Jubel Beer

Every skier knows that there is beer, and there is the beer you find in the Alps. The two cannot be confused, and usually the latter cannot be found outside our favourite mountain towns. But the heavens have opened as Jubel Beer has answered our prayers and brewed a lager in the dangerously refreshing beer tradition called demi-pêche, found in most ski bars throughout the Alps. It’s a crisp, clean and light-bodied Pilsner with a blend of zesty peach notes that will be received with rapturous affection by your favourite snow-loving, beer-swilling human.

Check them out online to find a dealer near you.

Prices from GBP £1.80 per bottle

Children’s Ski Book

A children’s ski book is the perfect way to help your kids build on their love for skiing and get them excited for some winter fun. Olympic skier Libby Ludlow has teamed up with internationally known illustrator and PSIA certified ski instructor Nathan Y. Jarvis, to create an alphabet book about the magical world of skiing. A-B-Skis is a playground of words and pictures from A to Z that’s sure to get your tiny rippers excited for winter fun.

Click here to pre-order your copy online.

USD $25

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PFD Skis

Born out of a young designer’s passion for quality craftsmanship and an obsession for skiing, PFD is a bespoke handmade ski company that has put in years of rigorous testing to develop a ski to deliver the highest standards of performance and aesthetics with zero margin for compromise. Their products use carbon neutral and responsibly sourced bamboo which contributes to over 70% of their production. They also use a carbon layer and a couple of fibreglass layers which means the combined strength to weight ratio of the skis are second to none. They have snowboards and skis in the range from all-mountain to powder specific skis. The skis are beautifully constructed and have to be seen to be believed…

Check them out online.

Prices from GBP £695

Fourheart Rechargeable/Reusable Hand Warmers

It’s time to move on from those disposable little hand warmers we keep in case of a frozen hand emergency, Fourheat has developed the ultimate solution. And let’s face it, it can happen to anyone; taking a phone call on the chair, helping your kids with their gear, rummaging through your backpack or a cold snap that simply takes you by surprise. This rechargeable device has 3 temperature settings, is designed to prevent scalding and also doubles as a portable battery charger.

The Mabey Ski team have a first-hand positive review for their electric socks, so check out the whole range for toasty toes and hands on your next trip to the mountains.

USD $29.99

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A Heli-Skiing Experience

Need we say more? The pinnacle of powder skiing experiences out there is heli-skiing, and even if your ‘skier who has everything’ has been before, there is ALWAYS time for another day in the Heli. Even if you are a non-skier, it’s easy to understand the thrill of a day spent in a helicopter with a guide and other like-minded people - enjoying fresh powder and untracked snow. After such an incredible experience they will literally be grinning ear to ear. New Zealand is a world-class provider of heli-skiing and you can even get a seat in the Heli in Japan if you are lucky with the weather. Canada is the world-leader in heli-ski adventures and is literally brimming with Heli operations… contact Mabey Ski to enquire about the best operations around the world and we will help you get the gift certificate organised.

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The 3 types of onsen in Japanese ski towns; which one is for you?


Most people don’t take much convincing to visit the onsen after a day of mountain adventure. Chilly toes, flushed cheeks and tired bodies are the essential ingredients for the perfect onsen experience. Just peel off your layers, wash, then soak until cooked through. You will feel warm, tension-free and ready for another soul-filling day of snow adventures.


Discover the Japanese fountain of youth…

By definition, onsen water must contain at least one of nineteen designated chemical elements and be at least 25˚C when it comes out of the ground. Most onsen are piping hot, at least 35 – 40˚C. The health benefits of onsen water have been well-documented since the early eighteenth-century; if you have an ailment, a dip in the silky-smooth thermal elixir is likely to soothe it.

In ski resort areas, most Gaijin (foreigners) will notice three different types of onsen:

  • hotel/resort onsen

  • traditional rustic onsen

  • baths (or sentō)

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Here’s what to expect from the three different types of onsen experiences on offer… and why you simply cannot pass up your chance to bathe naked with strangers.

For a full run down on how to onsen check out; Our essential guide to onsen etiquette.



Soak up some luxury...

The hotel/resort onsen is the one you see on the cover of a brochure. With beautifully manicured private outdoor pools and elaborate modern indoor facilities, these onsen are usually part of a resort or hotel, but they are open to walk-ins. You will be greeted in English and will bathe amongst people from the East and West. There are often spectacular gardens and views and the mood is usually contemplative or quietly social.

Step back in time…

Traditional onsen are minimalistic, quaint old buildings tucked away in the mountainside or side streets and managed by a local family. Some are automated which means you may not see or speak to a single soul. If you do, they’ll likely be locals quietly going about their day. These onsen are a quirky but quintessential part of Japanese culture and are worth hunting down. Some even serve onsen tamago, an egg slow-cooked to perfection in the hot spring water after bathing. Don’t expect anyone to speak English. Do expect a full immersion into authentic Japanese culture that you won’t find in resort hotels.

All baths are relaxing…

Sentō (or bath) is a public bath that is usually found in a Ryokan, a small Japanese pension or hotel. Before homes or hotel rooms in Japan commonly had baths, this is where the people would go to wash. Despite the decreasing numbers of these communal bathhouses, some Japanese feel that it’s important to be physically close to others socially and that it will lead to emotional intimacy. Sentō can also be found in large luxurious hotel chains in cities that do not have access to an onsen hot spring. There might be no minerals in the water, but aside from that, the experience is similar and wonderfully relaxing.

Dip your toe in…

For those feeling a little prudish, it’s totally okay, ask around and choose an onsen that you think you’ll feel comfortable in. You can chill out solo in a corner of a giant hot pool, take your kids (who will think it’s the best thing ever) or go with a friend and have a quiet chat. No one really seems to care about being nude (aside from newbies) so keep your eyes up and go with the flow. You will be surprised how quickly you become accustomed to it and look forward to the next time.


Private onsens... the 4th type of onsen.

Ask your local contact if there is an onsen in town that you can book out exclusively for your group. You can wear bathers, have a mixed onsen or simply lap it up yourself for an hour or so. Perfect.

For a full run down on how to onsen check out; Our essential guide to onsen etiquette.


The essential guide to onsen etiquette...

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A visit to the onsen is intrinsic with life in Japan; without it… it wouldn’t be life in Japan. It’s easy to overcomplicate onsen etiquette so we’re going to make it easy for you. The rules can vary, but rest assured the basics remain the same. 

Bring your birthday suit. Clothes go into a little basket or locker provided in the change room once you enter. Be neat. You are in Japan.

The best shower. Ever. Keeping the onsen water clean is a big deal so washing thoroughly before you enter is a must. And actually, this can be the best part: sit down (so you don’t splash your neighbour), lather up, wash your hair, condition, exfoliate, have a shave… all from the comfort of your little plastic stool and personal mirror. Japanese people are serious about cleanliness and you will notice locals doing the same, so indulge a little, it’s like a day spa. Well… a naked one anyway.

Resort onsens will have an intriguing array of shampoos, conditioners, soaps and body lotions on offer. Bring your own or have fun trying out the quirky Japanese ones. Traditional onsens may have only shampoo or body soap, so bring your own potions if you want some extra pampering.


Towels. In the onsen you will rarely see anyone walking around in a towel, but if you want to keep covered up before you hop into the water, you can. Men are sometimes issued with a ‘modesty towel’. Just pop it on your head once you are in, and be sure that towelling never touches the water.

Tattoos are a little taboo. Traditionally, people with tattoos aren’t allowed in onsens because of an age-old association to organised crime and the Yakuza. Times are a-changing though and more onsens are making exceptions. Ski towns and other tourist areas do tend to relax the rules, so if you’re sporting ink it shouldn’t be a problem.

Hair up. It’s all about keeping the water clean. Do not dunk your head and do not let your hair fall into the water. For all those men with long hair; it’s man bun time.

Not an après bar. Traditionally, onsens do not allow alcohol but as Japan moves with the times this rule is often relaxed. Many onsens have vending machines with alcohol and soft drinks so it’s okay to take in a relaxing beverage. Most people enjoy a little warm sake, a cold beer or an ice cream after the onsen in the chill-out room.


Watch and learn. Just remember, gaijin (foreigners) can inadvertently offend Japanese people in any of a thousand different ways, at any moment. Japanese people won’t confront you about it because they are too polite and it’s seen as disrespectful. But as a traveller; when in doubt, observe how the locals act, and act accordingly.
(Link) Not all onsen were created equally; so you’re feeling ready to give it a go, check out the 3 Types of Onsen in Japanese Ski Towns.


Experiential travel is booming...


As people learn that happiness can come from spending money on experiences, rather than material things.

‘Life’s too short’ is an age-old saying, but never has it been more relevant today when our work/life balance has become blurred and people are searching further for an experience that goes beyond the cover of the travel brochure. 

If you haven’t heard of experiential travel, then it’s high time you did. Also known as ‘immersion travel’, experiential travel is a form of tourism where the focus is on experiencing a place by actively engaging with its history, people, culture, food and environment. The trend is booming, and it can often be transformative which is why it’s considered more of a movement in the direction of authenticity and honouring of cultural traditions, than a passing fad.


Gone are the days when travellers are content to simply be in a country, visit its landmarks and enjoy its scenery. The experiential travel movement illustrates a deeper desire to connect with a place and return home with more than a photo album, but memories of time spent immersed in a new culture and enriched with knowledge from an activity steeped in history or tradition.

Skiing through ice caves, stomping grapes in the vineyard, learning how to make Japanese Mochi sweets and mountain biking through a World Heritage Park may sound amazing, but these experiences can be surprisingly hard to come by.

The digital age and social media have a firm grip on our attention and every day we are inundated with idyllic images of travellers immersed in a foreign culture; breathing in the space around them, tasting, learning, ‘doing’... experiencing.

We are all hungry for something different.

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Unfortunately, for your average online package deal tourist, gaining access to these intimate experiences is nearly impossible. Travellers today want greater control, more flexibility and a more personalised trip than what regular online travel agencies are providing. With the reality of fake reviews, over publicised destinations, flash deals and misleading alerts of ‘limited availability’ - people are losing confidence in what the online travel behemoths are selling. With good reason.

It’s no surprise that people have turned to boutique travel agencies to design their experience around the unique goals of their group. Personalised, agile and uniquely flexible around the needs of the guest - small travel specialists are extremely well connected with local ‘insiders’ and contacts to ensure the guest connects authentically with the heartbeat of the place they are visiting.

By nature, a ski holiday is a classic example of experiential travel, but every skier knows that ski resorts can be a hive of foreigners and crowds of people all trying to do the same thing at the same time! For those in search of something unique, it can be underwhelming at best. 


Mabey Ski Founder, Nickie Mabey, has watched the experiential travel movement evolve from within the industry and formed a boutique travel operation after she identified a clear gap in what regular online ski travel agents are offering, and what the experiential travel market wants.

If you’d like any more information about what the travel specialists at Mabey Ski can do for your group, click here to be connected with a team member.

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How I fell in love in love with skiing…

I struggled to understand why anyone would ski after my disastrous first experience in a beginner class of approximately 15 people. I wouldn’t say I liked the boots or the skis and the instructor practically spent the whole lesson yelling at me.

During the entire session, I kept wondering what exactly was wrong with me. I was never that bad at learning something new, and for a while I became worried that skiing was not going to be my thing… a particularly horrifying thought given I am part of the Mabey Ski team.

The second time I attempted skiing, I was booked in for three private lessons with Hokkaido Core in Niseko. I remember feeling so nervous, in hopes that my instructor wouldn’t turn up. Fortunately, he did. Winstead is a professional instructor and co-founder of Hokkaido Core; a calm and patient professional who understood what was needed within 5 minutes of conversation during the car ride to the resort. I was beginning to relax.

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As we put our boots on Winstead could see I was struggling, so he stopped everything, sat beside me and literally helped me put them on the correct way. I thought to myself – ‘wow, these boots don’t feel so bad compared to the last time!’

Next, we headed out to the beginner section of the slopes, and he said,

“Today, we are going to learn pizza.”

Referring to the triangle shape formed with your skis to slow down. My biggest fear when it comes to skiing was not knowing how to stop, and I remember being yelled at during the first lesson when I did not instantly pick it up. I was relieved when Winstead had decided to give me a refresher on this very important topic.



He patiently guided me through the angles, the tricks, how my legs should be positioned and got me to test it out myself – even cheered me after each try. Within 30 minutes I wanted to do more! It just kept getting better.

The lifts were not working as it was early in the season so each time after a run, we had to walk up the slope for the next run. Winstead insisted he carried both his and my skis, apologising that the lifts were not working. Wow, I was impressed!

Within 2 hours, I remember saying ‘let’s go higher’ repeatedly. I wanted to ski more; I was falling in love with it! Everything I was afraid of before, he managed to reverse! By the end of the day it was clear that if I ever have a lesson again, it will be a private lesson so my instructor can tailor the class especially for me. However, even with private lessons, finding the right instructor is not a breeze. That is the fantastic part of being at Mabey Ski; they source the best fit.


This experience left me excited and ready to reevaluate my previous thoughts around skiing. I had gone for a private lesson to become a better skier and instead found myself falling in love with the sport.

Simply put—without professionals like Winstead at Hokkaido Core, there’s a good chance I might have hung up my skis, and that would have meant missing out on a sport I now love.


New to winter holidays? 5 Essential tips for first-time skiers...

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It’s that time of year again. Your social media feed is filling up with posts from friends having these seemingly idyllic winter holidays. You see fluffy snow, people rugged up in front of crisp mountain backdrops, open fireplaces and mugs of Gluhwein. It all looks fantastic… and you’re not even really sure what Gluhwein is.

If you’ve been eyeing off the mountains for years, but unsure whether your family or group will take to the snow, you’re not alone. There’s a huge trend of people from snow-less countries who’ve discovered that a yearly retreat to the mountains contains the perfect combination of adventure and pampering.

Some people wait a lifetime for moments like these. Some don’t.

It’s time to learn what all the fuss is about. Especially for those who live in a year-round tropical paradise (read; stifling hot every day), a winter holiday could be exactly the sanctuary you need. But snowsports holidays can be a lot to comprehend for first-timers. There are hundreds of questions to ask - most of which will make you look like a newbie - but that’s okay too. Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re booking your first (of many) winter holidays.


 It’s about the mountains, not just skiing. 

Rest assured there is always one or two in the group…  and sometimes it’s the whole group. Whether they’ve been injured or are a little risk-averse, the ‘’non-skier’’ is a common occurrence in the mountains. But here’s the thing; focus on what the non-skier can do. Skiing and snowboarding are just one tiny slice of the pie, so when you zoom back from them, you’ll see there is a whole lot more to mountains than sliding around on snow.

Japan is a cultural hotbed. Need we say more? You can bathe in a natural onsen after long hard ski, take a day off the slopes to visit Buddhist temples and learn how to roll sushi or head to a quirky little ‘izakaya’ for an authentic dining experience. You can attend cultural events, drumming ceremonies, fire festivals or take a day to explore nearby towns or cities. Most resorts have certain lifts you can board as a non-skier, which take you to on-mountain restaurants so you can meet up with your group for lunch and après-ski. There’s nothing like a few drinks on the mountain top ‘after skiing’ with your group. But honestly, for those who have not spent a day with a good book in front of an open crackling fireplace with an alpine view… you haven’t lived yet.


Local knowledge is essential. 

It would be unfair to play down the importance of this, especially in a tourism landscape where we tend to be corralled into the most popular or newly discovered destination. Don’t be that group. Make sure you have a trusted local on the ground who knows how to ‘zig’ when everyone else is ‘zagging’.

Change your mind and need to switch a booking? Done. Want to add a heli trip to a sunny day? Too easy. Want to go on a temple tour? Your local contact will drive you. Holidays can be a lot of hard work when you try to arrange everything yourself - give yourself a break. Especially if you are new to the mountains, a friendly local will make you feel like a seasoned regular, rather than the new kid on the block heckling to get to the front of the line.

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Time spent in the mountains with your people, is time well spent.

Pristine alpine destinations are the perfect environment to push your own boundaries and cultivate lifelong experiences. Some non-skiers feel obliged or pressured to take part in specific snowsports, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. People who ski every day on their winter holiday often return to their daily grind completely exhausted, barely able to move and with a wicked goggle tan. You don’t have to be that person. The mountains are a haven from the rat race.

It doesn’t matter how you roll on your winter holiday, just be sure to get out amongst it and enjoy it with your people. There are hundreds of ways to make memories that will last a lifetime. From whatever your perspective, soak up the majesty of the mountain tops and listen to the silence. Your soul will thank you for it.


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If you decide to try snowsports, let a professional make it fun for you.

Most of the time, snowsports are within everyone’s reach. It’s an exhilarating feeling of freedom and adventure. You could be that person gliding gracefully down the slope too. In fact, snowsports are actually relatively simple, they don’t involve a massive amount of robust athleticism, just a little bit of gravity and some specific skills. But don’t be fooled by outward appearances, you still need to learn from a pro.

 Under no circumstance should you allow the non-skier in your group to accept lessons from family or friends! This will likely ruin their whole experience, plus they could even get injured. Snowsports are somewhat counter-intuitive, so it is imperative that you take lessons, preferably privates, from a professional instructor who will get you up to speed in no time. You can either have an amazing time with an expert who is fun loving (and super cute) … or, you can spend a few hours with a friend getting frustrated on the wrong terrain and then quit. The choice is yours.


Talk to people in the mountains. Create yourself a village.

Ski resorts are bustling places, alive with the energy of adventurous people on that mountain high. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves, so do a little friending on your holiday. Chat to people in restaurants. Strike up a conversation on ski lifts. Meet up with other groups for a drink at après-ski. Most people in resorts are visitors just like you so it’s easy to meet like-minded people. Many lifelong friendships began in the mountains. In fact, Nickie Mabey’s grandparents met in the French ski resort Meribel back in 1947.

The possibilities are endless. Expand your boundaries and create some memorable experiences. As John Muir famously said;

“The mountains are calling and I must go”

It’s time. Experience something new. Hopefully something unexpected! After all, is this not why we embark on travel in the first place?