In from the cold Where to stay and eat in Pragelato Go there

 

The Irish investors behind a five-star Italian ski resort have turned their hotel complex around. The skiing’s not bad either, writes KILLIAN FORDE

IT ISN’T SUPPOSED to be like this. The glossy folder left on the table in my lounge suggested comfort, bliss, even nirvana. On its cover a beautifully toned woman lay on her perfect back. Yet I find myself awkwardly shuffling around a small room in a blue paper G-string, awaiting my “beauty artisan” – gender still not established.

Aside from my nervous twitching, the only sound is the fold of waves – or is it whales? – piped from some hidden and expensive speakers. I am far from relaxed. In short, I am not happy to be in touch with my feminine side. I feel, to use the clinical term, like a big girl’s blouse.

I am attending the opening weekend of Kempinski Pragelato Village, for which Kempinski, a German luxury-hotel group, has hooked up with a few Irish investors to combine Paddy money with Teutonic know-how and turn the press village for the 2006 Winter Olympics into a series of five-star chalets.

The complex is impressive, with four restaurants, private ski hire and fitting service, a ski school, a spacious swimming pool and spa, and a cute boutique selling Prada and Gucci. This is all served by a dedicated lift that feeds skiers and boarders into the Milky Way, a 400km spaghetti mess of pistes that crosses the border into France.

The resort used to be owned and run by an Irish consortium including Paddy Kelly and Alistair Tidey. Kelly, a passionate Swiss-based skier who made his fortune in “pharma” – not as a farmer, as I initially misheard – says he thought “it would be marvellous to pop over at the weekend, check in with the management that everything’s okay and spend the time skiing and relaxing”. Instead he found himself “hiding in the hotel so I wouldn’t be asked my opinion on the colour of napkins or whether someone could have the day off”. When it got so bad that he “stopped altogether coming to my own hotel”, Kelly called in Kempinski.

The refurbishment involved stripping out all the public areas of the village. Local dark woods, soft furnishing and stone have helped to retune the resort, which now has understated lighting, real fires and natural Alpine light. The finish works really well: too often Alpine design overdoses on pine, leaving an overly functional space that looks like a gold prospector’s cabin.

Most visitors will stay in one of the generously sized chalets, 101 of which cluster around the square housing the main building, shops and restaurants. Although the farthest chalet is only a couple of hundred metres from reception, a fleet of electric cars, with polite, well-groomed chauffeurs, stands by to ferry you to and fro.

The rooms of the chalets, which go for low-key luxury, are huge for a ski resort. A similarly sized chalet in France would have enough beds, sofas, shelves and boards to accommodate a small midlands town; here it sleeps just two.

SO WHAT ABOUT THE SKIING? After a breakfast that involves a paralysing pre-caffeine choice of 16 breads, and despite fantastic early snow, the Italian lifties are being awkward. Our hotel lift remains shut, so we take a minibus to Sestriere, a short drive up the valley.

Sestriere claims to be the first resort built for winter sports, having been constructed in the 1930s by Giovanni Agnelli to provide cheap holiday accommodation for his workers at the Fiat factories, 100km away in Turin. The village was the main venue for the 2006 Winter Olympics and has been a starting and finishing point for both the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.

It could also lay claim to be the Italian Alps’ most unsightly resort. Usually a good snowfall can work wonders on any urban area. Unless 30m of snow fell, I can’t see how Sestriere’s high-rise hotels, traffic-clogged streets, half-hearted pedestrian area and cluttered nursery slopes could ever be beautified.

A short ski down towards Borgata, however, and we are in a long tree-lined valley dotted with traditional houses and barns. One of the seven resorts of the Milky Way, the hamlet of Borgata offers pretty intermediate skiing with a 1,000m vertical drop.

Sauze d’Oulx, the best-known of the Milky Way resorts, sits on the other side of the valley, a casual 40-minute trip away, with opportunities to sneak off for some fantastic wide-open off-piste routes back down the Chisone Valley.

The more adventurous can lunch in France by making a long day trip to Montgenèvre – although missing the ski-lift connection home will result in a taxi ride that will cost more than your flight.

The Milky Way area has a plethora of nonskiing and nonboarding activities, including skating, curling, bobsleighing and paragliding. Off the snow the facilities are extensive, with sports centres, cinemas and some superb restaurants, nightclubs and bars. Being in Italy, they have good prices and superb food. The ski area is so large that all levels will be happy, and the varied nightlife has enough to satisfy all ages.

The sedate setting of Kempinski Pragelato Village is an ideal base for a whirl around the delights of the Milky Way.

BACK IN THE SPA, in my paper G-string, the door opens and I am both relieved and embarrassed that my beauty artisan is female. The petite woman introduces herself as Cindy from Montpellier. I shake her hand and look at my feet while mumbling to myself for no discernable reason.

Cindy gestures for me to lie on the thin sheet of transparent plastic covering the massage table. Then she mixes what looks like a jar of mayonnaise and black pepper but, according to my brochure, is grape seed and sea buckthorn, for my body wrap. I’ve never heard of sea buckthorn, never mind been wrapped in it. Cindy applies the mixture all over my body with what I think is one of those spoons you get with tubs of cinema ice cream. She wraps the plastic around me, then drapes a series of hot towels on top. I feel sticky, stressed and hot.

Then Cindy sits behind me for my facial massage. It is brilliant. With 30 seconds I have forgotten that I felt sticky, stressed and hot. Cindy, her fingers and a touch of oil and I am an incoherent boy in thrall. For 25 minutes I flip between drifting towards sleep and wanting to propose. It is over too soon.

I am hoping for a hug and a chat. She is probably just hoping for a tip: from the professional way Cindy unwraps me I can tell it means nothing to her.

Still, we will always have the memories. Well, I will anyway.

Killian Forde was a guest of Kempinski Pragelato Village

Where to stay

Kempinski Pragelato Village, Via Rohrbach,

Frazione Plan, Pragelato, 00-39-0122-740011. www.kempinski-pragelato.com. A three-night winter break, staying in a one-bedroom suite chalet and including dinner and breakfast, ski passes and access to the spa, costs €760 per person.

Hotel Stella Alpina. Via Miramonti 22/24, Sauze d’Oulx, 00-39-0122-858731, www.stellalpinahotel.it. Overnight from €45 per person sharing.

Where to eat

The Kempinski hotel has four restaurants, all under the supervision of Roman chef Heros de Agostinis. La Lucia serves sophisticated Italian cuisine; at the other end of the scale, Il Bergian serves enormous, delicious pizzas.

Il Capret (Via del Colle 64, Borgata, 00-39-0122-270215. A fine rustic on-slope restaurant that serves good-value pasta for skiers and boarders. Lies at the junction of the three lifts at the top end of Borgata.

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com) flies to Milan from Dublin and Belfast. It also flies to Nice, within reach of the resort, from Dublin and Cork. Ryanair (www.ryanair. com) flies to Turin and Bergamo from Dublin and Shannon. Cavourese coaches (www.cavourese.it) link the resort to the Italian airports, or take a train to Oulx and then a bus to Pragelato (www.trentitalia.com).