The most important thing when going on a ski vacation is, of course, the skiing (or the boarding, if you're that way inclined). Then there's the weather, the snow, the scenery, the dining, the locals, the atmosphere, and the fun. If they all come together right, it's almost guaranteed to be one awesome vacation.
Having been lucky enough to visit more than 200 ski destinations, I've developed an additional criteria, which can help a ski resort go from memorable to very special. It's what I call the "surreal factor," something one ski area offers that no others do -- hopefully something weird, something wacky.
Fortunately, quite a few ski resorts around the world are keen to oblige. Here are some of my favorites:
The Dachstein Shark
Although its slopes are now around 7,000 feet above sea level, Austria's Alps were once at the bottom of the ocean, and fossilized remains of an ice shark have been found up there.
To commemorate this fact, the wise folk of Obertraun Ski Area decided to build a metal, full-scale model of the prehistoric mega shark. A helicopter capable of lifting 6,500 tons was used to transport the giant fish up onto the slopes. Unlike the original sharks, it's possible to take a walk inside, climb up and look out through its jaws -- though that's more of a summer activity. In winter you're more likely to ski and board past and, if you didn't know it was there, say "What the heck!?"
The St Moritz Submarine
Alas, the St Moritz submarine has already sailed away, but it was so good while it was there that it deserves a special mention.
Last winter, residents of the famous Swiss resort awoke to the sound of sirens wailing and opened their window shutters to see an unbelievable sight -- a submarine had broken through the ice of frozen Lake St Moritz. The vision was particularly incredible because like Lake Tahoe, the St Moritz Lake is fully land-locked and located some 1800m above sea level.
The submarine was an art installation/pop up bar, created by the inventor Andreas Reinhard, who has made a name for himself after he created the first upside-down hot-air balloon in 1994.
Sponsored by the resort's Kulm Hotel and built (in utmost secrecy) over a two-week period in a warehouse near Zurich, it was then transported in pieces to St Moritz and assembled overnight so that its arrival was a complete surprise to local residents.
Artesina's Giant Pink Rabbit
If there was ever a rabbit you might be able to see from space, the giant pink rabbit at the top of Italy's Artesina slopes is it.
Now nearly a decade old, the pink rabbit was lovingly created by a collective of artists over five years, between 2000 and 2005. Ten years later, after being out in the elements and covered in snow every year, it has seen its fair share of wear and tear. However, being an artistic project, bio-degrading was part of the plan all along, and the massive pink bunny is expected to leave the slopes by 2025.
Rocky The Rock of New Zealand
OK, so seeing a rock on the mountains is not the most exciting or unusual thing you're likely to see on your ski vacation, but New Zealand's Rocky the Rock is a bit different.
"He" is a 25-tonne boulder that probably spent a good few eons happily living life (well, doing whatever rocks do anyway) at Mt Hutt Ski Area, before the February 2011 earthquake knocked him loose. Rocky rolled down the mountain and landed in a house, fortunately not injuring anyone.
Last year, Mt Hutt paid $50,000 to buy Rocky back via a charity auction site in New Zealand (equivalent to eBay). He made his triumphant return on a low loader over several days and now spends his time hanging out by the base building.
Jesus of Montana
It's quite common to see a crucifix at the top of the slopes, particularly in the Alps where most resorts still have strong Catholic ties. At Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana, however, it can come as a surprise to those not expecting to run in to a 'life-size' statue of Jesus on the slopes.
The statue was erected and is cared for by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's organization. It has so far resisted attempts by groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation to get the statue evicted.
"The statue's secular and irreverent uses far outweigh the few religious uses it has served. The statue is most frequently used as a meeting point for skiers and a site for photo opportunities, rather than a solemn place for religious reflection," said the judge who turned down the Foundation's request.
Picasso in the Alps
Flaine, one of the leading ski areas in the Alps, is also a major centre for modern arts. Its founders in the 1960s were big fans of modernism and classical music. The original accommodation, which some visitors view as a "concrete monstrosity," is in fact a statement of high architectural standards from the Bauhaus style of design. The architect of Flaine is also responsible for the UNESCO building in Paris.
Flaine's most famous artistic statement, however, is a large Picasso sculpture of a woman's head, which towers above you as you ski down to the base. Surreal art made more surreal by its unlikely location. Superb.
This post originally ran on the Liftopia blog.