Skiing in The Netherlands is not a concept that comes easily to mind. Surely most of the country is technically below sea level, and what's left is pretty flat? Surely this isn't a country famed for its snow? Ice skating on frozen canals perhaps, but no snow skiing.
Well Holland does have eight snow centres, but they're all indoors. It's quite a healthy tally, only Japan has more, and they're all small, old facilities from the mid-1990s. The indoor snow centres of the Netherlands are largely impressive structures, and none more so than the world's largest (no, it's not ski Dubai...), SnowWorld at Landgraaf in the very south of the country.
It's one of two SnowWorld indoor snow centres (the other at Zoetermeer is slightly smaller) and has eight lifts (just like Aspen mountain!), including the world's only indoor six-seater detachable chairlift, a nice Doppelmayr model, serving runs up to 550m long and the world's largest indoor terrain park which has some pretty fearsome features.
Although you may not need a trail map, 550m is a pretty long run and many local and national race teams come here for off-season training and the Snowboard World Cup even rolls in to town each October for the world's best to compete indoors during that difficult few months when the southern hemisphere ‘s winter is largely over but the northern hemisphere's hasn't kicked off yet.
Teams even value indoor training over outdoor on glaciers to some extent as the controlled environment means it's easier to perfect technique in controlled conditions before moving out to the more variable mountain environment.
SnowWorld is opening from early morning to 11 p.m or midnight each day and although it only gets completely full in the peak holiday season, can accommodate up to 1500 people on its slopes at any one time. It is particularly surreal to wander in to the complex from a fairly deserted Dutch suburb at 10 p.m to find it heaving with skiers on the slopes and the après ski bars around the base of the slope full of lively après-skiers.
The facility has grown to such an extent that a swish four-star hotel was added last year, allowing guests to make a complete holiday out of staying there, and Europe's largest high ropes course is currently under construction outside to create a new attraction.
There are two main slopes either side of the terrain park and separate nursery slopes and a tubing park.
One especially novel attraction is a full Alpine chalet half way up the slope where thirsty skiers and boarders can stop for a drink half way up the run without leaving the indoor slopes. This is reported to have created a surreal twist on the new anti-smoking laws across Europe, with smokers something from the indoor ski hut and lighting up on the slopes, forgetting that they are actually still indoors!
So where is the hill high enough to create a 100m vertical in one of the world's flattest countries? The answer is that this is a regenerated former slag heap from the local coal industry. SnowWorld is one of multiple modern and historic attractions in the area.
Another is a new concrete flight of stairs which climbs up the back of the hill that SnowWorld sits on. It has about 520 steps and is believed to be the longest constant stair in the world.
The surrounding area is Parkstad Attractief which represents the successful restructuring an industrial area into a top tourist region, which includes excellent parkland and a zoo as well as Snowworld.
The area is also rich in history, including miles and miles of underground caves used by the various powers in the area for many century and now open for tours by mountain mike or atv.
The historic city of Maastrict where Mrs Thatcher joyfully signed the treaty of Europe is also nearby well as well as what was believed to be Europe's most impregnable fortress in the 1930s, Fort Eben Emael, where 75 hectares of high ground was connected by a series of tunnels and bunkers, containing a battalion of soldiers and dozens of huge guns. The German army took it in 15 minutes in 1940 after landing silently on gliders and dropping high explosive in to the bunkers.
From the top of the hill (and through a window at the top of the lift inside SnowWorld) there are great views out across neighbouring Belgium and Germany as well as across Holland, where, it's a relief to see one traditional stereotype remains unscathed - windmills. There are hundreds of them, albeit the modern variety generating green energy rather than grinding flour.