Known as Les Alpes in French, Le Alpi in Italian and Die Alpen in
German; when it starts to snow, this European region is fondly called 'Europe's Winter
So let's wrap up warm and glide out onto the slopes for some
serious, seasonal fun; or at least enjoy the views.
Whether you've only learnt to stand up in skis on a dry slope or are
comfortable turning in powder up to your knees, there's something for everyone in The
From old-world chalet charm and lively après-ski at reasonably
affordable prices (Austria) to glitzy, ritzy show-off your wealth and never blink an
eyelid at the price you pay for efficiency and dignity on the mountain (Switzerland).
Maybe you prefer purpose-built resorts at altitude (France) or the
leisurely Cappuccino and Grappa, fashion parades (Italy).
Alpine Sking © Michel - photos.travelnotes.org
If only it were that simple.
Like a baby lamb trying to get tender legs to support its already
eager body, a keen skiing beginner will want to get out on the piste and ski. I know I
My friend had already broken a thumb on the dry slope matting in
England but that didn't stop us from wanting to go up to the famous Piz Gloria (On Her
Majesty's Secret Service) revolving restaurant at Schilthorn
and then - after admiring views of the
surrounding Eiger (3,970m), Mönch (4,099m) and Jungfrau
(4,158m) peaks - wanting to ski back down to Mürren.
What a mistake!
Unlike in a James Bond film, there were no stunt doubles around to
take our places; as we flew over the edge, down the start of a terrifying black run, with
no director to shout cut. What we very soon had though, was an audience.
Is it possible to sweat in such cold conditions? You can bet your life
it is. Should you not look down? Not look up? Whatever, everyone was looking at us.
This is not the way to thoroughly enjoy your first skiing holiday:
head-first into a ski vacation from hell, with what seemed like Blofeld (Telly Savalas)
and his henchmen in hot pursuit.
Luckily we had a Swiss
Pass (which allows free travel on Switzerland's efficient transportation system) so we
were soon leaving the high peaks of the Jungfrau Ski Region to something a little more
fitting for a couple of novice skiers - the Alpes
Vaudois; or more to the point, Leysin.
With the Mayen ski area located at 1,800 metres and the nearby peaks
just a little over the two thousand mark, we enrolled in skiing lessons for the next few
days and learnt how to stop properly on snow; without needing to drop the ski poles and
hit the ground to do so.
If you're a novice skier, or a parent with children, you might want to
think about similar resorts.
Most of the so-called beginner ski resorts have a few red
(intermediate) runs for you to aim toward and even a challenging black run to test your
nerve. Leysin also has a 'freestyle park' for the snowboarders (two, if you include Les
Parchets - a 10 minute ski bus ride from Solepraz).
(Austria) is where Diana, Princess
of Wales chose to take the young Princes, William and Harry. The ski resort of Lech
has a touch of class, an excellent ski school, and - for fast learners - links to the Ski
Arlberg region around St Anton;
famous for it's après ski and schnapps-chasing, beer-drinking Aussies on a working winter
Austria's Zell am
See-Kaprun region prides itself on a tradition of catering to, and providing special
packages for, families with children; right down to the playful ski
lessons for kids who can barely walk.
If your skiing is less about the charm and more about the purpose then
France might be ideal for you.
British skiers can comfortably take the car down the French Autoroute,
or use one of the budget airlines serving Geneva (easyJet), Chambery (Snowjet), and Grenoble (Ryanair); for easy access to Alpe d'Huez, Avoriaz, La Plagne and
We soon felt comfortable enough on skis to visit one of Switzerland's
most famous resorts - Zermatt - for
Christmas, then catch the train back down along the Rhone river to party with the chalet
girls in Verbier; on New Year's
The Verbier chalets are very popular with the British; although not
many of them would think about staying at The
Lodge - Sir Richard Branson's mega-expensive, pay-to-stay, mountain retreat.
The people who will get the most out of Verbier (apart from friends of
the Virgin magnate) are those who like to get out the piste-map and really explore the
mountains and valleys (Les 4 vallées) on skis; once
they've beaten the lift queue out of the village. This is my idea of what a lot of
intermediate skiing is all about; an adventure of discovery on the snowy mountains - with
a few restaurant stops along the way for good measure.
Looking back up the valley, Zermatt is one of my all-time favourite
If taking the red mountain train up from Brig isn't enough, one
arrives to streets deserted of cars. Electric taxis and horse-drawn carriages wait at the
station and soon you're rewarded with a glimpse of the Matterhorn. This is chocolate-box
The skiing is varied enough for everyone and there is a wide choice of
accommodation for all budgets. Yes, there is a place for budget travellers in Zermatt too
and that's why this Swiss ski resort really gets my vote.
Brig is quite a hive of activity during the ski season as trains come
around Lac Leman from Geneva, through the mountains from Bern and across the border from
Milan. Ski travellers not going up to Zermatt might prefer the south-facing slopes of
French-speaking Crans-Montana, opt
to take a yellow Postbus up to the traditonal Alpine village of Saas Fee, or catch one of the other red
mountain trains - the Glacier Express - over the Furka and on to glitzy St. Moritz.
I've been on plenty of rail journeys in my time but this one is
special. To really do the Glacier
Express in style is to travel the whole journey from Zermatt to St Moritz (in
Graubünden); leaving just after breakfast and arriving in time for an evening aperitif.
Even if you can't afford to stay at Badrutt's
Palace, it's worth stopping by for a little cocktail.
Once over in the Graubünden part of
Switzerland, and you've still got any money left after a visit to St Moritz, you might
find yourself glancing at various timetables out of Lenzerheide or Chur, and I wouldn't
blame you. Davos/Klosters, Arosa, or Flims-Laax?
Getting to Arosa (on the small
railway from Chur) is probably the most romantic, especially if the trees are embracing
some fresh snow as they did the first time I made the journey up the valley; Laax (by bus from Chur) will impress most intermediate
skiers but for me it has to be Davos.
When I lived in Zurich for a while, I'd spend many a winter weekend in
Davos; although I never bumped into Prince Charles. The best part is skiing across the
Parsenn and down into Klosters; from a sprawling town patronised by world leaders to a
mountain village preferred by Royalty.
Connecting Switzerland with Haute Savoie, in France, is the Portes du Soleil region. The contrasts
between quaint Champéry (Switzerland) and purpose-built Avoriaz (France) couldn't be
greater, or even more chilling; to the aesthetically sensitive.
Down into Savoie, another large ski area for improving beginners and
progressive intermediates is Val d'Isere
and Tignes. At 2,100 metres, Tignes (or Espace
Killy) is all about skiing. While Val d'Isere, lower down (1,850m) and a few valleys over,
still retains some of its soul.
It's not all ice-cold and bland in the French ski resorts as there
always seems to be a little balance; especially in the larger ski areas.
At 2,300 metres, Val Thorens is the highest
ski resort in Europe; the Meribel
chalet scene could be called the beating heart of Les 3 Valees; and some of the
best dining can be experienced in Courchevel.
The most expensive hotels in the French Alps seem to be grouped around
Courchevel 1850, which
makes for some fine people watching. If the snow is good, be sure to ski right down to the
oldest village in the area, Courchevel 1300 (Le Praz).
But for me, the nicest ski village in France has to be Megève. Unbelieveably, it's just off the
Geneva to Mont Blanc motorway and very easy to get to. Miss this one at your peril.
If extreme skiing is your thing, then keep on driving to Chamonix; a hardy town where everyone
seems to breathe Mont Blanc (4,810m) - the highest mountain in the Alps.
Many people come to Chamonix just to ski the Vallée Blanche - a 20km
off-piste ski route, that descends some 2,700 metres in altitude. An even greater
challenge is to ski the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route.
Not to be taken lightly is La Grave; found along the D1091
between Les Deux-Alpes and the Col du Lautaret, on the road to Briançon. This is not
where you would deliberately plan to go on a skiing holiday, as there are no marked runs
and you descend from where the cable car drops you off (3,200m) at your own risk.
On the other side of the Mont Blanc, in Italy's Aosta Valley, Courmayeur struggles to compete with her
French sister, Chamonix.
To be honest, if I'm going to ski in Italy I prefer to head east to
Trento and along the Rendena Valley for a good day's skiing in Madonna di Campiglio before continuing on to Bolzano
and The Dolomites.
There's no better place to stay than Cortina d'Ampezzo. Even
James Bond made an appearance here, in 'For Your Eyes Only'.
When skiing the Val Gardena
Sella Ronda don't forget to stop for an afternoon Grappa, in Grappa. What a truly
wonderful way to pass a sunny Winter's day.
If you like to party and have already been to St Anton (Austria), then
maybe consider Kitzbühel in Tyrol - off the
main road between Innsbruck and Salzburg. Crossing back into Austria from Italy means
we've pretty much done the Alpine ski circuit.
See You Next Year
When you visit The Alps you might find it so hard to choose just one
resort to ski in, that you decide to travel around the valleys and mountains to really
enjoy the varied pleasures of our Alpine winters like I did. You may even be back to hike
and bike in the summer.
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Extra Ski Related Links
Select country and then resort for snow forecasts and resort reviews.
A good place to check out live weather conditions.
Anyone who knows me will know what a fan I am of Michelin maps and this online route
planner in particular. So much so that I've even added it to the Travel Notes toolbar. This Ski tab
allows us to quickly plot the ski resorts on a map; complete with latest weather and
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