The arrival of the winter snows heralds the start of the skiing season and winter sports enthusiasts begin to look for the best places to enjoy some snow-filled fun. It would certainly seem that adventurous snow-bunnies are best catered for in Europe which has a long history of winter sports and there is no shortage of choice but it is well worth taking time to consider just what makes a great ski resort truly magical.
It is widely acknowledged that mountains which are beautiful in summer become truly spectacular when wearing their white winter coats and there could be a temptation to believe that any resort offering suitable slopes could be pretty much the same as another. The world has many great ski resorts but Europe boasts over 3,500 resorts, 3,750 km of slopes and over 15,500 ski lifts. Each of these has its own merits and in many ways trying to pick out the best is rather like being presented with a sack of diamonds and being asked to select a few favourites.
Our selection, therefore, is purely subjective based on locations offering a truly great skiing experience in jaw-droppingly beautiful surroundings. The first thing to remember is that, like most holiday resorts, ski resorts have often sprung up and been developed very quickly and such developments have often concentrated on getting the essential infrastructure in place in terms of accommodation and skiing facilities. In some cases, the developments may not have been designed in such a way as to enhance the local surroundings. For those simply looking at the technical aspects of the sport, this may not be a problem but ugly concrete constructions have no place in our list.
The next consideration is that the snow must be reliable meaning that inland mountain ranges and high altitudes are necessary and finally the emphasis is very much on the whole skiing experience rather than other attractions so the chance of catching sight of the northern lights at higher latitudes would have no bearing nor would the close proximity of a busy city. No attempt has been made to objectively rate qualities of piste and powder but instead to concentrate on what really matters for a wonderful skiing holiday. Rather predictably, the Alps feature highly in our list but with so many great skiing locations, our list is simply the tip of the snow peak.
5. Cortina d’Ampezo
This wonderful Italian ski resort is set in the spectacular Dolomite mountain range and for those who love mountain scenery, the Dolomites are hard to beat. Cortina is known as the queen of the Dolomites and is within the Dolomiti Superski area. The facilities are world-class and this was the location of the 1956 Winter Olympics. Cortina d’Ampezo is one of the world’s best known and most highly respected ski resorts drawing visitors from around the globe. Challenging runs are available for skiers of all abilities along with great accommodation and apres-ski scene. With modern ski lifts and guaranteed snow for a long season it is no wonder that this resort will be number one on many people’s list.
For those wishing to be at the centre of the skiing action, nowhere is more centrally located than Meribel which stands in the heart of France’s famous Three Valleys ski area. The result of this is that visitors to Meribel have access to a staggering 600 km of ski slopes. Despite its popularity, Meribel has retained its Alpine charm with many new timber chalet-style buildings. New developments are also designed to fit in perfectly with traditional architecture. This was one of the locations chosen for the 1992 Winter Olympics specifically for the women’s alpine skiing and for ice hockey at the Meribel Ice Palace. Transport for skiers is particularly good with a wide range of gondolas, cable cars, chair lifts and drag lifts. Skiers of all levels are catered for and for many Meribel epitomises an Alpine ski resort. Its name interestingly is derived from the Latin “mirare bel” meaning “to look at beautiful”. Few would disagree with the sentiment.
Wengen is an Alpine village in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland region. It has a long history as a ski resort but has retained much of its original charm and character. One notable feature is the fact that the village is virtually car free with access normally requiring a trip on the Vengernalp rack and pinion railway. This is also referred to as the Jungfraubahn railway and is the world’s longest railway of this type. In the village, there are a few taxis and farm vehicles but these are few and far between. With gondolas and a good range of ski lifts, skiers are well catered for, the emphasis being on novice and intermediate skiers. More advanced skiers may feel a little overlooked but there are some excellent advanced runs. Wengen may lack some of the razzmatazz of some of the newer larger resorts but it has a very friendly atmosphere and good apres ski facilities. The surrounding scenery is simply breathtaking especially as skiers climb to greater heights when the triple peaks of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch come clearly into view.
Anyone hoping to find the most beautiful village in Austria need look no further as Alpach claims this title. The traditional chalets are considered to be so much a part of the village’s character that local regulations now require all new buildings to incorporate a timber frontage and balcony. Although tiny in comparison to many resorts, the recently constructed gondola links mean that Alpach now has access to 145 km of pistes and is part of the Ski Juwel Area, the largest skiing area in Austria. It is famous for its hospitality and is particularly suitable for novice and intermediate skiers but suitable runs exist for all levels. The village is not set directly on the slopes but a free 10 minute bus ride takes skiers to the gondolas. In addition to the pistes, Alpach also provides the opportunity for some safe off-piste skiing when conditions are suitable.
At our number one spot is Zermatt, one of the world’s most picturesque alpine villages set high in the Swiss Alps close to the Italian border. The village is virtually car free and attracts visitors throughout the year. It is the highest ski resort in Europe and this means that snow is guaranteed. 200 km of slopes are available for all levels and there are some great ski lifts including the incredible Klein Matterhorn cable car which travels to the top of a shear mountain face at an altitude of 3820 m. Zermatt is one of the few ski resorts that can offer skiing for 365 days a year. Summer skiing takes place mainly on the Theodul glacier in an area called the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. The glacier actually originates from the west side of Briethorn but it passes directly beneath the mighty Matterhorn. A Zermatt ski school told us it is even possible to ski on powder snow on the glacier during the summer but this is only likely to be experienced in the morning so the best advice is to arrive early, not forgetting suitable sun protection. Mountain skiing simply does not get better than taking to the slopes in the sun overlooked by that iconic Toblerone mountain!