Snow addict MARTIN PEGAN recommends that you spend a bit extra to ensure a memorable ski and snowboard experience — forget the less developed and lower-lying resorts of Eastern Europe and head to one of the classics of the Alps.
Europe’s biggest and best mountains are popular for many reasons: good facilities, plenty of accommodation, vibrant nightlife and most importantly — great snow. The Europeans have been perfecting their mountain resorts for the last century, since the first alpine ski race took place in Austria in 1905.
In all that time, the only things they have not perfected seem to be snow-fashion sense and venturing off piste. But for visitors to the Alps these are just added bonuses — a fluorescent one piece is always good for a giggle, and untouched powder just metres from the official runs is a white goldmine that is near-impossible to find on mountains in North America.
But with so much fun just a short flight away, where should you go for your snow trip? Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, snow resorts in Eastern Europe have gradually grown in size and numbers.
With a cheaper cost of general living in countries like Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania the prices at their snow resorts are also lower. If only for this reason there are now truly-budget package deals to eastern resorts.
But you have to compare saving a few pounds with the fact that the resort might only have 25 runs and a few hundred metres of vertical drop (highest skiing area, to the lowest). The best resorts in the Alps, however, have hundreds of runs, with a good mix for beginners, intermediates and experts.
‘The Alps’ refers to the great mountain range that stretches from Austria and Slovenia in the east, through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west. The Alps has 31 peaks reaching to over 4000m, 24 of which are in Switzerland.
But for the very best skiing and snowboarding, it isn’t the size that matters, but the snow and terrain. Here is the best resort in each of the countries that make up most of the Alps — Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
While both of the most well known resorts in Austria — St Anton am Arlberg and Kitzbuhel — are amazing for powder, terrain, accommodation and nightlife, the ‘Anglicisation’ of St Anton since the European Union allowed workers from member countries to work in other member countries has almost turned the town into a ‘Little Britain’.
Kitz, as it is affectionately known, is of course also full of tourists. But with a number of smaller towns close by, such as neighbouring Kirchberg, it is not hard to experience a more traditional Austrian snow town as part of your trip.
Kitzbuhel is home to the famous Hahnenkamm downhill course, where skiers reach speeds of up to 150 kilometres per hour. While downhill racers must have great strength, stamina, technical expertise and courage if they wish to compete, there are also plenty of runs for beginners, intermediates and powder-junkies.
The sprawling French town of Chamonix is hidden under the highest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, which is on the French-Italian border and stands at 4808m. The International Ski Federation was founded here in 1924, with the first Winter Olympic Games held here during the same year.
Chamonix is now a tourist cold spot, with French, Italian and Swiss visitors mixing with package tourists and hardcore skiers and snowboarders. It is the climbing capital of Europe in summer, and has been ever since Mont Blanc was first ascended in 1786.
You can ride the glacier year round, but the best time to visit is either side of the winter school holidays when the lift lines are out of control.
Germany is not as renowned for its snow resorts as its neighbours are, but it does have this two mountain area which is up there with the best. In fact, the first ski club in central Europe was founded in Munich during the winter of 1890 to 1891 and the third Winter Olympic Games, the first to include alpine events like downhill and combined slalom, were held here in 1936.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen is located at the foot of Germany’s highest mountain, Zugspitze (2964m) and is one of the most important climatic health resorts in the Bavarian Alps as well as being a site for some great skiing and snowboarding. Of course, the Germans are all too aware of this, and with little competition around the country it can be crowded with snow enthusiasts, especially on weekends.
But when Austrians also make the effort to come here during winter there must be something good about the place.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, venue of the 1956 Winter Olympic Games, is known as the ‘Queen of the Dolomites’ and many of the guests assume they too are royalty. Rifugi is considered one of the most fashionable holiday resorts in Italy, and if there is one thing the Italians have over the rest of the skiers in Europe it is fashion.
This explains why lunch breaks on a sunny day can last through the afternoon, before the focus turns to exclusive shopping rather than aprÃ¨s ski. But there is some quality skiing and snowboarding to be found here, and like many European resorts the ‘locals’ will not stray too far from the piste, perhaps for fear of ruining their make up.
Davos is considered to be the highest town in Europe, at 1560m, and has seven accessible mountains surrounding it. Davos has traditionally been the domain of the rich and famous — Prince Charles used to visit each year — and is now also the home of annual meetings of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
But before this it ensured its snow sport status by being the first place to implement a T-bar lift system, in 1935. Part of the Swiss canton of Graubunden, the region is known as the ‘White Arena’ for the quantity and quality of snow that falls here.
It is also home to one of the best hostels in the world — the Youth Palace, which was a health clinic in the early part of last century when Davos was renowned for its fresh air which apparently helped cure lung disease.
Now it is a thriving town with more than enough terrain to satisfy the many visitors that come here each year.