Skiing in Europe: the crème de la crème
The mountains are calling…
When it comes to skiing, Europe takes the cake. 3,511 ski resorts and 37,718.9km (23,437mi) of piste strews its expanse (more than any other continent), from the Arctic straggles of northern Sweden, to the snow-laced summits of Spain’s Sierra Nevada. But with such overwhelming choice at your fingertips, it helps to know what’s what in the eclectic world of European skiing. Whether you are searching for mega-après vibes or family-friendly fun; white-knuckle terrain or leisurely scenic routes, we have hand-picked four of the continent’s finest resorts to help make that all-important decision a trifle easier – so with all the leg work done, you can get on with dusting off your ski jacket and scouting out that dreamy fairy-tale chalet.
Best for thrill seekers…
Chamonix is ski resort royalty. Host of the world’s first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, site of the monolithic Mont Blanc, and extreme sport haven of Europe, it’s not to be missed by any self-respecting expert skier. What’s more, Chamonix isn’t just a resort – it’s an entire 28km (17.4mi) valley of no-nonsense terrain, carved across four mountainsides and peppered with five diverse resorts. It tops skiers bucket lists for its alluring scale and status as one of the world’s best areas for freeriding.
Visiting such an epic ski region demands significant research – the various mountainsides aren’t connected by lifts and it’s a drive from one end of the valley to the other, however, these inconveniences are a small price to pay for access to Chamonix’s thrilling off-piste paradise.
The steep-sided valley offers long descents and immense versatility, with spine-tingling freeriding opportunities at Les Grands Montets; quieter but equally as fresh lines in the Brévent area; and the legendary Vallée Blanche – an unmarked glacier run embracing unparalleled valley views that offers skiers of all levels a spoonful of Chamonix’s wild side.
The highlight of the valley’s white-knuckle terrain – and one for the advanced skier – is Mont Blanc which soars 4809m into the air and is the literal pinnacle of alpine sporting achievement. There is no more macho undertaking than that of successfully dominating Mont Blanc, however, as with all off-piste skiing in Chamonix, it comes highly recommended that its hair-raising slopes are tackled with a professional guide.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the Chamonix valley is only for advanced skiers seeking backcountry routes. The on-piste terrain is varied and scenic making it easy to spend an enjoyable week here without leaving the marked runs, so less adventurous skiers shouldn’t be deterred by Chamonix’s reputation. Saying that, this valley is ultimately a high-altitude playground for the fearless thrillseeker and if you wish to get the most out of it you need to be savvy on skis and ready for some world-class off-piste terrain.
Franck Chapon (Mountain ski guide & founder and owner of Chamonix Sport Aventure)
“For skiing, the best period is from mid-January to mid-April. At this time, the snow coverage on the glaciers is best for Vallée Blanche and off-piste skiing as there is generally a good snow base. Off-piste skiing can also be spectacular from the top of Grands Montets 3300m. Here there are many off-piste runs to escape the crowds and enjoy spectacular untouched powder snow. Navigating through the glaciers with a guide can provide an unforgettable ski experience.”
Best for families…
Val d’Isère, France
The name Val d’Isère is synonymous with luxury; it conjures images of glamorous thirty-somethings in designer skiwear, elegantly zigzagging the slopes before retiring to a glass-fronted chalet to consume copious amounts of red wine and demolish ladles of cheese fondue. Indeed, Val d’Isère has long been hailed one of Europe’s most sought-after resorts (with price tags to prove it). Its new gondola is every inch the extravagance, boasting Wi-Fi, heated seats, glass floors and a speedy seven minute journey time. However, alongside alluring new developments and a population of privileged elite who go to ski and be seen, Val d’Isère has been funnelling considerable time and money into becoming a family friendly idyll.
Located at the end of the Tarentaise Valley, and connected to Tignes, the resort ticks all the boxes for families: dependable snow conditions, a season lasting from November to May, and an extensive ski area catering to all proficiencies, from newbies to snow-veterans. The varied terrain comprises of 300km (186mi) of piste, including wide nursery slopes for learners, and no less than 94 lifts which can take skiers to an altitude of up to 3,400m.
Down in the valley, a vibrant resort unfolds. Kids are confronted with swimming pools, ice rinks, dog sledding, cinemas, play areas, and tobogganing slopes, whilst for the adults, a town pulsating with bars, pubs and restaurants holds promise of a more sophisticated evening. Private childcare services are also on offer, however, the myriad selection of eateries make dining with the little ones fairly stress-free.
Slope side, Val d’Isère offers a profusion of ski schools with English-speaking instructors and family ski passes, knocking a welcome chunk off your overall costs. Accommodation wise, the options are endless and all a picture of alpine charm; chalets and hotels are almost all ski-in, ski-out, dispelling worries of having to lug tangles of poles, boots and skis back to the front door. Ultimately, Val d’Isère serves up a well-rounded ski experience that takes the pressure out of parenting – and all without having to compromise on the bells and whistles. So if you’re avoiding carting a couple of youngsters to the slopes for fear it might initiate a mental breakdown, think again.
Laura Cumin, Marketing Project Manager at Val d’Isère Téléphériques (Ski lift company)
“The 2016/17 winter season has seen many families delighted to discover the new Solaise ski area. It is easy to access – only seven minutes from the snow front – and features the new Solaise gondola, with heated seats. Once at the top, families will be greeted with easy runs and a nursery slope dedicated to children – along with its entertaining and fun mascot, Sunny. Tired legs can also take a break to watch cartoons at the brand new Panoramic Lounge.”
Best for après…
Sitting snug in the immense valley of the Tyrolean Alps, Mayrhofen is hailed as one of Austria’s top ski resorts. Its two mountainsides (Penken and Ahorn) are carved with 53 lifts and 134km (83.2mi) of skiing, mainly red and blue runs that make for an intermediates’ paradise; however, three black slopes await skiers looking for a challenge, including Harakiri – Austria’s steepest marked run with a precarious gradient of 78%. Meanwhile, free skiers will find their sanctuary at Vans Penken (one of the best snow parks in the Alps), jam-packed with rails, kickers and a half-pipe.
Mayrhofen’s trusty piste map, enchanting timber ski town, and breathtaking valley views are alluring, however, it is the resort’s after-hours persona that sees people religiously flocking to it season after season. Après is the legendary sequel to a day on the mountain; a time when a jumble of nationalities and age groups – ruddy-faced and still clad in salopettes and bobble hats – join together to numb weary muscles with beer and Jägerbombs. Mayrhofen’s diverse après scene has become something of a talking point in the Alps, so whether your idea of a post-ski soiree is a few ice-cold afternoon beers in a deckchair, or bopping to Euro pop on bar tops alongside waitresses in lederhosen, Mayrhofen’s après scene offers the lot.
In the late afternoon, The Pilzbar – a popular end-of-day detour – serves to achy skiers the tempting combination of beer, pop music, schnitzel, and majestic valley views from its sun-soaked terrace, though for a touch more alpine glamour, the White Lounge (a mountain bar-turn-ice hotel) is ideal for sipping a cocktail and as the final rays of sun illuminate the serrated peaks.
Meanwhile, those looking to take après up a notch will find the Ice Bar at the foot of the Penkenbahn Gondola heaving with punters and brimming with music, dancing and alcohol from 4:30 pm; however, for those with more stamina looking for an après that carries you into the early hours of the morning, the underground Speak Easy Arena in the Hotel Strass is a dependable choice with music varying from pop to dub step.
Harald Rauch (Barkeeper at the Ice Bar)
“The Eis Bar was built in 1995 when there wasn't really any après-ski in Mayrhofen. Since then it has become more and more popular and there are many similar places now… The best thing about après-ski is the friendliness of the people - so many different nations… All the people are dancing together and singing along not even knowing the lyrics - but it doesn't matter - everybody is just happy.”
Best for scenery…
Time appears to stand still in the sleepy Swiss mountain town of Wengen. The village is modest and almost entirely traffic-free; the skiing is uncomplicated and leisurely; the ambience is unhurried and a touch old-school.
Yet one facet of Wengen is not quite so sedate: its scenery. Cradled in a valley in the Jungfrau region, halfway between Mürren and Grindelwald and reachable only by cog railway, Wengen’s surroundings are dramatic, suspenseful and entirely attention-seeking. Such resplendent scenes have been hailed some of the most magnificent in all the Alps, and indeed, the chain of three razor-sharp peaks – Mönch, Eiger and Jungfrau – is picture-postcard perfection.
100km (62mi) of piste carves the mountainside, unveiling with every few yards a fresh angle from which to soak in the mega-vistas of marbled peaks and plunging valleys. The World Cup downhill piste on the Lauberhorn (the longest downhill in the world) is the mountain’s crowning glory, though skiers generally shouldn’t expect hair-raising runs from Wengen; this is easy-going skiing where the thrill is in the scenery not the slope, making it a haven for families and intermediates but by no means challenging for professionals.
Down in the town, a similar laidback atmosphere pervades. Wengen spills with charming and unpretentious hotels, chalets and shops, a smattering of nursery slopes and little else, so those used to the scale, amenities and nightlife offered by a super-modern resort will find this no-frills affair a shock. Yet what Wengen lacks in vivacious mountain activity it more than makes up for with the intoxicating blend of quaint, winter alpine magic and sheer scenic grandeur. Whilst its size and limited terrain may not draw skiers back time and time again, it should make everyone’s bucket list at least once.
Dan Carr, (photographer)
“Wengen is one of the most stunning places I've even been in the world. From a photographer's perspective, it has everything you could hope for from an alpine mountain town. Beautiful traditional Swiss architecture, surrounded by towering peaks on one side, and a vast valley down to Interlaken below. The standout peak is, of course, the Eiger, and no trip to Wengen should be without a train trip to the top to take a look out over the glaciers behind it.”
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