’Tis the season to get sporty. Here’s our pick of the slopes – for any skill level and every budget, from relaxing stays to boozy breaks. Words Laura Chubb
Whether you’re a nervous novice, a confident intermediate or an all-out expert, we’ve searched out the top snowy spots for you to get sporty at this winter. Skint, modestly moneyed or flush? Doesn’t matter – we’ve found the best for every budget. So no excuses, winter hermits. Use our guide to pounding the powder, and there’ll be no getting fat on the sofa in front of DVD boxsets.
See you on the slopes!
SKILL LEVEL: Beginners
Eastern Europe is great for snow bunnies on a budget. Borovets (bulgariaski.com) has pistes of varying length and difficulty, so if it turns out you’re a natural, you can get off the beginners’ runs (of which there are three) and take on more of a challenge. You can even try your hand at cross-country skiing on a track set 2km away from the resort. Borovets also boasts a thriving clubbing scene – try the promisingly named Bonkers. Ski passes start at £84 for three days.
Once a budget resort to compete with the best of Eastern Europe, Grandvalira (grandvalira.com) in Andorra has become more mainstream in recent years, pushing the prices up a notch. Still, it’s much cheaper than the major resorts of France and Austria. There are 18 green runs – the ‘nursery’ slopes – and a whopping 38 blue runs, also with gentle gradients for beginners. There are lots of British-run ski schools, too. The village of Pas de la Casa has the liveliest après-ski scene, with some going so far as to call it ‘raucous’. Soldeu is a little more chilled – go to British-run Fat Albert’s for live music and big burgers. A six-day pass to the slopes is about £158.
Even cheaper is La Clusaz (laclusaz.com) in France. At about £135 for a six-day pass, it boasts 23 green runs and 30 blue, ranking it among the best resorts in Europe for beginners. The quintessentially French mountain village is a delight, attracting a lot of return visits from skiers and boarders who fall head over heels for its traditional charm. It also gets super-busy at weekends, which is great for a party (although makes for some crowded slopes).
Crans-Montana (tourism-crans-montana.co.uk) in Switzerland is the perfect spot for novices looking for a touch of class to balance out any indignities on the slopes. Stretching across two towns with soul-enriching views across the Rhône Valley (well-known for its wine), there’s also a dearth of British tourists, which makes for a genuine escape from London life. (Though be warned – the Russian clientele is growing.) Train your snow legs on 17 different blue runs. While there is an upmarket feel to much of it – with designer shops, five-star hotels and even a Michelin-starred restaurant at your disposal – there’s also a good number of bars that keep revellers occupied into the early hours. A six-day ski pass will set you back about £182.
SKILL LEVEL: Confident
It’s back to Bulgaria for what is arguably the ski capital of Eastern Europe. Bansko (bulgariaski.com) benefits from a long season (roughly December to May) and plenty of good powder. Together with 64km of pistes to explore, this cute medieval town has many cultural monuments and historic sites, while slightly further afield is the Pirin National Park – a Unesco World Heritage site home to epic limestone mountainscapes, glacial lakes, waterfalls and caves. There’s also a wealth of cheap accommodation options at Bansko and a decent clubbing scene. Set aside £125 for a six-day ski pass.
For guaranteed great snow, try Tignes (tignes.co.uk) in France. At an altitude of 3500m, it is one of only two ski areas in the country – the other being upmarket Val d’Isere – listed as a ‘snow-sure resort’ in The Good Ski & Snowboarding Guide from Which? As well as having plenty of self-catering apartments, Tignes is rich in hotels ranging from two to four stars. If you get bored of plain old skiing and snowboarding, Tignes also offers a programme of more offbeat winter sports, including dog-sledding, ice-diving and ski-joring (see the end of this article for more). Ski passes start at about £100 for three days – not the cheapest, but pair it with a two-star hotel and you’ll stay safely in the midrange bracket.
Alternatively, Alpbach in western Austria (alpbachtal.at/en) offers unintimidating slopes suited to those who have graduated from the nursery runs but aren’t quite yet fearless. There is a large British presence here – the largest of any Austrian ski village – but it tends to be a laidback brand of Brit that makes it to Alpbach, owing to the subdued bar scene. A lift pass for six days costs about £138, depending on the season.
With 13 trails set across 500 acres, Happo-one (snowjapan.com/e) is Japan’s number one ski resort. The views across the Japanese Northern Alps are breathtaking, the powder is deep and dry, and there isn’t the mad rush for tracks you might encounter in European resorts. The Hakuba valley – about 300km northwest of Tokyo – offers plenty of activities, including snow rafting, hot air ballooning, mountain biking and trekking. After a long day on the piste, be sure to head to your nearest onsen (hot spring) to relax those aching muscles. Lift passes, costing about £200 for six days, can also be used in Hakuba’s other seven ski and snowboard resorts.
Aspen in Colorado is also a good choice for those fortunate enough not to be counting the pennies. At Snowmass Ski Resort (aspensnowmass.com), half of the 90 ski trails are suited to intermediates. Colorado’s second-largest ski resort is also renowned for its crowd-free runs, owing
to the sheer spread of terrain (128 acres), and there’s no shortage of first-class food and drink. A ski pass costs £360 for six days.
SKILL LEVEL: Expert
In the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland, Zakopane (zakopane.com) offers steep slopes that are definitely not for novices. Be adventurous and take to the snow in villages such as Bialka, Poronin and Bukowina Tatrzanska, which combine challenging terrain with the traveller’s satisfaction of straying from the beaten path. Big ski jumps can be found around the Krokiew area. Expect to pay about £11 for 10 rides on the ski lift (bargaintastic). Value for money accommodation abounds – though you get what you pay for.
For serious skiers looking for a quiet place to perfect their craft, you could do a lot worse than Cesana Torinese-Sansicario (comune.cesana.to.it) in Italy. Located in the Milky Way area – home to some of the best skiing and snowboarding ranges in Europe, and used for the Winter Olympics in 2006 – Sansicario and Cesana Torinese are the perfect alternatives to the region’s larger resorts. So quiet are they that you’ll often get the slopes to yourself. On the other side of the coin, there’s no nightlife and you might sometimes be obliged to share the snow with families. Still, you’ll be paying startlingly low prices compared to the majority of the Milky Way – about £155 for six days.
St Anton (stantonamarlberg.com) in Austria provides a party after you’ve taken on challenging runs and off-piste areas, with the Moosewirt bar proving most popular with caners. There’s also great snowboarding for freestylers at Stanton Park. Lift tickets are about £188 for six days in high season, dropping by about £10 in low season.
Drop some serious dollars at Whistler Blackcomb (whistlerblackcomb.com) in Canada – one of the word’s best- known ski resorts after it hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics. You can ski and snowboard across two mountains, and the resort has committed to teaching classes of no more than four people, so you’ll receive close attention at the Snow School if you want to go from expert to certified legend. The resort has also just invested $2.5m (£1.5m) in new snow-grooming equipment, so the quality of the slopes will be top notch. A six-day lift pass is only £216 if you purchase in advance, and there are discounts before November 15. There are also several deals that include accommodation, with some studio rooms starting from as little as £55 per night – though, of course, there are plenty of top-end rooms if you have the urge to keep on splurging.
Another great Canadian snow spot is Banff in the Rockies, with an average nine metres of annual snowfall and advanced runs taking up about 25 per cent of all terrain. The place is packed with luxury resorts, and also offers five-star favourites such as the Fairmont if you need pampering after a tough day out in the cold.
The Snow Express (snowexpress.co.uk) coach service from London Victoria takes you direct to the Alps for about £65, and the excellent Snow Carbon (snowcarbon.co.uk) eases your conscience and takes you by train all over Europe from £99, up to about £260.
Best of the rest: alternative winter sports
We’ve hit the slopes on skis, bonked on our snowboard (in the boarder way, not the rude way) – hell, we’ve even regressed and gone sledding. So are there any winter sports left? You bet. Here’s just a few to get you started.
1 SKI JORING
Think waterskiing but on snow. You can be pulled by horses, dogs, or even a snowmobile. Once you get somewhere approaching competent, you can work in jumps and obstacles.
2 SNOW KAYAKING
Snow kayaking swaps rapids for slopes. Though it might strike you as a sort of glorified version of sledding, the crafts can get up to some serious speeds, so it’s best not to charge right down a mountain – start out with some gentle runs first. And wear your thermals.
3 BROOM BALL
The challenge with broom ball – pretty much ice hockey, using a ball instead of a puck – is that you don’t get the luxury of wearing skates. Rather, you take to the ice in your trainers, and hit the ball with a plastic ‘broom’. We advise you pile on the protective pads, should you slip.
4 ICE DIVING
For the incredibly brave, ice diving lets you scuba under thick sheets of ice. The diver is tethered to the ice to prevent anything going too horribly wrong – you really do not want to get stuck. Thick, pre-heated wetsuits keep out the cold and a full dive mask prevents direct contact with the freezing water. This is one of the more extreme adventure sports and you’ll need to undergo rigorous training.
5 DOG SLEDDING
Not so much a sport as a particularly lazy way to travel, letting a pack of fluffy mutts pull you along the white stuff is a fun means to sightseeing. Also a great way to end a long, hard day getting beat up on the slopes.