Heading away from the marked runs that lead to the same old resorts, Chris Madigan recommends some off-piste options in the Alps and beyond'
When flying into the Alps for a weekend ski break, a short transfer is ideal, so it’s strange that few people opt for this resort, just 45 minutes from Salzburg Airport. In the Grossarler Hof, it offers the classic Austrian ski hotel experience – four-star, family-run, care and attention to detail (particularly in the wine cellar), a traditional stube with the hearty Austrian food, plus a spa area built with the alder wood that gives Grossarl its name. The resort continues the entirely welcome Austrian clichés: fast-paced tree-lined pistes (linked to Dorfgastein, part of the larger Bad Gastein area); après-ski bars pumping out corny music; horse-drawn sleigh rides. The big advantage is that all Grossarl hotel guests can take part in free Berg Gesund (“mountain health”) activities, from snow shoeing and ice climbing to ski touring. Yes, ski touring in the remote Hohe Tauern National Park with free guiding!
The famous resorts of Switzerland’s Valais region are neatly laid out along the Rhône valley: Verbier, then Zermatt and Saas-Fee. Between them, while you glance to the left to see Crans-Montana, it’s easy to miss Val d’Anniviers. And that’s a shame… it’s a collection of pretty villages (with ancient stone and wood buildings) that have access to phenomenal off-piste skiing (the descent from Zinal to the Moiry dam is legendary). The link between Grimentz (the best base) and Zinal has created a decent on-piste area too (plus there are more runs at St Luc-Chandolin and Vercorin). But guided off-piste makes this place special (Backcountry Adventures recommended), particularly as it’s one of very few resorts with a helipad where pick-ups are allowed. Evenings tend to be quiet but there are good restaurants and interesting experiences such as a tasting from the sweet Vin du Glacier solera barrel at the House of the Bourgeousie – constantly topped up since the 19th century.
North-eastern Italy’s Dolomites are undoubtedly dramatic to look at, but can lack a bit of oomph for actual skiing. Instead, try heading northwest from Turin up the Aosta valley to the Monterosa ski area. It’s a compact alternative to France’s Three Valleys, with three distinct resorts – Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna – so you have a sense of journey in each day’s skiing. There are great mountain restaurants (Rascard Frantze is idyllic) and the villages are lively in the evening, whichever you choose to stay in. What makes Monterosa really special though is that – unlike in much of the Dolomites – off-piste skiing is positively encouraged (there is even a specific freeride map). The lifts reach a zenith of 3,275m at Punta Indren, but summits over 1,000m higher are reachable by skinning up. Heliskiing is another option – you can even be dropped above Zermatt in Switzerland and ski back via Cervinia. Guide Monterosa can sort all the logistics (including accommodation).
The obvious alternative to the Alps is the Pyrenees, which usually brings Andorra to mind. But there are resorts in the French and Spanish Pyrenees too – most notably the choice of the Spanish royal family, Baqueira Beret. It has many of the trappings of glamorous Alpine resorts – five-star hotels (the Rafaelhoteles), slopeside champagne bars (Moët Winter Lounge), nightclubs, a heliskiing operation – but at lower prices. Most importantly, it has a surprisingly good snow record and an ever-improving lift system which means it is expanding – 170km of marked piste and counting. It is predominantly an intermediate resort but there is plenty of challenge on- and off-piste, too. Not least the Catalan late-night dining and partying culture.
The Vercors Massif west of the Alps is not widely known outside France – unless you happen to be a World War II buff. The plateau, surrounded by Dolomite-style cliffs, was a Resistance hub and, along with neighbouring Grenoble, was one of two places awarded the Order of Liberation by de Gaulle. Villard-de-Lans is a proper town, steeped in history but active beyond its status as a ski resort – a promenade before dinner is an immersion in a (very attractive) mountain town’s social and commercial life. Skiing here is about taking time to appreciate the surroundings, whether on 125km of mainly gentle downhill pistes, or the same again of cross-country tracks (you can even try biathlon). Then there are the wider surroundings of the Isère department, including the street art scene in Grenoble and the Chartreuse liqueur experience nearby.
In many ways, skiing anywhere else is the alternative to the home of the sport, Norway. The world’s first ski race took place in Tromsø in 1843, but skiing began millennia before that, according to Neolithic carvings from 5,000 BCE. The word ski itself comes from the Norse word for planks, skíð. Narvikfjellet offers a unique take on ski holidays with its combination of urban, wilderness and seascape. A cable car from the port town in the far north takes you to a decent family-friendly ski area, but also huge off-piste opportunities, including touring, where you feel like you’re plunging into the fjord below. Night-time entertainment often comes in the form of the dancing lights of the aurora borealis.
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