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Friday 25 April 2014

Best direct ski hubs

Wherever you hit the slopes this season, you're going to need a little more than soft, powdery snow. But, fear not, we've done all of the hard work for you and found some of the best winter sports hubs throughout Europe.

Friedrichshafen, Southern Germany

It doesn't sound funky, but Friedrichshafen is a veritable spaghetti junction for skiers. Within reach of Switzerland, Austria and Italy, it's a base for some of Europe's most glamorous slopes.

Getting there: Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies to Friedrichshafen from Dublin, from €10 one-way.

Key resorts: St Moritz is a surreal mix of old-school values and 21st century bling. Kate Moss, Liz Hurley and the Shah of Iran have all shacked up at the five-star Badrutt's Palace here, and nearby Suvretta House is where Nijinsky gave his final public performance. Elsewhere, St Anton am Arlberg (host to the ski world championships in 2001) is the ski capital of Austria.

Transfers: Graubünden Express (0049 7541 39 86 15; graubuenden-express.com) does shuttle bus routes from Friedrichshafen to St Moritz (3hrs; €109 return). Departures leave 45 minutes after flights land. Loacker Tours (0043 5523 59090; airport-bus.at) runs a shuttle service (2hrs, €65 return) from Friedrichshafen to St Anton am Arlberg, co-ordinating with the Ryanair schedule.

Other resorts: Ischgl, Davos-Klosters, Livigno, St Moritz, Laax, Graubünden, Damüls, Arlberg, Bregenzerwald, Montafon, Kleinwalsertal, Brand/Bludenz.

Grenoble/Lyon, Southern France

France consistently does well by Irish skiers because a) it is close and b) it has class. As a ski hub, Grenoble is close to the world's highest concentration of resorts.

Getting there: Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Grenoble; Aer Lingus (0818 36 50 00; aerlingus.com) flies to Lyon. Flights from €10 one-way.

Key resorts: Val d'Isère and Tignes in the Espace Killy region have a world-class reputation for skiing and sophistication. Like the idea of a coffee laced with Grand Marnier, imbibed before hitting the Bellevarde Olympique -- a 915m drop with angles of 70pc in some places? Then these are the pistes for you. At nearby Alpe d'Huez, the 16km Sarenne is Europe's longest ski run.

Transfers: Bus transfers are available from Grenoble Airport (grenoble-airport.com) from €48-€65, depending on the resort distance. Transfer times can take up to 4.5 hours, depending on the resort -- Val d'Isère is 125km (c. 2.5hrs) from Grenoble, for example.

Other resorts: Les 2 Alps, Les Arcs & La Plagne, Mageve, Les Menuires, Vercors, Chamrousse.

Cuneo, Northern Italy

Ryanair is pushing Cuneo hard as a ski hub, and for good reason. The stunning 20 valleys extend out of here towards Liguria and France, dominated by the 3,841m Monviso peak.

Getting there: Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies direct from Dublin, from €10 one-way.

Key resorts: Artesina and Prato Nevoso are firm favourites in the Mondolè Ski district. The area offers 130km of piste, catering for skiers of all ability levels (Prato Nevoso includes floodlit night skiing on its lift passes). Limone Piemonte sprawls over three valleys, and recently got dumped on by 20 inches of fresh snow. This is the heart of the Olympic piedmont region.

Transfers: Buses connect Cuneo airport (cuneoitalianalps.it) with Limone Piemonte (1hr 10mins) and the Mondolè Ski district (approx 1hr 40mins). Departures are timed to connect with inbound and outbound flights, and cost €20 return.

Other Resorts: Garessio 2000, Vars Risoul, Sestriere, Frabosa.

Salzburg, Austria

Austria is the birthplace of downhill ski technique, and Salzburg is one of its key hubs. Think chic chateaus, twinkling fires and well-groomed slopes -- now you've got it.

Getting there: Aer Lingus (0818 36 50 00; aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) fly from Dublin to Salzburg. Flights from €0 plus taxes.

Key resorts: With its glacier, mountain and lake, Zell am See is one of Austria's top tourist destinations. Kitzbühel's old Tyrolean town centre has succumbed to an avalanche of bling, with beautiful Russians no doubt attracted by the snowboard parks, 120km of cross-country tracks and picturesque cobbled streets. Its low altitude (761m) leaves it vulnerable to poor snowfalls, however.

Transfers: Zell am See and Kitzbühel are both around 80km (1hr 15mins drive) from Salzburg. Postbus buses (postbus.at) connect to both from outside Terminal 1, and the Kitzbühel Alpen Shuttle (0043 5356 66222, www.kitzalps. com/shuttle) transfers for €30 one-way.

Other resorts: Söll, Saalbach Hinterglemm, Mayrhofen, Kaprun.

Oslo, Norway

Skiing ain't exactly news to the citizens of Norway, but competitive packages have been tempting increasing numbers from traditional resorts further south.

Getting there: From Dublin, Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies to Oslo (Torp); SAS (01 844-5440; flysas.com) flies to Oslo Airport. Prices from €65 one-way.

Key resorts: Hemsedal is known as the Alps of the north, save for one thing -- its mammoth season lasts from November to May. Norwegians also love their cross-country skiing, and Lifjell is certainly suited to that -- kilometres of ski-tracks alternate between forests and high mountains. There are varying downhill slopes, powder-snow runs and moguls too though, so all boxes are ticked.

Transfers: A bus leaves Torp at 15.45 every Sunday for Hemsedal (0047 32 05 50 30; hemsedal.com; €55 return). The Telemarkekspressen bus (0047 35 06 54 00; Telemarkekspressen.no) also links Torp to B (Lifjell) -- it costs €32 one-way. From there, a taxi to hotel/chalet takes c.15mins. Fjord1 buses (0047 57 75 70 50; fjord1.no) service Hemsedel from Oslo -- the 3.5hr trip costs €55 return.

Other resorts: Rauland, Gaustablikk (Rjukan), Vrådal, Gautefall, Hovden, Tryvann Winterpark.

Milan, Northern Italy

Surprisingly perhaps, Italy ranks amongst the affordable Alpine areas, with a solid selection of packages available in the low-mid price ranges. Three Milanese airports are serviced from Dublin.

Getting there: From Dublin, Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies to Milan (Bergamo); Aer Lingus (0818 36 50 00; aerlingus.com) flies to Milan (Linate) and Milan (Malpensa). Prices from €10 one-way.

Key resorts: Livigno, close to the Swiss border, is an Irish favourite. All-rounder slopes, a champion snow record and lively après-ski keep 'em coming (it also boasts duty-free status -- a fact never known to deter the Irish visitor). Madonna di Campiglio, in the Brenta Dolomites, is a stylish resort whose guestbook includes names like Michael Schumacher. It's a little heavier on the wallet.

Transfers: MTBUS (mtbus.it) connects Milan's Bergamo and Malpensa airports with Livigno; the 4/4.5hr journey costs €32/€38. Departures are irregular, so check times in advance. For Madonna di Campiglio, connect by shuttle bus with the train to Trento (trenitalia.it; 3hrs), and a local bus.

Other resorts: Dolimiti Superski, Val Gardena, Bergamo, Como, Colere, Lizzola, Monte Pora, Presolana, Spiazzi di Gromo, Borno -- Monte Altissimo, Zermatt, Saas Fee, Alpe di Siusi.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava sits at the foot of the Small Carpathian Mountains and, though experienced downhill skiers won't find much to write home about, surrounding forests offer fab cross-country routes.

Getting there: From Dublin, Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies to Bratislava, from €29.99 one-way.

Key resorts: Located in High Tatras national park, Strbske Pleso is home to a solid selection of downhill runs and cross-country tracks (the Tatra Cup features annually in the World Cup Series). Mountain guides are also on hand for winter mountain climbing. Donovaly is in the middle of Slovakia, where bungee jumping, paragliding and dog-sledding races feature amongst the seasonal sideshows.

Transfers: To get to Strbske Pleso and Donovaly by public transport take bus 61 from the airport -- outside Terminal B arrivals -- to Bratislava train (slovakrail.sk) or bus station (www.cp.sk). From there, the total journey takes around 4.5 hours and cost around €13 by train or €1.55 by bus.

Other resorts: Jasná Nízke Tatry, Velká Raca, Skipark Ruzomberok.

Toulouse, Southern France

Andorra lives to ski. Given its easily navigable, well-maintained and unpretentious slopes, few resorts in Europe are better-suited to the beginner or intermediate.

Getting there: Aer Lingus (0818 36 50 00; aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Toulouse from €25 one-way.

Key resorts: Pas de la Casa is a high altitude hub with a top snow record (aided by recent investments in technology, it must be said). Soldeu-el-Tarter, where the ski school was once voted best in Europe by Which? magazine, is a great roll of the beginner's dice. To top it all off, Andorra is a duty free shopping zone -- though the food isn't a patch on the competition at Livigno.

Transfers: Daily bus services (00376 803789; andorrabybus.com) depart Toulouse Airport for Andorra's ski resorts at 5am and 2pm. Trips take up to 3.5 hours and cost around €68 return.

Other resorts: Arinsal, Pal, Guils Fontanera, La Molina, Vall de Nuria, Masella, Vallter.

Turin, Northern Italy

Some 2,000km of slopes run from the Maritime Alps to Monviso and the Susa alley to Monte Rosa, catering for anyone fit to don a pair of skis. Or a snowboard, for that matter...

Getting there: Ryanair (0818 30 30 30; ryanair.com) flies to Turin, from Dublin €10 one-way.

Key resorts: Sauze d'Oulx, in Italy's 'Milky Way' system, is home to 400km of varied skiing, a characterful old village and a big party reputation. It's a long-time Irish favourite. From there, it's an easy link into neighbouring Sestriere, itself snuggled between the sunny Susa and Chisone valleys. Sestriere isn't pretty, but has thumping mogul runs and a World Cup Downhill course.

Transfers: Cavourese buses (39.0121.69031; cavourese.it) link Turin Airport to Sauze d'Oulx and Sestriere from Friday-Monday inclusive; tickets cost €34 one-way. Alternatively, take a shuttle to Porto Nueva station (40mins, €5.50) and a connecting train to Oulx (trenitalia.it, €5). This takes 1.5 hours, and you can grab short bus transfers to the resorts.

Other resorts: Courmayeur, Serre Chevalier, Montgenevre, La Thuile, Monterosa Ski, Pila, Via Lattea, Cervinia-Zermat, Claviere, Cesana, Bardonecchia and Pragelato.

Zurich, Switzerland

Skiers in Switzerland get what they pay for -- namely jaw-dropping scenery, top-notch ski-schools, faultless infrastructure and resorts at once state-of-the-art and traditional.

Getting there: Aer Lingus (0818 36 50 00; aerlingus.com) and Swiss Airlines (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) fly to Zurich from Dublin. Prices from €14.99 one-way, excl. taxes.

Key resorts: Davos is Prince Charles's favourite, and twinned with Klosters, offers hundreds of kilometres of routes. Grindelwald, spotted with chocolate-box chalets, is the archetypal Alpine resort. Add the looming north faces of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, however, and the impression is less twee than titillating.

Transfers: Zurich Airport station is across the street from the airport. Connect to Zurich's main station from here, and trains (sbb.ch/en) leave on the hour for Davos (2hrs, c.€73.50 return). Taking a similar course, Grindelwald is 2.5hrs by train (change at Interlacken).

Other resorts: Bad Ragaz, Elm, Engelberg, Laax, St Anton am Alberg, Verbier.

NB. Prices correct at time of going to press. All flights are direct, and prices include taxes and charges unless stated otherwise. Information is subject to change without notice.

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