Travel Ski

Thursday 17 October 2019

10 questions you were afraid to ask about skiing - a starter guide to the slopes

Ski expert Catherine Murphy shares her pick of the pistes for the season ahead, with advice for every ability level

Picture: Agence Propaganda
Picture: Agence Propaganda
Austria's tirol
The town of Val Thorens, surrounded by snow-capped peaks
On the slopes: Deposit Photos

Catherine Murphy

First-time skier? Still finding your feet on the slopes? Here are all the basics you need to have fun on the piste.

1. How can I be guaranteed good snow?

If you're an experienced skier, aim high. In the French resort of Val d'Isère, 60pc of the slopes are above 2,500m, making it one of the snowiest places in the Alps. Glacier resorts also offer snow certainty. In the Austrian resort of Kaprun, two new gondolas will connect with the Kitzsteinhorn glacier this winter (zellamsee-kaprun.com).

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If you're a beginner, you don't need high-altitude powder, but you do need ski resort ambience. Areas like the Ski Welt in Austria (skiwelt.at) and the Italian Dolomites are masters at making snow to ensure slopes are well covered - as are most modern resorts.

Finally, set up snow alerts on websites like snow-fore cast.com and weathertoski.co.uk to find the best snow.

2. What's the best resort for beginners?

Choose a compact resort - this means you can avoid having to walk too far with ski equipment that you're not used to carrying or wearing. For example, the 3-star Post Hotel in Westendorf, Austria, is just 50 metres from everything you need - ski school, hire shop and lift.

Topflight (topflight.ie) offers seven nights here on a half-board basis from €749pp departing January 4.

For in-resort value and great novice ski tuition, opt for Pal-Arinsal in Andorra, Bansko or Borovets in Bulgaria, St Johann in Austria or Kranjska Gora in Slovenia. If you want a five star experience, check out the Daria-I-Nor in Alpe d'Huez - it's literally steps from a gondola that whisks you to views of the Grandes Rousses massif (hoteldariainor.com).

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Austria's tirol

3. Where should a young family ski?

Take young children to the mountains when days are longer and warmer. At the KinderKaiserland ski school in Austria's Scheffau, children can take lessons from the age of two, using special boots. Lessons are short, and there's a Snow Pirates kids' club for ages 0-4.

Seven nights at the Alpin hotel based on two adults and two children under 11 sharing on a half-board basis costs from €2,667 with Crystal Ski (crystalski.ie).

In Le Grand Bornand in France, an hour from Geneva, there's a Baby Snowboard Club with lessons from age three. Passo Tonale in Italy, Bad Hofgastein in Austria and Les Gets in France are other top picks for young families.

In the family resort of Drei Zinnen in the Dolomites, children can help to feed Italy's only reindeer herd, while in the Famille Plus resort of La Rosiere in France, they can visit the village's famous St Bernard dogs.

4. How can I save money on the slopes?

Travel off-peak - i.e. January and March - when package prices and resort prices are lower. Book everything in advance (lift pass, ski school and equipment) for best prices, and look out for tour operator deals such as Crystal Ski's 'Buy one lift pass, get one half-price', or resort offers such as free lift passes for children. Chalets can be a good way of budgeting, as they usually include afternoon tea and wine with meals. On sunny days, opt for packed lunches to avoid expensive mountain restaurants.

Choose lesser-known ski areas - the French and Catalan Pyrenees are around 30pc cheaper than big-name resorts... if you're willing to organise your own trip.

For package holidays, avoid big name resorts where lift passes are more expensive and the price of a coffee on the mountains will make you weep.

5. Is skiing at Christmas a good idea?

You can't guarantee good snow during the festive season, but it has been good in recent years, and a week on the slopes can be a great getaway from the bustle at home. The resorts are less busy than New Year's week, too.

There's also something lovely about being in the mountains at this time: shopping at Christmas markets, enjoying mugs of gluhwein and visits from Father Christmas. Each Alpine region has its own traditions: at Krampus in Austria, for instance, locals don goat skins and carved wooden masks for pagan (and slightly scary) parades.

A cosy chalet holiday is perfect for Christmas. Direct Ski (directski.com) offers seven nights in chalet Laponia in La Plagne from €1,099pps, including Christmas dinner, a port and cheese evening and six evening meals.

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On the slopes: Deposit Photos

6. Where can I ski near a city?

Grenoble is a city of scientists, street art and students, and it's also the gateway to 23 ski resorts in the Isère region, including Alpe d'Huez and Chamrousse. B&B at the four-star Mercure Grenoble Center Alphotel costs from €89 based on two sharing, while two nights at Les Balcons du Recoin in Chamrousse 1650 - with impressive views of the Belledonne mountain and just 50m from the ski lift - costs from €220 based on two sharing (chamroussse.com; grenoble-tourisme.com; isere-tourisme.com).

Other great city/ski combos include Granada and Sierra Nevada in Spain, Geneva and Morzine in France, Salzburg and Flachau or Maria Alm in Austria.

7. Is skiing in the US worth it?

Big-name US resorts are expensive and it can seem hard to justify extra travel and expense when the Alps have so much to offer, but... skiing in North America offers a different experience, from the cowboy culture of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to the gold and silver mining history of ski towns like Aspen, Colorado, and Park City, Utah. Then there's the renowned powder of Alta, Utah, outlet shopping in New Hampshire and fine dining in Vail, Colorado.

US resorts are known for great service, quiet slopes, polite lift queues and ski concierge/valet services. Make the most of a Stateside ski trip with a 10-night stay at the three-star Land Mark Inn in Park City, from approx €1,500pp on a B&B basis including ex-London flights and transfers. Book a local Epic Pass to get the best lift pass rate. skisafari.com

8. What non-ski activities can we try?

The choices are endless... from fat e-biking on dedicated slopes in Avoriaz to ice-diving, ice-driving, ice-climbing or exploring ice caves.

Most European resorts now offer a broad range of non-ski activities: you can go snow-shoeing by moonlight in Madonna di Campiglio in Italy or snowmobiling around the slopes at dusk in Mayrhofen, Austria, for example.

For something that everyone in the family can enjoy, Alpe d'Huez' Four Seasons Alpine Coaster is a must-experience, using 3D goggles to experience a hugely entertaining virtual reality roller coaster ride (alpedhuez.com).

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The town of Val Thorens, surrounded by snow-capped peaks

9. Where can I mix skiing with wellness?

Skiing in itself promotes wellness: what could possibly make you feel better than blasting down the slopes first thing in the morning?

But the Alps have gone tres zen in recent years, with mountain-top yoga classes a common sight in many resorts. In Val Thorens, the My Serenity project involves 'happiness providers' who will take you wilderness snow-shoeing, offer sessions on energy and breathing with husky dogs or ski touring combined with Qi-Gong and mindfulness.

One local ski school (skicool.com) undertakes breathing exercises before and during lessons to lessen any anxiety you might have about the slopes - a useful exercise for nervous skiers (valthorens.com).

10. Is it possible to ski on a short break?

Flexibility is a big trend in skiing, whether you don't have enough time for a full week's skiing, prefer to travel mid-week to avoid busy airports or want to sneak a second ski holiday in. Companies like Pierre & Vacances are placing a big focus on flexibility, and in the UK, tour operator Crystal has broken the traditional package holiday mould by offering flexible breaks for the first time this winter.

Irish chalet company Highlife (highlife.ie) offers long weekend breaks in its Morzine chalet (an hour from Geneva) with prices from €619pp based on three nights half-board accommodation and transfers (flights are extra, however). To save time, the company will also pre-order lift passes and ski equipment for guests.

PS. Which ski resorts are best for foodies?

The ski world is your oyster. Alpine cuisine has improved across the board, whether you want a five star blow-out, fresh seafood or on-slope food truck comfort eats.

In the Haute Savoie region of France alone, there are dozens of Michelin Star restaurants including Jean Sulpice in Val Thorens and La Bouitte near St Martin de Belleville, both in Les Trois Vallees.

In the Austrian resort of Ischgl, the 5 star Trofana Royal hotel offers a twelve course tasting menu fit for the most special occasion whilst in Italy, the Emilio-Comici-Hutte in Selva Val Gardena brings in fresh seafood from Venice on a daily basis during winter, serving up seafood antipasti and lobster spaghetti

GreatAlpine food doesn’t have to be posh or expensive though. Cafe Pepita in theItalian resort of La Thuile serves up deliciously creative food at reasonable prices while the Eisschutzenstuberl in Bad Gastein offers massive platters of spare ribs with dumplings for just €12 per person.

Seven nights at the Planibel apartments in La Thuile with CrystalSki costs from €523 per person based on four sharing. crystalski.ie.

Green Ski Tips

Across the pond, skiers can lower their carbon footprint by taking the train from London to Bourg St Maurice, linking them to resorts like Les Arcs and Val d’Isere - orthe new sleeper train from St Pancras to Austria.

It’s more difficult for Irish skiers get to the Alps via caror train, but there are some measures you can take to offset your air travel.

Choose resorts that are actively pursuing a green agenda, such as Les Sybelles in France which has announced that it will only use 100pc renewable energy to operate its lifts and snow-making facilities this season.Its renewable energy will come from wind, solar and hydro-electric sources.

Other ski areas using 100pc renewable energy include Paradiski (Les Arcs, La Plagne) and the Grand Massif area including Flaine andLes Carroz (all in France).

NB: All prices subject to availability and change.

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