Thus far, the 2011 ski-season has not been spectacular in most of Europe. The majority of resort areas are suffering from a lack of new snowfall and warm temperatures. In the words of a local, the region is experiencing une tempete de soleil (a storm of sun). The net result, is very crowded slopes, hard-packed snow and slippery conditions. My husband and I just finished a tour of a number of ski resorts, most of which we had never visited in the past. Here are a few highlights and overviews from our ski tour:
The tiny village of Yscla, was once a remote farming village, it has been converted into a mega-resort with; 238 km of ski trails, 41 cable cars and other lifts and 32 grooming machines. The owners have spent 200 million Euros upgrading the facilities on the hill in the last 10 years, and it shows. The lifts are new, the lodges are well-appointed, and in some cases very modern in design. The combined resort of Ischgl-Samnaun (Swiss side) is one of the largest in Europe, if you believe their web site. Ischgl has clearly been developed to meet a tourist need, with lots of variety in accommodation. There is a permanent population of about 1500, although it is hard to envision where they might live. This resort has a reputation as a party spot and it certainly seems to live up to that grade. The resort has been well designed for the skier or snowboarder of all capacities. Definitely worth a visit.
Located on the Italian side of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco), the village and ski resort of Courmayeur is 22 km from Chamonix. The scenery is just as beautiful as the French side. A 30-40 minute drive and you arrive in a totally different country and culture. The skiing in this area started in 1908 and the Society Monte Bianco was formed in 1939. Over the years the area has grown to the current size, with multiple lifts and about 100 km of groomed trails. The lifts are certainly generally reasonably modern. There are endless options for dining on the hill, in fact there may be more restaurants than slopes. We shared a had a lovely ski day in Courmayeur, with some friends and an experienced ski guide. If you make the trip to Courmayeur, there are lots of alternatives; regular groomed trails, exciting “hors-piste” (with a guide), a cute village with top quality shopping and nearby cross-country skiing at Val Ferret.
The Chamonix valley is blessed with outstanding views of Mont Blanc and other peaks. The area has long been a destination for adventurers; climbing and mountaineering was popular as long ago as 1760, whereas skiing in the Chamonix area started much later in 1920. The area hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Today, Chamonix area is well-known as a year-round destination; with great hiking, climbing, alpine skiing and back-country touring. The on-hill restaurants are generally good quality. However, many of the lifts in the area are a quite dated, if Annecy wins the bid for the 2018 Olympics, Chamonix should benefit greatly with new infrastructure. What Chamonix lacks in snow this year, it makes-up in other outdoor pursuits, good shopping and restaurants.
La Thuile (Italy) and La Rosire (France):
This resort in Italy is co-joined with La Rosiere in France (the combined resort is also called Espace San Bernardo). This ski station, which first opened in 1948. La Thuile was recommended by a friend. The Italian side of Mont Blanc has lucked into a bit more precipitation this year. La Thuile is about a 50-60 minute drive from Chamonix. The town is small and unimpressive. This is clearly a destination resort, and more affordable than some of the other better known areas. The restaurants are basic; pizza, pasta, panini and other wholesome fare. Eating is not why you go to this resort – get out on the slopes! The runs are long, the snow coverage is fantastic, the crowds very manageable and you can see forever.
Meribel, Courcheval and Les Trois Vallees, France:
Huge! Enormous! Gigantic! – this co-joined resort covers three distinct valleys. The expanse of terrain is mind-boggling, the area boasts 200 lifts, 600 km of trails and a summit in Val Thorens that tops out at 3420m. The village base at Val Thorens is a very crowded and over-developed. Meribel is actually three base areas, that move from party spot to quieter venues as you move down the valley. Courcheval is smaller again and more exclusive. Overall the area is well serviced by lifts, restaurants, bars and other necessary facilities. There is even a phone “App” that you can down-load for your phone so you can check the weather, on-hill facilities, make reservations etc. Too bad about the lack of snow, the views are unbelievable.
Val D’Isere, France:
This tight valley is very prone to heavy snow, avalanches, mud and rock slides, all of which can make for interesting ski conditions. The village of Val D’Isere surrounds a church which dates from the 17th century. The builders must have known where to place the church, as much of the overzealous development in the 1970s was threatened by mother nature. The village today, is a combination of hotels in all of the star categories, rental accommodation and shopping for all tastes. The planning commission has done a great job ensuring adherence to a general building standard, with a nod to past traditions. The region has been occupied since the middle ages, hotel accommodation dates from 1888, and skiing started to take off in the 1930s (first cable car 1938). The area today encompasses several ski areas including Tignes and is known as l’Espace Killy (after Jean Claude-Killy). Hands down this resort was our favourite for snow conditions, terrain variety and village character. The resort symbol/mascot has been the eagle (l’aigle) since 1934, it seems fitting when you see the open vistas and seemingly endless terrain.