Skiing has long been intrinsic to European culture, and one of the biggest reasons for the popularity of the sport is the vast expanses of snow-sure mountain slopes in Europe. Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, the Eiger—these legendary Alpine peaks have witnessed unabashed skiing frenzy year after year, and for decades! In turn, they have made France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy the most sought-after winter destinations, attracting royalty, jet-setters and the glitterati from the world over, including, of late, a growing number of Indians as well. If the on-slope action is high octane stuff, the après ski (ski parties) that follow can be no less frenzied and raucous.
France (1,040 m)
Near-vertical peaks rise from a 10-mile long valley and reach for the skies around the most iconic and oldest ski resort in the Alps: Chamonix Mont- Blanc. Nestled at the base of Mont Blanc in the French Alps, Chamonix is a magnet for extreme sports enthusiasts from around the globe all year round, who are drawn by its challenging runs, dangerous off-piste areas and superb landscape. Said to be the birthplace of Alpine skiing, the first ever Winter Olympics was held at the Chamonix, back in 1924. One of Europe’s most snow-sure ski spaces, Chamonix offers high-altitude skiing between late November and May on its four altitude areas—Brévent-Flégère, Les Grands Montets, Balme-Vallorcine and Les Houches—and several valley ski areas besides, including Le Savoy, La Poya and Le Tourchet. Each ski area, however, comes with its own set of challenges. Après ski parties at Chamonix are both boisterous and engaging.
Accommodation: Hôtel Le Hameau Albert 1er; Le Refuge des Aiglons
Access: Geneva airport, 1¼ hrs
Switzerland (1,800 – 3,303 m)
Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor … the annals of this glamorous ski resort shimmer with names of celebrities, the jet set and royal visitors since 1864. The oldest holiday resort in the world and Europe’s most exclusive ski destination, St Moritz, with its stunning lakeside setting, is legendary for its allure as a winter wonderland. Ritzy, expensive and oozing unassailable glamour, Engadin St Moritz offers great skiing with 350 km of ski runs. A snowsure skiing destination, it offers superb experiences at the Corviglia, Corvatsch, Diavolezza-Lagalb and Zuoz areas. Corviglia/Piz Nair, along with its three resort villages is another primary ski area. Après ski parties may be quieter here, but it is indulgences’ galore at its upmarket boutiques and Michelinstarred restaurants.
Accommodation: Badrutt’s Palace; Carlton Hotel St Moritz
Access: Zurich airport or Milan airport – 3 hrs; Bernina Express Train (from Milan). Ditch the coach rides and ski-buses; arriving by helicopter or limos is the way to go
AUSTRIA (1,305 m)
The cradle of modern skiing, the lovely mountain village of St Anton in the Arlberg region of Austria, ranks amongst the five top ski destinations in the Alps, with its 305 km of pistes, 200 km of off-piste itineraries and over 55 sq km of challenging off-piste terrain. Accessible by the world’s finest lift systems, it allows skiers to traverse a wide spectrum of ski areas in the mountains or the valleys, just by skiing and ski-lifting. The link-up of St Anton’s slopes—Lech, Zürs, Warth and Schröcken—have made Ski Arlberg Austria’s largest contiguous skiing area. Lech, the most exclusive of them, was a favourite of Princess Diana. Huge challenges can be expected by skiers at the mountains of Galzig, Gampen, Schindler Kar and Kapall. Après skis are legendary here with table dancing, bar-hopping and lots of on-slope entertainment.
Accommodation: Hotel Schweiger; Bentleys House; Haus Gamskar
Access: Innsbruck airport is 1 hour away; Direct OBB trains between Innsbruck and St Anton
AUSTRIA (1,800 m)
A medieval town sprawled against the hoary Wilder Kaiser Mountains, Kitzbühel is one of Austria’s most alluring ski destinations, with ski enthusiasts of all abilities arriving in droves from around the world to sample its superb runs, stunning scenery and lively après skis. Three ski areas—the Kitzbüheler Horn, Hahnenkamm and neighbouring Bichl Alm—are spread out across the local slopes.
One of the most thrilling events here is the annual Hahnenkamm ski race. Held in late January, on the dicey Streif racecourse, it can be pretty hair-raising. Kitzbühel offers adventures on 215 km of runs, supported by 54 lifts in the local area. It offers access by bus to the lively SkiWelt area. Kitzbühel is a huge draw for both skiing enthusiasts and tourists, as the place is lively with bars and boutiques and choice stay options.
Accommodation: Hotel Schwarzer Adler
Access: Innsbruck airport (1 ½ hrs) and Salzburg airport (1 hr 15 mins) by plane
AUSTRIA (3,210 m)
Austria’s largest glacier resort, Stubaier Gletscher is the perfect ski getaway for the entire family. Located at the tail end Stubai valley in Tirol, it rises 3,210 m above sea level with pistes offering snowsure conditions from October to June. Kids can have a whale of a time at the Big Family Ski Camp, which is manned by a team of trained experts. There is also a snow obstacle course, a snow carousel, as well as a special kids’ line in the Stubai Zoo Snow Park. For advanced and expert skiers, there is the allure of the 10 km descent from Wildspitz Mountain station (3,210 m), down to the base station (1,750 m). Famed for its great powders, Stubai Glacier is a hotspot for freeride skiing and a magnet for skiers and snowboarders addicted to off-piste adventures. The glacier has 63 km of slopes, with intermediate areas, some black runs and nursery slopes.
Accommodation: Activehotel Bergkönig, Alexandra’s Apartment
Access: From Innsbruck airport 45 mins by bus, car or hotel transfer
Popular Ski Jargon
Piste: Designated ski trail
Off-piste: Out of bounds, unregulated risky back country snow zone meant for experts only
In-bounds: Ski area inside the boundary of the ski resort
Alpine Skiing: Skiing downhill
Nordic Skiing: Skiing cross-country, on flat tracks and gentle hills
Bunny slopes: Easy and flat area for beginners
Ski Runs: Trails down the mountainside. Green trails are the easiest, blue trails are more difficult, black trails are rated most difficult, and red runs are for intermediates
Grooming: Trail maintenance—done by spreading new snow, smoothing out bumps, etc, with Snowcats or winches equipped with giant rakes
Packed Powder: New snow that has been groomed and ridden over many times
Powder: Fresh, lightweight dry snow. Vast swathes of powder make for epic skiing conditions
Ice: Ice on the mountain due to low temperatures—no snow
Snowplow: Standard posture in which you form an A-shape with your skis for speed control
Face-Plant: Falling flat on your face while skiing
Gaper: Novice whose bad skiing, poor style, indicates he’s clueless
Bombing: Skiing dangerously downhill without fear for anyone’s safety
Apres ski: Post-skiing party time