Where do you head for a snow-sure ski break? Whether you are looking for a white Christmas early in the season, spring sunshine or summer adventure on a high-altitude glacier, here are my suggestions
Picking the best resort for skiing or snowboarding is especially important during the festive early season. For some people, the whole point of going on a ski break at this time of year is to experience the magic of a white Christmas. Then there are those who hate the idea of a "cold" holiday. For them, a late ski break offers that magical formula of blue skies, clear mountain air and sunshine combined with snow and skiing. Finally, there are the real hardcore enthusiasts who can't get enough of the white stuff and head out in the summer months to high-altitude resorts with glaciers, snow and plenty of brilliant sunshine. In all three cases, where should skiers and boarders head in order to be sure of snow?
Even in these times of climate change and shrinking glaciers, there are still some places where snow is guaranteed – whether it is at the beginning of the season, in late spring or even in summer. Better still, the list includes some of the best ski resorts in the world – so there is no need to compromise on standards. The destinations I have picked are in no particular order; they are mini-profiles which will help you determine which resort suits you best. To find out more, see my more comprehensive ski guides here on Simonseeks.
The "Pearl Of The Alps", Saas-Fee should be high on the list for beginners and snowboarders in particular. There is a world-class snow park on the year-round and snow-sure Mitelallalin glacier, where our own national team does most of its summer training. The resort is also a brilliant choice for those who want to experience what many describe as "the prettiest ski village in Europe". Add a great après-ski scene and a youthful snowboarding vibe, and Saas Fee has a wide appeal.
How high? 1,800m - 3,500m
Suits who? Beginners, relaxed intermediates, snowboarders, traditionalists.
Not for you Ski-circus and doorstep skiers.
When to go The season begins in November here so by the time Christmas arrives the lovely traditional village will be extremely appealing, but the very high altitude terrain up to 3,500m can mean bitter early season weather, which can be dispiriting and bleak. Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps makes Saas Fee a great destination for super snow and spectacular springtime views.
Best to go - April.
Winter season: November-May. Summer season: glacier and snow park open through to October.
Where to stay In my opinion, the five-star Feriernart Resort and Spa is the best hotel in town. It has a superb slope-side location, no fewer than five excellent restaurants and a top-class spa and pool. The Rainbow is an amazing new sports centre facility for activities off-slope. It is exceptionally well-equipped for almost any sport you can imagine. Truly outstanding.
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While its neighbour Saas Fee is a beginners' resort, glittering Zermatt is a fantastic snow-sure destination for intermediates and experts. It is one of the world's most renowned ski resorts, mainly on account of the iconic Matterhorn that towers above it. The Theodul glacier provides year-round snow and there is a huge amount of skiing above 3,000m.
Zermatt is also the gourmet capital of skiing – so in addition to great snow, you will be assured of fantastic food. Its pretty car-free village makes it beguiling and beautiful and it has a lively après-ski scene.
How high? 1,620m - 3,820m
Suits who? Intermediates, experts, gourmets, jet-setters, celebs, scenery buffs.
Not for you Beginners, skiers on a low budget.
When to go Like its neighbour Saas Fee, Zermatt has a quaint Christmas card charm and similarly it is perhaps an even better late-season option. Its predominantly north- facing slopes can get bitterly cold in midwinter (I got frost bite at the end of December 06 here!) but are bathed in spring sunshine, yet snow conditions are generally as good as they are in January.
Best to go - March/April for great snow and sun.
Winter season: open to April. Summer season: Theodul glacier open from July.
Where to stay A Zermatt institution, the four-star Hotel Post boasts five bars and clubs and is one of the funkiest places to stay in town, stylishly refurbished into a super-chic boutique hotel in 2007. The rooms are comfortable and have classy bare stone and light timber walls and cutting-edge bathrooms. For dining there is the gourmet Portofino restaurant which has now been awarded 14 Gault Millau points and a host of informal, great-value eateries serving everything from Tex-Mex, pasta and pizza to steak and chips.
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Home to the Corvatch and Diavolezza glaciers, which offer extensive and challenging fun from as early as October, St Moritz is renowned as a winter playground for the jet set. It hosts World Cup polo and the White Turf horse race on its frozen lake, and is famous for its natural ice toboggan descent – the Cresta Run. This is good news for avid skiers and snowboarders, as skiing takes second place to showing off. This means the slopes can be relatively uncrowded, leaving plenty of untracked powder to be explored.
Besides a plethora of plush hotels, shops and restaurants, St Moritz is blessed with 300 days of sunshine per year, plus guaranteed snow, a stunning glacier and wonderful scenery.
How high? 1,700m - 3,300m
Suits who? All standards of skier, international playboys (and girls), gourmets, snowboarders, sun-worshippers, non-skiers.
Not for you Skiers on a lower budget, doorstep skiers, "typical" après-skiers.
When to go The special town events such as the polo (from 28 January 2010) or White Turf racing (first three weekends in February) give the town a great atmosphere, and also mean that the slopes are quiet.
Best to go - January / February.
Winter season: open from late October-May.
Where to stay The four-star Hotel Monopol is the ideal location, in the centre of St Moritz Dorf and just two minutes' walk from the Corviglia cable car. In a town full of International five-star formality, the Monopol makes a relaxed choice of hotel – but the food and service are top-class.
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The free-ride capital of Austria, Mayrhofen is a mecca for snowboarders. Hintertux is the highest peak and one of the steepest Alpine glaciers. Rising from 1,500m to 3,520m, it provides 86km of year-round skiing for intermediates who like a challenge, plus plenty of snowboarding opportunities. Many top international teams do their summer training at the Betterpark on Hintertux. The park is open to everyone, offering them the 360m super pipe plus all the usual rails and kickers… and the obligatory DJ.
Be warned, however, that he glacier is a 12-mile bus ride from Mayerhofen village. You can choose a base in the tiny hamlet of Hintertux itself, but Mayrhofen is the place to be. With its bars and restaurants, it has a lively après-ski appeal – so it is worth the 40-minute trip to the glacier each day. Every April, Mayrhofen becomes the "Glastonbury of the Alps" as the legendary Snowbombing festival takes the resort by storm. In 2010, the snowboard competition and music event takes place from April 3-10.
How high? 630m - 2,500m
Suits who? Families, beginners, intermediates, snowboarders, party people.
Not for you Mixed-ability groups, door-step skiers, gourmets.
When to go Although on paper the village has a lowly altitude of 630m, the local slopes are virtually all located above the tree-line, so a long snow-sure season is guaranteed. Due to the lack of tree-lined runs which help visibility in heavy snow falls, it makes a good late season option. This is also the time for great value deals on accommodations in the smart 'pensions' after the peak periods.
Best to go - April 3-10 for Snowbombing week. July for the park life on Hintertux.
Winter season: open October-May. Hintertux glacier open all year.
Where to stay The five-star Hotel Elisabeth is the best hotel in town, situated just a minute's walk from the main street and lifts. The excellent, in-house Mamma Mia pizzeria serves authentic wood-fired pizzas. Other amenities include an excellent health spa, a large indoor pool and even a casino.
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Lech and Zürs are two exclusive and very beautiful villages. Lech is the main one while, higher up the valley, Zürs is defined by a small but select collection of hotels. Both share the same lift pass as world-famous St Anton, though only experts could manage to ski between them; St Anton is a short bus ride away.
Due to its geographical location (and despite a fairly modest altitude of 1,450m), Lech receives almost twice as much snow as its famous neighbour St Anton. Zürs, slightly higher up the valley at 1,720m, boasts almost half as much again. The pampered pistes of both are groomed to perfection to cater for many auspicious guests, including royalty who presumably appreciate the heated chairlift seats. The Lech-Zürs pair make an excellent choice of destination for beginners, and those who don't like their après-ski too loud and energetic. They are also a great choice for powder hounds, who will relish the huge dumps of fresh snow.
How high? Lech - 1,450m. Zürs - 1720m. Slopes 1,450m - 2,450m.
Suits who? Beginners, intermediates, royalty, celebs, powder hounds.
Not for you Paupers, party animals, experts.
When to go Not so bleak early season, due to a lower altitude and the option of some tree-lined runs for better flat light visibility when snowing. Lech-Zürs boasts a fabulous early season snow record, and has a Chocolate box appeal.
Best to go - perfect for Christmas.
Winter season: November-May.
Where to stay Classified as "super-deluxe", Aurelio is Lech's newest and most luxurious ski and spa lodge. With 19 individually styled rooms, it offers all the comforts of a five- star hotel in a fabulous, contemporary boutique-style setting. With doorstep skiing and a location very close to Lech centre, it certainly has the wow-factor.
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Stylish Val d'Isère and its pretty-ugly sister Tignes are linked to create the vast Espace Killy ski circuit, which provides some of the most snow-sure terrain anywhere in Europe. Tignes in particular is the place for fantastic summer snow, found in abundance on the Grande Motte glacier.
Val d'Isère has a long season, but its own Pissaillas glacier has shrunk as a result of the ravages of climate change. Despite the installation of lots of snow cannon, a hot spell will soon see this area closed. Tignes, therefore, is the optimum summer option, being just about as good as it gets for reliable summer snow. Another of its plus points is terrain suitable for all abilities; the down side, if there is one, is its 1950s "function over form" architecture. Val d'Isère, meanwhile, is an energetic and stylish early season choice.
How high? Val d'Isere 1,850m. Slopes 1,550 - 3,450m. Tignes 2,100m. Slopes 2,000m - 3,450m.
Suits who? Val d'Isère: intermediates, experts, snowboarders, party people, Brits abroad. Tignes: late season/summer skiers and snowboarders.
Not for you Val d'Isère: beginners, people who don't like Brits abroad. Tignes: architecture ctritics, gourmets.
When to go Val d'Isère has a stylish traditional village ambience which makes for a nice festive atmosphere; Tignes has the Grande Motte glacier offering 10 months of snow-sure terrain.
Best to go - Val d'Isere at Christmas / New Year. Tignes is an excellent late spring or summer choice.
Winter season: Val d'Isère – December-April; Tignes – open from late September until May. Summer season: Tignes reopens May-October.
Where to stay In Tignes, I'd recommend the three-star Hotel le Levanna. No matter what has been said about the architecture in Tignes generally, this is a really attractive chalet-style hotel with a lovely, cosy decor and ambience. Located slope-side, it has a popular lunchtime restaurant with a sunny terrace, plus a dining room serving consistently delicious Modern French cuisine. Rooms are bright, tasteful, spacious and comfortable.
In Val d'Isère, try the four-star Barmes De L'ours. The best hotel in town, it has really comfortable, spacious rooms, plus fabulous food in any of the three restaurants (one of which has a Michelin star). For unwinding and relaxation, it also has one of the largest spas in the French Alps, with a pool, sauna, hammam and fitness centre.
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Val Thorens is a popular purpose-built ski village (at 2,300m, the highest in Europe) attracting a young, energetic and cosmopolitan crowd. It is car-free and, while being a part of the vast Trois Vallées ski area, has more than 140km of its own pistes above 3,000m. It also boats the Chavière and Peclet glaciers, though pronounced shrinkage of the frozen areas in recent years has closed them for summer skiing.
Val Thorens is at the centre of an experiment looking at how to reduce the retreating glaciers. A huge white reflective cover has been placed on the Glacier de Thorens during the summer months, and the effects are being carefully monitored by the other resorts suffering the effects of global warming.
How high? Val Thorens 2,300m. Slopes 1,300m - 3,250m.
Suits who? Doorstep skiers, lovers of vast terrain, party people.
Not for you Traditionalists.
When to go This year, Val Thorens opened as early as 14th November – but its high altitude and heavy falls of snow, and poor visibility in the early season can make it desolate at this time of year. It makes for a brilliant option in late season, with the prospect of sun added to the wonderful snow and doorstep skiing in the resort's Belleville valley.
Best to go - In late season (March-April) for excellent snow and sun.
Winter season: closes in May.
Where to stay The four-star L'Oxalys is a new boutique apartment/chalet/hotel complex with 25 spacious, refined apartments each sleeping two to eight people, all with individual cosy open fireplaces. There is a luxury spa, and the superb hotel restaurant has one well-deserved Michelin star. It doesn't get much better than this…
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Known as L'Ile au soleil ("island in the sun"), Alpe d’Huez offers 450km of mostly south-facing pistes with a variety of terrain suitable for all abilities – all linked by 84 lifts. Home to the longest (black) run in Europe – the spectacular 16km-long Sarenne – it has an enviable vertical drop of 2,230m. At 3,330m, high above Pic Blanc, is the Glacier de Sarenne.
The town itself is larger than most ski villages and sprawls quite a way along the valley. Much of the accommodation offers the convenience of ski-to-door, but the town lacks a certain charm due largely to its size and conceptual architecture dating from 1936. However, this is being rapidly improved. There are also regular shuttles via busses or helicopter to neighbouring Les Deux Alpes, and a reciprocal deal on certain days with a weekly lift pass.
How high? Alpe d'Huez 1,830m. Slopes 1,130m - 3,300m.
Suits who? Beginners, intermediates, sun-worshippers, doorstep skiers
Not for you Architecture critics, gourmets, après-skiers, traditionalists.
When to go With the majority of its slopes being of a sunny, south facing aspect, this makes for a great early season choice.
Best to go - December - January.
Winter season: closes end of April.
Where to stay The four-star Hotel Chamois d'Or gets my vote. In a resort with a high number of apartments, this is the best hotel in town. It has a lovely indoor pool, a good-quality restaurant – and its location, right by the main lifts, could not be bettered.
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Lying on the sunny side of the awesome Matterhorn (Mount Cervino to the Italians), Cervinia is, at 2,050m, a high-altitude paradise for beginners and intermediates. With direct access to the more challenging terrain of Zermatt, and to the Klein Matterhorn glacier, it keeps experts happy too.
Cervinia prides itself on its exceptional snow record – plus mile after mile of flattering and perfectly-groomed reds and blues, together with some tame off-piste. There are some exhilarating runs, such as the famous Highway 7 – a 13km cruise open for almost six months of the year. If you can forgive Cervinia for its aesthetically challenged looks, which blight the wonderful surrounding scenery, it makes a great snow-sure destination. It is also a cheaper route to experiencing the slopes of its upmarket Swiss neighbour Zermatt.
How high? Cervinia 2,050m. Slopes 1,525m - 3,480m
Suits who? Beginners, lazy intermediates, snowboarders, party people.
Not for you Architecture critics, adventurous skiers and boarders, gourmets (unless they go to Zermatt).
When to go Better later in the season due to its high altitude and location. Cervinia can get biting, windswept conditions which can close its runs during the early season, though on a nice day its slopes receive the early season sunshine far more than Zermatt on the other side of the Matterhorn.
Best to go - March-April.
Winter season: November-May.
Where to stay The four-star Hotel Hermitage would be my choice, located just outside the village but with courtesy transport to the lifts and slopes. A cosy and luxurious hotel with some stunning views, it offers the full compliment of amenities: pool, fitness centre, spa, sauna and gym, plus La Chandelle – its Michelin-starred restaurant.
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