Piste de resistance
When our ski season is over, look north for a cool snow holiday, writes Barry Oliver
HE northern hemisphere offers a bewildering selection of possibilities for snow bunnies. The US state of Colorado alone has 22 classy resorts and continues to attract Australians in droves. (We’re the second biggest overseas market after the Brits.) But, sacre bleu, how can anyone ignore the French Alps with their vast winter playground of long runs and stateof-the-art lifts?
Then there’s Canada with a clutch of mustvisit winter resorts in Alberta and British Columbia, where Whistler’s new gondola link to Blackcomb has been grabbing all the headlines. Japan can really turn on the snow as well and offers an affordable holiday with a cultural experience. It also has the advantage of being closer to home. Oh, and did I mention the Swiss Alps or Italy’s Dolomites? Here’s a brief look at the tip of the enormous northern hemisphere iceberg:
The boast at Colorado is that despite awesome snow (10m last season) there are about 300 days of sunshine a year. The snow season runs from October to May but can last until June. The early season, November to Christmas, is a good time to go: the reward is untouched runs and short lift lines. February and March, known for huge snowfalls, are the best bet for powder hounds. www.colorado.ski.com.
Aspen: Celebrity-favourite Aspen steals the headlines but there are four mountains — Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk — offering more than 500km of terrain under one lift ticket. Insider tip: Take a snowmobile ride to the Maroon Bells, among Aspen’s most-photographed peaks. www.aspensnowmass.com.
Steamboat: It’s claimed the term champagne powder was dreamed up here to describe light and fluffy snow. Steamboat’s heart is its gondola, which efficiently whisks skiers and boarders to mid-mountain in 10 minutes; from there they spread out on 165 trails across 1214ha. The old ranching town of Steamboat is a welcome diversion. Insider tip: Take to the slopes with Billy Kidd, a former Olympic champion and the resort’s director of skiing. www.steamboat.com.
Telluride: This 100-year-old town is set in a box canyon surrounded by 466m-high peaks. A free gondola takes visitors to Mountain Village, the hub of winter activities. With the opening of Revelation Bowl, Telluride has more than 1000ha of terrain. Insider tip: Try a half-day heli-skiing trip; you don’t have to be an expert. www.visittelluride.com.
Vail: The resort’s 11km of back bowls were blanketed with more than 12m of snow last season. Resort staff say finding elbow room is no problem with just two skiers an acre (0.404ha) on average. Vail is claimed to have more groomed terrain ‘‘ than anywhere on the planet’’. Apart from the bowls, there are 128 trails. Insider tip: Take an interactive tour on the website to get a taste of what’s on offer. www.vail.snow.com.
The snow is reliable and the Canadians are so polite on the slopes (well, that’s my experience); there is also good on-snow accommodation, often with an outdoor hot tub, a delightful experience when it snows. Most visitors fly to Vancouver, then take a short local flight to the snow. The ski resorts are popular with Australians, both to visit and for work, so it’s not unusual to hear a ‘‘ g’day mate’’ greeting or two. The buzz is all about next February’s Winter Olympics. http://au.britishcolumbia.travel; www.travelalberta.com.
Whistler: The latest big event at Whistler has been the opening of the Peak 2 Peak gondola (in December last year), which links it with Blackcomb mountain, 4.4km away. It pretty much has the lot on 2428ha, from heliskiing to snowmobiles and tubing. About 90 per cent of the resort will remain open during the Olympics. Insider tip: Get a feel for the two mountains by skiing with a local in its complimentary mountain hosts scheme. www.whistlerblackcomb.com.
Big White: Big White is, well, big. About 1147ha of patrolled terrain, 118 runs and five bowls accessed by 16 lifts. Even the snowfall is big: about 8m in an average season. Ski-in, skiout accommodation with slopes to suit all ages and abilities, from easy groomers to steep off-piste runs. Insider tip: Experience Silver Star on the same lift ticket: a weekly shuttle runs between the resorts. www.bigwhite.com.
Sun Peaks: About a 45-minute drive from Kamloops, this resort has 117 runs, the longest a cruisy 8km, on 1456ha, 11 lifts and 40km of cross-country skiing. Dog sledding is a popular diversion. Insider tip: Take to the slopes with former Olympic champion Nancy Greene. It’s free. www.sunpeaksresort.com.
Lake Louise: Here there’s 1699ha of skiable terrain with the majestic Canadian Rockies for company. Gentle slopes and long cruisy runs for beginners. Experts can explore chutes, glades, gullies and remote bowls. Insider tip: Experts will find some of the most challenging terrain in the Rockies. www.skilouise.com.
The French Alps offer a dazzling total of 357 resorts and 25,239ha of slopes (with an army of 1400 groomers to keep them in shape). It’s just as well there’s a lot of room as about eight million snow enthusiasts flood here every northern winter (a mere 3000 of whom are Australians). Most fly into Lyons or Geneva. www.skifrance.com.
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc: This resort offers a 22km off-piste ski run; there are more than 155 km of slopes on six ski areas around Mt Blanc (four in the Chamonix Valley, one each in Courmayeur, Italy, and Verbier, Switzerland). One ski pass covers the main ski areas. Insider tip: Don’t miss riding on Aiguille du Midi, the highest cable in Europe, reaching 3842m. www.chamonix.com.
Val Thorens: At 2300m, this is Europe’s highest resort; situated in the Three Valleys, on offer are 600km of slopes, thanks to links with several other resorts. Accommodation is ski-in, ski-out and with more than 50 restaurants and bars, it’s the place for nightlife. The season here can be long: from December to April is not unusual. Insider tip: Try the 6km toboggan run, France’s longest. www.valthorens.com.
Courchevel: Situated in the Three Valleys, Courchevel is known for its safe and extensive ski area. There’s a multitude of luxury hotels and chalets, mostly ski-in, ski-out. Two of the 60 restaurants have Michelin stars. With 1000 instructors on hand, there’s no excuse for not improving your technique. Insider tip: For an unusual diversion, take a snow scooter tour. www.courchevel.com.
Val d’Isere: Skiing is a tradition in this centuries-old village. The winter playground is vast, with 300km of runs and 94 ski lifts moving skiers across more than 1200ha of terrain; off-piste skiing is allowed. As Serge Tchenko, the resort’s marketing manager at Val d’Isere, said on a recent visit to Sydney: ‘‘ France is still a free country.’’ Insider tip: Follow the tracks of the 2009 ski world champions on the legendary Face de Bellevarde. www.valdisere.com.
Engadine St Moritz: This snowsports region, which has hosted two Winter Olympics, is the largest and most varied in Switzerland with 350km of terrain and 56 lifts. St Moritz, a favourite with the international jet set, is among the world’s most exclusive resorts and was the birthplace of winter tourism in the alps. Insider tip: Adrenalin junkies will enjoy tobogganing down the icy Cresta Run. www.myswitzerland.com.
Verbier: Picturesque Verbier lies close to France and Italy in the heart of the Four Valleys wintersports mecca. From its sunny plateau at 1500m, Verbier offers great views. Insider tip: Challenging off-piste skiing, if you are up to it. www.verbier.ch.
Zermatt: At the foot of the majestic Matterhorn, Zermatt is a charming, traditional winter resort. Electric cars and horsedrawn sleighs and carriages are the only transport permitted. Insider tip: Zermatt embraces three skiing areas, which all enjoy good snow and a long season. www.zermatt.ch.
The snow addicts at www.skiitaly.com point From Europe to Japan, there’s something for everyone in the northern ski fields. From far left, the French Alps; Sun Peaks in British Columbia; the picturesque village of Vail in Colorado out there’s more to their homeland than pizza and pasta. ‘‘ Italy is not only home to the highest mountain in Europe, Monte Bianco in Courmayeur, but it has some of the best and liveliest ski stations in Europe.
‘‘ You say you like fashionable skiing? How does Cortina d’Ampezzo grab you? This wellknown resort is the site of Olympic fame past and is smack in the middle of one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Italy, the Dolomites.’’ www.skiitaly.com.
Cortina: Known as the pearl of the Dolomites, Cortina offers 110km of downhill tracks and 58km of cross-country trails with neverending carousels served by 37 lifts. For those who want something different there’s ice-skating and sledging. Insider tip: Bravehearts may like to take part in a spot of iceclimbing. www.skiare.com.au.
After a hard day on the slopes visitors can soak up Japanese culture and delicious food as well as the country’s famous natural hot springs. Quality snow from November to April and reached in less than 10 hours from Australia. www.japanguide.com.
Niseko: The ski areas of Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, Hanazono and Annupuri, all on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, have become popular with powder hounds and can be skiied on one all-mountain pass. The Hanazono ski fields form part of the greater Niseko ski area, one of the largest in Japan. Insider tip: The powder skiing in Strawberry Fields is unforgettable. www.skihanazono.com.
Rusutsu Resort: Near the base of Mt Yotei, 79km west of Sapporo, the three mountains and 1700ha of terrain are serviced by 18 lifts, four of them gondolas. There are 37 runs, the longest 3.5km. Other activities include dogsledding, snowmobiling, snowrafting and tubing. Insider tip: The peak of Mt Izola offers the best terrain with long and challenging runs and panoramic scenery. www.rusutsu.co.jp.
Hakuba: This is a huge expanse of ski country offering an incredible variety of terrain. Ten resorts, including Happo-One, Goryu-Toomi and Hakuba 47, are spread along the 3000m-high ranges of the Japan Alps on the main island of Honshu. There’s a wide choice of accommodation, including traditional ryokan. No shortage of snow with about 10m in an average season. Insider tip: Don’t miss the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park. www.ski-hakuba.com. Barry Oliver is Travel&Indulgence’s ski writer.
The white stuff: