Piste, here is the low­down on se­cret places

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - BEN CLAT­WOR­THY

North­ern ski­ing hol­i­days have a prob­lem. They’ve lost their sense of ad­ven­ture. Yes, the first flurries of win­ter in Europe pro­voke ex­cite­ment, and the lure of the moun­tains is strong. What’s lack­ing is the sense of dis­cov­ery, an­tic­i­pa­tion and of reach­ing dizzy­ing new heights.

This is no sur­prise, for the Alps have been en­ter­tain­ing win­ter tourists since 1864 when a group of English­men vis­ited St Moritz “out of sea­son’’ as a bet. In its in­fancy, ski­ing was the pre­serve of the aris­toc­racy, who hol­i­dayed only in the most chic re­sorts — the likes of Courchevel, Cortina and St Moritz — per­ilously hurl­ing them­selves down the moun­tains wear­ing plus-fours.

More re­cently, tour op­er­a­tors have gone to enor­mous lengths to broaden the sport’s ap­peal and en­tice those who pre­fer flop­ping on sun loungers to frol­ick­ing in the cold. And it has worked; by the 1960s pur­pose-built re­sorts were spring­ing up every­where. Over time, th­ese ex­panded and con­nected up to other re­sorts, cre­at­ing mega-ski ar­eas span­ning vast val­leys. Here your ev­ery whim is catered for, ev­ery turn sign­posted and ev­ery move­ment recorded; great, if you live in a cave for the rest of the year. But I don’t, and I’ve had it with ex­pan­sive, high­fa­lutin’ places where you can be treated badly.

A few years ago, I dis­cov­ered a Swiss se­cret. A hal- lowed place with pow­der on its doorstep, where some of the world’s best freeride skiers hang out har­mo­niously along­side the lo­cals. This is Gri­mentz, close to Ver­bier, yet worlds away from the toffs. The only sounds in its nar­row al­ley­ways are the moo­ing of cows (clois­tered for the win­ter) and the odd clunk of ski boots. Two sea­sons ago, a ca­ble car linked the re­sort to nearby Zi­nal and you can now lap the area, ski­ing the Piste du Chamois, which de­scends from Zi­nal’s high­est point back to Gri­mentz, sev­eral times in a morn­ing, ski­ing fresh lines ev­ery time.

I rel­ished the same sense of ad­ven­ture last sea­son in Mades­imo, an Ital­ian re­sort north of Lake Como. Here the slopes are less gnarly, the skiers drawn to easy-breezy blues and rolling reds. Ex­perts can tackle the clas­sic Canalone route, which be­gins at the top of a stom­ach-turn­ing gully. But, as so of­ten in Italy, the real treat is the food. Din­ner at Do­gana Ve­gia, a kitsch 340-year-old con­verted cus­toms house, is a must. Lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties, such as cap­pel­lacci pasta with as­para­gus, are ac­com­pa­nied by a vast ar­ray of re­gional wines, cli­max­ing with a glug­gable (but headache-in­duc­ing) 16 per cent red.

There are hun­dreds of th­ese gems in the Alps. Picturesque Val­loire in France, for ex­am­ple, is over­looked by skiers who tear past the turn-off, ea­ger for the Three Val­leys, while Gross­glock­ner in Aus­tria’s East Tirol has a mod­ern ski area that was de­serted when I vis­ited. I re­alise now that I’d be­come blink­ered: ob­sess­ing over the kilo­me­tres of slopes and the num­ber of apres-ski bars. Where’s the fun in that? The moun­tains of­fer the per­fect es­cape from re­al­ity to a white world where time stands still. So es­chew the likes of Ver­bier, with its honk­ing hoorays and Courchevel with its fur-clad Rus­sians. You’ll be bet­ter off a few se­cret ski kilo­me­tres up the road.


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