By Rebecca Craig
Working for AITO (the Association of Independent Tour Operators for those who don’t know) has some unusual benefits, the most exciting of these is the in depth specialist knowledge that our members can offer. In the field of ski holidays, for example, we represent over 30 independent tour operators who deal predominantly in ski packages and winter sports – that’s a lot of knowledge that I have ready access to.
And from dipping into this resource, I’ve been able to compile a concise list of ten ski resorts that 10 of our members endorse on their websites. The immense combined expertise these ski operators boast means that I, despite not being a huge winter sports buff, feel confident to take their word and promote these as AITO’s favourites.
So here are AITO’s top ski resorts, along with the companies that offered them superlative laden endorsement. Narrowing the list down to the 10 best ski resorts was a real challenge, given that AITO members offer over 175 between them!
1 St Anton – Austria:
Skiworld recommend St Anton as one of the best ski resorts in the world, and their endorsement seems to be matched by the World Alpine Skiing Championship organisers, who gave the resort the honour of hosting the event in 2001. The peaceful village nearby is a stark contrast to the buzzing internationally renowned ski slopes, but the two seem to fit together perfectly despite their obviously different feels. As the resort attracts ski enthusiasts from all over the world, there is a real cosmopolitan feel to the resort, although English remains the dominating language on the slopes.
Off of the slopes, St Anton’s main street provides plenty of distractions, giving shoppers opportunity to search for jewellery, music, antiques, clothing and local crafts. The latter are worth a special mention, as traditional woodcarvings from the region are exported all over the world.
But what of the slopes themselves? Well, they’re not for beginners, that’s for sure. It’s been said that in St. Anton, a blue run is a red, while a red is a black – they’re pitched at experts and ambitious intermediate level skiers, but those that have the ability are sure to find the slopes endlessly rewarding. The only downside to it is that unless there’s been a fresh snow-fall, conditions are sometimes less than perfect, because of the south-facing aspect. That said, if you’re in luck with the snow-fall, then you’re guaranteed to have one of the best European ski holidays of your life.
2 Courchevel – France:
No list could be complete without mentioning Courchevel – with its stunning reputation, the only downside is the premium price point often bandied around by ski operators when dealing with this most exclusive resort. Regarded as many as the best ski resort in the world, Courchevel offers some of the best ski holidays in Europe – albeit at a high price! One of the best things about the region is that the 600 kilometres of pistes offer a challenge for all abilities – beginners need not leave their comfort zone on the ample green pistes, while those of intermediate ability can ski a challenging selection of red and blue runs. Those feeling particularly daring can head straight for the secret powder stashes that await experts on the black runs – some of the steepest in Europe.
The resort itself lives up to its exclusive reputation with some of the most exciting and expensive nightlife on the European ski holiday circuit. Courchevel 1850 attracts some of Paris’ top cabaret acts and DJs as well as a variety of other entertainments from places to be pampered to bowling and a cinema. The more traditional village centres of Courchevel 1300 and 1550 have a lower key atmosphere with a selection of lively pubs and traditional mountain cuisine.
3 Aspen & Snowmass – USA:
There are 4 mountains in this region, offering a skier over 5,000 acres of skiable terrain and 341 trails allowing everyone from beginners to experts to find an exciting variety of routes on their holiday. This is one of Colorado’s most attractive resorts, and the fact that all the four mountains are covered by the same lift pass means that this ski resort can offer excellent variety – especially if you are experienced enough to take on some of the more challenging runs in Aspen Mountain and Highlands, with their exciting mix of tree runs, gullies and chutes. Beginners and intermediate level skiers are well served as well though, with a large selection of wide cruisers at Buttermilk and Snowmass.
The town was originally defined by its mining trade, but with the ski traffic it has developed into one of the finest ski communities in North America. There are 100 bars and restaurants competing for your attention and an eclectic selection of boutiques and galleries to explore while you take time off the slopes.
4 Verbier – Switzerland:
One common complaint that people used to have with this famous ski resort was its long queues and poorly planned lift transport. Nowadays, things have improved considerably and the reputation of the resort should improve alongside. Verbier is still considered one of Europe’s top ski resorts, and manages to attract skiers from all over the world every year – courtesy of its excellent skiing opportunities for experts and a legendary nightlife. There are over 410 kilometers of pistes and it has an excellent snow record.
The downside to the excellent ski opportunities offered to experienced skiers is that it offers little in the way of entertaining runs for beginners, with just a handful of blue runs at Bruson. And while there is a variety of off-piste entertainment available including a sports centre, swimming pool and skating rink, beginners are still better served looking at other ski holidays in Europe or further afield..
5 La Rosière – France:
This child-friendly ski resort offers a range of slopes for skiers of all abilities, as well as options for non-skiers. This accompanied by the ski school meeting point (a development with catered chalets, bars, restaurants, shops and a bowling alley) and an excellent snow record ensure that La Rosière is a great choice for keen skiers.
The ski runs are divided as follows: 6 green ski runs, 23 blue, 32 red and 12 black runs for the experts. All of these take in the imposing vision of Mont Blanc, and you can even see the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in the distance, making for some excellent photos and memories that will ensure you come back time and time again when looking for a European ski holiday.
6 Les Arcs – France:
With its breathtaking views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps, an excellent snow record and ski slopes for those of all abilities, it’s no wonder that Les Arcs has quickly established a world class reputation amongst ski aficionados.
Although the resort is well served with ski runs for beginners, intermediates and advanced skiers, the highlight here is the off piste options. One of only two European stops on the world freeride circuit, the terrain is steep, amazingly varied and long and a must for skiers who have the ability to enjoy it!
The resort is one of only 40 in France to have earned the “Famille Plus” badge. The accolade is awarded only to those who offer outstanding childcare and family services, so those with children can be sure of safe and welcoming surroundings on their ski holiday in Europe.
7 Val d’Isère – France:
Describing the ‘typical’ visitor to Val d’Isère is a near impossible task, which says a great deal about its universal appeal. You get everyone from dedicated ski enthusiasts, to off-piste lovers to families and ‘ladies who lunch’. The majority of the skiing is above 2300 metres and the snow record is, unsurprisingly, excellent.
The choice available is the biggest problem facing visitors to this top ski resort. Visitors have the difficult decision of whether to stick to the ample ski opportunities on the doorstep of the accommodation, or take the trip to the top of Grand Motte – at over 3600 metres high, the view is simply outstanding and well worth the trip.
Once the skiing is done, there are plenty of ways of entertaining yourself. There’s live music at the Folie Douce, while there is a wide selection of bars, pubs and clubs in the town. Those who are looking for something more low key will perhaps be more interested in the pampering body treatments or shopping options however.
8 Klosters – Switzerland:
Arguably the most charming and aesthetically pleasing ski resort in this list is Klosters. Located in the Prattigau valley, the village offers charm and history at every turn. The chalets are a traditional timber fare adding to the idyllic atmosphere of the place, and it’s all part of the experience that you can come off the piste to a cosy chalet to relax.
The experience offered is unique to each skier, with 97 snow runs catering to all abilities. And although the resort has been popularized by Prince Charles’ patronage, it is still the kind of resort that offers a unique experience to each skier, giving them much to discuss in their cosy chalet in the evening, over a reviving hot drink.
9 Zermatt – Switzerland:
Nestled in the foot of the imposing Matterhorn, Zermatt is a top ski resort with an image built on exclusivity – the town is littered with gourmet restaurants, luxury hotels and expensive shops.
While this could indicate a reputation not built on the skiing experience, the options available at Zermatt are actually world class – especially for intermediate and advanced skiers. There are 313 kilometres of some of the highest north and west facing slopes in Europe. Expert skiers should be sure to check out the heli-ski trips as well for the experience of a lifetime.
Off the piste, the village is worth a visit – car free (with only electric and solar powered vehicles and horse-drawn sleighs allowed) with a handful of excellent restaurants. For the best restaurants though, the mountain steals the show with 40 dotted throughout the range. Some of them are truly world class and threaten, without ever managing, to overshadow the splendid skiing experience and become the focus of the European ski holiday.
10 Whistler – Canada:
The best ski resort in Canada, and one of the most highly rated in North America, Whistler is an outstanding winter sports location. Last year it recorded record levels of snow, with 45 feet adding to the crisp piste! But it’s not just the 8100 acres of fabulous skiing which makes Whistler one of the best ski resorts in the world – it has an atmosphere incomparable to others.
Whistler caters for every skier from beginners who barely know how to put skis on, to experts looking for a challenge. There are steeps, deeps, chutes, high alpine bowls, glades, long cruisers and gentle rollers – essentially something for everyone. Around half of the ski runs are aimed at intermediate users, with over a quarter devoted to experts and the rest for beginners. The excitement of some of the tougher intermediate runs and the expert runs provide the perfect incentive for skiers to improve, while the beginner slopes offer the facilities to do so.
But I mentioned the atmosphere didn’t I? It’s about the off-slope activities as much as the on-slope, and there are spas and shopping opportunities aplenty, with Vancouver nearby if it isn’t enough. The Après Ski at Whistler has won numerous awards, however, and visitors will find some wonderful dining experiences – whether you’re in the mood for fish, steak, sushi or gourmet cuisine. For those who have the energy, some of the clubs in the region offer the best nightlife on the world ski circuit.
Narrowing it down to just the 10 best ski resorts was always going to be tricky, but if you’re a skier who wants to make sure they’ve seen it all and if you haven’t visited all of these, then what are you waiting for?
About the Author
Rebecca Craig is the marketing manager of the Association of Independent Tour Operators.
The organization represents hundreds of independent tour operators, all of whom have signed up to a member’s quality charter to ensure excellent choice, service and quality.