There are many things in North America that are bigger, and in some ways better, than in Europe. And while the debate can continue eternally over which continent offers a better skiing experience, some facts are indisputable: There are bigger ski areas in Europe with bigger verticals in the Alps (compared to the Rockies). Sooner or later, the temptation is likely to get you over there.
Ready to ski Europe and plan your first trip? Here are a few pointers to help you out.
Along with the obvious things – currency, electrical power systems, languages, and the time zone you’re in—here are some other considerations:
Most European ski areas (except for some in France built in the 1960s) are traditional, year-round villages where the lift company is separate from the surrounding businesses, gear rentals shops, restaurants and hotels. As a result, there are many more small, family-run establishments involved.
There are more than 4,000 ski areas in Europe—That’s about five times the number in North America. Ski areas are also typically bigger, with some of the largest linking their slopes together. These ski areas co-operate, rather than compete, in order to stay ahead of the rest. The biggest, Les 3 Vallées, has an amazing 350 miles of inter-linked runs, shared among half a dozen resorts. The 180 lifts that operate here can uplift more than a quarter of a million skiers per hour.
In recent years, European ski areas have increased their investments in fast, new lifts that are more comfortable than their counterparts in America. You’ll find a lot of 6 and 8-seaters with comfy chairs and heated seats whizzing up the slopes, along with fast gondolas that can carry 10 or more people per cabin. Europe has far more platter lifts (also known as button lifts) than American ski areas do, but if you don’t want to ride them, you can usually avoid them.
In terms of top-to-bottom ski descents and epic long runs, virtually all of the world’s top 50 is located in the Alps. The biggest is a 9,200-foot vertical at Chamonix, running down 15 miles of the Vallee Blanche.
This can vary tremendously but typically (when you exclude the cost of actually getting to the Alps), costs for lift passes and other aspects of your trip are likely to be lower than back home.
Choose the right, family-run establishments and you can expect to eat food that’s locally sourced. The food is often grown on the family farm or caught in nearby seas, and cooked using traditional recipes. The big hotels are the only places with mass market catering.
Where To Go
With so many choices in the Alps (and other mountain ranges from the Pyrenees between France and Spain to the Dolomites in Italy), deciding where to go on your first trip can be fairly daunting.
It’s tempting to head straight to the famous resorts like Chamonix and Verbier because of their legendary skiing, but if you’re looking to be “wow”-ed beyond just the slopes, here are my top three recommendations:
Zermatt Ski Resort is one of Europe’s most expensive resorts, but considering it is the home to the continent’s highest ski lift (12,790 feet), one of its biggest ski areas (220 miles of runs), and one of the biggest verts (7,220 feet) – you can kind of see why it’s so pricey. Zermatt is also open all-year round, 365 days a year.
Zermatt’s real selling point, however, is not man-made. Towering above is the Matterhorn—an utterly beautiful, stunning, and awe-inspiring sight that makes every inch of your long trip worth the effort, even if you never click your skis on.
There are no gas-driven vehicles allowed in town so, except for the quiet buzz of little electric carts, it’s extremely peaceful. There are numerous options for luxurious accommodations and superb food, and you can even ski over to Italy for a real espresso or pizza. Zermatt is really in a class of its own.
At 6,070 feet, Courchevel is one of Europe’s highest ski areas. It is part of Les 3 Vallées, the world’s biggest ski area (mentioned above), with 350 miles of shared, inter-linked runs.
With more than a dozen luxury hotels and the world’s most expensive ski chalets (up to $400,000 a week), Courchevel is the place to be, especially if you have a lot of “mullah” to spare. There’s still plenty to entertain those with smaller bank balances (window shopping and celebrity spotting, anyone?), and everyone gets to enjoy the same slopes.
St Moritz, Switzerland
Winter tourism was born in St Moritz about 150 years ago. In the Summer of 1864, a local hotelier made a bet with four Victorian Brits on a Grand tour (a traditional trek made by mostly young, upper-class European men in search of art, culture, and history). The bet was that they would enjoy a Winter in the Alps, where they’d see more sunshine and feel much healthier compared to the usual Winter in damp, foggy London. The hotelier won his bet and the rest is history. The small farmhouse that they stayed in back then is now maintained as part of the Kulm Hotel, (one of five 5-star hotels in St Moritz).
Over the past century and a half, anyone who is anyone has visited St Moritz, including Charlie Chaplin who was the first of many to drive to the area during Winter, using a vehicle with cat tracks. Because of its high altitude and modern snowmaking technology, snow is almost always guaranteed.
If possible, take the Rhaetian Railway (“Red Train”) to St Moritz. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ride is a spectacular two-hour ascent through the most beautiful mountains in Europe.
HERO PHOTO: Courchevel Office du Tourisme