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Top 5 ski resorts in the Alps

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There are more ski resorts in the Alps than you could shake a stick at. It would probably take a lifetime to visit them all. If you’re a regular visitor to the Alps and you love to ski, then you’ll probably already have your favourite resort and perhaps you’ll return there year after year. Nothing wrong with that. After all, you’ve probably fallen in love with the place of your choice and it delivers every year, so why not stay with the tried and tested. However, you never know, you might make a change to one of the below resorts and wonder what you’ve been missing.

Zermatt

As Switzerland’s premier resort, Zermatt attracts visitors all year around, the skiing ranks amongst the very best to be found in the Alps. However skiing isn’t the only thing that Zermatt offers its visitors. The hills are alive with the sound of walkers and mountain bikers, while the colourful canopies of Paragliders swoop and glide overhead. The summer months affords the opportunity to enjoy the lush forests and Alpine pastures that rise up from the village to dizzying heights.

Zermatt lies in the Matter valley in South-Western Switzerland, part of the Pennine Alps. At 1,620m Zermatt is the highest town in the valley, and though famed for the iconic Matterhorn mountain surprisingly this is not the highest peak in the valley. Zermatt is surrounded by 38 summits over 4,000m.

Zermatt was part of a farming valley and in the area next to the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof several old buildings show the traditional building style of the original Walser residents. Some of the old barns and grain stores in the resort are up to 500 years old. Today, Zermatt is formed of several small farming hamlets which have gradually spread to become one town, housing its unique collection of classically Swiss hotels, and it’s modern, super deluxe collection of chalets.

At the northern side of Zermatt sits the exclusive ‘Petite Village’ with its collection of stunning chalets all lit by night to produce a fairytale scene. These chalets dot the mountain flank above Zermatt giving stunning views of the whole valley and village below. Petite Village is a premium location boasting premium chalets.

Central Zermatt hosts a collection of hotels and some exceptional chalets that hug the river Vispa, which bisects the town. Church Square is the hub for most town events, including the New Year’s Eve fireworks display, and there are some fabulous restaurants nearby.
As a car free town, one of Zermatt’s unique sights are the electric taxis and buses which transport both skiers and pedestrians from one sector of town to another, allowing you to explore the full area wherever you choose to stay. For the romantics among us there are also horse drawn carriages and sleighs.

Verbier

Visitors flock to Verbier from all over the world for the authentic Swiss charm, beautiful traditional ski chalets and the vibrant and buzzing town. Verbier plays host to some amazing international events year round including overnight mountaineering and ski touring races, the Ski Alpinism World Cup event and an International Show Jumping Grand Prix. A truly international and glamorous ski destination.

Verbier is located in southwestern Switzerland in the canton of Valais. Lying on a south oriented terrace at around 1,500 metres and facing the Grand Combin massif; the resort benefits from the south-facing vista with some glorious sunny days on the mountain. Famous for its off-piste; with the surrounding peaks full of impressive chutes, gullies and couloirs it has some of the most challenging terrain in the Alps.

From Verbier’s high point at the top of Mont Fort (3330m) you are treated to panoramic views across the Alps including the Matterhorn, Dom, Dent Blanche, Dent d’Hérens, Grand Combin and the Mont Blanc massif. As part of the Four Valleys ski domain you can ski Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz, La Tzoumaz and Thyon under the one lift pass, with over 410 km of marked pistes.

As with most Alpine ski resorts Verbier was originally a farming hamlet; when the first recorded attempt at skiing in Verbier took place in 1925 the companions would have been cows and herdsmen who must have thought it a strange site. It wasn’t until 1946 that the first lift system was installed, but it was the snow sport boom of the 1960s that began to transform this small farming village into the world leading ski resort  that it is today. Verbier has a number of fascinating museums and galleries that are well worth visiting and display the journey that Verbier has taken from farming hamlet to international ski destination.

Today accommodation in Verbier consists predominantly of traditional Swiss-styled chalets, but there are also a number of outstanding international hotels here including the stylish W Hotel, which opened its doors in 2013.

Meribel

Méribel lies in the Les Allues Valley at the centre of the world’s 
largest linked ski area, les Trois Vallées, giving access to over 600km of piste and unlimited off-piste. Owing to it’s enviable position at the centre of les Trois Vallées, Méribel is the perfect base from which to explore the extensive skiing on offer. Val Thorens, the highest skiing in the area at 2,300m, can be reached on skis in under an hour, and Courchevel is even closer. As well as the two main resorts, Méribel and Méribel- Mottaret, the valley also includes a number of villages. Together they form one of the most popular destinations for British skiers (the resort was, in fact, founded by a British Colonel, Peter Lindsay, in 1938).

The resort’s perennial popularity is due not only to its extensive skiing, but also to the attractive traditional Savoyard-style architecture. Unlike many purpose-built ski resorts Méribel has retained its alpine charm and consists entirely of chalet-style wood and stone buildings. As the largest of the villages in the valley Méribel has plenty more than its skiing on offer; the ice rink regularly hosts national and international ice hockey matches, and there is an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, and plenty of shopping on offer. The whole area sits on the edge of the Vanoise National Park making for truly stunning scenery for walking and snowshoeing.

At the top of the valley, about 4 km from Méribel, is Mottaret (1700 to 1800m). This village was developed in the early 1970’s and therefore has a more modern (but still attractive) look. It is quieter than Méribel, but still has a good selection of shops and bars, and the added bonus of lots of ski-in /ski out accommodation. Méribel-Village lies at 1400m and is approximately 2 km from Méribel on the road to La Tania and Courchevel. This tiny hamlet provides peaceful accommodation; making it popular with families and beginners and has a supermarket, an excellent boulangerie, a lively bar for après and a couple of restaurants. It has its own chair lift that runs up to the Altiport area (which is good for beginners.
Les Allues is a charming village at 1100m that has a more traditional feel to it.

The village is served by the Olympe gondola that whisks you up to the Chaudanne in the heart of Méribel’s ski area. Les Allues has a supermarket, ski hire shop and several restaurants. If you want to head up to Méribel, there is a public bus service – the journey time is around 15 – 20 minutes, alternatively you can take the gondola lift or you can easily hire a local taxi.

Val d’Isere

Arguably the most iconic of the French Alpine resorts, Val d’Isère has a lively and vibrant ambience, and carries itself well as one of Europe’s top ski destinations, with a fearsome reputation for its challenging black pistes and off-piste itineraries, and its buzzing après ski scene. Val d’Isère lies at the far end of the steep Isère Valley, at the farthest end of the larger Tarentaise Valley region where you will find the biggest concentration of world class ski resorts in the world. Of these Tarentaise super-resorts Val d’Isère more than holds its own. Alpine skiing began here in the 1930s, and was later linked into the neighbouring ski resort of Tignes, to form the extensive Espace Killy ski domain.

Less than 5 km from the border of Italy, and on the border of the Vanoise National Park Val d’Isère is for the most part now a traditional-looking alpine village, nestled between the famously steep sides of the Isère Valley. Historically a small farming hamlet just providing accommodation for farmers grazing their animals on the high alpine pastures, the village developed first into a summer destination, before winter sports enthusiasts encouraged the development of the ski resort we know today.

The first major lift, a cable car to the Solaise, was even built during the Second World War, and after the war ended the resort really took off, including the opening up of the Glacier for summer skiing.

In the 1960s the resort’s architecture took a turn for the worse with high-rise buildings and apartment blocks. Luckily thanks largely to the 1992 Albertville Olympics bringing the men’s downhill events to Val d’Isère improvements were made to the look of the resort, and many of the high rise buildings were slowly changed into buildings reflecting traditional design and using local materials, leaving us with the pretty resort we know today.

In addition to the ‘beautification’ of the resort carried out in the run up to the 1992 Olympics there is also now a strictly-enforced no parking policy in the town centre; roads are left snow covered and mature trees line the route where cars once parked, much improving the winter wonderland feel of the resort. The iconic church of Saint Bernard de Menthonwas built in 1664 and is undoubtedly the most charming feature of the resort, forming a central focal point around which the town has developed.

Le Fornet is a beautiful and quaint hamlet, just 5 km to the east of Val d’Isère. The architecture here is particularly appealing – traditional Savoyard stone and wood designs and not a high rise in sight. The beautiful River Isère bisects the hamlet, with an ancient stone bridge crossing, very picturesque, but also practical. In summer this area marks the start of the Col d’Iseran; snow covered and inaccessible in winter it opens up some of the Espace Killy’s best off-piste skiing. Traditionally quieter than central Val d’Isère with only a handful of (chic) chalets, the access to the skiing is often less crowded at the start of the day, meaning less queuing of course. Just above Le Fornet lies the Glacier du Pisaillas, at 3,400m it offers summer skiing, and ensures excellent conditions in winter.

At the far western side of town lies the hamlet of La Daille; constructed in the 1960s, accommodation was purpose-built to house the growing numbers of winter clients, now flooding to the resort, which had firmly established a reputation for being one of the finest ski resorts in the Alps. Although there are a number of large apartment blocks here, the area also houses a couple of the resort’s most spectacular chalets, and a rather nice restaurant, the Edelweiss.  The skiing access here as you would expect is superb, with the ‘Funival’ funicular taking skiers to the start of the infamous men’s downhill track ‘Le Face’, but also accessing the linking runs and lifts across to the neighbouring resort of Tignes.

St Anton

St Anton is a legendary Austrian ski resort in the South Tyrolean Alps, boasting both fantastic skiing and its own infamous brand of après ski. It was an early starter in terms of winter Alpinism; the first skiing in the Arlberg regions was actually recorded in 1895 when the parish priest of Lech made a first attempt at skiing – to the ridicule of his parishioners. Despite their obvious amusement the sport steadily grew, and on 3rd January 1901 a group of friends together formed the Arlberg Ski Club – which still exists today. They held their first internal races in 1903, and since have hosted many international racing competitions including several Alpine Skiing World Championships – the most recent in 2001.

The skiing in St Anton & the Arlberg region peaks at 2,811m, and the resort offers a skiable range of 1,507 m, with St Anton village itself sitting at 1,300m. The resort is fast becoming one of the most popular in Europe, and for good reason; it has an excellent snow record, sits within a two-hour drive of three major international airports, and has a train station if you prefer to travel by rail. Easily accessible, and retaining a cosy, village atmosphere, St Anton is known for being incredibly warm and welcoming.

It is also the home of modern Alpine skiing, as the birthplace of Johann ‘Hannes’ Schneider, who invented the ‘Arlberg Technique’ of downhill skiing and tuition. He was the first to pioneer the stages of instruction from snowplough to parallel turns that is still taught today. Schneider himself was self-taught, crafting his own makeshift skis as a child from a sledge maker’s scraps and a sieve nailed on to the runners as a binding. He often practised by moonlight to avoid the laughter of friends and family.

St Anton remains an innovator, with spectacular new lifts such as the pioneering Galzig gondola, which uses Ferris wheel technology to allow visitors to enter the lift at ground level. It is also a member of the USA Epic Pass scheme, which allows holders of season passes in many of the USA’s major resorts (including Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek & Heavenly) to spend 5 days skiing in St Anton, included on their lift pass. Likewise holders of an Arlberg season pass can return the favour by visiting each of the US resorts for up to 5 days. Fantastic, and sure to recommend St Anton to a whole new crowd of skiers from the USA, not forgetting Perisher in Australia, which is also a member of the scheme.

The layout of St Anton has of course changed over the years with the resort’s continued development, but it has retained the village feel and has avoided the pitfalls of over-development. The village sits in the valley with steep mountains either side, and the beautiful Rosanna River running through the middle. The centre of the village is also pedestrianised, and the main street ‘Dorfstrasse’ is often snow covered, with many of the resort’s hotels, bars and restaurants spilling off it. Many of these are still the original, timber-clad buildings and contribute to the unique ambiance of St Anton, as does the church with its ‘onion dome’ roof, dating back to the 17th century.

Accommodation in St Anton is still predominantly located in the centre of the village, however prime location is certainly to be close to the Galzig gondola if you want to catch that first lift. That said, taking a chalet a little further out will offer you more space and privacy, and with the chauffeur service included you will not miss out on that first lift – but be transported to it in total comfort and warmth, avoiding any un-necessary walking in ski boots. Taking this into consideration Nasserein opens itself up as an excellent location; previously its own little hamlet it has now ‘merged’ with St Anton, and is home to the nursery slopes so a great spot with small children just beginning to learn.

While there is a wide variety of skiing available to skiers of all levels, St Anton is perhaps best for intermediate and advanced skiers; from the nursery slopes at the bottom it is quite a step up to the blue pistes further up the mountain. The blue runs here are known to be tricky, the reds tougher still. It is however perfect for enthusiastic intermediates looking to improve their technique and relish the challenge, and experienced skiers will have lots to keep them interested with steep reds and blacks, and challenging off-piste itineraries, especially in the Valluga area.

Danny Frith is Director at SkiBoutique. SkiBoutique is a luxury ski chalet agency based in Switzerland.

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