Travel: An offer you shouldn't refuse

Italy may no longer be a bargain but, for those in the know, it promises quiet slopes - and excellent pasta.
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The Independent Culture
Italy is at a crossroads this season. Over recent years the number of British skiers sampling Italian skiing each season has grown by 50 per cent, to 150,000. But the British market is reverting to a more traditional pattern this year - with France and Austria winning back customers lost to other destinations - and the question is whether the Italian resorts have proved attractive enough to British skiers to keep them coming. The big tour operators have their doubts.

Between 1994/5 and 1996/7 Italy's share of the British ski market grew steadily, from 13.3 to 20.6 per cent; and last season it dropped only marginally, to 19.7 per cent. Why the rapid increase? Ask any tour operator and they will come up with same answer: price. The decline in the lira made Italy popular with British skiers seeking value for money, the more so when they were getting fewer French francs and Austrian schillings to the pound.

Now, Italy's price advantage has been eroded. In 1996, the year in which it took over from Austria as Britain's second most popular ski destination, the other European currencies followed the lira in falling against the pound. And almost immediately (hence last season's small decline) rival destinations began nibbling away at Italy's share. This season Andorra is doing extremely well at the cheaper end of the market and, at the top, Austria is recovering some more ground after its precipitous decline of the mid-1990s. And Italy? Most operators expect it to lose 10 per cent of its British business this year.

Italian hoteliers apparently take a different view: operators commonly complain that prices have recently gone up in response to the demand from British skiers. "You don't mind paying a little more if there is investment going into the resort," said Adrian Harwood of First Choice, "but Italy is still lagging behind in that respect. When they had that good year, in 1996/7, they should have ploughed money back into the infrastructure."

Certainly, those skiers who value above all the kind of efficient and fast lift services provided in the bigger ski areas of France and the US are unlikely to go to Italy now that it has lost its price advantage. Some resorts, notably Sestriere, have made big improvements; but there are many areas, such as the Sella Ronda, where the lift facilities are nowhere near as good as the skiing. For skiers who want to cover a lot of ground, it's difficult to make a convincing argument for Italy.

For those who prize other qualities above quantity, it's a different story - provided they are not advanced skiers. Except in the Dolomites and, to a lesser extent, the Monte Rosa area, Italy is not noted for difficult terrain; but the whole sweep of the Italian resorts, from Sansicario to Cortina, offers satisfying skiing for intermediates, much of it (particularly at Sestriere and Cervinia, the most popular Italian resorts for British skiers) high enough to ensure reliable snow cover. And much of its mountain scenery is stunning, especially at Cortina, Selva and Madonna di Campiglio in the Dolomites, and at the top of the Valle d'Aosta in Courmayeur.

On the slopes, in a country where local skiers still predominate, the atmosphere is usually excellent. Italians may take their skiwear seriously, but they characteristically treat skiing as simply something to be enjoyed: anyone who finds US slopes stiflingly well organised, and the French too aggressively competitive, will find Italy provides a very happy medium.

It is off the slopes, however, that Italy maintains its greatest competitive advantage over other skiing countries. It has relatively few resorts, and none with the sort of international reputation enjoyed by, say, Chamonix, Vail and St Moritz. (One could make a case for Cortina, were it not for the fact that so few Britons go there.)

But all its resorts have one thing in common: it is remarkably difficult to find bad restaurants in them, not just in the centres but even on the mountains. This is another, very welcome effect of the dominance of local skiers: Italians will no more put up with bad food in ski resorts than they will anywhere else.

The high standards are particularly noticeable at the lower end of the price scale, where simple, family-run restaurants reliably provide marvellous pastas, salads and house wine; but anyone who doubts that ski resorts can also be centres of gastronomic excellence should visit Courmayeur.

There are around two dozen cheap and generally good lunch-stops on the mountain itself, while down in the charming village, the cobbled streets are lined with memorable restaurants.

Finally, the Italian skiers are also to be thanked for making their country a quiet place for foreign visitors. Start skiing there on a Sunday, and you will wonder why Italy has a reputation for uncrowded slopes; but come Monday, the Italians, who ski mainly at weekends, will have returned to Turin, Milan and Bologna, leaving the slopes to us (plus lots of Germans in the Dolomites). And if the tour operators' predictions for the British market - provider of the largest group of incoming skiers to Italy - are correct, the slopes will be quieter still this season.