Travel: Top Three Italian Ski Resorts

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The Independent Culture
SANTA CATERINA

This is not the place to choose if you want a large purpose-built resort with every modern convenience, but Santa Caterina is a delightful village which is perfect for anyone wanting a traditional ambience. It has all the scenic advantages of the small Austrian resorts, without any of their Germanic severity: you are not likely to forget that this is Italy, and the main aim here is to have fun. There are plenty of mountain huts serving grappa or other warming but possibly less potent drinks, and the food and wine are definitely Italian. This is the kind of place people return to year after year, so you can often feel as if you have stumbled on a jolly family party.

The pistes themselves have something for every level of ability, although beginners and intermediates are better served than the experts. The ski school here is one of the best in the region, with instructors who understand that you might want to make progress but that you don't want to be punished if you can't. For anyone who needs more challenge, Bormio is less than 10 miles away down the valley, and the same lift pass is valid in the two resorts.

Cathy Packe

Tour operators serving Santa Caterina include Airtours, First Choice Ski, Thomson.

SESTRIERE

At first sight, Sestriere doesn't have a lot to recommend it. It was the first purpose-built Alpine resort, created in the 1930s by Fiat primarily for the benefit of its factory workers in Turin; and although some unusual structures remain from its early days, the "village" is dominated by the characteristically dull provincial Italian architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. The nearest ski slopes are hardly more interesting, being predictable red and blue runs off an almost treeless mountain face.

But among the resort's hidden virtues, the greatest is that Sestriere is very well connected: it is part of the Via Lattea, or Milky Way, a ski area with 90 integrated ski lifts and 400km of pistes, 75km of them covered by snow-making machinery. Sestriere's own skiing is much better than it first appears, particularly off the 2,825m Motta peak, and only a gondola-ride away are the underrated (at least for good intermediates) tree-lined slopes of Sauze d'Oulx and Sansicario, notably a superb red run which drops 1,300m down to Jouvenceaux. If you feel adventurous, the Via Lattea lift pass can even take you across the French border to Montgenevre.

Why choose Sestriere as a base from which to explore the Via Lattea? First, because the resort has benefited from heavy infrastructure investments for the 1997 World Skiing Championships, with more promised by Turin's bid for the 2006 Winter Olympics. And second, because its main client base remains the Torinese. In nearby Sauze d'Oulx where 90 per cent of the beds are occupied by Britons, the catering meets British standards; in Sestriere it has to satisfy more picky big-city Italians.

Stephen Wood

Tour operators serving Sestriere include Airtours, Crystal, Neilson, Thomson and Club Med.

CORTINA

Nowhere in Italy can compete in terms of scale with your Courchevels or your Val d'Iseres. But Italy possesses some of the most distinctive resorts in the Alps particularly Cortina d'Ampezzo, in the Dolomites. Here wooded slopes and pastures rise gently from the valley floors up to about the 2,000m mark, and sheer cliffs, crags and spires of pink limestone erupt to add a further 1,000m-plus.

The whole area is gloriously scenic, but is at its spectacular best on the wide bowl that has Cortina at its centre. You ski in four or five sectors, which adds up to quite a bit of ground. But only two are linked by piste, the rest by unreliable buses. From each sector, you get mind- blowing cross-town views of the peaks. Most of the skiing is flatteringly easy, as is often the way in Italy. But when it's open, the long, broad south-facing couloir of Forcella Staunies is a memorable exception.

Let's not get carried away with all that skiing stuff, however. Here, lunch is the main focus for most skiers, and the entire basis of the day for the many fur-wrapped non-skiers. Helpfully, many slopeside restaurants are accessible by car. Off the slopes there is plenty to do, not least shopping, and parading about in what you bought the previous night.

Chris Gill

The author is co-editor of `Where to Ski and Snowboard' (Thomas Cook, pounds 14.99). Tour operators serving Cortina include the Ski Club of GB, Crystal, Thomson and Powder Byrne.

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