This way to your mountain hideaway

If you don't want to share the slopes with crowds of Brits, follow Tania Alexander to some of Europe's gems
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The Independent Online
The way some skiers talk you would think there were only a handful of European resorts worth visiting. You may well know about all the best bars and slopes in Val d'Isere and Verbier, even if you've never been there. And even on your first ski holiday, friends are quick to recommend premier spots such as Meribel or pack you off with hundreds of other British beginners to Mayrhofen.

There are actually dozens of smaller, charming resorts in the Alps yet to be discovered by the British mass market. These tend to be smaller, more traditional villages where the pace of life is less frenetic, the people who work there are friendlier, and everything from accommodation to lift passes and beers is cheaper. After all, what is the point of choosing one of the top resorts if you are only a beginner or early intermediate? Going to the Trois Vallees when you're still perfecting your snowplough is rather like buying a Mercedes as soon as you pass your driving test.

For most people, skiing is all about escapism. You go to the mountains to get away from it all, not to bump into friends or work colleagues. Fortunately, there are still some delightful little gems to discover. This may involve making your own travel and accommodation arrangements, although some places are featured by smaller tour operators.

Here is a selection of some of the most appealing, smaller resorts.

ANDERMATT

Andermatt is in Switzerland, close to the St Gotthard Pass into Italy. The most stylish way to arrive is aboard the Glacier Express - it's the half-way stop betwen Zermatt and St Moritz. In the 1940s the resort was well known to the British but is now only visited by keen skiers for its challenging slopes and superb off-piste skiing.

The ski area is deceptively large considering there are only 12 lifts plus a railway. The village is very attractive with a narrow main street lined with old shops, hotels and restaurants in tall, traditional chalet- style buildings. As it is so small, it won't be long before you're on "grutzi" (greeting) terms with all the locals. Accommodation is mainly in unpretentious two- and three-star family-run hotels. One of the most popular apres-ski haunts is Ochsen, an old wooden saloon bar owned by a Swiss-American, Mark Russi, who serves some of the best intoxicating drinks in town.

GARGELLEN

There are only 100 inhabitants in this pretty little village which is the highest resort in Austria's Montafon valley. The village itself has only 33 km of pistes but there is access by ski bus to 220 km more in the Montafon valley. The four-star family-run Hotel Madrisa is the focal point of the village and a hub of activity day and night: this is where you hire skis, meet for ski school and boogie away in the Chaverna dance bar at night. Although the pistes are mainly for beginners there is plenty of superb off-piste potential including a connection to Klosters which Prince Charles has done in the past.

KLEINWALSERTAL

One of the biggest ski valleys in Austria but hardly known to the British market. Politically and economically it's very confusing: if you send a postcard home you'll need an Austrian stamp but the local curency is the Deutschmark; and the only access to the resort is through Germany. Even the beer is Bavarian. The atmosphere, however, is Austro-Swiss and the local dialect shows signs of Swiss origins. There are three picture-postcard villages spread out along the valley: Riezlern, Hirschegg and Mittelberg, providing 80 km of runs, ideal for keen intermediates - who can ski over into Germany with an international lift pass.

LEOGANG

If you want a resort that is quiet and unspoilt but that has access to a large ski area, Leogang is a good choice. Apart from 50 km of its own pistes it is linked into the 180 km of the Saalbach Ski Circus. Leogang, a friendly and picturesque farming community, is essentially one long main high street with a scattering of family-run hotels, chalets, shops and restaurants. Check the location of where you're staying as some places are quite a trek from the main lifts. The four-star Salzburgerhof, and the much simpler Gasthof Asiztstuberi, are both within a couple of minutes walk of the gondola. Apres-ski centres on the rustic old farming chalet Kralleralm.

NEUKIRCHEN

Neukirchen is a charming, unsophisticated little village in the Oberpinzgau region round Salzburg, half-way between the better-known resorts of Zell am See and Gerlos. It is set in stunning scenery among the fir trees of the Hohe Tauern National Park. The small ski area has 30 km of easy well-marked pistes and is one of the nicest places in the Alps to learn to ski. There is a good choice of accommodation, mostly in small hotels and guest houses. The only drawback is that it is quite hard to get to: you need to catch a train from Innsbruck or Salzburg to Zell am See and then a local train.

LE GRAND-BORNAND

Le Grand-Bornand, in the Aravis mountains, is a pretty French market town with lots of antique chalets surrounding a chubbilly ornate church. The resort is run mainly by three main families who seem to pop up everywhere and are very friendly. Prices are reasonable by French standards and the 65 km of pistes are well suited to families, beginners and intermediates.

Le Grand-Bornand is linked by lift to the much larger resort of La Clusaz and is a good resort to drive to as it's relatively near the Channel ports and there are plenty of nearby places worth visiting. It is also the closest resort to Geneva, so it's accessible for weekend breaks. As it is not very high, lack of snow has been a problem in previous seasons although fortunately not this year. There are about 15 hotels, mostly small and family-run, plus apartments to rent.

ST LUC

There used to be only one way up to the tiny village of St Luc in the Valaisanne mountains - by mule. In 1875, an English tourist complained that it was too much of a fag so a road was built. On a sunny day (and most of them are in St Luc) there are breathtaking views over the Weisshorn, Mont Blanc, Dent-Blanche and the Matterhorn. There are only about 100 village residents and, despite a couple of fires in the last century, many of the antique chalets have been preserved. In the main street you can see the original village bread oven, now only used once a year.

Considering it's such a tiny resort, St Luc offers a respectable amount of skiing: 75 km of pistes, well suited for beginners and intermediates. A very simple but unusual place to stay is the Hotel Weisshorn, which is perched like an eagle's nest, half-way up the Tounot Mountain. From the village, it looks like something out of a James Bond film: the only access is on skis or by a 90-minute walk through the woods. The elegant Bella-Tola hotel has been owned by the same family for several generations and looks like a beautiful old Victorian villa, with waxed pine floors, ornate ceilings, wooden shutters and wrought iron balconies.

SAMOENS

Culture vultures should head for Samoens, a beautiful old town in the Giffre Valley. It dates back to the fifth century and is the only ski resort in France to be listed as an artistic and historical site. It was once a thriving stone-cutting centre and the tourist office still organises guided tours around the village. The architecture is very attractive with narrow streets of stone houses and even a small chateau. In the centre is a shady square with a majestic church and a linden tree which was planted in 1438.

You couldn't find a greater contrast to the nearby purpose-built Flaine; nevertheless the two are linked by lifts and pistes in the large ski area of Le Grand Massif with its 260 km of pistes. There are plenty of good hotels in Samoens including the Neige et Roc and Les Glaciers, both three star.

WILDHAUS

This is a charming, old-fashioned resort in eastern Switzerland that is almost untouched by commercialism. The skiing is linked by lifts and bus to Untenwasser and Alt St Johann in the Churfirsten Paradise with access to 50 km of pistes, ideal for family skiing. The resort itself is straggling but the alpine background is spectacular, with seven jagged peaks, and the locals are exceptionally warm and friendly. It's a great resort for families with the Wildy-Winter-Land programme for children. There is a range of accommodation from simple gasthausen to four-star hotels.

ZAUCHENSEE

Zauchensee is one of the few purpose-built resorts in Austria and is linked to a three-lift system with 150 km of pistes - ideal for intermediates and above. It is a compact resort which was tastefully built about 30 years ago in traditional rustic style. Zauchensee offers convenience skiing at its best and has an excellent snow record as well as extensive snowmaking facilities as many national teams train there in early winter.

The resort has half a dozen comfortable hotels which you can ski back to at the end of the day. The four-star Zauchenseehof is right at the foot of the pistes and is a popular spot for apres-ski. The resort itself is quiet but there are plenty of enticing, steamy little rustic hutten on the pistes for schnapps and beer. Pancake lovers must go to the restaurant at the top of the Blue 13 run which probably makes the best Kaiserschmarren (sweet pancake with sultanas, icing sugar and fruit compote) in Austria. Zauchensee is not a resort for party animals: most people there are serious skiers who go to bed early.

FRENCH HAVENS

This season the Rhones Alps tourist board, which covers 220 ski resorts in France, is trying to promote some of the smaller, less well-known places. For further details phone 0891 244 123 (45p per minute off-peak, 50p at other times).

FACT FILE

ANDERMATT

Height of resort: 1,444m

Highest lift: 2,963m

Information: Switzerland Tourism (0171-734 1921).

GARGELLEN

Height of resort: 1,423m

Highest lift: 2,300m

Further iInformation: Austrian National Tourist Office (0171 629 0461).

Bookings: Made to Measure (01243 533333). From pounds 937 for a week half-board in the Hotel Madrisa including flights and rail transfer.

.

KLEINWALSERTAL

Height of resorts: 1,218m

Highest lift: 2,100m

Information: Austrian Tourist Office (as before).

LEOGANG

Height of resort: 800m

Highest lift: 1,914m

Information: Austrian National Tourist Office (as before).

Bookings: Ski Leogang (0171 730 7234). From pounds 325 for return flights and chalet accommodation.

NEUKIRCHEN

Height of resort: 856m

Highest lift: 2,150m

Information: Austrian National Tourist Office (as before).

LE GRAND-BORNAND

Height of resort: 1,000m

Highest lift: 2,100m

Information: France Information (0891 244 123 - 45p per minute off-peak, 50p at other times).

Bookings: LaGrange Holidays (0171 371 6111). From pounds 33 per person per night half-board in the two-star Ecureuils hotel. P&O ferry crossing pounds 86

ST LUC

Height of resort: 1,650m

Highest lift: 3,000m

Information: Switzerland Tourism (as before).

SAMOENS

Height of resort: 720m

Highest lift: 2,113m

Information: France Information (as before).

Bookings: Erna Low (0171 584 2841). From pounds 360 for a week's half-board at Neige et Roc, including ferry/tunnel crossings and breakdown insurance.

WILDHAUS

Resort: 1,100m

Highest lift: 2,262m

Information: Switzerland Tourism (as before).

ZAUCHENSEE

Height of resort: 1,35Om

Highest lift: 2,130m

Information: Austrian National Tourist Office (as before).

Bookings: Made to Measure (O1243 533333). From pounds 827 per person for a week at the Zauchenseehof Hotel, includes flights, transfers and half- board.

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