You've never had it so good on the slopes

The sheer variety of winter sports breaks on offer this year is drawing more and more of us to the mountains. Chris Nicholson reports on what's new for 2008
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Don't assume that skiing holidays are predictable affairs – you may miss out on a wealth of new experiences. Winter sports breaks have never before seen such diversity, and holidaymakers have responded accordingly. The number of British skiers and snowboarders rose by 3 per cent to 1.2 million last season despite the mild weather – a figure far higher than in the mid-1980s, often seen as the heyday of skiing.

Most of that increase was due to the one in three holiday-makers travelling independently, taking advantage of cut-price air fares and the ever-expanding number of chalet operations – often British-run – in France and Switzerland. They offer a more jolly experience than impersonal hotels, allowing guests to get to know each other over meals and set out on adventures together during the day. To make sure you get back in time for tea, chalet companies such as VIP also offer on-piste satellite navigation systems in the biggest ski areas, very similar to in-car devices.

The other major development in France and Switzerland has been the number of British-run ski schools opening up, such as New Generation in France, and Altitude in Verbier, Switzerland. Their standard of instruction is uniformly higher than that of the national ski schools, whose instructors often learnt to ski shortly after they learnt to walk and whose exams mostly consist of ski races, giving them little idea how to help a novice, never mind the language barrier.

In contrast, British instructors, who are generally more highly qualified (they have to beat red tape and local hostility), will get you to do all sorts of weird and wonderful exercises coming down the slopes to improve your technique. This is as important for beginners as it is for skiers and boarders stuck on the "intermediate plateau".

If you are travelling with a tour operator, most can book you into these ski schools when you arrive or at least tell you where to find them. They are generally more expensive than their rivals, although this year Summit Ski in Zermatt is beating the Swiss on some of its prices.

France is still the most popular destination – 37 per cent of travellers going through tour operators went there, with Switzerland at just 5 per cent. In second, third and fourth place are Austria (19 per cent), Italy (14 per cent) and Andorra (11 per cent). In these three countries the resorts are typically at a lower altitude and the doomsayers would have you believe there was no snow here last season.

On the contrary, innovation has allowed for snow-covered pistes even when the forests around are bare of snow. The three have invested huge amounts in snowmaking facilities, taking care of those warmer winters, with Italy's autonomous, German-speaking province of Süd-Tirol leading the way. So even during last season's mild weather it was possible to ski or board to the bottom of most resorts.

Among the pine forests of Andorra what were six or so resorts are now linked into two large areas, ideal for intermediate cruising. The tiny principality is undergoing something of a renaissance, which should culminate this year, as the last of the old concrete blocks are beautifully stone-fronted in local stone and crumbling farm outhouses are converted into charming restaurants.

Austria, which last month had record early season snowfalls, is the best place to go for a ski and spa holiday. The three- and four-star hotels here are generally family-run and nicer than their equivalent in other countries, and many have extensive spas, offering the perfect end to a day's skiing or boarding. And Austrian après-ski is second to none. Generally, increasing numbers of us are realising that there is more to winter holidays than spending nine to five on the piste. A survey published last month by moneysupermarket.com found that one in six people on a "skiing" holiday didn't spend a moment on the slopes.

Many extra-curricular activities have led to Finland becoming a major ski destination for tour operators such as Inghams and Crystal, for which it attracts more travellers than the US. Lapland's gentle fells are particularly popular with families, offering extras such as reindeer-sledding, dog-sledding, snowmobiling and trips to see Santa (available all winter), starting at £15 to £20, as well as cross-country skiing. It is gaining popularity over places such as Bulgaria and Serbia, still struggling to throw off their drab, communist image.

If you want these sort of fun extras and challenging skiing and boarding, then Canada has a lot to offer. Québec has French cuisine and culture, while out west and in the US they are offering cat-skiing as well as heli-skiing. Traditionally, every die-hard skier has heli-skiing on their "must-do before I die" list, but cat-skiing, where a caterpillar-tracked vehicle takes you to virgin snow, offers an alternative at about half the price.

It's not all about catering for the hardcore daredevils, though. For those who like their shopping and sightseeing as much as their skiing and boarding, tour operators are offering city breaks as add-ons to ski holidays in North America as a nice way of breaking up the journey. Examples are Vancouver, Montreal, Boston and New York.

For yet more exotic destinations, city add-ons are also available in Tokyo and Kyoto, because Japan has recently entered the ski brochures. The resorts on the northern island of Hokkaido offer more powder than the west coast of Canada even with an annual snowfall of 15m.

Whether you want to play hard or take it easy, winter sports holidays have lost none of their glamour – they've just lost the 1980s Day-Glo ski suits.

How to get there:
VIP (0844 557 3119; vip-chalets.com);
New Generation (0844 484 3663; skinewgen.com);
Altitude (00 41 27 771 6006; altitude-verbier.com);
Summit Ski & Snowboard School 00 41 27 967 0001; summitski school.com);
Inghams (020-8780 4433; inghams.co.uk);
Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk).

Comments