Six of the best ski resorts... and six to watch

SKI-ING Do you prefer your skiing tried and tested or fun but unpredictable? Either way, Chris Gill has some suggestions
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The Independent Travel
Long queues, poor links, a surfeit of Brits... wherever you go for your skiing holiday, you'll probably suffer at least one of these. The six resorts below are not immune, but something - the skiing, the scenery or the accommodation - makes it all worthwhile.

St Anton, Austria

St Anton is Austria's one real big-league ski resort. The bowls at the shoulder of the Valluga are wide, steep and long - and blessed with heavy snowfalls when the weather comes from the north-west, as it often does. There is a snag, though. The best skiing is formally off-piste, although it is routinely enjoyed by thousands of skiers (yes, I confess, me included) without the guidance that is strictly required.

St Anton is not quite your picture-postcard Tyrolean idyll, but by big- resort standards it is very attractive, with an animated car-free centre and plenty of lively bars that attract youngish, cosmopolitan customers. If you arrive by train and stay centrally, it may seem one of the world's most convenient resorts. Staying in the suburbs can mean quite a lot of walking.

There is plenty of skiing around St Anton itself, but the Arlberg lift pass also covers the entertaining and extensive skiing of Zurs and Lech, over the mountain.

Chamonix, France

For adventurous skiers, as for mountaineers, Chamonix is a place of pilgrimage. For those who've had enough of manicured pistes and effortlessly linking networks of queue-free lifts, it offers a complete contrast: long, steep runs of deep powder or precipitous moguls, served by inadequate lifts. You go here for quality, not quantity, skiing.

The town of Chamonix is equally distinctive. It bustles with tourists in both winter and summer thanks to its setting beneath Mont Blanc and the astonishing cable-car that rises 2,750m to the Aiguille du Midi. This is the start of the Vallee Blanche: over 20km of easy, off-piste skiing through mind-blowing scenery.

The Mecca for good skiers is the Grands Montets, where the powder and the off-piste runs are the stuff of legend. The top cable-car to 3,300m is not covered by any lift pass because it is often closed by bad weather. There are also serious runs at Le Brevent and La Flegere, nearer Chamonix, and more conventional ski areas at Les Houches and Le Tour.

Val d'Isere, France

Val d'Isere has a macho image. Its reputation is soundly based, in that Val, together with neighbouring Tignes, offers more lift-served off-piste skiing than anywhere else. It also has an exceptional choice of ski schools and huge amounts of skiing at every level. The nursery slopes are fine, there are long, easy runs to progress to, and intermediate skiers can explore virtually the whole wide Espace Killy area. The main drawback for the timid skier is that piste grading tends to understate difficulty, and grooming is slack to the point of being negligent.

Over the years, Val has become a lively town by the standards of high, keen skiers' resorts. And it benefited from the face-lift triggered by the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. More than ever, Val is to be preferred to Tignes as a place to stay - except in spring, when Tignes keeps its snow down to resort level much longer.

Zermatt, Switzerland

Never been to Zermatt? Put off by stories of badly linked ski areas, long walks along icy streets and profiteering locals? You're making a mistake - unless you really are not interested in sampling the skiing world's most spectacular scenery, most atmospheric mountain village and most captivating mountain restaurants. And the skiing? Yes, the links are poor: in particular, the Klein Matterhorn sector is essentially separate. But each of the three sectors offers enough to make that flaw relatively unimportant. There is excellent skiing for experts (including Europe's biggest heli-skiing operation) and plenty for the intermediate skier. Beginners, though, should stay away: the only really easy slopes take ages to get to.

Zermatt is traffic-free, sort of. Visitors arrive by train from Tasch, and locals garage their cars on the edge of town. You get around by solar- powered bus, electric taxi or horse-drawn carriage, none of which is free - so most people resign themselves to long walks.

Aspen, Colorado

You could argue that no American resort deserves a place in anyone's top six. The hills, after all, lack the scale and drama of the Alps, and the resorts lack the village atmosphere of the best Alpine centres. But I like an occasional fix of American skiing, and I'd certainly recommend any keen skier gives it a try. The attraction is less the skiing itself than comfortable accommodation, affordable and varied eating-out, enthusiastic instructors, and cute old Rocky Mountain towns.

And the best of American skiing? Some would say Jackson Hole, for its steep, tall and dramatic mountain and jolly Wild West town; but for non- experts the skiing is rather limited. The usual mainstream choice would be smooth, affluent Vail for its big and varied ski area; but if I'm crossing the Atlantic to ski, the last thing I want to end up in is a pastiche of a Tyrolean village. So Aspen it is. Its skiing has plenty for everyone. And it is, for my money, the most compelling ski town in America - lively, stylish, cultured, with its mining-town heritage much in evidence and its much-hyped Hollywood clientele generally inconspicuous.

Courchevel, France

Any list of top resorts must include a base in the Trois Vallees. With its immense lift network, linking four major resorts and several minor ones, it offers more worthwhile skiing than anywhere else in the world.

Meribel is the traditional British favourite, and comes closest to having a traditional village ambience. But Courchevel absorbs its similarly large British contingent more easily, retaining a distinctively French feel. And it has other, more objective merits - better snow conditions; serious amounts of woodland skiing, making it an excellent bad-weather resort; and a much wider choice of bars, restaurants and night-spots.

Courchevel can hardly be called a good-looking resort, but its wooded setting is quite a pretty one. Its most serious drawback is that at present it holds the Where to Ski award for most expensive resort in the world.

By looking beyond the acknowledged leaders, you open up new and exciting possibilities. Here are six serious resorts that are worth a close look - particularly this year.

Ischgl, Austria

Ischgl has a low profile among British skiers, despite its unusual and compelling combination of attractions - smart chalet-style hotels and lively nightlife (typical of Austria) plus high, extensive skiing (more typical of France). Tour operators have trouble getting hotel rooms, but Crystal, Inghams and Made to Measure can take you there.

The skiing spreads across the border into Switzerland, down to the duty- free enclave of Samnaun - reached via a long run down a beautiful, lift- free but avalanche-prone valley from the top of the Ischgl lift system. The return trip from Samnaun has long been plagued by serious lift queues, but the problems should now be solved by an astonishing new double-decker cable-car holding a record 180 people.

Ischgl's extensive skiing is best for keen intermediates. Genuinely easy blue runs are few, as are genuinely challenging pistes, but there is plenty of off-piste that doesn't get skied out, as it would in more macho resorts.

Serre Chevalier, France

With France's big-name international resorts now looking extremely expensive, this might be a good time to try a less well-known place used mainly by the French themselves. Such places tend to offer rather limited skiing, but Serre Chevalier is an exception - a big area spread across a north- facing mountain range, with the additional advantage of including a lot of woodland skiing, making this a great resort for bad-weather skiing.

Serre Chevalier is the name of the mountain, not the resort. Along its foot runs a road linking a long series of villages, from Briancon in the east (a sizeable crossroads town), through Chantemerle and Villeneuve to Monetier, and on over the Col du Lautaret to Grenoble. Although these villages all look messy (or worse) from the road - and from the ski area - they all have attractive old quarters with the traditional, modest hotels and atmospheric restaurants that you expect to find in other parts of France.

Cortina, Italy

Cortina is not everyone's cup of tea: super-keen piste-bashers, in particular, should stay away. But if you like the idea of long lunches gazing at some of the most stupendous mountain scenery in Europe, put it on the shortlist. With the rest of the Alps getting more and more expensive, even the most fashionable resort in Italy will seem good value this year. (The lift pass, for example, works out at about pounds 90 a week, which is well below what you can expect to pay in Austria, France or Switzerland.)

Cortina is a complete winter resort, with plenty to do off the slopes, from ice-skating, curling and riding to serious shopping (this is fur- coat country, and no mistake). Skiing is something you do at a relaxed pace, not worrying about the lack of connections between the several sectors. But in total there is a lot of skiing to be done - the nursery slopes and progression slopes are among the best you could hope to find.

Crans-Montana, Switzerland

Crans-Montana is a deeply unfashionable resort with no mountain-village atmosphere. And its skiing has an important drawback: it faces directly south, which makes it even less reliable for snow than other resorts. So it's a place for a mid-winter holiday (before the sun gets too strong), to be booked at short notice.

Why go at all? Well, the ski area is an extensive and appealing one for intermediates who like mountain scenery - the views across the Valais are superb - and the run from the top of the skiing at Plaine Morte is spectacular. What's more, this winter the old queue-prone cable-car serving it will be replaced by a new super-gondola, so you'll be able to ski it more than twice a day. Nursery slopes and cross-country trails are excellent, too.

Whistler, Canada

The appeal of Whistler - or, to be strictly accurate, Whistler-Blackcomb (the combination of two adjacent but separately run resorts) - is that it approximates to a major European resort. With a vertical drop of 1,600m, it is North America's biggest ski area, and the scenery has the drama that many Europeans miss in the American Rockies. You still get the usual North American benefits of comfortable, spacious accommodation (in tastefully purpose-built villages) and high standards of service. And at present you get a bonus: an exchange rate that makes prices on the spot attractively low.

The skiing here is what locals might call "awesome" - long runs of every standard through forests to the villages, topped by wide-open bowl skiing above the tree-line, including some famously challenging chutes. The only flaw is that the low altitude (675m) means unpredictable weather and snow conditions on the lower slopes.

Flims-Laax, Switzerland

Like Crans-Montana, Flims-Laax presents a problem for holiday-makers booking well in advance: its skiing is roughly south-facing, making snow conditions vulnerable to the sun in high season and later. But there is rather more skiing here in the 2,200-2,800m band, which helps a lot. Those who care to take the risk will be rewarded by a big, broad and beautiful ski area, interestingly split into several sectors, with some very long top-to-bottom runs when conditions allow. There is a huge amount for intermediate skiers to do; good skiers may lack challenges unless they go off-piste.

Flims and Laax are widely separated villages, neither very compelling - Flims a two-part place with lifts out of its major component (Flims- Dorf); Laax an ordinary village a mile or two from its ski-lifts at Murschetg. I have always had a hankering to stay, instead, in the rustic hamlet of Falera, at the western extremity of the skiing. This year the antiquated lift up from there is being upgraded to a fast quad chair, making this a practical proposition at last.

THE CHALET SCENE

If you like the idea of a house-party in the Alps, but don't want to confine yourself to the brochures on offer at high-street travel agents, why not try:

Bladon Lines Now a subsidiary of mainstream operator Inghams, and with a wider range of regional departures. New this year: a luxury chalet- apartment for 21 in Whistler; no-smoking chalets in Val, Tignes and Verbier. (0181-780 8800)

Finlays A variety of chalets in Courchevel and Val d'Isere. (01835 830562)

FlexiSki Scheduled flights on weekdays and flexible durations are FlexiSki's hallmarks. New this year is a smart little 10-room hotel in Courchevel, which will be run as a sort of hotel-chalet hybrid. (0171-352 0044)

Le Ski Straight-dealing little company entering its 13th season in Courchevel with an expanded range of chalets; now well established in Val d'Isere, too. (01484 548996)

Mark Warner The most focused of the big, established operators, with chalet-hotels (and a few chalets) in a handful of major resorts. All-day childcare is a common feature. (0171-393 3131)

Meriski This up-market, Meribel-only company has some extremely desirable chalets. (01451 844788)

Simply Ski This steadily expanding operation has some very attractive and comfortable chalets - particularly in Courchevel, Meribel and Verbier. (0181-742 2541)

Ski Esprit A leading specialist in the family market. (01252 616789).

Ski Miquel If you want a chalet-hotel in Badgastein, Alpe-d'Huez or Baqueira (the only serious resort in the Spanish Pyrenees) this is the brochure for you. (01457 820200)

Ski Olympic Still seems to be the only operator in La Rosiere, but now also in Courchevel, Val d'Isere, Tignes (new 21-room, all en suite chalet) and La Plagne. (01302 390120)

Ski Peak Vaujany for British skiers still means Ski Peak. Choose between a simple hotel in Vaujany itself and smartly furnished chalets just up the valley in La Villette. (01252 794941)

Ski Scott Dunn This upmarket operator, well established in Courchevel and Zermatt, has expanded into Val d'Isere and Meribel. (0181-767 0202)

Ski Total Large and small resorts. New this year is a chalet in Lech. (0181-948 6922)

Skiworld Value-oriented chalets in high resorts, plus one or two curiosities such as a luxury farmhouse in Les Contamines. (0171-602 4826)

YSE Val d'Isere specialists with a wide range of properties, including three new luxury chalets. (0181-871 5117)

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