How to find the perennial piste

Every resort has its day in the snow. Patrick Thorne helps you choose the place and time
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The Independent Travel

OCTOBER

Tignes in the French Alps used to open 365 days a year before climate change started taking its toll on summer skiing. This year it opens for a seven-month ski season, starting in October. There's less open than mid-winter but a six-day ticket comes in at €123.50 (£83), which is about a third less than the main season price. You'll find flights and accommodation cheaper too and you reach the slopes in just seven minutes by underground funicular.

The Grande Motte glacier at Tignes is one of three claiming to be the world's largest summer ski area, with a 750m vertical down from its 3,656m highest lift-served point, and 20km of runs, which include a terrain park. Be aware that 70 per cent of sunlight is reflected at 3,000m, compared with 30 per cent at sea level; sunglasses and factor 30 sun cream are obligatory.

NOVEMBER

There's a well-publicised battle in the US media to see which resort will be first to open for the season. Keystone in Colorado, its ski lifts topping out above 3,600m, is normally one of the front-runners.

"Of course, opening day is always weather dependent, but with our snowmaking capabilities I don't envisage there being any problems," says the resort's Melanie Roberts.

If you really want to make the most of your November skiing, head for Keystone over the weekend of 18-19 November when they keep the lifts running for 36 hours non-stop.

DECEMBER

Snow cover in December is hard to predict in the major ski regions. Multi-million pound snowmaking systems are no help if it's just too warm. So play it safe and head up to the Arctic Circle resort of Ylläs. Pronounced "U-las", this is the largest downhill and cross-country ski centre in Finland with the greatest uplift capacity per hour. It also boasts the country's greatest vertical, most runs and longest run.

The atmosphere is magical with a pristine wilderness often illuminated by the Northern Lights. Stay in snug log cabins, complete with sauna, to recover from the average temperatures of around minus 12C.

The resort is even more special at Christmas when you can meet Santa in his secret home (take the kids if you must). To get into the festive spirit he's even available for dinner dates on Christmas Day this year, through Inghams (see box).

JANUARY

You're spoilt for choice in January with more than 5,000 ski centres open in 70 countries. One of the best bets is to head back west to the Canadian Rockies and the resort of Marmot Basin in Alberta. But there's more than just skiing to enjoy, as the local resort town celebrates its "Jasper in January" festival with 16 days of fun from 13 to 28 January. Typical events include snow sculpture contests, a popular chilli cook-off and the "Fun, Fat and Forty" ski race. On the slopes there's a wide variety of terrains including tree-lined trails, wide open bowls, long gentle runs, steep expert chutes and high alpine snowfields.

FEBRUARY

Skiing in Scotland is an ever more precarious activity. It's impossible to predict the snowfall. Even when the snow is good you can be the victim of gale-force winds or, on the rare perfect days, horrendous overcrowding. But if you still want to find out what Scotland's got to offer, February is likely to be one of the best times to try.

Cairngorm has its impressive funicular running now and ever-improving mountain restaurants for après fun. Even if the weather doesn't play ball there's a long list of other activities to try in Speyside, including drowning your sorrows at one of the local distilleries. Of course, if you do get it right you'll be able to brag about your perfect day on the slopes of Cairngorm for decades to come.

MARCH

Italy is always great for spring skiing - with the sun shining there's an even happier atmosphere on the slopes and in the cafés than usual. Perhaps it's the seasonal cut in lift ticket prices.

If you haven't skied the Sella Ronda yet, this could be the year. It's a giant lift-linked network of runs that resembles a wheel with famous valleys like Gardena, Fassa and Alta Badia radiating off it. The dozens of resorts connected together are all included in the hands-free Dolomiti Superski ticket, so there are no practical worries. They also share the spectacular backdrop of pink rock precipices for which the region is famous. There's been a big investment in fast, modern lifts so those who struggled around on long, slow drag lifts a decade ago will find the circuit a sheer luxury now.

Canazei is a good spot to base yourself. Well positioned right on the Sella Ronda, it's a lively village with great bars and dining.

APRIL

April is meltdown month in the northern hemisphere. The list of available resorts drops dramatically. Look for high altitude skiing or northerly latitudes. Snowmaking won't save you now!

Many Austrian resorts are low, but not Ischgl in the beautiful Silvretta mountains where the lifts stretch up to 2,870m and there's a vast 220km of sunny slopes to explore. Ischgl was recently awarded by the thorough Where to Ski and Snowboard Guide for having the most high-speed uplift in the Alps. The season ends on 30 April with the legendary Top of the Mountain concert which always attracts a big star. Last year it was Peter Gabriel, before him Elton John, Diana Ross, Sting and many more.

MAY

May and September are the cruellest months for skiers with fewer than 100 resorts to choose from. Most of the northern hemisphere is closed and, unless they get lucky by the end of the month, the snow south of the equator is not yet adequate.

One option is to head for a glacier (but be wary, as many operations close down for a month or two before reopening in the summer). Another is to go indoors and get your fix on one of the world's 50 indoor snow centres. Ski Dubai opened last week, declaring itself the world's first indoor ski resort. It justifies this evolutionary leap by offering five runs up to 400m long, including a steep black, served by a quad chairlift within a curving and "ski resort themed" building. The ski centre is part of a vast shopping mall, so this could be the ultimate, snow, sun, sea and retail fix.

JUNE

New Zealand probably had the worst of the southern hemisphere's snow in 2005, but is still one of the best bets for early season snow down under.

Mount Hutt is the leading snow-maker in the country and always aims to open by late May, even if the natural stuff is slow in coming. It's often the first in the region to do so and there's an annual contest, attracting overnight queues for the coveted "First on the Chair 2006" T-shirts and a bottle of Lindauer bubbly. It's usually the main Broadway trail which opens first, and the beginners' area.

JULY

Les Deux Alpes re-opens in late June for eight weeks each summer and is a hive of activity with 17 ski lifts, a purpose built "snowpark", a half-pipe and jumps. There's a variety of runs and a laid-back summer atmosphere.

You have to be more dedicated to your sport in the summer, as lifts open at 7am and it's all over soon after lunch as the sunshine melts the surface into a sticky slush, ready to refreeze overnight.

But fear not, summer ski-passes are available which offer reduced or free entrance to more than 25 other sports and leisure activities. Peak Retreats are one of the few winter ski tour operators with the dedication to offer summer ski packages here.

AUGUST

As Europe's glaciers melt there are very few ski areas now that endeavour to stay open 365 days a year. Zermatt in Switzerland is one of them, actually returning to year-round operation in 2004 after opening the six-seater Furggsattel chair lift - the first to be built on a Swiss glacier. It's Europe's longest glacier chair lift and is believed to be the only one that crosses an international border (into Italy). There are more than 30km of well-signposted pistes, including a 7km run with a 999m difference in altitude (greater than anything lift-served in the southern hemisphere).

SEPTEMBER

It's springtime in the southern hemisphere and most of Europe's glaciers are having a brief rest before the new season. Valle Nevado, a short, steep drive up in to the Andes from Chilean capital Santiago hosts the first round of the Snowboard World Cup this month, where Brits often do well.

This cool resort is one of the world's newest, opened in 1988, and located in the "Three Valleys of the Andes" - the only multi-resort pass south of the equator, with three ski areas lift-linked together. The vast powder fields can be accessed by helicopter, as well as Chile's only high speed quad, giving vertical descents of up to 2,000m.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Packages and tourist information

Ischgl: Inghams offers two-person packages from £507, which include half-board accommodation for seven nights, flights and transfers (020-8780 4444; www.inghams.co.uk; www.ischgl.com).

Les 2 Alpes: Peak Retreats offers summer activity ski trips featuring white-water rafting and mountain biking. A two-person, one-week package including ferry crossing and studio accommodation, starting in late June, costs from £340 (0870 770 0408; www.peakretreats.co.uk; www.les2alpes.com).

Marmot Basin: Frontier Ski offers seven nights at a chalet, including an Air Canada scheduled flight and shared transfer from Calgary, from £639 (020-8776 8709; www.frontier-ski.co.uk; www.skimarmot.com).

Ylläs: Inghams has a special offer in December, including catered chalet accommodation and flights from Gatwick, starting at £545 (020-8780 4444; www.inghams.co.uk).

Independent travel

Cairngorm: For details, visit www.cairngormmountain.com

Keystone: BA flights to Denver; www.ba.com

Ski Dubai: flights from Emirates; www.emirates.com.

Tignes: easyJet to Geneva; www.tignes.net; www.easyjet.com

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