It's downhill all the way

Summer's over, which means that the ski season is nearly upon us. Patrick Thorne brings you a round-up of the world's best resorts, and what's new on and off the pistes this winter

The origins of Alpine skiing are rather hazy, but one date stands out: 19 March 1905. On that day a race was staged in the tiny Austrian resort of Lilienfeld, near Vienna. Its aim was to determine, once and for all, which method of skiing was best for the steep-sided Alps: was it the Scandinavian "Nordic" style, now known as Telemark, or the new Alpine technique created by Mathias Zdarsky that saw the entire sole of the boot fixed to the ski for the first time?

The origins of Alpine skiing are rather hazy, but one date stands out: 19 March 1905. On that day a race was staged in the tiny Austrian resort of Lilienfeld, near Vienna. Its aim was to determine, once and for all, which method of skiing was best for the steep-sided Alps: was it the Scandinavian "Nordic" style, now known as Telemark, or the new Alpine technique created by Mathias Zdarsky that saw the entire sole of the boot fixed to the ski for the first time?

This first slalom race in the history of skiing had been proposed two months before by an Englishman named Richardson. Needless to say, the race winners all used the Alpine technique. The rest, as they say, is history.

THAT WAS THE WINTER THAT WAS

Zdarsky's skiing technique spawned an industry that now encompasses more than 5,000 ski areas in 80 countries. He, like most of the world's 70 million skiers, would be pleased to know that last winter most resorts had good snow for a majority of the season, which is good news for repeat bookings.

The total number of skiers and boarders in Britain rose by 30,000 last year, and passed the million mark for the first time. This figure is up 40 per cent since the 1980/81 season, when three-quarters of all skiers were on school trips and only 170,000 adults took a ski holiday. Now there are more than 90,000 skiing adults - perhaps many of them on those school trips two decades ago - while the school market has shrunk to a quarter of its 1980/81 size. This may be bad news for future growth, but tour operators and resorts have never done more to attract families, so perhaps children are still making it to the slopes with mum and dad rather than their teachers.

Apart from terrorism, the economy, a trend towards late booking and the perennial worry about snow conditions, the big challenge for tour operators this winter is that Christmas and New Year fall on a Saturday. The more imaginative have come up with solutions including nine-day holidays and Sunday departures. On the upside, Easter falls in March, when piste conditions should still be good.

NEW IN THE RESORTS

There are a number of infrastructure improvements taking place in Europe that will be opened for the coming season. One of the big projects is an underground funicular railway in Italy, linking villages in Val Gardena to the giant Sella Ronda circuit. In Kitzbühel, Austria, a new gondola will improve the ski safari route around the area. The lift is worthy of note as its combination of length (3,610m - more than two miles), span (2,507m - more than a mile and a half) and ground clearance (400m) are unprecedented. Kitzbühel has modestly dubbed it "the world's most spectacular gondola".

Spain may not be the top winter sports destination for most of us, but the Formigal ski area is undergoing the biggest expansion and upgrade programme in the world this winter. The result will be seven new lifts, including the country's first eight-seater. The top French resorts also have some spanking new lifts. La Plagne's two new six-seater chairs bring the resort's total to 10, while Alpe d'Huez has opted for a funitel (large gondola). Electronic lift tickets that pop open the turnstiles from inside your ski jacket are gradually being introduced across the Continent. Les Arcs goes hands-free this winter, as does the giant Italian Dolomiti Superski region.

There's plenty happening in North America, too. A second new ski area, Tamarack in Idaho, opens this winter after the inauguration of Moonlight Basin in Montana last year. And a 10-year, $250m (£140m), redevelopment is under way in Stowe, Vermont, with visible improvements promised this winter at its Spruce Peak base.

To the north, Intrawest's Tremblant, near Montreal, has announced its own 10-year plan. Resort bosses are investing C$1bn in an expansion plan that they hope will attract a world-record four million visitors a year by 2015. Intrawest's best-known location, Whistler, is expanding its terrain by another 1,000 acres. Other ski areas in British Columbia are also growing rapidly, notably new boy Kicking Horse, where Brits are reported to be spending heavily on property, and Big White, which will add another two chairlifts. Although prices in the US and Canada remain low, Deer Valley in Utah is breaking new ground with the world's first $500 (£274) lift ticket, valid from 26 December to 1 January. Fortunately, the growing strength of the pound against the dollar means that prices for UK skiers are likely to fall.

Scandinavia continues to keep pace with the Alps in terms of new development, looking ahead to a future when northerly latitudes may provide a distinct snow advantage over alpine destinations once global warming takes hold. Norway's Hemsedal will have an expanded beginners' and family area with snow waves, a mini quarter-pipe, jumps, rails, a self-timer slope, forest path and magic carpet conveyor lift. The new eight-seater chairlift from the base of the mountain is the largest in Scandinavia.

In Scotland, both Glencoe and Glenshee ski areas that were put up for sale by their former owners in February have now been acquired and will open this winter, conditions permitting.

IN THE BROCHURES

There are few new destinations in the brochures this season. The only "new" country is Serbia, where the resort of Kopaonik is back with Thomson some 15 years after it last appeared in their literature. Andorra has a "cheap and cheerful" reputation, but this year a hotel in the resort of Soldeu has made it into Inghams' "Luxury Ski" brochure for the first time. The country lost some of its market share last winter, although it still attracts nearly three times as many Britons as Switzerland. Packages to the four-star Sporthotel Village, with its brand new leisure spa, start at £600 per person, including flights from Gatwick.

Andorra is down to three ski areas following a series of resort mergers. Last winter, Soldeu and its neighbour, Pas de la Casa, ended their feud and combined to form the Grandvalira resort. At the height of hostilities these adjoining destinations demanded separate tickets, but this winter things have improved so much that they will now only offer a joint area pass. Priced at €168 (£120) for a week in high season, it represents an increase of more than 10 per cent on a ticket for Soldeu or Pas de la Casa last winter, and now makes Grandvalira more expensive than Courchevel or Gstaad. Still, the area has added another gondola and its eighth six-seater chairlift.

First Choice has added ten new ski resorts, including the venue for the 2006 Winter Olympics, Sestriere in Italy, and the increasingly popular Arc 1950 in Les Arcs, France. On the novelty side the company offers the opportunity to try a swim-in cinema at one of its properties in Bad Hofgastein, Austria. Among a raft of new initiatives, Crystal is extending its range of pre- and late-season holidays. The company now offers glacier breaks (for guaranteed snow) in October and November 2004, and May 2005. Like the other major operators, it is also offering more flights to European resorts from Britain's regional airports. North American specialist Frontier Ski is offering luxury heli-ski trips for well-heeled guests, who will be able to enjoy a private ski run on a "personal mountain". Packages, which include seven nights in a deluxe room on board the luxurious 230ft yacht Absinthe, cost £6,663.

The number of skiers booking trips through travel agents has dropped over the last two years. More people now book over the internet than via tour companies, and the big four winter operators each reported that hits on their websites last winter were up by an average of 200 per cent compared to the year before.

BIG EVENTS THIS WINTER

Although the centenary re-enactment of Zdarsky's race that will be staged in Lilienfeld next March is unlikely to make headlines, the World Alpine Championships in Bormio, Italy, should. They run from 28 January-13 February and are likely to whet fans' appetites for the 2006 Winter Olympics near Turin. The Special Winter Olympics, which unlike the Paralympics and summer Games take place in a different venue and year to the Winter Olympics, will be staged in Nagano, Japan, from 26 February-5 March and will attract over 2,500 athletes from 80 countries.

On top of these showcase events there's the usual plethora of high energy snow-all-day, dance-all-night events for those with youth on their side, kicking off with Air+Style in Seefeld, Austria, on 10 and 11 December. Niche markets are well catered for, too; the largest being Aspen's famous Gay Ski Week (16-23 January) which is reputedly one of the Colorado resort's most successful annual crowd-pullers despite not being mentioned in its publicity material.

So now all we need is the snow. Fortunately it's already falling in parts of the Alps, and the first tracks of the season were made in the Rockies on 6 September. We just need it to keep coming for the next six months.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

RESORTS

Alpe d'Huez (00 33 4 76 11 44 44; www.alpedhuez.com)

Bad Hofgastein (00 43 6342 3393 260; www.badhofgastein.com)

Deer Valley (001 435 649 1000; www.deervalley.com)

Formigal (00 34 974 490000; www.formigal.com)

Glencoe (01855 851226; www.glencoemountain.com)

Glenshee (01339 741320; www.ski-glenshee.co.uk)

Hemsedal (00 47 3205 5030; www.hemsedal.com)

Kicking Horse (001 250 439 5400; www.kickinghorseresort.com)

Kitzbühel (00 43 5356 2272; www.kitzbuehel.com)

La Plagne (00 33 4 79 09 79 79; www.la-plagne.com)

Moonlight Basin (001 406 993 6000; www.moonlightbasin.com)

Stowe (001 802 253 3000; www.stowe.com)

Tamarack (001 208 325 1000; www.tamarackidaho.com)

Val Gardena (00 39 047 179 5122; www.valgardena.it)

Whistler (001 604 932 4222; www.whistlerblackcomb.com; www.tourismwhistler.com)

TOUR OPERATORS

Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk)

First Choice (0870 754 3477; www.fcski.co.uk)

Frontier (020-8776 8709; www.frontier-ski.co.uk)

Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk)

Thomson (0870 888 0254; www.thomson-ski.co.uk; www.thomson-snowboarding.co.uk)

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