Nursery ski slopes, powder ... or spa?

There are as many ways to enjoy a skiing holiday as there are runs in the Three Valleys. Jamie Buckley tackles a ski safari, while novice Maxine Frith grits her teeth - but soon becomes a convert. Bill Hagerty doesn't really care, so long as the pool's open...
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The Independent Travel

THE EXPERT

'We left with rucksacks for the glacier, a lofty paradise with great off-piste opportunities'

When one resort simply won't do, there is the ski safari. It has nothing to do with spotting wildebeest or glugging sundowners in the back of an open-top Land Rover. Nor does the guide carry a rifle. On ski safari, the snow fields are your savannah, the guide is armed only with charm and thorough local knowledge, and the only wildlife you're likely to see is the odd chamois or a gambolling marmot if you're really lucky.

The concept is this: you and a group of like-minded souls - a family, a group of friends, or even a work team in need of a bonding experience - are taken by a guide for five days of skiing off the beaten track, taking in the best that each ski area on your itinerary has to offer. You choose the level and pace at which you want to ski. You carry all the luggage you need (surprisingly little, as it turns out) and you stay in a different hotel each night. Rarely do you have to ski over the same tracks twice and you get to cover plenty of ground as the scenery changes around you. The trip we went on was to take us from the "hub" town of Villars, through the easy-going, French-speaking Suisse Romande area of Switzerland, across the "rosti border" to the party-like-it's-1899, German-speaking Berner Oberland.

We were met by our guide, Jean-Patrick Baudet, at Geneva airport and just two hours later we were on skis. No hanging about with ski hire (it can be arranged in advance) and the proximity of Villars means that you don't have to spend an eternity winding through the foothills to get where you want to be. Jean-Patrick, or J-P as he became known, took off his glasses to reveal the panda eyes of a hardened and experienced mountain guide - any fears that you might be putting your life in the hands of gnarly, gung-ho powder-hound were quickly expunged.

Rucksack packed (clean undies/socks/ T-shirts/washbag/trainers), we set off from Villars heading north through the resort of Les Diablerets to the Glacier 3000, a lofty paradise with great off-piste opportunities, particularly on the massive Combe d'Audon route, one of the longest runs in Europe at 14 km. When you reach the bottom of the run, the makeshift stubli with a choice of beers and bratwurst and rosti reminds you that you have crossed the border into German-speaking Switzerland; the safari has begun.

If conditions are good enough, you can continue skiing down to the main road leading to the glamorous playground of Gstaad (silent "G", darling). But for our first night we skipped the high life and headed to the town of Schonried and stayed at the Bahnhof, owned by the former downhill supremo Bruno Kernen.

The next morning, we headed off into the Saanenmoser-Zweisimmen ski area, one of many areas linked to Gstaad's huge skiing terrain. Passes, naturally, were organised by J-P, so the only thing we had to worry about was not leaving the toothbrushes behind. We zig-zagged across the hillside and, when conditions permitted, J-P would lead us off piste to make our own tracks, though as this was late March and we were bathed in sunshine, the snow was far from perfect. A quick stop at J-P's favourite mountain restaurant - the Chemistube - gave us a chance to sample sausages made from pigs kept on a farm that we could see in the valley below us.

Our destination for that night was the Hotel Krone at Lenk. We descended into the tiny hamlet of St Stephan and hopped on a train to Lenk after a full day's skiing. Another town, another hotel.

The next morning, an overcast, white-out day, we took the cable car to the Hahnenmoos area above Adelboden. The long descent to the town is so gradual (even uphill in some places) that the best way down is by cable car. The old town is perched on a shelf above the main town (accessed by another cable car), and this is where we stayed for the night in the Hotel Bristol, a "wellness" hotel with a spa. The other members of the group sweated it out on the glacier of Engstigenalp, a short bus ride away, while I sweated it out in the hot tub looking out at the mountains. Well, it doesn't have to be hard work all the time, and after all, this was the turning point of the trip.

We retraced our tracks through to Lenk, and St Stephan, through Zweisimmen and back to Schonried, completing a full loop then ending up at Gstaad in time for a few beers in the evening. Sadly, we were unfortunate with the weather and the snow was a bit wet and heavy, so we were unable to complete certain stages of the trip. But ordinarily, J-P leads groups that are willing into areas of virgin terrain on skins - strips of synthetic material fixed to the bottoms of skis to provide traction. After a couple of hours of uphill walking, you will then be free to enjoy an untouched wilderness of fresh snow with no one else around - this would have been quite a way to enter Gstaad. JB

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Original Travel (020-7978 7333; www.originaltravel.co.uk) offers five nights from from £1,125 per person, based on a group of six, including return flights from Heathrow, Dublin or Manchester to Geneva, transfers, half-board accommodation, ski passes, guiding and safety equipment. Lunches, drinks and ski hire cost extra.

THE NON-SKIER

'My days consist of a bracing morning walk followed by lunch, a long swim, some poolside reading and a sauna. Then a glass of gluwein'

The only trouble with our annual skiing holiday was, I decided ... well ... the skiing. Never the greatest downhill racer, I began to find that not only was I failing to keep up on the gentler slopes with my black run-capable wife, but that, since he was nine, our son has been speeding past me with cries sounding, woundingly, like, "Nya nya, nya nya nya."

There must exist, I reasoned, a ski resort that catered as handsomely for those reluctant to plunge down mountainsides as for those on skis and snowboards who find the experience so exhilarating that they often talk of nothing else for hours on end. And there are such ski destinations, of course: lots of them. But, detailed research revealed, none offer quite the range of amenities that can be found at Bad Hofgastein.

The detailed research actually involved calling a friend who just happens to work for a travel company. She promptly recommended this particular resort - which sits in Austria's Gastein Valley, 56 miles from Salzburg - because of its soon-to-be-opened, renovated spa complex. "It's going to state-of-the-art," she told me. "And you don't even have to go out into the snow to get there."

No, you don't; at least, not if you stay at one of a handful of hotels that are linked to the Alpen Therme by tunnels. In the four-star Österreichischerhof, I take the lift to the hotel's basement swimming pool and, with just a supplied white towelling robe covering my swim shorts, stroll for five minutes or so under the village before emerging in the ground-level entrance lobby of a water wonderland. More than a million euros was spent on its renovation and every cent of that shows.

The complex, fed by thermal springs, contains six health, recreation and water adventure "worlds", which include pools of the swimming variety - the "family pool" features, honestly, a swim-in cinema - as well as more thermal treatment facilities than a reckless snowboarder could shake his plaster cast at. Here one can wallow in a radon thermal bath before taking a sauna, having a massage, building a winter tan in a solarium and indulging in subaquatic and electro-therapies. Or maybe just enjoy a swim while watching a cartoon movie, or float happily around while taking in a 360-degree panoramic view of the glaciers and mountains of the Hohe Tauern National Park. The hotel discounts to €12 the complex's general day admission charge of €22, but if you're happy to forego the movie, the view and the treatments available, you don't even have to bother with the under-ground saunter. The hotel's pretty swimming pool is often deserted during the day, when the downhill racers are racing downhill, and there's sauna and steam room there, too. My days often consist of a bracing morning walk - trudging through snow may be slower than skiing, but it's still terrific exercise - followed by a light lunch, a long swim and, perhaps, a brief visit to the hotel's exercise room, plus an hour's poolside reading followed by a sauna. And all this before the time arrives for an early evening warm shower and an equally so glass of gluwein.

The walking, swimming and exercising are necessary to fully enjoy the timbered chalet Österreichischerhof's hearty breakfast buffet and four-course dinners. But should you abhor walking, it is unnecessary to venture into the streets of this handsome traditional resort. Simply roam through the tunnel to and from the Alpen Therme, emerging only to bask in the comforts of the hotel, like the Phantom of the Opera on a day off.

(Perhaps I should confess here that as well as walking I have been known to accept the challenge of the gentle langlauf trails that wind around in the valley. Ok, cross-country strictly is skiing, but progress is sedate and falls do not require the attendance of paramedics or a helicopter.) There's also a pretty rink in Bad Hofgastein and a concert hall and ...)

All right, all right, there may be skiers wishing to accompany you, so how good are the slopes? Very good, say the black run-capable wife and speedster son, now almost 12. A funicular and cable car whisk them up to almost 7,000 feet - non-skiers should note the bustling restaurant at the top - then it's chairlifts to an icy cold 7,550ft. The lift pass gives access to more than 100 skiable miles in three areas and there's a family friendly, English-speaking ski-school. Good enough?

We shall be returning for our fourth visit this Christmas to a resort that the British have been slow to discover. Scandinavians and Russians are attracted by the Alpen Therme and après ski as well as the slopes in a resort without an obvious drawback. Well, perhaps one. Just try saying Österreichischerhof when trying to find your way home after a night on the schnapps. BH

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The Hagerty family travelled to Bad Hofgastein with Crystal Holidays (0870-160 6040; www.crystalholiday.co.uk), which offers Saturday charter flight departures from Gatwick and 10 other British airports to Salzburg from 17 December until 1 April. Christmas week at the Österreichischerhof Hotel costs £771 for half-board, with reduced prices for children aged 2-11. Prices during school term time fall as low as £541 for adults, with flights and transfers included.

If you must ski, lift passes cost £120 for six days (£60 for children); ski hire: £68 (£29), plus boots at £29 (£13). Alpen Therme treatment charges range from around £12 for a radon tub bath to £218 for a "thermal activity week", including subaquatic therapies, massages and various fitness sessions.

THE NOVICE

'Small girls overtook me and men of 70 looked on me with pity. But I did a turn on a red slope (v gd, as Bridget Jones would say)'

Embarking on your first ski trip is a bit like starting at big school. You arrive at a place where everyone but you seems to know what's happening, where to go and what to do, while you stand, bewildered, in your shiny new uniform, wondering whether you could quietly slip back home and forget about the whole thing. And the feeling I had as I stood, quaking, halfway up what I now know to be a nursery slope but at the time felt like Mont Blanc, can only be compared to the horror I experienced as I began my first bout of double maths.

Skiing is one of those things that it's best to get in on at an early age. But having got to the ripe old age of 32 without ever strapping strips of fibreglass to my feet and throwing myself down a mountain in the pursuit of pleasure, I thought it might be time to try.

The internet travel company Expedia is trying to take the hassle out of ski trips for the non-cognoscenti by offering cheap flight and hotel packages to some of the most popular resorts. If you are not in a big group that warrants a chalet and want to give skiing a go without breaking the bank, this could be the way to do it. They can also help with ski and snowboard hire.

Meribel, my destination, in the French Alps, proved to be the perfect playground for this novice skier. Popular with trendy young things in the 1920s, it still retains a certain cachet, with well-dressed French men and women rushing down from the city for a weekend on the slopes. It has snug restaurants, chic shops and bars packed with young British chalet boys and girls in the evenings. Meribel Mottaret, where I stayed, is an off-shoot of the larger resort, less noisy but still replete with all the necessary facilities. It is packed with British families, drawn by the range of slopes, from nursery and green (the easiest) to black and off piste (don't even think about it).

Meribel, Courcheval and Van Thorens are the neighbouring resorts that make up the Three Valleys, and you can buy a week's ski pass for one or all three, depending on where you are and how much you want to do. I stayed at the Hotel Mottaret, a three-star right in the heart of things, so close to the slopes that I could ski almost out of the reception. Reps from the various ski schools do the rounds of the hotels and chalets on your night of arrival and each also has a post at the bottom of the slopes where you can book lessons.

I chose Magic in Motion, mainly on the basis of their lurid uniforms and attractive instructors. Groups are kept small - six in ours - and our French instructor spoke good English. So, armed only with some skis and poles in a minus 20C blizzard, off we went to the nursery slopes.

I loved it. Yes, I fell over (a lot) and once even managed to ski, well, slide on my bum, between the legs of a somewhat shocked instructor. Girls of three overtook me on the green slopes and men of 70 looked on me with pity. But by the end of the week, I could snowplough with the best of them and even did a parallel turn on a red slope once (v gd, as Bridget Jones would say).

Being office bound most of the time, I felt it was fantastic to spend a week outside. The only downside, for someone more used to city mini-breaks and beach-bum holidays, is the huge expense of skiing and the, well, faff involved. These are not trips for the lazy. After four hours of lessons a day, I was so exhausted most nights that I was in bed by 10pm, although I did manage a vast number of toffee-flavoured vodkas on the last night (highly recommended).

And you may need the vodka to forget about how much you have spent. Ski hire and a week's piste pass will add £300 to the cost, while lessons cost around £120 for five days. A bit of cheese fondue and a bottle of wine will set you back £30, and even lunchtime sandwiches and a soft drink can seem astronomical.

So novice skiing can be cold, expensive, tiring, bewildering and at times completely humiliating. But I've already booked my next trip. MF

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Maxine Frith travelled to Meribel with Expedia ( www.expedia.co.uk). Return flights from Gatwick to Geneva, bus transfers, plus five nights' b&b in the Hotel Mottaret cost from £349. Magic in Motion ski school ( www.magicin motion.co.uk) charges £120 for five days of lessons.

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