Going on a ski safari traditionally meant going off-piste with a guide and hiking uphill through deep snow to make the connections between each area. However, thanks to three decades of inter-connection between resorts in the Alps, you no longer need to be a super-fit expert with extensive off-piste experience and survival training to go on a village-to-village jaunt.
Instead, even an intermediate recreational skier can now take advantage of those giant areas – often with up to 600km of pistes connected within them – and make a trip from one end to another, covering up to 100km in a day on a return journey.
With resorts upgrading old drag lifts to high-speed chairs, you don't even need as much physical stamina as you once did. You can sit down for the uphill bits, and some routes can be completed on easy and intermediate trails, avoiding steep blacks or off-piste terrain. However, even though these longer trips are much easier than they've ever previously been, they should not be undertaken lightly. You're in high-mountain terrain in the winter and it's important to take precautions.
Although a ski safari within a single ski pass domain, staying on the groomed pistes, should be straightforward, you should still research your route thoroughly. Check over the piste maps and seek advice from the tourist office, or source online reports by skiers who have made the trip before you. Be aware of when lifts close for the day and in particular, predict where you are likely to be as the afternoon draws on. Can you make the last lift up to reach the top of the run back down to your accommodation?
Carry some water and snacks and plan your lunch and break stops before you go (you can always change your mind en route). Make sure you've got your fully charged phone; the ski area's app may also contain useful geo-locating functions. Check bus services and carry some local taxi company numbers in case you need transport back to your accommodation. Take your passport and adequate cash, too. Most importantly, if the weather doesn't look promising, don't risk it: re-schedule.
The following itineraries, all circular routes, can be completed by good intermediate-level skiers within a day, given good conditions, no lift queues, an early start and plenty of stamina. All runs are easy-to-intermediate level, with a few exceptions where there are black runs that you can avoid by riding the lift down instead or taking an alternative route. The distances quoted are the estimated return-trip length. Each is likely to take you all day.
No itinerary is set in stone. There are lots of different routes available, and you can create shorter versions if you like. Although we have included start and end points, these are return trips or circular routes, so you can usually join them at any point.
- WHERE? Les Gets to Champéry, Portes Du Soleil, France-Switzerland
- WHY? Pop over to France for some cheese and chocolate and be home in time for tea
- DISTANCE: Approximately 40km
One of the most exciting ski areas in the Alps, the Portes du Soleil (en.portesdusoleil.com) links a dozen traditional and modern resorts on each side of the French-Swiss border. The region's spokesperson, Cosima Page, believes that starting your day on the far side of Les Gets on Mont Chéry would make for the longest trip within the region. From there you would ski over to Morzine, then on to Avoriaz and into Switzerland, passing the villages of Les Crosets (above) and Champéry via the Grand Paradis pistes (some of the best skiing of the day on a glorious 7km descent). Then on via Champoussin and Morgins and back into France at Super Châtel and finally to La Chapelle d'Abondance, the ninth resort on your itinerary.
"You have to take off your skis a couple of times and walk for five minutes to make connections in a few places (although there are buses if you prefer). It takes all day, so you need to leave with the first lift at 8.45am. And if you want to make the connection back, you have to take a sandwich, as you won't have time to stop for lunch!" says Cosima.
The big one
- WHERE? Alpe di Siusi to Alta Badia, Dolomiti Superski, Italy
- WHY? The longest route anywhere you can take using lifts and pistes, all through the spectacular scenery of the Dolomites
- DISTANCE: Approximately 70-100km
There's 1,200km of piste on one giant lift pass in Dolomiti Superski (dolomitisuperski.com), but the region is divided into many sectors. The largest linked by pistes and lifts is the Sella Ronda (right), a massif of towering pink precipices encircled by a 38km-long circuit. Radiating off that central hub are valleys including Gardena, Fassa and Alta Badia, so you can ski from the end of one valley to the Sella Ronda, go round that, up another valley and back.
"The total amount of piste you could ski is around 100km depending on which route you take," said Dolomiti Superski spokesperson Diego Clara. That's the route from Alpe di Siusi up through Val Gardena and around Alta Badia (altabadia.org). But is 100km possible in a day? "The lifts in the valley open at 8.30am and from early February many stay open to 5pm. To be sure of getting back the rule is to be at the top of the last pass you have to reach by 4pm, and you could ski a shorter route if time gets short," concludes Clara.
Magic of the Milky Way
- WHERE? Pragelato to Montgenèvre, Milky Way, Italy-France
- WHY? Follow Hannibal's route through the Alps – but on skis, not elephants
- DISTANCE: Approximately 70km
The Via Lattea (vialattea.it), or Milky Way, lays claim to some 400km of piste on each side of the French-Italian border and has long been promoting end-to-end day trips. Back in the previous century, these would often entail a dawn start, driving to one end and skiing back. You would take a guide with you and carry your passport, just in case you were stopped at the border. However, in preparation for the Winter Olympics being staged here in 2006, the old drag lifts were (mostly) replaced with fast chairs, making a day return a possibility.
Nick Edwards, of specialist ski travel agency Snowfinders (01858 466888; snowfinders.co.uk), stayed at the new Club Med Village at Pragelato shortly before Christmas and skied across to Montgenèvre on the French side and back, via Sestriere, Cesana and Claviere.
"Leave a full day for the tour and start early," advises Nick. "Two routes are shown on the piste map highlighted in orange (Italy-France) and green (France-Italy). The Cesana link is the Achilles heel in this tour, as three slow lifts from Cesana towards Claviere are a nightmarish 45-minute journey. Equally, when travelling in the other direction the blue piste 90 is perhaps the most boring piste in the Alps – it goes on forever and boarders will loathe it. Other than that, it's a thoroughly enjoyable ski!"
The Trois Vallées
- WHERE? Courchevel to Orelle, Three Valleys, France
- WHY? The longest run in the biggest fully lift-linked area in the world
- DISTANCE? Approximately 40km
The Trois Vallées (les3vallees.com) has a multitude of safari routes and this season its smart phone app can suggest routes for you based on your ability. Alternatively, you can ask a "local" such as Ben Clatworthy, who has skied the area for 20 years and whose family own B&B Ski St Martin (00 33 68 46 13 66; skistmartin.com) in St Martin de Belleville. "When I was learning to ski, my parents would ski with me from Courchevel to St Martin de Belleville for lunch. Back then it seemed like travelling to the other side of the world," he says. "I'd say skiing from Courchevel 1650 to Orelle is the longest route – it involves taking 10 lifts and skiing 20 pistes in each direction, with fantastic views of Mont Blanc en route."