Ski, shoot, score!

Germany has plenty to offer skiers - you can even hit the slopes during the 2006 World Cup, says Patrick Thorne
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The Independent Travel

Ski brochures feature holidays in Italy Switzerland, France, Austria, and even Liechtenstein. Yet there is one Alpine country that they leave out: the nation with largest skiing population in Europe. It's a major omission when you realise that there are over 500 ski centres in Germany.

The country's main resorts are dotted along its southern border, which rises from the Black Forest in the West to the Bavarian Alps in the East, bordering Switzerland then Austria. Most are easily reached from Munich. Indeed, it's the large population centres in Bavaria, and in Baden Württemburg that have fuelled ski-area development since the world's first ski lift was built in Germany a century ago.

Like Austria, most German ski areas are at a lower altitude than those in France or Switzerland, so most have wisely invested in snow-making facilities.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is Germany's undisputed winter sports capital. Celebrated for its annual New Year ski jumping competition, Garmisch is a large, cosmopolitan town with plenty to see and do, both on and off the slopes.

All around is magnificent mountain scenery, dominated by the mighty Zugspitze to which lifts rise over 2,100 vertical metres (nearly 7,000ft), producing one of the world's biggest lift-served verticals.

The resort's skiing is spread across a dozen separate areas, including some over the border in Austria, but all available on the "Happy Ski Card" pass. Together they represent over 280km (175 miles) of trails split in to moderately sized areas. The skiing on the Zugspitze is the highest in Germany with trails reaching 2,830m (9,285ft). The new Zugspitzbahn goes higher still, up an incredible sheer rock face from 1,000-2,950m (reaching nearly 10,000ft), but it's not possible to ski the upper section.

Yet German skiing does not begin and end with Garmisch. To the west there are major resorts at Oberstdorf, Balderschwang and Oberammergau; to the east, Reit im Winkl, Oberaudorf and Berchtesgaden.

Oberstdorf, in the Allgauer Alps, has two ski mountains: Fellhorn and Nebelhorn. The resort offers a 1,400m continuous vertical, the longest in the country. There are 45km of piste, and nearly 30 lifts to take you back up. Experts should try the 1,600m-long Super-Buckel-piste with 60 per cent pitches. Oberstdorf was host to the Nordic Ski World Championships in 2005 and is also a participant in a cross-border area pass including Austria's Kleinwalsertal area, giving 125km of runs.

Nearby Balderschwang is well-known for the most snow at resort level (1,020m) in Germany. This covers 35km of runs served by 11 lifts; most of them are T-bars, but there is a quad chair and a second area nearby at Grasgehren, with another seven lifts.

As with many of the mid-sized German ski areas, there's an onus on the full winter-holiday package - not just downhill - with superb childcare. Indeed, there are reportedly many more cross-country skiers than Alpine in Germany, and they can ski over the border along the Allgauer Latsch-enkiefer-Grenzlandloipe. Otherwise it's sleigh rides, snowshoe hikes or the 1.6km-long toboggan run.

Another nearby resort, Oberjoch, has installed a six-seater chairlift. The new lift has a base station right next to the main road making the ski area more accessible. This is Germany's main freestyle resort, and a leader in environmentally correct tourism. Restaurants serve dishes made with local produce to support mountain farming.

While you are waiting for Oberammergau's next Passion Play (in 2010, tickets on sale from 2008), you can stay in this lovely village in a beautiful mountain setting that also happens to be one of Germany's leading ski areas with challenging terrain on the Laber (1,683m) and easier trails on Kolben (1,270m).

Berchtesgaden is another pretty resort town surrounded by spectacular mountain vistas and only 20 minutes from Salzburg (a Ryanair destination), across the border in Austria. It has a modern history tied to American military bases in the area, the US armed forces even running a small private beginners ski hill for its personnel. The area has strong tourism infrastructure, if rather limited skiing. Another World Cup - in bobsleigh - will be staged here in January.

German skiing used to be expensive for us Brits, but favourable currency trends and lower lift-price inflation than in other Alpine areas means German skiing is surprisingly affordable.

For the best bargains consider one of the smaller ski areas away from the Alps. Winterberg, an hour's drive from Cologne, for example, is comparatively low at 640m and with a small vertical of only 190m. But for €20 (£14) you have access to around 20 lifts, most of which have snow-making and are floodlit for night skiing. As an added bonus, there's a big après-ski scene (check out the legendary mountain hut on Ettelsberg) so it's no surprise that crowds of up to 50,000 can descend at the weekend - the numbers bolstered by masses arriving from Holland. Fly low cost to Cologne, Dusseldorf or Dortmund, and rent a car to get there.

Boarding is popular in Germany and most of the larger resorts have terrain parks of some sort. The Zugspitze is one of the leading snowboard venues in the Alps. However, there won't be a superpipe there this winter in order to try to save the remnants of the glacier. Erwin Gruber's snowboard school publishes a brochure featuring pictures of boarders with aircraft turbo-props strapped to their backs for added oomph - an experience not to be missed by the dedicated pro.

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology and the final decades of Alpine glaciers, it's possible to hit the German piste during the World Cup next June. The country's only outdoor summer ski area on the Zugspitze glacier above Garmisch will be running summer snowboarding camps, which attract more participants than any other, (conditions permitting).

Germany's three year-round indoor snow centres, which includes the world's second largest (big enough to attract Canadian national team members for slalom training this autumn), are also close to World Cup stadiums. The £30m Alpincenter ski slope at Bottrop was built on an industrial slag heap in the Ruhr Valley in 2000 and has a 540m-long slope. There's a smaller slope, the Allrounder in Neuss. These are very close to the football stadiums in Gelsenkirchen, Cologne and Dortmund.

After seeing England win the final in Berlin on 9 July in a re-run of '66 but on German soil, head for the nearby eternal snow of Snow- tropolis. There's only a 130m slope, but who cares? After all, it's not every day you can watch a World Cup Final and then hit the slopes in summer.

Germany (020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.co.uk)
Allrounder (00 49 2131 1244 444; www.allrounder.de)
Alpincenter (00 49 2041 70950; www.alpincenter.com)
Balderschwang (00 49 8328 1056; www.balderschwang.de)
Bavarian Alps (00 49 8982 92180; www.oberbayern.de)
Berchtesgaden (00 49 86 529 670; www.berchtesgadenerland.com)
Garmisch (00 49 8821 180 700; www.garmisch-partenkirchen.de)
Oberammergau (00 49 8822 92310; www.oberammergau.de)
Oberstdorf (00 49 8322 7000; www.obserstdorf.de)
Snowtropolis (00 49 3573 36370; www.snowtropolis.de)
Winterberg (00 49 2981 92500; www.winterberg.de)
Zugspitz (00 49 8821 180 700; www.zugspitze.de)

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