Skiing: Spring into action on the slopes
It's not too late to book yourself a spectacular ski holiday this season. Patrick Thorne reveals the resorts that stay in peak condition long after the snow has melted elsewhere
Wednesday 02 February 2011
So far this season, the snow cover in the Alps is thinner than usual. This means that, as Easter Sunday falls on 24 April (the second-latest day possible), it's more important than ever to book your late-season ski break at a high-altitude ski area (above 2,000m). Alternatively, opt for the western side of North America, which has had the best snow so far – it's currently 5m deep over there. Finally, remember that Good Friday, the Royal Wedding and two bank holidays mean that an 11-day ski break is possible for just three days off work, assuming you begin your trip on 22 April.
"Occasionally, I have come across a last patch of snow on top of a mountain in late May or June. There's something very powerful about finding snow in summer." Andy Goldsworthy, environmentalist and sculptor
"It is better to go skiing and think of God, than go to church and think of sport." Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer (1861-1930)
Spring snow in France
Part of the reason that French ski areas have been so successful with British skiers in recent decades has been due to their having some of the highest ski slopes in Europe. About a dozen big-name resorts – including Chamonix (00 33 450 53 00 24; www.chamonix.com), Les Deux Alpes (00 33 476 79 22 00; www.les2alpes.com), Tignes (00 33 479 40 04 40; www.tignes.net), and – at 2,300m – Europe's highest resort, Val Thorens (00 33 479 00 08 08; www.valthorens.com) – remain open until May. All have glacier ski slopes. The UK's biggest operators will have ended their package offers by mid-April; however, Ski Collection (0844 576 0175; www.skicollection.co.uk), a French specialist, offers late packages. "The French ski season lasts to 8 May and we can custom-build packages on request," manager Olivier Lepoureau says.
Mountain-top beach party?
Squaw Valley (001 530 583 6955; squaw.com) in California is marketed as America's "Spring Skiing Capital" and each year offers a Spring Skiing Pass, valid from late March to late May. Last year, this cost just $179 (£111) for more than 60 days' skiing (the 2011 price will be released in early March). This works out at less than $3 (£1.86) a day. Given that peak season prices hit $92 (£57) for a single day ticket over new year, that's a serious bargain. It's not just about price, though: Squaw Valley's High Camp Lagoon will be open, offering a Californian beach scene 2,480m up on the mountain, complete with giant hot tub and pool parties.
The safest bet?
With the highest ski runs in the Alps, touching 3,900m, Switzerland's Zermatt (00 41 27 966 81 00; www. zermatt.ch) is arguably the most snow-sure destination in the world. It's now one of only two ski centres on the planet that endeavours to run its ski lifts 365 days a year – the other being Austria's Hintertux Glacier (00 43 5287 8506; www.tux.at). Zermatt's glacier ski area is one of the largest, and its lift-served skiable vertical of more than 2,000m not only starts higher than the point where quite a few other well-regarded ski areas reach their peak – it's also the world's largest. Ski Total (01252 618 333; www.skitotal.com) has 13 chalets to choose from, such as Diana, which costs £579 per person including flights departing Stansted 27 March, transfers and chalet board for six nights out of seven.
Austria operates twice as many summer glacier ski areas (eight) as any other country. Pitztal (00 43 5413 86288; www.pitztaler-gletscher.at) has the country's highest lifts (3,440m). It is also one of only two resorts (the other is at Zermatt) with a special machine that can make snow in positive Celsius temperatures. The snow-making was an unexpected by-product of a machine created by Israeli company IDE ( www.ide-snowmaker.com) to cool a South African gold mine.
Zenith Holidays (01737 852 242; www.zenithholidays.co.uk) will take you to the Hotel Piz over the bank holiday weekend of 28 April-1 May for four days' skiing (none off work), for £399 half board, including transfers from Innsbruck, but excluding flights.
A Scottish spring snow fix
Despite being in the midst of a third successive good season, Scotland's snow cover is notoriously problematic. But even in bad years, the accumulated snowpack often means good skiing in April and May, when the crowds are gone and the days are long. Skiing in late June is a regular occurrence. Last season, there was so much snow that Cairn Gorm (01479 861 261; www.cairngormmountain.com) above Aviemore ran its funicular over the weekend of 19-20 June, so skiers didn't need to walk. The Nevis Range in the west (01397 705 825; www.nevisrange.co.uk) is another good choice – and you can always hike up Ben Nevis next door if the snow goes early.
Several ski areas in Alberta and British Columbia stay open beyond the end of April. One of the best choices is Lake Louise (001 877 956 8473; www.skilouise.com), where the stunning lake, visible from the slopes, will be thawing from grey ice to a stunning vibrant blue. The slopes are open until 2 May this year. Alternatively, Whistler's Blackcomb glacier (001 604 938 2769; www.whistlerblackcomb.com) is open longer still. Last year, it offered spring snow-shoeing due to the abundance of snow. Ski Independence (0131 243 8097; www.ski-i.com) offers a week in Chateau Whistler departing Heathrow with BA on 25 April for £1,328 per person, including transfers.
What Google will tell you
"The general rule when selecting a resort to go late-season skiing is: head high, or head north. The higher the altitude of the ski area, the colder it is, and therefore the longer the snow lasts, so ideally, skiers should aim for resorts that have skiing at 2,000m or above. If the resort incorporates a glacier, all the better, as this may mean skiing is possible almost all year round – albeit on limited terrain and short pistes." ( www.skyscanner.net)
What Google won't tell you – until now
Riksgransen (00 46 980 400 80; riksgransen.nu), 200 kilometres within the Arctic Circle, remains my most memorable spring skiing destination. So far north it doesn't open until February (before then, it is too dark), by May it boasts the world's best snow conditions. Ski and board addicts arrive to swap stories and enjoy it all. For added novelty, by mid-May, 24-hour daylight has arrived. The lifts close at 4pm but at weekends reopen from 10pm to 1am for skiing under the midnight sun. For the full experience, take the overnight sleeper train up from Stockholm (00 46 771 260 000; www.bokatag.se/en).
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