Europe or the US? Early or late? DIY or package? Whatever you choose, the top priority is to have fun, writes our new ski correspondent, Hamish McRae
Saturday 08 October 2005
A skiing holiday should not be some sort of endurance test. It is supposed to be fun. That, I believe, is why I have been selected as this newspaper's ski correspondent. It is not because I am an especially good skier. Keen, yes. Adequate, yes. And I have skied in a lot of places and for a long time. But like most Brits who learnt as adults and have only managed a week or two's skiing a year, I won't ever be really good. On the other hand, nor are the majority of British skiers, so maybe what ought to be a disqualification for writing about skiing holidays is actually an asset. I want to have fun.
In planning any skiing holiday, fun should surely be the main criterion: how to get the biggest bang for your buck - or euro. The prime aim of these columns will be to help people have a good time.
For many people who ski every year the decision is easy. They always go to a favourite resort, stay in the usual place and do the runs they know and love. Less experienced skiers make their choices on which resorts look good in the brochure and what is the sticker price. But you can miss out - as we did for many years - by not skiing in North America. If you go to the Alps every year, you don't get to know the "consumer-is-king" US and Canadian approach to holidays. It is also a huge relief not to have the Italians pushing past you in lift queues. But while the US does powder like nowhere else, it does not do those endless Alpine runs: typically the vertical drop is half that of the Alps.
So it is best to have an open mind. There has always been a trade-off in every skiing holiday, quite aside from the North America/Alps one. High or low? Early or late? Established or new? Fashionable or unknown? Package or independent?
There used to be a traditional response to those questions. High gives better snow but nastier purpose-built villages. Early gives fewer people but less sun. Established means everything works but also bigger crowds. Fashionable means higher prices but more buzz. And package makes it simpler but less interesting.
But in the last few years the balance between these choices has been subtly changed by three things: weather, the combination of budget airlines and the internet, and the opening up of new areas around the world - or at least new to British skiers.
Weather first. There is not much doubt that weather patterns have changed in recent years. I have not seen all the scientific data, and the experts don't agree among themselves. But the rule-of-thumb used to be that North America had the most reliable snow; and while the Alps had good and not-so-good seasons, if you went high enough you would be all right.
Now, whatever view you take of the causes of climate change, it does seem clear that weather patterns have become much less predictable. North America is less reliable. While last season was great, the Rockies had had a couple of years of low snowfall before. Meanwhile, up in Canada, Whistler, the largest resort in North America, usually had excellent snow until last season, which was a disaster.
Here in Europe the main feature of the Alps seems to be that the big snowfalls come later. You used to be safe in early January but now that is no longer so. On the other hand, a late holiday around Easter seems to be a rather less risky proposition. There also seems to be a larger variance between the east and west Alps, though the data is unclear.
So what do you do? The response of the ski resorts has been to put a huge amount of investment into artificial snow. But that only works if the weather is cold enough; and while it is useful to have a snow-cannoned road back to the village, it rather undermines the purpose of the exercise, which is to enjoy the real thing.
I think the best answer is to be flexible both with time (if you can) and destination. If you book late, you may not get as good a deal on the hotel but you can always get in somewhere. For most of us it is better to have great snow and a less-than-wonderful place to stay, than a hotel with hot-and-cold-running-everything but to be obliged to ski on frozen porridge.
Paradoxically, the earlier in the season you plan to ski, the later you should leave the decision of where to go. If, for whatever reason, you have to ski early in the season, then it really is important to follow the snow. There is nothing more miserable than arriving to find no snow, half the lifts shut and then a huge snowfall to arrive on the day you are trying to leave.
Next, budget airlines and the internet. These have transformed the whole travel world, but the impact on ski-choice has been particularly strong. Because skiing needs a fair bit of organisation, the tour operators have long had a big advantage over the independent traveller. Now the costs are finely balanced. You can with luck find flights and rooms at the same price as the tour companies can buy them. But you save hassle with a package, and the operators have worked hard to customise their approach to attract the higher end of the market. I suspect in the end the package works out a bit cheaper but independence is now a real alternative. You just need to know roughly what you are doing and spend a bit of time on-screen. You also need to be aware that consumer protection conferred by booking a package is considerable, while for DIY holidays it is minimal.
Finally, the range of places. That has opened up enormously, partly because of the increase in independent travel. You can go to plenty of places that the tour operators have not bothered with. Some of the most interesting of these are the second-line North American resorts. The cheap US dollar (and even cheaper Canadian one) make the Rockies only slightly more expensive than the Alps - less so if you have some spare frequent-flyer points.
Then a few evenings on the internet will open up "new Europe". I have yet to explore the delights of skiing in Bulgaria or Slovakia, but I suspect that the Eastern European destinations not only offer very good value, they also bring back something of that less-sophisticated feel of what skiing was like in, say, Switzerland back in the 1960s. Maybe for a first visit to a "new" country it's better to use a trusted tour operator, but once you know what you are doing check out the budget airline sites too.
A further "new" idea - well, not new at all because it preceded downhill: cross-country skiing. Cross-country brings to most downhill skiers the image of elderly Germans trudging round the paths near the resort, but in reality it can be the purest and most adventurous version of the sport. There are the well-established centres in Norway and Sweden, and I recall doing some fairly unsuccessful attempts in Alaska one February some years back. But the real appeal, surely, is to escape the tyranny of the ski-lift and see the real wide yonder. One of my medium-term plans is to explore the idea of going into Yellowstone Park in the US and then skiing out to civilisation.
Looking ahead to this season, there may be other new influences. The price of jet fuel may tip the advantage away from long-haul destinations in North America towards Europe. On the other hand, an even weaker dollar might tip the other way. My feeling at this stage is that the only big decision worth pondering is: North America or Europe?
That might sound a bit of a no-brainer: who wants to sit in an aeroplane for nine hours when you can sit in one for an hour-and-a-half? But as someone who started skiing in the Alps but has spent the past four years skiing in North America, I think the arguments are quite closely balanced. I have used Air Miles tickets for a couple of years, which seems to make North America a bit cheaper than Europe for the comparable experience. On the other hand, if you are going for less than a week it really is rather a long way, particularly adding in the jet lag. I know someone who flew from London for a weekend skiing in Colorado last year, but you have to be tough to cope with that.
More about all that later. Meanwhile, focus on fun. I don't think it matters whether you go to a top resort or a cheap and cheerful one. It is good to have some challenging runs but it is also good to have some memorable meals afterwards. It is the beauty of the mountains, the exercise in the open air and, most of all, the laughter of friends.
Hamish McRae succeeds Stephen Wood as ski correspondent. We are delighted to say, though, that Stephen will continue to write skiing features on an occasional basis for 'The Independent Traveller' during the coming winter
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