Stray off the beaten piste

Europe boasts some splendid out-of-the-way uplands where you can ski in comparative solitude. Margaret Campbell heads for the Belgian Ardennes, while Vanessa Webb enjoys France's Massif Central and the Vosges
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The Alps and the Rockies: they seem to be the Airbus and Boeing of the skiing business, with a virtual monopoly of all serious skiers. Other vocal contenders include resorts in western and eastern Canada, Scandinavia, the Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada. Yet there are some much closer-to-home destinations which can be highly rewarding. We have picked three, all French-speaking. You may not be guaranteed Winter Olympic-style facilities, but if the winter in northern Europe turns out to be as much as a freeze as promised, you can expect good snow conditions - plus extra dimensions of culture and cuisine that are not usually found in ski areas.

THE ARDENNES

Can you name five famous Belgian ski resorts? Read on to discover them. Winter sports aren't what come to mind when most people think of Belgium, but the Ardennes mountains in the country's south-east boast more than 800km of ski trails.

Distinct and separate from the neighbouring French Ardennes, the Belgian Ardennes is a region of river valleys, unspoilt countryside and thriving market towns situated across southern Belgium. You can drive from one of the Channel ports to the beginning of the Ardennes in a couple of hours.

Once there, 10 downhill slopes provide the thrills. But given that the range's highest peak is only 694m (2,256ft), the 60-odd cross-country trails attract most visitors: those in the Hautes Fagnes nature reserve are particularly lovely.

The biggest station is at Baraque de Fraiture (www.baraque-fraiture-ski.be.tf), which is easily accessible from Liège and has excellent slopes for beginners and families. Compared with the Alps, prices are more than reasonable: a day pass, including ski rental, costs €10 (£7). There are also opportunities for night-skiing, sledging, snowboarding and trying your hand at a snowmobile.

Trois-Ponts (www.casablanca.be) is another popular station, and there are slopes near La Roche-en-Ardenne (www.la-roche-tourisme.com), Botrange and Robertville. However, the major drawback in the Ardennes is snowfall, not nearly as plentiful as on higher slopes in the Alps or the Vosges - visitors are advised to check snow coverage on www.catpw.be/FR/ski.htm or to contact stations direct.

All stations tend to be busy when enough snow has fallen to allow skiing, and queues at lifts are probable. The après-ski in the Belgian Ardennes has a quality all of its own: the culinary specialities include wild boar, smoked ham and cheese, beer - of which Belgium has up to 600 varieties - and chocolate.

THE MASSIF CENTRAL

It has taken three million years of volcanic activity for the four massifs of the Auvergne to achieve their present shape. They have been dormant for the past 10,000 years, yet it is only in the past decade or two that they have gained attention from skiers - and their resorts remain virtually unknown outside France.

Although not well known in the UK, these resorts have a lot to offer all levels of skier. The two main stations, Le Mont Dore (www.mont-dore.com) and Super Besse (www.super-besse.com) are focused around the Puy de Sancy, which rises to the respectable height of 1,886m. This old volcano is the highest point in France outside the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Each resort offers around 45km of pistes, with a connection between the two (weather permitting). Despite the fairly modest selection of runs compared to traditional alpine resorts, the diversity of the terrain is impressive. As well as a good proportion of runs dedicated to beginners, the more adrenalin-driven can have a crack at the mountain's valleys, bowls and couloirs, such as the aptly named "Hell's Valley" or "Devil's Teeth". Mont Dore even has its own snow park.

Cross-country skiing is popular, as are the spa treatments: the volcanic water is said to have special qualities for the treatment of rheumatism and respiratory problems.

Several smaller ski stations are scattered around the Massif Central, with between one and 10 lifts each. They tend to adopt a pragmatic approach to opening, depending on snow. In an unhelpful winter for weather, the runs could be open for as little as one or two days during the entire season.

VOSGES NATIONAL PARK

More rolling hills than craggy peaks, the Vosges Balloons National Park has a reputation for its forests, glacial lakes and year-round mountain activities. Hiking, climbing and mountain biking are popular in the summer, and Alpine and Nordic skiing in the winter.

The largest ski area is La Bresse-Hohneck (www.labresse-remy.com), whose highest point is a modest 1,366m - for comparison, Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, does slightly better. Nevertheless it boasts credible skiing on no fewer than 27 slopes thanks to 280 deftly deployed snow cannons. La Bresse also boasts the biggest floodlit ski area in Europe, with skiing from 6am until 10pm daily: it is well worth getting up early to make the most of the skiing before the snow begins to suffer, especially in the later months of the season.

Gérardmer (www.gerardmer.net) consists of 20 slopes. The smaller areas of Saint Maurice-sur-Moselle (www.saintmaurice-vosges.com), Bussang (www.bussang.com), Ventron (www.ot-ventron.com), Le Valtin and Xonrupt-Longemer (www.xonrupt-longemer.fr) have up to 10 pistes each. The gradient of the hills provides an ideal playground for beginner skiers or snowboarders, but there is much less attraction for the expert.

Cross-country skiing is more popular than downhill, with 300km of trails winding their way through the forests, which cover 60 per cent of the mountains. The La Bresse-Lispach, Gérardmer and Xonrupt trails are connected, and are a real attraction to the cross-country enthusiast.

If you fancy a break from skiing, other activities available in the area include tobogganing, snowshoeing, ice-skating, paragliding and dog-sledding.

Good value and scenically attractive, the Vosges mountains comprise a reasonable destination for beginners, cross-country skiers, and families. Perhaps the main blessing of the area is that it is reasonably accessible from the Channel ports, and there is plenty to hold your interest if the snow (or the snow cannon) fails to deliver satisfaction. The town of Colmar, some fine Alsatian villages and the cities of Strasbourg and Basel are not far away.

Comments