Traveller's guide: Late-season snow
Fancy some fun in the sun? The time to hit the slopes is as spring takes the edge off winter's chill, says Matt Barr
Saturday 21 January 2012
If you go by the calendar, the northern hemisphere ski season runs from early December to early April. In reality, the average skiing "winter" straddles winter and spring, two seasons with vastly different conditions and offering vastly different ski holidays.
So what should you expect if you do book a late-season trip? Milder weather is one obvious benefit. As the days lengthen, the lifts stay open longer, while sunshine and warmer air means you can wear fewer clothes – and work on your tan while you ski. Long outdoor lunches and evening barbecues are another late-season ski activity. Resorts also tend to be less busy and lift queues will certainly be shorter than they are during, say, February half-term.
The other advantage to a late-season trip is that longer, warmer evenings offer more après ski options than you get in mid-winter. For this reason, spring is the best time to visit some of the best-known European resorts. Take St Anton, in Austria's Tyrol region, for example. Spring is when the resort's après-ski culture comes into its own, and the terraces of bars such as MooserWirt (00 43 5446 3588; mooserwirt.at) are thronged with happy skiers partying away in the late-afternoon sun. MooserWirt is a St Anton institution, although owner Eugene Scaller has made big changes this year by opening the Mooser, a luxury ski in/ski out spa hotel attached to the bar (the hotel has complete soundproofing should you need to escape from the partying throngs).
Kaluma Ski (01730 260 263; kalumatravel.co.uk) is offering seven nights at the Mooser hotel in St Anton from £1,310 per person, including breakfast, BA flights from Heathrow on 8 April, private transfers and a concierge service.
One worry for skiers looking to book a late-season trip can be the quality of the snow. Blazing sun all day isn't exactly good for fresh powder. On the other hand, a trip at season's end means you'll be skiing on a base (the snow that has fallen to that point) that has built up over the course of the winter, while the on-piste snow itself is usually slushy and a more forgiving for beginners.
If snow quality is a real concern, one solution is to head to a resort with high lifts that allow you to access the higher slopes. Andermatt in Switzerland would be a good bet. At 1,444m, the town itself isn't the highest but with a highest lift of 2,963m, the resort accesses renowned off-piste skiing until the very end of the season. Ski Club Freshtracks (020-8410 2022; skiclub.co.uk/freshtracks) provides off-piste guiding as part of its package to the resort. Seven nights at the Sonne Hotel including half board, transfers, IFMGA mountain guides and Ski Club leaders costs £1,199 between 24 and 31 March. The last Freshtracks trip to Andermatt departs on 5 April.
Finally, one great reason for skiing at the end of the season is the in-resort music festivals that have been growing in popularity over recent years. For more information on some of the options, see page V of this supplement.
Best for guaranteed snow
Late season is when higher-up resorts come into their own. In the early season, when weather is less predictable, their lack of tree cover means skiing can be a hit-and-miss affair. There are fewer such worries in spring. As well as the weather being better, the altitude means the snow stays fresher longer in the colder air. At 2,020m, Kuhtai in Austria is the country's highest resort, so snow is all but guaranteed, and it is only 45 minutes from Innsbruck airport. If you can travel with your family outside school holidays, bargains are available: Inghams (020-8780 8851; inghams.co.uk) offers a seven-day late ski getaway to the resort for just £1,996 based on a family of four, including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and catered chalet accommodation and transfers. Departures on 17 or 24 March.
France also has some resorts that offer good snow quality towards the end of the season. La Plagne has access to the permanent snowfield of the Bellecôte glacier, as well as 350 snow cannons a year that cover the crucial pistes down to the valley resort until the very end of the season. Self-catering specialists Powderbeds (0845 180 5000; PowderBeds.com) is offering a week in a one-bedroom apartment that accommodates four people at Les Chalets d'Edelweiss in La Plagne 1800 for just £735, from 24 March.
Real off-piste skiing is also still possible late in the season. It is different from the light, effortless powder found during the early winter months, but skiing fresh spring "corn" snow is a comparable feeling. New operation Pook Heli Lodge, based in the Tarantaise Valley (right) near the resort of Ste Foy, offers late-season heliskiing until 6 May, conditions permitting, with runs on the high-altitude glacier. Pook (00 336 4548 0859; thepook.co.uk) offers four nights from £1,700, which includes accommodation, transfers, meals, drinks, lift passes and four days of off-piste and heliskiing activities.
Best across the pond
North American resorts usually have longer seasons than their European counterpart. Canadian flagship Whistler Blackcomb (above) usually closes on 21 May, with the glacier slopes on Blackcomb Mountain covered well into the summer. Ski Bespoke (01243 200 202; skibespoke.com) has seven nights at the Four Seasons Hotel in Whistler from £1,475 per person, room-only basis, including BA flights from Heathrow to Vancouver and transfers, departing on 9 April.
Further south in the Rockies, the Colorado resorts in the USA are also a safe late-season bet. They tend to be high and snow cannon cover keeps the runs in great shape into late spring. Winter Park is a good example: the highest lift reaches 3,676m, so there should be snow. Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) has a week at its Vintage Resort Hotel for £785 per person (based on four sharing, room only) including BA flights from Heathrow to Denver and airport transfers, departing on 21 March.
Best for snowboarders
Spring is the perfect time for snowboarders. The slushy snow means it's time to learn new tricks, and resorts spend a lot of time making sure their fun parks (maintained areas full of jumps and handrails) are kept in good condition. The Austrian resort of Kaprun, which accesses the nearby Kitzsteinhorn and Schmittenhöhe mountains, has long been a favourite of snowboarders. Both mountains have fun parks, and good snow cannon cover means the access slopes will stay well covered until the very end of the skiing season. Directski.com has a week's holiday in Kaprun for £415 per person (based on four travellers) with B&B accommodation at the traditional Pension Bergblick and flights from Gatwick with Thomas Cook Airlines and transfers. Departures are on 17 or 24 March.
Another favourite late-season trip for snowboarders is the Snowboard Test, held at the beginning of May in the Austrian resort of Kaunertal. This week-long event offers riders the chance to test next year's new equipment, and is attended by major brands. It is open to the public as well, with the chance to try the boards and join in the test. Accommodation is in the tiny village of Feichten, a 30km drive from the runs and fun parks of Kaunertal. This year's event takes place between 5 and 11 May and booking should be made through the website (thesnowboardtest.com).
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