Where in the world can you slope off to?
From Finland to Mount Fuji, new and established destinations are upping their game to attract winter-sports enthusiasts
Sunday 06 November 2011
There's still a month to go until the start of the main snow-sports season, yet fresh powder in the Alps and North America means we can hit the slopes already in several dozen ski areas.
And despite the cold financial front, some ski nations, including the US, are hoping to replicate the record levels of business they enjoyed last year – even though warning signs such as unusual early discounting for peak New Year week might suggest different. It seems skiers and boarders will always want an annual fix of the white stuff and there is certainly plenty that's new out there in the resorts and on the mountains to keep everyone entertained. Patrick Thorne, aka the Snowhunter, has located, visited and reported on every kind of ski resort in the world. Here's his exclusive guide for The Independent Sunday on how to make the most of the 2011-12 ski season
France remains the most popular destination, hosting two-fifths of the British market, but few new resorts are offered there this winter, perhaps because there's already such a huge choice. The ongoing process of supplying better accommodation continues, however, with a number of new options in France, including an impressive new Club Med village in Valmorel, soon to be opened by the Prime Minister François Fillon, offering access to the family-friendly resort's 150km of piste.
And the giant ski area Paradiski, which includes 20 individual ski villages around La Plagne and Les Arcs, has a new resort called Edenarc, a very modern development styled in glass with an indoor-outdoor pool complex. It's available through Erna Low among others.
In Austria, new options from Inghams include St Christoph am Arlberg and Kaprun, high-altitude resorts, or associated ski areas, with a reputation for good snow cover until May.
St Anton's fans will also be interested to hear of new TheMOOSER, a stylish, contemporary ski-in ski-out hotel, which will open its doors on 2 December. Kaluma Ski is the exclusive British operator offering these new lodgings.
At Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy's flagship resort in the stunning Dolomite mountains, the Rosapetra Spa resort opens this month, a new option available through Crystal.
And Neilson is now offering Folgarida, a small Italian resort that's part of the growing ski area around Madonna di Campiglio, where you can access 150km of piste this winter once the link to another ski area at Pinzolo is completed.
Closer to home, Scotland will get its first new chairlift for more than a decade with a new lift installed at Glenshee. Further north, Finland is regaining lost ground and is returning to most of the main operators' pages after a few quiet years. Finnish ski destinations were dropped by operators straight after the financial crash, when they experienced problems selling accommodation and charter-flight seats. Thomson is offering the less well-known options of Ruka and Iso-Syote for this winter.
Bulgaria has long been known as a budget-ski holiday destination but a glamorous new villa near the resort of Pamporovo in the Rhodope Mountains may change all that. Villa Gella has six double bedrooms, each with its own fireplace. It provides guests with a library, an indoor pool, spa, ice-skating rink, and the services of a private chef.
Serbia is back on the ski map this year – though you'll only be able to buy a package to its slopes on one week this season. Kopaonik, a popular budget destination before the Balkan wars, which has been the subject of huge investment in new lifts, will host the Big Snow Festival from 23-29 March 2012, to which packages will be available through the event organiser. With Tui having pulled out of Serbia a few years ago, the only other way to access its slopes at the moment is independently.
Turkey is also back, but for serious skiers only. The Ski Club of Great Britain's Fresh Tracks holiday division is offering ski touring in the Taurus Mountains. But you'll need to be pretty accomplished to take part – ski touring is only for experienced skiers who are used to deep snow, aware of avalanche dangers and fit enough to hike up slopes, while carrying their equipment, in order to make descents off-the-beaten piste. No British tour operators are offering Turkey's ski resorts for now.
Although most British skiers tend to think of western Canada for big mountain skiing and deep powder, the east is worth considering, too. Le Massif is owned by a founder of the Cirque du Soleil, Daniel Gauthier, and he has invested £140m in improvements. You can enjoy spectacular views as you ski towards the mighty St Lawrence River. And this winter, there's the option of travelling to the resort by rail from Quebec City between February and April, with Frontier Ski.
In the powdery west of Canada, Revelstoke in British Columbia claims to be the home of the first "über-luxe" chalet in North America. The British-owned eight-bedroom Big Horn costs £44,000 a week to rent and features an entertainment room, gym, massage rooms, plunge pool, hot tub and heli-pad for private heli-skiing from your back door.
In the United States, Stowe in New England is back in the brochures following a half-billion dollar spend during the past decade on new lifts and luxury accommodation at the base of the mountain.
Japan has held its own in the UK market, perhaps surprisingly given the distance and cost in this post-crash era. Enthusiasts continue to come here for the culture, quality, value in-resort and the abundant snow. Japan's resorts continue to fundraise for the ongoing tsunami relief effort, even though most were unaffected directly and are keen to stress that it's business as usual, as are the tour operators serving them, which include Crystal and Ski Independence. Popular Niseko, on the northern island of Hokkaido, has even introduced a natural-disaster money-back guarantee.
Japan has more than 500 ski areas, most unknown outside the country. One new package option is offered by Inside Japan Tours to Myoko on the edge of the Japan Alps. "Along with the great Japanese powder, Myoko is known for the country's longest and steepest runs," enthuses Inside Japan's James Mundy. "There is plenty to keep all levels entertained. It's easily accessible from Tokyo by bullet train and is great for Japanese culture."
Hard times bring a more competitive approach
Package vs DIY
Snow-sports enthusiasts will be keen to cash in on the trend across the ski-travel industry to provide high-value packages.
These include some, or all, of the elements of your holiday – travel, transfers, food, accommodation, rental and lift pass – for one pay-before-you-go price.
Such deals shelter you from the effects of the weak pound abroad, as well as representing increasingly good value over DIY packages that rely on using no-frills flights, which can cost £100 each way for just your suitcase and skis, before you've even secured your seat.
"We recognise that times are still hard and are responding to that overwhelmingly important issue by going all out to give outstanding value for money," says Inghams chief executive officer Andy Perrin, whose company has added 42 new chalets and chalet hotels across its 80 resort destination choices, where catering costs are covered for guests.
From breaks for all the family to teen getaways
Looking for a way to get all the family to the slopes without breaking the bank? If you have children of school age, Xavier Schouller, who runs the award-winning ski travel company Peak Retreats, offers this advice: "Most English and Welsh schools break up on 16 December, so families can get a week skiing and pay 25 to 40 per cent less than over Christmas. In Scotland, most schools are on holiday from 23 December to 8 January, so they don't benefit. The English and Welsh February half-term falls on what's traditionally the quieter week of the French holidays (from 11 February), but availability is as tight as in previous years. Scotland doesn't have half-terms. Most schools in the UK break up for Easter on 31 March, instead of in April, making a psychological difference because March still seems like winter and bookings are already 150 per cent up on last year."
Chalet Wiesenheim, Selva, Italy, down from £3,188 to £2,099 in total with Esprit Ski for seven nights' catered accommodation with extras for two adults and two children aged from two to 12 – departing Gatwick, 23 December.
Hotel Nieve Sol, Formigal, Spain, down from £899 to £807 per person with Thomson Ski, including seven nights' half-board accommodation and departures from various airports across the country on Christmas Eve.
Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, down from £989 to £599 with Inghams, including eight nights' half board in the four-star Hotel Lek – departing 30 December (various airports). Heavenly, USA, will cost £1,188 per person with Ski Independence, including seven nights' room-only at The Inn by the Lake – for departures from Heathrow on 27 December.
February Half-Term 2012
At Hinterglemm, Austria, a fully supervised, nine-day trip for teenagers, aged 13 to 17, costs £899 per person with PGL, including full-board youth-centre accommodation, rentals, lessons, pass and teen-focused après-ski. Children travel by coach from various points in the UK on 11 February 2012. Fairmont Banff Springs, Canada, has a 30 per cent discount on a deluxe room, reducing seven nights room-only accommodation to £990 per person through Ski Solutions, including flights from Gatwick – departing 11 February 2012.
Aussois, France, has a rock-bottom deal for seven nights, down from £90 to £81 per person with Peak Retreats, based on five sharing a two-bed apartment in Les Flocons d'Argent, including Eurotunnel crossing for car and passengers – arriving 31 March 2012.
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