As Britain thaws after the early cold snap, winter-sports resorts across Continental Europe are reporting exceptional snow conditions – presaging an excellent winter for skiers and snowboarders. In addition, slow sales signal the prospect of bargains for anyone able to travel in the next few weeks.
More than 50 ski resorts across the eastern Alps yesterday received a substantial fall of snow, with the Austrian resorts of Saalbach and Schladming reporting 20cm (8in) each. Obertauern became the first European resort this season to achieve one metre of snow cover on its lower slopes, almost double the level on the same day a year ago.
Meanwhile Passo Tonale in the Italian Alps reported a remarkable depth of 4.2m – about the height of a double-decker bus – on its upper slopes.
Pete Tyler, managing director of the leading ski operator, Neilson, said: "There's been big dumps of snow all over the place. Early snow is always good because when it falls, it cools the ground and means subsequent falls stay." He said that the snow was particularly good at resort in the French Alps, and Andorra in the Pyrenees.
Prices for ski packages, like other holidays, are normally very high over Christmas and New Year. But because 25 December and 1 January are Saturdays, there are still some bargains to be found. Saturday is the main "changeover" day in the ski industry; with people unwilling to travel on Christmas Day or New Year's Day the package-holiday companies have had to tweak schedules and offer deals. "It's given us some logistical challenges," said Mr Tyler.
Inghams is offering a five-day package to Flaine in the French Alps, departing 3 January, for £189 including flights from Stansted. The firm's first clients for the winter leave the UK today: "Obergurgl in Austria is looking really good for snow, as is Val d'Isere," said Lisa Tyrrell of Inghams. The company has maintained its programme at the same level as last year.
Overall, there was a 12 per cent drop in the number of British travellers taking ski holidays in 2009-10 compared with the previous winter. But Al Morgan, information manager for the Ski Club of Great Britain, said "with the pound strengthening against the euro, hopefully we'll see an improvement this season. We've had great early snowfall everywhere in the past three seasons, and the on-piste conditions are excellent almost everywhere."
Britain's biggest holiday company, Tui, had problems even getting its staff to chalets in the French Alps because of the extreme weather last week; at one stage the executive responsible, Mathew Prior, tweeted "Flight cancelled to Austria, chalet staff stranded in a northern France petrol station, but there's a helluva snow base forming out there." Yesterday he was in the French Alps: "All the signs are that we're in for another really good season. I came up to Courchevel today and it was white almost from the bottom of the valley," he said.
The winter story from Scandinavia is even more promising: the largest Norwegian resort, Trysil, opened on 30 October. Speaking from the ski resort of Hemsedal, Ben Nyberg, managing director of skiNorway, said a cold snap in November was responsible. "Temperatures were down as low as -20C last month, which meant the base layer of snow was laid down very early. That's the key for a good season anywhere. The temperatures have now stabilised to around -6C."
Skiers in Scotland, though, have not benefited from the recent extreme weather that blocked motorways and closed airports. Earlier in the week it was announced that Glencoe would open for the season at 9am today – but yesterday that plan was cancelled. "We've had a massive thaw, and there's water flowing beneath the snow," said Angela Dingwall, the resort manager at Glencoe. "We could open our top runs, but we don't think it's worth it."
The one unpromising nation in Continental Europe is Bulgaria, where resorts are still waiting for their first significant snowfalls.
Christmas on the slopes: Simon Calder's late deals
If you hope to spend Christmas on the slopes but are operating on a tight budget, then the Pyrenees offer good value. A week's skiing in Soldeu in Andorra costs just £399 per person (based on two sharing) with Inghams (020-8780 4447; www.inghams.co.uk). The price includes seven nights' half-board accommodation at the three-star Soldeu-Maistre Hotel, return flights from Gatwick to Toulouse departing 19 December and transfers to and from the resort. Festively enough, guests also receive a Christmas buffet dinner with unlimited wine.
Christmas ski breaks in the Alps can also be relatively affordable. Ebookers ( www.ebookers.com) is offering a seven-night half-board stay at the three-star Hotel Austria in the resort of Soll for just £389 per person (based on two sharing). The price includes return flights from Gatwick to Salzburg departing on 19 December, plus transfers and a Christmas buffet dinner.
Saas Fee, Switzerland
If you prefer the Swiss swish of a pair of skis, then Thomsonski (0871 971 0578; www.thomsonski.co.uk) is offering a week in Saas Fee at the two-star Hotel Europa on a half-board basis for £459 per person (based on two sharing). The price includes return flights to Geneva from Bristol, Exeter, Glasgow, Gatwick or Manchester, plus airport transfers. Departure is on 20 December.
Les Deux Alps, France
Alternatively, head for France's Les Deux Alps. Mark Warner (0871 703 3888; www.markwarnerco.uk/ski) has seven nights' half board at Chalethotel Berangere in the French ski resort for £488 per person (based on two sharing), including return flights from Birmingham, with transfers included. Departure is on 19 December.
Finally: The big ski blow out. Luxury tour operator Scott Dunn is offering a week's stay, starting on 19 December, at Chalet Louise in Zermatt. The contemporary chalet-style apartment is a short walk from the centre of Zermatt and has a jazuzzi, steam room and sauna. Included in the package (which is based on two sharing) are BA flights from Gatwick to Geneva, resort transfers, gourmet half board, nightly Laurent-Perrier champagne and canapés, an exclusive Sipsmith cocktail menu and a Scott Dunn chef and chalet host. The price? A mere £2,195 per person.