The skier's guide to Italy

While the real experts may still shun Italy, the country has come a long way since it was known for its chaotic skiing and archaic lift systems. Besides, it's worth going for the food and wine alone. By Tania Alexander .

THERE IS something very special about skiing in Italy. The scenery is stunning, the people hospitable, the food delicious and the pistes surprisingly well-maintained. Italian skiing is split into regions and the atmosphere varies considerably, depending whether the resort is near France, Switzerland or Austria.

The Dolomites used to be part of Austria and is the most beautiful stretch of the Alps - 5,000 square kilometres of widely varying rock formations. They look strikingly different from the rest of the Alps - jagged teeth- like mountains which glow a magical pinky grey colour in the evenings. The Dolomites are named after the Frenchman Deodat de Dolomieu who discovered the limestone-type rock which gives these mountains their slightly pinky- orange tinge. Gentle in parts, jagged in others, this southern range has a tremendous feel of drama and unpredictability. The mountains rise up to 3,899m, while the craggy stacks of rock, sharp cliff faces and narrow valleys are breathtaking and intimidating by turns. The highest skiable peak is the Marmolada (3,344m) while there are another 35 peaks measuring over 3,000m.

Style

At one time, about 10-15 years ago, Italy was notorious for its rather chaotic skiing and archaic lift systems. This is no longer the case and the Italians have put a tremendous amount of money, time and thought into their resorts so you'll now find their pistes well-groomed, their snowmaking facilities extensive and their lift systems up to date.

Although there are some internationally renowned Italian resorts such as Cortina and Courmayeur, expert skiers would still be hard pushed to find anything as challenging or as extensive as in some of the premier league resorts in France or Austria. The Super Dolomiti ski pass gives access to over 1,000km of pistes and nearly 500 lifts, but much of this is still not properly connected. The 175km Sella Ronda circuit at the core of the Dolomites offers blissful skiing for intermediates covering four valleys and a well-linked lift system and snowmaking.

The Italians are piste-bashing poseurs who don't like tough skiing. They prefer wide gentle open pistes where they can bomb down for an hour or so before stopping off for a mega-lunch.

The Italians are known for their hospitality towards families but they do not always have good childcare facilities, probably because the Italians are so loathe to let their bambinos out of sight and usually bring grandmama along to look after them.

Accommodation

Italian hotels are usually of a high standard and those who run them friendly and hospitable. An increasing number of British tour-operators means that the British skier now has a good choice of accommodation in hotels, apartments and chalets.

n Hotel Edelweiss (0039 165 84 15 90) Courmayeur. A small family run hotel, centrally located in the heart of the resort behind the pedestrianised area with easy access to lifts. Warm and cosy hotel with comfortable rooms.

n Hotel Pralong (0039 471 97 53 70) Selva. A good quality hotel well situated for the slopes. The family owners live and breathe skiing and are exceptionally hospitable towards families. Flexible meal arrangements with excellent choice of food.

n Miramonte Majestic Hotel (0039 436 42 01) Cortina. One of Italy's most famous luxury mountain hotels. 2km out of town, with swimming pool, fitness centre, wonderful grounds and fantastic food. Despite luxury status, hotel provides a first class but unpretentious service.

EATING

It is worth skiing in Italy just for the food and wine. Pasta even in the cheaper restaurants is usually home-made, filling and delicious. It is not uncommon for the Italians to eat a leisurely five-course lunch on a ski holiday. Some of the less commercial resorts even shut the lifts between noon and 1pm. Sunday lunch is a big Italian tradition - the whole family from great granny to the tiniest bambino, eats together.

n Calchiera Livigno. Mountain lodge restaurant tucked in the pretty Val Federia. Specialises in typical local dishes including cold cuts and pastas with local cheese sauces. The game is particularly good. Excellent local wines - famous for its local grappa. Good value for money.

n Matterhorn Cervinia. Located in the centre of town, this excellent local pizzeria serves an extensive choice of tasty pizzas and an assortment of local Italian cuisine. Spoiled for menu choice, this friendly popular restaurant provides a warm and lively atmosphere. Reasonably priced.

n Gallia Gran Baita Courmayeur. A restaurant for the discerning. Traditional Italian serving good quality food in beautiful Alpine surroundings. First class service with a wide variety of choice wines and local grappa. Not for the budget conscious.

APRES SKI

Italian skiers are decidedly stylish both on and off the slopes. After skiing, they will go on parade, or passiagiata, round the resort. Usually they will go back to their hotel to change and then strut around the streets, to see and be seen. Apres-ski starts early and continues until the early hours. Many of the resorts, however, can be quieter in the week as a lot of Italians just go there to party at weekends.

n Cortina. Upmarket resort with lots for non-skiers to do. Lots of smart Italians in their furs at passiagiata time. Classy shops. The Enoteca is a popular wine bar to go to after dinner. The Clipper bar has a bob- sleigh in the door and lots of designer beers. After 11pm there are lots of throbbing discos such as Hyppo, VIP and Area.

n Madonna di Campiglio. Lively little town, popular with chic Italians. Fur-clad Italians take part in the daily passiagiata and there are plenty of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and even a theatre for occasional cabaret.

n Sauze d'Oulx. Used to have an 18-30 style holiday atmosphere, frequented by rowdy lager louts, it now attracts a bigger mix of skiers of all ages but is particularly suited to those seeking a lively nightlife. Early evening many skiers stop off at Andy Capp's pub and New Scotch Bar. After dinner the Cotton Club and Rock Cafe are popular.

Beginners

n Cortina. Big nursery slope area in Socrepes and easy runs to progress to. If it's your first ski holiday and you don't take to it, there's plenty to see and do in the chic town.

n Campitello. Small quiet village, ideal for complete beginners as it has some excellent nursery slopes and provides a gentle introduction to skiing in the Dolomites.

n Madesimo. Doorstep skiing with big sheltered beginners ski area. Plenty of English speaking instructors.

Intermediates

n Courmayeur. Intermediate paradise with a good lift circuit and stunning scenery. Also a good base to tackle the 22km off-piste Vallee Blanche - a real buzz for any fit intermediate.

n Cervinia. Very high resort with lots of long flattering runs that make you feel like an expert. Chance to ski into Zermatt in Switzerland. Good sun and snow record.

n Bormio. Lots of long red runs. Lift pass covers neighbouring resorts such as Santa Caterina and Livigno.

Experts

Italy is not really a true hot dog destination but the resorts below offer reasonably challenging skiing that should keep most advanced skiers happy for a week.

n Selva. Giant ski area giving direct access to 175km of piste in the Sella Ronda circuit and 1,180km covered in the Super Dolomiti lift pass.

n Arabba. Also in the Sella Ronda circuit, this offers some of the most testing and exciting skiing in Italy both on and off piste.

n Sauze d'Oulx. Good for advanced intermediates who want to keep practising on piste. True experts will want to head off-piste where there are lots of exciting long descents.

Snowboarders

Italy is not such a popular destination with snowboarders as the other main European ski destinations. Below are some of the more accommodating resorts.

n La Thuile. A good place to learn to board. Lots of chair-lifts (rather than humiliating drags!), and easy pistes. There's also a fun-park and half-pipe.

n Livigno. Quite popular with boarders who have unrestricted access to all the pistes. Good beginner slopes although there are a lot of drag lifts. They also have a half-pipe.

n Selva. Good for beginners and intermediates who can tackle the Sella Ronda clockwise using only one drag lift - you'll have to use more in the other direction. There's also a half-pipe and fun park.

Value for Money

As a destination for British skiers, Italy has boomed in recent years as the exchange rate has been so much more favourable than the French, Austrian or Swiss exchange rates. This year, it is not at such a price advantage but it is still excellent value for money. Above all, it is all the extras such as food, wine and lift passes that are cheaper in Italy and so bring the overall cost of your holiday down.

Getting There

One of the problems of skiing in Italy is that it can involve long transfers from airports. Verona is a handy airport for the Dolomites; Milan is a good link for Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley; Turin offers short transfers from the Piemonte range of French border resorts. You can also fly to Innsbruck and go over the Brenner pass.

A good motorway network through France and Switzerland gives easy self- drive access to the Dolomites and the western side of Italy but this is still a long haul and you'll need to consider whether you'll actually use the car once you get there.

n Alitalia (0171 602 7111).

Tour Operators

n Inghams (0181 780 4400). Hotel, apartments and chalets in Bormio, Campitello, Canazei, Cervinia, Courmayeur, Gressoney, La Thuile, Livigno, Madesimo, Madonna di Campiglio, Passo Tonale, Plan Maison, Sauze d'Oulx, Selva.

n Crystal Holidays (0181 399 5144). Hotels, apartments and chalets in Alagna, Arabba, Bardonecchia, Campitello, Canazei, Cervinia, Claviere, Cortina, Courmayeur, Folgaria, Foppolo, Gressoney, La Thuile, Livigno, Madesimo, Maddona di Campiglio, Passo Tonale, Sauze d'Oulx, Selva, Val Gardena, Sestriere.

n First Choice (0990 557755). Hotels, apartments and a few chalets in La Thuile, Macugnaga, Courmayeur, Cervinia, Bardonecchia, Sauze d'Oulx, Claviere, Santa Caterina, Bormio, Foppolo, Livigno, Andalo, Passo Tonale, Canazei'Campitello, San Cassiano, Selva.

n Powder Byrne (1081 871 3300). Hotels in Cortina.

n Panorama (01273 206531). Hotels and apartments in Livigno, Sauze d'Oulx.

MORE Information

n Italian State Tourist Board (0171 408 1254).

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