There is a tide in the affairs of skiing, and right now it is flowing towards Italy. The gravitational pull drawing ski-holiday business is being exerted mainly by low prices, based on a weak currency. But Italy deserves consideration by those not primarily concerned with keeping costs down - witness the move into Cortina this year of Powder Byrne, one of Britain's priciest tour operators.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, British interest in Italy has been erratic. Tour operators went into resorts only to drop them soon afterwards through lack of support, because skiers viewed the country as something of a backwater. The major summer operator, Citalia, handed over its entire skiing programme to Crystal a couple of years ago; since the slide in the value of the lira, I wonder if it is now regretting the move.

I've done more skiing in Italy in the past two or three winters than in the previous 10, and I've been impressed, not least by the investment that has gone on recently. Some Italian resorts were hit by snow shortages before the rest of the Alps, so they have been snow-making for quite a while; and the lift systems in most resorts are now quite respectable. Piste-grooming struck me as having become much more thorough, too. I confess that I had also lost sight of the other merits of Italian skiing, notably the friendly people, the attractive lunch spots and (above all) the scenery, of which Italian resorts have an unfair share.

All of which leads me to suppose that many of the skiers who went to Italy last year (when UK packages sold very well) will also have come home with an appetite for more of the same. Yet Italian resorts are never going to rival French or Austrian ones for domination of the British skiing scene. There simply aren't enough of them, and they don't include top- flight, keen-skiers' resorts - to match Val d'Isere and St Anton, for example. The dozen or so resorts that make up Italian skiing for most British visitors are found in four main groups.

In the Val di Susa, on the French border west of Turin, the resort best known in Britain is Sauze d'Oulx, linked to (and now largely owned by) Sestriere, over the hill - venue for the 1997 World Championships. Sauze has a reputation for attracting British lager louts, but is now quite a civilised place. The big linked ski area (known as the Milky Way) goes on via various small resorts to the French border and across it to Montgenevre. Away to the north is Bardonecchia.

The Val d'Aosta, still further north, encompasses two of the most popular resorts. Courmayeur, with a small intermediate ski area and great off-piste potential, is at the head of the valley, just to the south of Mont Blanc and the road tunnel from Chamonix (making this the easiest Italian resort to reach by road). Cervinia, in contrast, is a long way up a side valley, at the foot of easy-skiing glaciers linking with those of Zermatt in Switzerland.

Other side valleys along the Swiss border form the pleasant and extensive Monterosa ski area shared between Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna. On the opposite side of the Val d'Aosta, another good-sized international ski area links Italian La Thuile with French La Rosiere, within sight of the pistes of Les Arcs.

The area where south-east Switzerland borders Italy is an impenetrable maze of high valleys, with many of the roads closed in winter. But two resorts that are enduringly popular despite modest-sized ski areas are to be found here: Livigno, a bleak, high, duty-free enclave more easily reached by tunnel from Switzerland than from Italy; and the old spa town of Bormio.

The final group of resorts is in the Dolomites at the far eastern end of the Italian Alps, a distinctive region in more ways than one. The landscape is spectacular, with great pillars of pink-grey rock thrusting out of gentle pastures. The culture in much of the area is Germanic: this was part of Austria until the early years of this century.

The main resort on the British market is Selva, better known to Ski Sunday viewers as Val Gardena and to Mercedes-borne German tourists as Wolkenstein. But the real highlight is Cortina, one of Italy's most swanky resorts and one of the Alps' most scenic.

If you are attracted to Italy on cost grounds, proceed with caution. Even at L2,500 to the pound, Italy is not in the same league as Andorra or Eastern Europe. A high-season week's half- board with Crystal in the Hotel Sport in Soldeu (Andorra) costs pounds 385; in a very simple hotel pounds 329. In the Samokov in Borovets (Bulgaria), such a week is pounds 350. To match prices like these in Italy, you generally have to look at little, out-of-the-way resorts such as Andalo or Macugnaga.

However, Livigno is one bigger resort with quite a range of places at under pounds 400 in high season and under pounds 300 in low season. Cortina is fashionably pricey, but it is not alone in this - both Cervinia and Courmayeur suffer the side-effects of an affluent Italian clientele.

Chris Gill is the editor of 'Where to Ski' (Boxtree, pounds 14.99)

(Photograph omitted)

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