In conceiving the book, I and my co-editor Dave Watts have reflected on what today's skier wants. And as the distinctions between resorts become more subtle, we have gone out of our way to spell out the differences. But what about the more fundamental things - the shifts in what skiers look for in a resort? One clear priority these days is snow.
A decade ago, we were all pretty relaxed about snow. One or two downmarket resorts in Italy had experienced disastrous seasons, but by and large the expectation was for generous dumps of the stuff in January. Then came the erratic snowfalls of the late Eighties, and in particular the acute snow famines of 1988 to 1990. Suddenly, all other considerations were secondary. Snow was top of the agenda. A decade ago, I hadn't even come across artificial snow. Now, I place snow reliability among the first considerations when recommending a resort, with artificial snow a vital fall-back. It safeguards against precisely the conditions that prevailed in the bad years - high pressure over the Alps in the early part of the season, keeping rain clouds at bay.
Recent seasons have been pretty good, but from my postbag I detect no slackening of interest in snow conditions, and quite right, too. Anyone who thinks they can now presume that the Solls and Megeves of this world are reliable can think again.
A side effect of the snow problems was the emergence on the British market of US resorts. These are very high, and very cold, so they are less prone to snow shortage than European resorts. (But they're not immune: California, in particular, has had some very thin years recently.) They offer a much reduced chance of really bad conditions than many Alpine resorts - not least because most have extensive snowmaking operations, and they use them to lay a solid base of snow before the season starts.
American skiing has been a revelation to many British skiers. Like everything in the States for which there is consumer desire, it is organised for the customer's benefit. There is now a growing band of British skiers, tired of the indifference of Alpine ski instructors, waiters, hotel proprietors and resort managers, who ski in the US largely because they like the feeling that the customer is king.
One important aspect of the American skiing experience is that you are not expected to put up with cramped and shabby accommodation. In the past decade there has been a noticeable change in skiers' interest in their surroundings. The skiers of the mid-Nineties may or may not be environmentally aware in the sense of worrying about acid rain and other threats to life. (They should be, of course; and the Alps, in particular, depend on a delicate natural balance.) But they certainly seem to be more conscious of their immediate environment. A decade ago, the tide had already turned against the blinkered, economy-oriented French construction projects of the Sixties and Seventies. Since then, resort managers and skiers have become increasingly concerned about the design and quality of hotels and apartments. The buildings of Les Menuires, Isola 2000 and Plagne Centre (dreary outside, claustrophobic inside) will surely be pulled down before long. And we can be grateful that the threatening gaze of the TV cameras brought about improvements in the French Olympic villages in 1992 - particularly in Courchevel and Val d'Isere.
Many resorts have been enormously improved by better handling of cars. Meribel and Val d'Isere are examples of resorts where the paths of skiers and drivers have been smoothed by running pistes over tunnels. In Saalbach- Hinterglemm, traffic-ridden central streets have been transformed into pleasant pedestrian zones by diverting traffic underground.
Increasingly, British skiers are waking up to the possibility of travelling to ski resorts in Europe by car. I've always found getting around the Alps by car a straightforward business - unless you're set on some awkward resort on the Swiss-Italian border such as Livigno or St Moritz. What has become much easier in the past decade is the process of getting there. The changes are most pronounced if you're heading for France, western Switzerland or north-west Italy; French investment in motorways means that those starting from Calais have a blissfully smooth route to Geneva (and Chamonix), Chambery or Grenoble. (Those starting from Le Havre or Caen still have to fight their way through or around Paris.) In Austria, the upgrading of the road from the border with Switzerland to Innsbruck is almost complete. In Switzerland, the road from Lake Geneva to the Valais resorts has been much improved.
A common reason for British skiers to take their cars to the Alps is the greater freedom this allows: to escape from ski-resort pricing; to find good snow, rather than be saddled with the snow of the resort you picked six months ago; to pack several resorts into a week. With the Channel Tunnel shuttle services available to skiers this winter, interest in driving to the Alps can only increase.
The drive for freedom is apparent on the mountains, too. As the pressures on piste space increase, skiers are looking beyond to the areas of mountain that can be explored with a guide.
Skiing away from developed resorts is a very satisfying experience: at its best, on deep, untracked powder or super-smooth 'corn' on a hard base, it is the most rewarding skiing there is. And it takes you to places that are among the most uplifting (as it were) on the planet.
This trend was well under way a decade ago. In the Eighties, skiers were already beginning to look for more than piste-bashing. Chamonix, the HQ of European mountaineering, was the place to find off-piste skiing, so you went there and hired a guide. What has changed is that you can now buy this style of ski holiday off the shelf, and tour operators who package guides along with accommodation and flights seem to be prospering.
Lift systems are not to be despised, though. Let us not fail to record how much nicer it is to spend time skiing than queuing (or indeed walking uphill). Many resorts have eradicated queues in the past decade. Efficient lifts are now the norm in Italy, Austria and Switzerland, as well as pace- setting France. But there are exceptions, and these days they seem very conspicuous.
Without doubt, the resort that provokes the strongest reactions is Verbier. This Swiss resort has managed to secure a prominent place on the British market by virtue of three interlocking factors: plenty of good off-piste skiing; plenty of chalet accommodation that UK tour operators can fill with affluent customers; and a lively social scene. But you have to be prepared to put up with the worst lift queues in Europe (and to pay the highest lift pass price in Europe). This winter, Verbier is putting in a spanking new lift - Switzerland's first twin-cable gondola - designed to help relieve the queues. Here is a prediction: it will relieve some queues, but it will make others worse. It will also increase the already unbearable crowding on Verbier's piste network - a network that shrinks year by year as more difficult runs are declared off-piste. Verbier is a resort that has lost its way. What it needs is not more lifts, but fewer beds. Now there would be a positive contribution to the environment.
Chris Gill's new resort guide, Where to Ski, is published later this month (Boxtree, pounds 14.99). From next Saturday, he will be offering a critical guide to ski resorts weekly on these pages.
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