Countries: a beginner’s guide
For most people, choosing where to go skiing or boarding starts with settling on a country: the differences between the main destination countries are too important for most of us to overlook. Of course, it’s risky to generalise. Not all French resorts are high-altitude moon-stations accessing infinite piste networks, and not all Austrian resorts are snow-free farming villages centred on an onion-dome church.
But it’s best to start from an understanding of the general picture, which is what we aim to give here.
+ Reasonable prices, especially for drinks
+ Good tuition, with lots of native English-speaking instructors
+ Lively bar-based nightlife
+ Some of the resorts have invested heavily in modern lift equipment
+ The link between Soldeu and Pas de la Casa has created a fairly extensive area
- Ugly resort villages
- Some limited areas
“Cheap and cheerful” used to sum up Andorra, sandwiched between France and Spain in the eastern Pyrenees. But the whole place has gently moved upmarket over recent years; it is no longer lager-lout territory. For beginners and early intermediates who like lively nights out it is well worth considering. Arinsal is cheaper than the other resorts, but has very limited local slopes.
+ Lots of charming, traditional resort villages, and few modern blots on the landscape
+ Lively, unpretentious après-ski
+ Reliably comfortable hotel and guest-house accommodation
+ Friendly people, most of them English-speaking
+ Some of the best glacier resorts in the Alps
+ The best lift systems in the Alps, these days
- Many resorts are relatively low, and are unreliable for snow, especially late in the season - and snowmaking facilities are often poor
- Not the most exciting food in the world
- No longer cheap - though still cheaper than France and Switzerland
Austria attracts particularly those who put welcoming villages (and villagers) before super-high and super-wide mountains. For affordable and comfortable guesthouse accommodation, it takes some beating. And if you like jolly nightlife there’s still nowhere else like it.
+ High standards of organisation and service in the resorts
+ Reliably good snow conditions in most areas, thanks to low winter temperatures, extensive snowmaking and religious piste-grooming
+ A good chance of superb snow conditions, especially in certain resorts
+ Excellent, notably spacious accommodation
+ Refreshingly uncrowded pistes by Alpine standards
+ Often lots of challenging slopes within the protected, patrolled area of the resort
+ Most runs are below the tree-line, and so are not usually affected by bad weather
+ Good ski/boarding schools, all with plenty of native English-speaking instructors
+ Wide variety of eating places, mostly at reasonable prices
+ Spectacular scenery in the Rockies
- Long journey times from Europe
- Lift passes, tuition and childcare are expensive
- Whistler excepted, resorts are not big by Alpine standards, and many resorts are best considered as part of a tour of several resorts
- The active day is short, with lifts closing from mid-afternoon
- In general, mountain restaurants are dreary fast-food affairs - though things are improving in many resorts
- In many resorts, not much to do off the slopes
- Chance of very low temperatures in Rockies resorts
Not surprisingly, Canadian resorts have a lot in common with American ones - the pros and cons are similar, except that there is no risk of altitude sickness (though there is some risk of mind-numbingly low temperatures). But it is in some ways more attractive: in the far west, Whistler is almost a match for the big Alpine resorts in size, while the resorts around Banff in the high Rockies have dramatic scenery to rival anything in Europe.
+ Very low prices
+ Good tuition
+ Friendly locals
+ The chance to see another culture and visit some of Europe’s most historic cities as well as having a winter sports break
- Primitive facilities and food in most resorts
- Limited ski areas
There are of course differences between the countries of eastern Europe, but Romania and Bulgaria, in particular, have a lot in common. Prices are low, then so are the standards of everything but tuition, which is friendly, enthusiastic and effective. Those who care about reliable lifts, decent food or acceptable medical care should stay away. Slovenia - the northern extremity of former Yugoslavia - is more like Austria.
+ Unrivalled choice of big, high mountains with extensive lift networks
+ Generally reliable snow, thanks to high-altitude resorts and extensive snowmaking
+ Many modern, purpose-built resorts which are very convenient - often, you can ski or board from your door
+ Some of the best resorts for beginners, with wide, gentle nursery slopes and good snow
+ Good food and wine
- Most of the purpose-built resorts are unattractive, and some are hideous
- Limited nightlife in many resorts
- The French are not generally noted for their warm welcome
Although there are exceptions, most French resorts appeal to those who simply want to ski board, and little else. Beginners, intermediates of all inclinations and real experts can all find some of the most compelling resorts here. Where it really leads the field is with the unrivalled lift networks of its biggest resorts, often accessing tremendous off-piste areas as well as vast piste networks. Where it falls down is on cost (especially of food and drink in the top resorts) and the uninspiring nature of many resort villages - though there are important exceptions.
+ Facilities much improved in recent years - lifts are mostly efficient and piste preparation is good, with widespread snowmaking
+ Friendly people who have a relaxed attitude
+ Good food and wine
+ Some attractive villages - and lots of glorious mountain scenery
- Not many resorts to suit the keen piste-basher who is used to French mega-networks
Italian resorts boomed in the mid-1990s because of impressively low prices, thanks to the weakness of the lira. What the international visitors who went there found was mountains that are as well equipped and run as those of the other Alpine countries. But only in a couple of resorts is the terrain as extensive as in the biggest Austrian, French and Swiss areas. And if you’re attracted to Italy partly because you like an Italian atmosphere, be aware that one of the best areas - around Selva, in the Dolomites - is German-speaking and German-dominated.
+ Some fabulous scenery
+ Home to some of the most distinctive and captivating resorts, including famous car-free villages
+ High standards in hotels and restaurants
- Dauntingly high prices, exaggerated by recent exchange rate shifts
Switzerland’s resorts include some of the most compelling you will find. But right now, the prices are simply too high for most of us to contemplate.