Where to ski: Austria or France?

23rd November 2017, by Chris Gill

Courchevel – French, but with evident Alpine charm in parts

Courchevel – French, but with evident Alpine charm in parts

Where to Ski in Austria is now in the the shops (and you can order it here), and we’re now starting work on Where to Ski in France. So what better time to weigh up the great rivals which dominate the UK skiing market?

The choice between the two tends to divide skiers. Any pub ski-bore will tell you that for reliable snow, big lift networks and convenient slopeside lodgings, you go to the purpose-built resorts of France. For rustic charm and jolly après-ski action, you head for the valley villages of Austria. Correct? Well, up to a point. Let’s take these key aspects in turn.

Snow. Yes, most of the French Alps get a good amount of snow, and most French resorts are relatively high, a key factor in capturing and keeping snow. But in fact the snowiest resorts in the Alps are in western Austria, in the famous Arlberg area. And there are quite a few high resorts, and many others where the skiing is high above the village, including some excellent areas partially on glaciers.

Another factor to bear in mind, especially if your image of Austria was formed in the previous millennium, is that Austrian snowmaking these days is seriously impressive, not only in its capacity but in its energetic use. I can’t remember the last time I encountered an Austrian piste closed for lack of snow.

Lift networks. Yes, France has the unrivalled Trois Vallées, and the not quite so unrivalled areas nearby – Paradiski, Val-Tignes etc. But these days Austria also has quite a few impressively large areas, notably the Arlberg, Saalbach and SkiWelt. And the last of these is only a two-minute bus ride from another impressive area, Kitzbühel, while Saalbach is about to be similarly linked to Zell am See.

A feature that gives Austria a clear edge for those interested in getting around a bit is the wide-ranging regional lift passes. The AllStarCard, for example, makes it possible to ski virtually anywhere east of Innsbruck on a single pass.

Oh, and another thing: huge lift networks are not the same thing as slick lift networks. French resorts now lag well behind the best Austrian ones in the campaign to eliminate slow lifts. Saalbach has basically done it, and Ischgl and others are not far behind.

Slopeside lodgings. Yes, French purpose-built resorts lead the way here, but Austria is far from devoid of convenient lodgings. In Austria, they take three main forms – high altitude satellite villages (Oberlech, Hochsölden etc); individual hotels or developments on the lower slopes, a short drive above valley level; and valley villages where some lodgings are ski-in but you have a walk to the lifts.

Rustic charm. Yes, most Austrian resorts are based on farming villages built in traditional chalet style, with a church at the heart of the place and new development kept in harmony with the original core. Even bigger, towny resorts have their own traditional charms.

And yes, most French resorts were developed with little concern for charm. But a few were built with some sense of style, and some have had style and/or charm applied retrospectively – look at Val d’Isère, for example. And there are some low French resorts that have retained the charm of the traditional villages they are based on – Megève, Morzine, Les Carroz and Samoëns are among appealing examples that come to mind.

Jolly après-ski. Yes, there is nowhere like Austria for alcohol-fuelled fun from 3pm to 7pm or thereabouts, at various altitudes from mountain top to lift base. But French resorts are much more vibrant in the afternoon/evening than they once were; affluent young (or young-at-heart) skiers will have no trouble shedding euros in the big international resorts of France.

To sum up: the pub ski-bore’s view is based in reality, but fails to take account of what individual resorts have to offer, and particularly what has changed in the last two decades. Keen skiers should consider Austria, and keen après-skiers should consider France.

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