Planning a holiday on the slopes? Here’s what to expect from the top resorts in Europe and beyond
For one Austrian ski destination, last winter was exceptional. Not only did Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn become the resort with the longest name; it could also justifiably claim to be Austria’s biggest ski area.
Both titles might be questioned. Following the normal, absurd Alpine practice, Skicircus (for short) quantifies the scale of its ski area by measuring the length of its pistes (270km); and recent inter-resort disputes have revealed that in Austria even measuring pistes can be something of a black art. And the “longest name”? Well that’s just a guess, by me. But both titles are more than plausible.
How did Skicircus area get so big? Through old-fashioned mergers. Saalbach and Hinterglemm linked their ski areas in 1968; the connection with Leogang’s slopes came in 1975. Fieberbrunn joined the circus just last winter. The four communities remain distinct, but by installing lifts to connect the valleys they created a major ski attraction.
Unfortunately, Skicircus’s limelight is about to burn out. For the coming season it will no longer be Austria’s biggest ski area. The logic of lift-links is overpowering, and a new connection between the Vorarlberg resorts of St Anton and Lech will create an even bigger domain for 2016/7.
In the postwar period, Austria was the major attraction for British skiers. Only with the French ski boom of the Sixties and Seventies, and the creation of purpose-built, high-altitude resorts such as La Plagne and Les Arcs, did we migrate to France. Since then, Austria’s virtues – charming villages, family-owned hotels, keen prices – have been less persuasive than France’s big skiing and plentiful snow; and around the Millennium, Austria’s share of the UK ski market often lagged more than 15 points behind that of France. Now the gap is down to around five points, thanks mainly to Austria’s investments in snowmaking and lift links.
And what could be better than a sizeable ski area with two or more Austrian mountain villages at its extremities? A trip in 2012 to Ski Juwel, created by linking the Wildschonau valley with Alpbach, persuaded me to visit Skicircus in April.
None of its villages match Alpbach for beauty – few places can – but Skicircus offers a huge amount of all kinds of intermediate terrain, with some tougher stuff at the high points of Hinterglemm and Fieberbrunn. The two main villages are busy by day and night (except in April); Leogang and Fieberbrunn are smaller and quieter.
Of course Austria’s new biggest ski area is in a different league, with its two world-class resorts and 305km of snow-sure slopes. It would be no surprise if Austria took an even bigger share of the UK market this season. And guess what? The resort of Zell am See is now working to connect its slopes with Skicircus, to create the next biggest Austrian ski area.
Crystal Ski Holidays offers a week’s half board at the four-star Hotel Saalbacher Hof from £963 per person (based on two sharing) including flights.
The fall of the pound against the euro following the EU Referendum caused alarm and despondency among both buyers and sellers of ski holidays. It’s not good news, certainly; but the doyen of the UK ski business, Andy Perrin, who as CEO of Hotelplan is in charge of the Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit Ski brands, is sanguine about the situation. He points out that the exchange rate was fairly steady from 2009 to 2014, and is currently at a comparable level; it is the steep rise in 2015 that was anomalous, not the recent decline.
“The glory days of 2015 were a lovely, unexpected bonus, and certainly not ‘the norm’,” says Perrin. He also reports promising early sales for the coming season, as does Ski-Lifts, an airport-transfer company operating from Geneva, which told the Snow Hunter newsletter that “August this year has seen records broken”.
UK ski tour operators were finalising their 2016/7 programmes at the time of the Brexit vote, and at least one of the biggest companies prepared two alternative brochures, the cautious, slimmer volume to be used in the event of a “leave” victory. It’s no surprise, then, that there are few novelties this season, except in Scandinavia, where Crystal has introduced Trysil in Norway (also new to Ski Safari’s programme), and Yllas and Levi in Finland. Also, Inghams has introduced Montgenèvre in France and Crystal has added the excellent Sun Peaks resort in British Columbia.
Anyone waiting for a train from Denver to its municipally-owned ski resort at Winter Park would have reason for becoming impatient. The weekend service ran continually from the winter of 1947 to the spring of 2009, when it was abruptly cancelled. Now the city and the resort are celebrating its return, from 7 January. It follows a dramatic route into Colorado’s Rockies, crossing the US Continental Divide and emerging directly into Winter Park, 100 yards from the ski lifts.
Whistler and Val d’Isère both have extensive new facilities for beginners this season. Val d’Isère has built a gondola to access its Solaise area, where slopes have been regraded and magic-carpet lifts installed for absolute beginners, before they progress to adjacent gentle slopes. A similar operation has taken place on Whistler Mountain’s Olympic Station.
Cheap and cheerful
Is skiing affordable? You will decide. But before you do, consider the price of these, the lowest-cost holidays in two of the major ski operators’ brochures: £311 per person, half-board for a week at Hotel Ela in Bulgaria’s Borovets resort, including flights departing on 14 January and transfers with Crystal; and £399 per person, half-board at Chalet Hotel Elisabeth in Kuhtai, Austria, including flights departing on 9 December and transfers with Inghams.