Dreaming of the day you can ski again? I’m here to torture you with temptation but believe me, this is an article I never thought I’d write.
I spent a good part of my life afraid of mountains, especially winter ones covered in slippery white stuff. Aged 18, I went to teach in a ‘college’ in the Pyrenees and was invited to join a day’s ski trip. No one thought to ask whether, as a British girl who’d lived nowhere but England’s south coast, I had ever been up a mountain, let alone whether I could actually ski. And with the naivety of an 18-year-old, I didn’t think to tell them I had no idea what I was doing. I spent the whole afternoon heart-in-mouth on the baby slopes, watching 3-year-olds sail gaily by, while I could barely lift my weighty rental skis from the ground, much less use the button lifts.
Flash forward to my twenties. My French boyfriend told me he’d teach me how to ski. I can hear you snow afficionados laughing as I write. As I discovered, a loved one teaching you to ski is a supremely bad idea. Before I knew it, our trip as a couple had been hijacked by a group of friends who wanted to snowboard instead. They didn’t seem to believe me when I told them I had no clue what to do up a mountain. No one even introduced me to the basics. I told them I was scared but we got in a gondola and went straight to what I’m convinced was a black run. Off they whizzed, leaving me hundreds of metres behind. I ended up using my board as a sled to get down, vowing I would never again be persuaded to attempt winter sports.
But four years ago something did persuade me. An invitation from family friends to one of the most picturesque mountain resorts in the world. It would have been rude not to accept, right? In the mornings I had proper group lessons and in the afternoons I practised under the watchful eye of my companions. I was converted. Secretly though, I wondered: was this a one-off? How many other ski resorts would offer the same combination of irresistible good looks and slopes varied enough to cater for novice and expert alike? I set about finding the answer. So here, dear reader, is a selection of ski resorts that even the most reluctant and hardened mountainphobe couldn’t fail to fall in love with.
1. Klosters-Serneus, Switzerland
For Brits, Klosters is famous as Prince Charles’s favourite ski destination. But many other Europeans, I’ve discovered, have barely heard of the place. Despite its proximity to Davos, synonymous with high-net-worth individuals, this is not somewhere to see and be seen or parade in the latest furs and fashions. It’s a genuine and rural alpine village, accessible, if wished, by train from Zurich – a modest little red affair that rumbles across viaducts and passes gorgeous scenery to deliver you into a chocolate-box square glimmering with pretty lights, swiss chalets and not a retail franchise in sight.
The point about Klosters – I was told by a glowing eighty-year-old who’d been out on the mountain all day – is the way the surroundings converge there, so you always have a new view to look at. The groomed pistes, 307 km of them, range from 1500m to over 2500m in altitude. Beginners can ski the Madrisa, while more experienced friends can hop on a bus (free with a Davos-Klosters card) to the Gotschnagrat. For a challenge, run No.24 is routed through trees. Or test your stamina with a 12km-long swoop down the Parsenn Weissfluhjoch to the railway station at Küblis. Lunch options are plentiful in wood huts and farmhouse restaurants. The river Landquart, meanwhile, offers breath-taking walks along the valley-floor to appealingly Germanic wellness centres. It was minus 27° on the pistes when I was there, so I was glad to descend into a hot spa.
2. Alpbach, Austria
Another tiny and authentic farming village, Alpbach is consistently voted the prettiest village in Austria. It is indeed almost unbelievably beautiful. There’s a ban on certain types of development, but despite this it can accommodate 2500 guests and is reputed for its price-quality ratio. With typical Tyrolean timber houses located on a plateau at 1000m altitude and a picture-postcard white church where Erwin Schrodinger is buried, Alpbach offers a base for skiing the recently created interconnected ‘Ski Juwel Alpbachtal Wildschönau’ area. Three lifts will take you towards the Wiedersbergerhorn for all abilities, or the Schatzberg for you pros. Overall 45 lifts are accessible by bus, leading you to 145km of pistes, 24 blue slopes, 34 reds and 12 blacks.
For a small village, Alpbach has a surprisingly hearty après-ski scene, at the bottom of lifts and in bars back in the village. As in Klosters, visitors tend to be loyal, returning year after year. It certainly has a special place in my heart, as the site of my first proper red run. The good news is, at only 44km from Innsbruck and 26km from Worgl, ways to get there now include the new transcontinental night train.
3. Guzet Neige, Pyrenees, France
Although the Pyrenees cannot compete with the Alps’ height or range, their easy-going atmosphere and smaller scale suit some people better. Add to that more snowfall than the Alps, and you’ll find there is good skiing to be had despite warmer winters, especially in resorts on the northern slopes.
Guzet Neige is a popular weekend retreat just 140km from Toulouse. Like many French ski resorts, Guzet is purpose-built. You may however be surprised to learn that it’s known for being one of the most attractive places to ski in the Pyrenees. Planning restrictions mean that development, started in 1959, must be in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Guzet’s beach-hut-like wooden chalets have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi and are made even more alluring by the surrounding pine forest, through which many of the 31 pistes quietly run.
4. Zakopane, Poland
This one’s on my to-do list. Located in the Tatra Mountains on the brink of the National Park, Zakopane is considered Poland’s winter capital. Rysy, the country’s highest peak, dominates. Skiing in Poland is not as well-developed as elsewhere, but what it may lack in lift numbers or groomed kilometres, Zakopane makes up for in attitude. Its location, in the middle of the Carpathians, means arenas at altitude as well as beginner slopes. Pictures show timber lodges and fairytale cottages, smoke twirling from their chimneys, while the main street looks like heaven, if heaven were one long après session with taverns, vodka bars, and jazz. The Szymoszkowa Ski Resort’s two slopes can be reached directly from the north side of the town centre, and apparently the views of the Tatras are incredible from the top.
5. Myrkdalen, Norway
Just two-hours from Bergen, family friendly ski in-ski out accommodation, a ski-school so good it trains all the country’s instructors, and modern architecture with stunning mountain views – these are not even the main draw here.
The real reason Myrkdalen made it into this article is for its proximity to Flåm, from where you can experience the majesty of Norway’s winter landscapes and spectacular fjords, including the narrowest: UNESCO-treasure ‘Nærøyfjord’. How about a dream-like journey on the Flåmsbana railway to boot, climbing sharp cliff paths and witnessing the natural sculpture of frozen waterfalls?
Sorry – I told you it would be torture. There’s no vaccine once you’ve got the winter sport bug, but the other vaccine is coming, so I’ll see you soon – back out on the pistes.