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Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this winter

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Want to know where to ski this winter? Here’s my tried and tested guide to finding the most underrated, but brilliant, ski resorts in Europe.

Growing up, I was enthralled by the charmingly British ‘Ski Sunday’ that was compulsory TV-viewing in my family.  I couldn’t wait to one day venture onto the pistes myself.  As soon as I hit my twenties I made it my aim to learn to ski, and discovered a whole new world of new travel experiences.

With a myriad of options out there for new and experience winter sports fans, one of the hardest things about a ski trip, other than hangovers and the tired legs, is choosing where to go.

Europe boasts an incredible variety of ski areas, from delightfully cosy alpine villages to packed, crowd-pleasing purpose-built resorts.  Not only do they offer the opportunity to explore a beautiful winter wonderland, they’re playgrounds for skiers and boarders looking to have more than a little fun.

So to help you choose, here’s some of my favourite picks for this winter. They’re tried and tested options to help you find the perfect ski destination – whatever type of trip you’re after.

So, where to ski this winter?

I’ve got four recommendations for you;

  • Chamrousse, France. It’s a quiet, budget-friendly choice for beginners, confidence builders and young families
  • Mayrhofen, Austria. The perfect choice for party people who also want to have a great time on the slopes
  • Bardonnechia, Italy. For those looking to escape the crowds with a more authentic Italian experience on and off the piste
  • Val Thorens, France. For exceptional skiing without the exception prices you’ll find elsewhere in the world-famous Three Valleys

P.S. Want more ideas for your winter getaway? Check out all my ski trip posts here

Chamrousse, France: For beginners and confidence builders

Nope, I’d not heard of it before either.

But this French resort perched just above the city of Grenoble deserves more attention than it gets.  What it lacks in size it makes up for with great accommodation choices, family-friendly and exceedingly budget-friendly options, and near empty pistes. Oh, and a delightfully short transfer from Grenoble airport.

The town is split into two parts, a skiable distance apart. Chamrousse 1600 is the older of the two villages, and home to some quintessentially French cafes and restaurants. Chamrousse 1750 is the resort centre and home to pretty, low-rise apartment blocks centred around a sports centre. Included in your stay here is free access to the snow-rimmed outdoor pool, saunas and hot tubs – a nice little plus. In addition. Staying here, we had a lift quite literally on our doorstep and a smattering of bars and shops within a five minute walk.

Snowy pistes in Chamrousse, France

On the piste in Chamrousse

What Chamrousse lacks in size, it makes up for in charming views and easy to ski, well-maintained pistes.  It was our first trip without ski school and we found the gentle blue and red runs to be great confidence builders and largely empty even in January.

Off the piste in Chamrousse

Aside from the free pool/hot tub/sauna combo (which was surprisingly good), Chamrousse is pretty quiet. However we were smitten by the nearest bar – Doudou’s – which offered mulled wine and crepes for a ludicrous €1 in the evening.  We also took an incredibly good candlelit snowshoeing tour that I’d thoroughly recommend.

So what’s the secret?

Chamrousse mainly draws in French crowds, and more so at the weekends than during the week. With easy access to the French motorway network it’s a day trip destination. Now that I’m a little more experienced I strongly recommend smaller resorts like Chamrousse for first time skiers and those with little ones. I was never able to use my full area pass to my advantage on my first trip and I could have saved the Euros to spend elsewhere. Get bang for your buck here, and save a few centimes for when you’ve built up your skills and confidence for another trip.

Pros: Great value, easy skiing, ski-in/ski-out accommodation

Cons: Its a relatively small ski area, the weather – lower pistes notoriously sit in cloud much of the time. You’ll need to head up high for good vision and views

Mayrhofen, Austria: For those who want to Après

Tucked away at the head of the Zillertal valley in the Austrian Tyrol is the town of Mayrhofen.  Better known to some as the home of Snowbombing festival, it’s a great choice all season long with fantastic skiing and a lively, party atmosphere.  Although the snow has been drawing crowds here for decades, the legendary après scene also guarantees you’ll have as much fun off the pistes as on.

Penken Mountain Mayrhofen Austria

The snow

The Zillertal valley is a huge ski area, so there’s plenty to explore whether you’re an experienced skier or boarder, or a complete beginner.  I learned to ski here, and found the ski schools not only great value for money but also good at getting us out exploring whilst we found our ski legs.  You won’t be stuck on a green run for long.

Up on the mountain you’ll find lots of restaurants offering hearty and affordable food, as well as cold beers and hot chocolates as the afternoon wears on.  The Schneekarhütte at the top of the Horberg offers something a bit more special and has fabulous views from its terrace.  Just don’t fill up too much, there’s a challenging red run back down from here into the valley!  At the end of a day on the mountain, the bars and restaurants at the top of Penken gondola are a great stopping point with good views of the pistes behind.

The apres

Back in town is where the party starts.  For cheap beers and the best crowds, Ice Bar (at the foot of the Penken Gondola) is where the crowds go.  By 5pm you might not be able to get through the door, so stop off on your way home for a Europop party and some great Austrian hospitality.  It’s early doors, so make the most of it – you’ll have to be out at 8pm.

For later nights, there’s a huge variety of places to choose from along the pretty main street.  Basement bars make a cosy spot for drinks and catching up with friends, and there are a couple of clubs if you fancy making it a late one.  Our favourite evenings were spent in the Sports Lounge at the SportHotel Strass, where you’ll find live music most nights – and White Lounge.

Ice Bar Apres Ski in Mayrhofen Austria

If there’s one thing you need to do in Mayrhofen, you need to go to the weekly party at White Lounge.  2,000m high on the Ahorn mountain, it’s a hotel and bar igloo complex, built from fresh snow each season.  A gondola packed full of partygoers heads up the mountain early in the evening, to be greeted by a torch-lit procession.  Flaming torch in hand, you’ll head to the igloos, where you’ll find a packed dancefloor, chillout rooms and the sort of fun that’ll have you dancing on tables before you know it.  Yes it’s raucous, but it’s also one of the coolest things you can do on snow.

So what’s the secret?

Austria is generally more affordable than it’s Swiss neighbours and similar sized resorts in France. There’s also a wide range of accommodation choices here including Austrian Gasthouses (similar to a B&B in the UK) and self-catered apartment buildings. Appealing to a younger crowd, options for eating out lean towards burgers and streetfood rather than fine dining making it easier to find good value eats.

Pros: Good value accommodation and eating/drinking out, big ski area, great nightlife

Cons: You’re not going to get a quiet night, comparatively expensive lift pass

Bardonnechia, Italy: For budget travellers

Bardonnechia is relatively unheard of compared to it’s more popular neighbour, Sauze d’Oulx (although if you fancy finding out if Sauze is all it’s cracked up to be, you can read my review in Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border). But it ticked all the boxes for us as a group of moderately experienced skiers and boarders looking for somewhere with a bit of life to it.

The snow

The ski area is big enough to keep you entertained all week, with a variety of pistes and some notably pretty tree-lined ones.   We booked ski-in/ski-out accommodation at the Campo Smith apartments which was a great base.  It’s a minute from the nearest lift and a less than a minute from our favourite après-bar, Cipo’s, notable for its retro taste in music (good) and free antipasti between 5pm and 6pm each evening (even better).

Empty pistes in Bardonnechia Italy

Off piste

The town itself is a little more unusual as most of the properties are owned by Torinese families who visit on weekends and holidays. This means it can feel pretty quiet much of the time.  That said, we found a good selection of authentic Italian restaurants and bars, although the supermarket was a little on the small side for adventurous self-caterers looking to dip into Italian cuisine.

There’s also lots to keep you entertained when you’re not racing down slopes. We found great cafes on the mountain with the most incredibly delicious hot chocolate (our favourite was Birichini at the top of the Les Arnauds lift. We also spent an afternoon snow-shoeing through the most beautiful countryside further up the valley.  Bardonnechia is less than an hour to Turin city centre by train if you want to explore without skis.

So what’s the secret?

The Italian’s have kept Bardonnechia to themselves. And I don’t blame them. But it in all seriousness, for a resort of this size a surprisingly proportion of the accommodation is privately owned rather than available to let. The ski area is also split into two parts, so you’ll need to choose which side of town to start your day on. If you’re want to know where to ski in Italy without the crowds, you won’t find much better.

Pros: Lovely pistes, Cipo’s bar, fabulous snow-shoeing

Cons: Not the prettiest of towns, busy on weekends

Val Thorens, France: For the best snow

Val Thorens is the jewel in the crown of the Three Valleys.  Perched at the top of this famous ski area, it’s the highest altitude resort in Europe.  This means one very important thing – fabulous snow.  Whether you’re hoping to ski early or late in the season, or just want to be confident you can make the most of every daylight hour on the pistes, this friendly, purpose-built town is the perfect base.

The Three Valleys is on a lot of skiers wish lists for good reason. But if you want to know where to ski this winter in the Three Valleys, know that yuo’ll find the best snow, most accessible pistes and best value for money in Val Thorens.

The snow

You have access to a vast ski area – with Courchevel and Meribel accessible on piste for confident skiers and borders – and it’s diverse.  The huge bowl shaped valley offers lots of gentle slopes perfect for beginners, whilst more experienced skiers can venture further afield or tackle more challenging reds and blacks close to home.  It’s also a perfect sun trap – and a great spot to people watch from balconies overlooking the piste.

Apres ski at the Folie Douce in Val Thorens France

The apres

you’re done exploring for the day, head to the Folie Douce on the Plein Sud piste for some of the most outrageous après you’ll find in France.  The party gets started around 3pm, with a live DJ every day and live music too if you’re lucky.  Grab a beer, find a spot in the snow and enjoy one of the most surreal and fun experiences to be found with your skis on.  And try and keep hold of you ski legs on the way back down – not everyone does!

So what’s the secret?

Two things make Val Thorens stand out against the other resort towns in the Three Valleys. Firstly, it’s at a higher altitude in a bowl-shaped valley. This makes it more snow sure and the season last longest here (great for early and late deals). Secondly, it’s more modern and focuses on what it does best – providing the best experiences on snow. Courchevel and Meribel are gorgeous but the emphasis on high-end wining, dining and shopping can feel a little ostentatious and exclusive.

Pros: Breathtaking views, vast snowsure area, fantastic accommodation, the Folie Douce

Cons: Pricey lift passes, pistes near to town can be a little crowded and icy

Find out more about the Three Valleys in Les 3 Vallees: An essential guide to the world’s largest ski area

Feeling inspired by my guide to where to ski this winter?  Or have your own off-the-beaten path suggestions for frolicking in the snow this winter?  I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

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Alice
girlwithasaddlebag@gmail.com
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