For skiers and snowboarders who want the most terrain for their money, Europe is the place to go. Even with the skyrocketing exchange rates, you can get a weeklong winter vacation in Europe without breaking the bank — and get far more skiing and snowboarding trails than anywhere in North America.
The following interconnected Alpine areas in Austria, Italy, France and Switzerland are among the largest recreational snow areas in the world and the largest in their respective countries. On these far-flung snowfields, one lift ticket opens a system of trails that not even the best skiers and snowboarders can exhaust.
In the middle of Tirol, Ski Welt links eight towns with 90 lifts. For American and British visitors, the main towns are Söll, Ellmau and Westendorf. In these picture-perfect villages, English is a second language and there is plenty of après-ski to combine with the hundreds of miles of trails and 70 mountain restaurants. The region is now linked to the resorts of Kirchberg and Kitzbühel by a new gondola.
Söll is the party town. At certain times of the year, when the tour groups from Britain and Ireland roll into town, English is the main language. This resort fills with young people and singles with endurance not only for the slopes but for the late nights as well. Ellmau, only a few miles up the valley, is the resort of choice for families and those who want a more Austrian experience; it also has some of the finest restaurants in the area. In a separate valley on the other side of the main ski area, Westendorf provides a more international experience with a contingent of happy-go-lucky Dutch added to the British pub-crawlers.
High-speed lifts and gondolas connect the far reaches of this region. Trails offer skiing and riding for everyone, with an emphasis on beginners and intermediates. Experts drop through trees and shoot across the ungroomed sections of the resorts. For some exceptional hospitality, stay at the Hotel Bär or the Kaiserhof in Ellmau. Dine at the Schindlhaus in Söll, and savor the apple strudel at Café Mirabel. By night, pick your poison in Söll — the town rocks.
Italy's Dolomite Superski
Tucked into the northeastern corner of Italy, the Dolomite Superski lift system reaches more than 700 miles of trails linking a dozen significant resorts. Cortina d'Ampezzo and the Val Gardena host the most American and British visitors. Cortina has the pedigree of a mountain city that once hosted the Winter Olympics; Val Gardena is a collection of three smaller, more traditional towns strung along a Dolomite valley.
If you want a glitzy vacation, choose Cortina d'Ampezzo. A favorite of Italy's upper crust, the resort is a blur of the latest ski fashions by day. In the evening, the car-free streets of the old town bustle with visitors who have traded their sporty Bogner, Helly Hansen and Escada snow suits for stylish Armani and Gucci threads and Prada accessories. Try to stay at Hotel Ancora smack in the middle of town and make sure to have a meal at the Capanna Tondi on top of Monte Faloria. At night, squeeze into the tiny Enoteca for a glass of Veneto wine with plenty of new friends.
Val Gardena, which comprises the towns of Ortisei, Selva and St. Cristina, balances three-cultures — Italian, Austrian and Ladin. Over the centuries, the region was sometimes claimed by Italy, sometimes by Austria, depending on which side won which war, so the locals speak both Italian and German with ease. Ladin, a remnant language based on ancient Roman Latin, is also spoken by some locals in these isolated mountain valleys. The trails that loop gently from these towns link with one of Europe's famous skiing routes, the Sella Ronda, which takes about a day to ski. Visitors are unpretentious, the food has a distinctive German flavor, and the nightlife is more beer hall than wine bar.
Recognized as the world's second-largest collection of interconnected ski resorts (after the Dolomites), France's Trois Vallées region encompasses four main ski and snowboard centers. Courchevel, one of Europe's main haunts for the ridiculously rich and not-so famous, serves the most champagne in France outside of Paris. The center at Méribel was founded by Brits and still hosts most of the area's English speakers. Val Thorens, Europe's highest-altitude resort, topping out at more than 10,000 feet, pulses with a young and spirited clientele. Les Menuires, long a favorite of French families, keeps growing into an international resort with the addition of upscale hotels to its thousands of condominiums and some of the region's top restaurants.
The dramatic scale of this region, which has almost 650 miles of downhill trails and 80 miles of cross-country tracks connected by more than 200 lifts, can easily wrap every resort in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah within its boundaries — with acres left over. There is plenty for every level of skier or snowboarder. Stop and enjoy lunch each day on the slopes at one of the restaurants with a $20 plat du jour (it would cost $50 back home), or splurge on a Michelin-starred gourmet restaurant. For the best English-language nightlife, head to Meribel. Try St. Martin de Belleville, down valley from Les Menuires, for a smaller village atmosphere and some of France's best mountain food.
Davos and Klosters, which share much of the same ski and snowboard trail system, don't otherwise have much in common. Davos is a modern city, filled with square, cement apartment blocks, buses and high-rise hotels. Klosters is a tiny, picturesque village with traditional Alpine wooden chalets, a small train station and an exclusive atmosphere. Prince Charles and Princess Diana used to winter here during happier times. The towns' combined trail system and mountain lift system put them at the top of the Swiss snow world.
Klosters and Davos share the Parsenn snowfield, which is just about the same size as Manhattan. Up top, the skiing and riding won't scare the wits out of intermediates, but thrills can be found on trails dropping back in to the valley. One trail twists and turns for nearly nine miles from the Weisfluhgipfel, at 9,243 feet above Davos, down to tiny Kublis at 2,630 feet, down valley from Klosters. The train, included in the lift ticket price, chuffs skiers back to the larger towns and to the lifts returning up to the Parsenn or beyond Davos, where snowboarders congregate for the best riding in the region on the Jakobshorn.
Skiing and snowboarding in Europe so far this season is shaping up to be an epic experience. The monstrous early season snow, even at low-altitude resorts, has locals smiling and tuning their skis. Almost every U.S., Canadian and British tour operator organizes ski and snowboard vacation to one of these massive areas. And don't worry, the trip won't break the bank. Lift tickets, even with the poor exchange rate, are between $50 and $60 a day when purchased for a week. Mountain food is far more reasonable than in the U.S., and pizza or pasta downtown costs about the same, if not less, than here at home.