This summer, we met up with some Irish friends who ski. Being Irish, they ski in Europe, specifically in the Alps. Being North Americans, we ski in North America, specifically in the Rocky Mountains. As skiers are wont to do, we began trading stories.
As we talked, I was struck by how dramatically our skiing experiences differ. Our friends ski at Les Trois Vallees. They describe the resort, not in terms of skiable acres (as we do), but in terms of kilometers of trail (600 km, or about 373 miles to be exact). Our “big” U.S. resorts suddenly sounded rather “small.”
Chalets and Chefs
Next, they mentioned the talented chef who came with their chalet. I became fixated on the word “chef.” “As in a chef who prepares your meals?” I asked. “Yes, a chef who prepares meals and snacks in the ski chalet,” they responded.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “That beats spaghetti in the condo.”
Then they showed us photos. Gorgeous mountains, beautiful snow and stunning blue skies. To that, we could relate.
Back home, as the snow flies and ski season is beginning, I remain curious about the differences between skiing in the Alps and skiing in the United States. Why ski the Alps when we’ve got skiing right here in North America?
Here’s what I’ve found out, from my friends who ski in Europe.
1. Incredible Terrain. To a person, everyone mentioned the incredible terrain of the Alps. The Alps are young, rough, rugged and daunting, but the resorts offer a full gamut of terrain, from well-groomed pistes to steeps that will take your breath away. As one friend put it, “The slopes are comparable to the steepest U.S. slopes, but with more varied terrain. Skiing above the tree line offers fantastic views, and as grooming is not prevalent, you have the natural terrain at your disposal.” As for groomed pistes, they are generally a bit narrow, as European resorts do not cut trees as readily as we do to make room for skiers.
A guide is a good idea if you are skiing above tree line, both for his or her knowledge and to prevent you from getting lost. Because you can ski from mountain to mountain and village to village, you could mistakenly end up in the wrong village, or in an entirely different country.
2. Old and New. Europeans invented skiing and ski culture, and their ski villages are the real deal. Cobblestone streets, medieval architecture and 700 year-old beer cellars are juxtaposed with an extensive and modern lift infrastructure.
3. Bon Appetit. Ask a friend about skiing in the Alps and soon they’ll be talking about food. And while I can hardly imagine taking a long ski lunch (or eating something other than a squashed pb& j from my pocket), that’s what you do in the Alps. And everyone seems to love it.
4. Relax, You’re On Vacation. Europeans tend to start their ski day later than we do in North America. On a typical ski holiday, you will sleep in, ski for a while, take a long lunch, ski some more, apres ski, enjoy a late dinner, sleep, and…repeat. One friend put it this way, “Skiing in Europe is more of a vacation than a sport. Even though you still ski a lot, the culture surrounding skiing is different.”
5. Two Weeks of Holiday? Many Europeans are weekend skiers, just like us. But for North Americans traveling to Europe, two weeks is optimum. First, you have to get over the jet lag. The time change alone will have you sleeping in for a couple of days. Second, your biggest cost will likely be transportation. If you’re investing in plane tickets, why not stay as long as you can?
Of course, time and money are limiting factors for any ski holiday. I’m told European lift tickets are a better value than in the US, but it would depend upon the resort and probably the exchange rate.
6. Big Mountains, Lower Altitude. European ski villages are thousands of feet lower than the lowest resort in Colorado. Obviously, the mountains aren’t small. But while the Mont Blanc Massif rises to 15,782 feet, Chamonix rests in a valley at only 3,395 feet. If you’ve ever had a ski vacation wash out because of altitude sickness, the Alps just might just be your cure.
When You Go….
My friends had many suggestions about their favorite resorts. Some of them include Les Trois Vallees, Chamonix and Tignes in France; Zermatt, Switzerland; and Kitzbuhel and Lech in Austria.
Although I am generally a do-it-yourself traveler, I would turn to the many online travel agents that specialize in ski holidays. Why? To help narrow down the choices. I happened upon the Ingham’s site and found it very helpful. I searched their site by country and appreciated their comprehensive resort listings, which break down information into easy “Best For” categories. For example, “Best For Families,” “Best For Nightlife” and so on.
And yes, they do book chalets, catered by chefs!
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