Why Ski The Alps?

Photo courtesy of telegraph.co.uk

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.

Val Thorens. Photo courtesy of maximumski.com

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.

Courcheval. Photo courtesy of skitracer.com

austrian pastries

Photo courtesy britannica.com

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.”

Saulire. Photo courtesy Meribelapartments.com

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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  1. says

    ‘Chefs’ is a bit of an exaggeration with mainstream ops like Inghams – 18-year-olds straight out of a week long cookery course is more like it I’m afraid.

      • says

        Pay. http://www.consensioholidays.co.uk/ for example. That’s the top end (company went bust in a previous incarnation owing a £25,000 deposit to Prince Andrew), but you get the picture. But if you want decent catering which won’t break the bank, look at smaller chalet companies (eg Silver Ski, YSE, Fish & Pips, Ski Peak …. etc). Much better service than the big boys as a rule.

          • says

            Great Advice, misplaced person! Consensio can offer amazing chefs for your holidays in the Alps, as can Scott Dunn, VIP and many other smaller chalet companies. Some favourite resorts of ours -especially if you’re looking for plenty of culture and Alpine charm, include Zermatt, Megeve and Crans Montana.

            If you’re finding it difficult narrowing down the options and you’re spending hours trawling the internet, do give the Oxford Ski Company a call. We are a specialist ski agency who organise tailor-made holidays all over the Alps and in North America too so we can offer you completely impartial and expert advice. We work closely with all the companies mentioned here and many more so you can pick and choose and compare each one. Whether you want to cook the spagetti yourself or have a professional chef serve you a gourmet 5 course menu, we’ll find the right place to suit you and all the family. Think of us as a one stop shop for all the skiing info you need. We’ll plan and design a holiday around you and your specific needs.

  2. says

    Wise words (and none misplaced) from ‘misplacedperson’, but the quality of chalet cuisine (and companionship!) will inevitably be a lottery, depending on which chalet company you choose and how much you pay (e.g. those mentioned, and we also found Ski Scott Dunn and Ski Olympic excellent). I would just throw in that, if you choose a genuine Alpine village (as opposed to a purpose-built resort), you will often find a myriad of reasonably-priced restaurants, including those serving local cuisine. Speaking for my own village (Saalbach), the mountain restaurants are superb, reasonably-priced and atmospheric (one dates from 1717!) and lunch is always an event to look forward to. In the evening one can choose between Italian, Malaysian, Mexican, Austrian (obviously!), or occasionally keep it simple (and cheap) by grabbing a take-away pizza, burger, kebab, etc. (useful on toboggan evenings!) Whatever your preference it is likely to work out cheaper than paying for in-house chalet catering, and you will be served by professional restaurateurs and waiters, rather than gap-year students. As always it pays to research: catered chalets certainly have their place and have proliferated in some of the purpose-built or pricey resorts where they are needed (particularly in France), but you don’t find so many in those resorts that have a proper village infra-structure and where evenings happily spent sampling local cuisine and entertainment are part of the holiday experience. As the manager of a chalet company (Ski Tal) once commented to me: “The Austrians don’t need chalets; they do it so well!”

    • says

      I so appreciate you taking the time to comment. You make such a good point. In villages, going out and sampling the local cuisine is an important part of the experience. Thank you! And, it sounds like I must get to Austria, and possibly Saalbach, sooner than later!

  3. Martin Northrop says

    question from England , what is a pb&j ??

    I have only been skiing for 3 years , and have only skied at Leogang and Saalbach Hinterglem resort/area in Austria, but it is fab , the food is good ,unless you are a veggie , the lifts are excellent , and its the best fun ever.

    cheers Martin

    • says

      Answer from North America: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Do you feel ill yet? Thanks for asking. I’m getting lots of feedback on Saalbach! Sounds like a must-go place! I hope you have a great season Martin. Enjoy!

  4. says

    Hi there, I just got another comment everyone might be interested in (but it came to email). This site isn’t exhaustive, but it is fun and can help give you some basis statistics and information as you plan your next ski holiday. Check it out! It’s fun, especially as you can create side-by-side comparisons of different resorts.


  5. says

    Peter would like to use some of this blog post in a letter advertising a ski trip in Austria. What are your policies about quoting/citing you?

    Thanks! Beth Skelton

    • says

      Hi Beth. Well, a ski trip to Austria should be required, with you and your family! But, as that probably isn’t realistic, my policy to anyone wanting to use content from BSM (photos or words) is that attribution is required and so are link backs to this original blog posts. Kind words suggesting your readers check out The Brave Ski Mom are also always appreciated!

      I hope you are well! Drop me an email sometime with an update on your adventures! Cheers!

  6. Jack says

    I’ve been reading your blog and in particular your interview with Jen who skis Kleinwalsertal. You can certainly take holidays in the Alps, and if you are coming all that way it’s worth trying a few places, but most hotels are geared up for Europeans taking a week. 

    Self-catering – what you would probably call a condo – is usually the cheapest; a hotel is probably the most expensive; a chalet party is my favourite. The deal is that you go with a group of friends and take over a chalet, or join a group of strangers and make new friends, but the staff cook and clean for you so you ski and party. Unless you pay top dollar, don’t expect cordon bleu catering – most chalet hosts are taking a year out of university to spend time in the mountains, and while they are young and enthusiastic, they will probably not be great cooks. But that doesn’t matter! They do the work, you do the skiing! 

    I’ve skied in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Austria – let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to help.

  7. Ali Mack says

    Hi All

    I’m lucky enough to have skied pretty much everywhere – NZ, US (Colorado), a season in Whistler, Argentina/Chile – but primarily in Europe. I’d like to think I’ve covered all the main resorts and am going off the beaten track slightly this season to Ortisei in Italy (assuming they still have an economy!).

    Anyway, just thought I’d give a quick rundown of my favourite Euro resorts:

    1. Les trois vallees. Like your friends, for the variety in accommodation, slopes, nightlife, people…it can’t be beaten in my opinion. I normally stay in Meribel but also have stayed in Courchevel, Mottaret and La Tania. For budget options then apartments in Val Thorens, Meribel, Mottaret or La Tania should suit. Try P&V holidays (the French apartment rental specialist). Mid range – chalet in Meribel, cheapish hotel in Courch or Meribel. $$$$$ – Courchevel/top chalet in Meribel.

    2. Verbier – great skiing, great nightlife but the latter is criminally expensive. I just like the vibe here – it’s slightly more edgy with less posers and more serious skiers.

    3 = Zermatt/St Anton. Two very different resorts – the former is Swiss Chic, great food, incredible views, traffic-free resort. Picture postcard stuff. Skiing can be a bit too cruisey.

    St Anton is party town with great skiing, especially when you take in the white circuit with St Christoph/Lech.

    Yes I’ve been to Val D’Isere but for a few reasons prefer the above. A slightly mroe left-field option if you’re looking for budget and are happy with a few bars and eateries is appts in Avoriaz.

    Hope that was helpful!

  8. Ali Mack says


    I’m going to Ortisei in the Dolomites in late January, which is part of the Sella Ronda circuit. Apparently snow can be a bit patchy (which may be frustrating if no fresh stuff as I will be on my new Kastle MX88s) but the hotel and scenery look amazing. Only other Italian skiing I have done is Cervinia (backs onto Zermatt).

    For March I am looking at Tignes or La Plagne with a group of friends, mixed ability. I’ve heard good things about the latter as a ‘jack of all trades’ resort but not been yet. I’ve been to Val but not stayed in Tignes – again, heard similar reviews to La Plagne.

    I will try and report back!