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As there are now only eight weeks until the first lifts open in Val Thorens, Europe's highest resort, I thought I'd take a look at which resorts we are getting excited about for 2012. Of course, virtually every member of our team will list trips to Val d'Isere, Meribel, Les Arcs, St. Anton or Whistler as their highlight of the winter, but where are people planning to go this year for something new?
Every year we are gaining access to new properties in resorts that have either been forgotten by the Brits or are lesser known, hidden gems. There is a huge amount of world class skiing, great après scenes, exclusive villages and friendly-family resorts that are out there to be enjoyed, that you may never have considered.
Yes the Tarantaise resorts in France are among the world's best and Britain's favourites but sometimes escaping the anglicised bars and busy slopes can make for as good a, if not better, ski holiday experience.
Austria is quickly cementing itself as Britain's second favourite ski destination, and with comparable, if not better value, in-resort costs to France and fantastic resorts on offer, you can see why. So, here are a few resorts we'll be heading to this winter, from hedonistic party towns to the quaint, traditional resorts.
Ischgl ski holidays
Ischgl is one of the biggest party towns in the Alps and the resort that the Austrians themselves rate as their best, yet for some reason it remains largely undiscovered by British skiers. Ischgl offers some superb skiing and loads or cruisy, well groomed pistes. There is the renowned 'Duty-Free Run', which winds its way back from Samnaun in Switzerland via a back-country unmarked route, so the locals can avoid Customs at the top of the pistes. If you're not a back-country standard skier yet, there is a double-decker cable car coming back up to Austria — just don't overfill your duty-free stash.
As well as great skiing, Ischgl is one of the après ski resorts to visit. Such is the nightlife's reputation, rumour has it the slopes never get busy before 11am. So, if you're an early starter you can enjoy a quiet mountain, if you a party goer, you won't be alone with your hangover at the lift station.
Ischgl also boasts a couple of renowned festivals, the imaginatively named opening party and closing party, which are, unsurprisingly, held on the opening and closing weekends in resort. Over the last couple of seasons Ischgl's festivals have boasted the likes of Katy Perry and The Killers.
Solden ski holidays
Solden in one of Austria's infamous, après ski resorts, where the party kicks off at 4pm and can go on until 8am the following morning! Again Solden has somehow been forgotten by mainstream Brits and has more of an Austrian, German and Scandinavian crowd in town — think trays of beer, Jägermeister and packed out bars, oh and don't forget the famous Austrian um-par-par music and barmaids in lederhosen. Marcos and the Schrim umbrella bar, at the Giggijochbahn end of tow, are where to be straight from the slopes.
The skiing is made up from "The Big 3" mountains, Gaislachkogl (3.058 m), Tiefenbach (3.250 m) and Schwarze Schneide (3.340 m). The area is serviced by high-speed lifts and includes two glaciers, in turn offering Austria's largest glacial ski area, with 147 km of piste. The slopes in the nearby resort of Obergurgl are an intermediate skiers dream, so if you fancy a day skiing in a different resort, it's well worth the 20 minute drive and lift pass extension and the perfect remedy following the night before's party.
St. Christoph ski holidays
St. Christoph, and our newly converted chalet hotel the Chalet Hotel St. Christoph, offers a very different Austrian ski holiday, a more relaxed, elegant, family-friendly experience. The resort offers a more quaint and exclusive feel and is home to the Austrian ski team's base camp. You are more likely to see people enjoying a vin chaud or glass of fizz then falling off tables while knocking back Stroh. That said, the hedonistic resort of St. Anton is a mere 15 minutes bus ride away, with the last bus running until 4am in peak season!
The resort's skiing is quite compact, but thanks to the Arlberg's micro-climate, it's pretty snow-sure, hence the Austrian ski teams presence. It only takes about 10 minutes to ski over to St. Anton where you can access world class skiing and the world renowned Valluga — where you are only allowed if you are with a ski guide. For more mellow skiing and champagne bars you can get the bus over the Lech from St. Anton, where a vast array cruisy blues are included on your lift pass.
Kuhtai is another resort that was once popular with British skiers and thanks to another new chalet hotel, the Chalet Hotel Elisabeth, it could be once again. Though it is a smaller, more compact resort it is a fantastic place for intermediate skiing families. It lacks beginner runs, but once you are all ready to hit the blues and reds there is more than enough for a week's holiday, especially if you are the ones keeping up with your kids as opposed to the other way round. You can also jump on the bus to the nearby resort of Oetz, for something a little different on one of the days.
Kuhtai is more about stunning scenery, high altitude skiing and a family friendly atmosphere, than après ski parties and late nights out. This is a great resort to escape to for a week in the mountains and is ideal for families who will do more than once trip this winter.
Austrian skiing was once the mainstay of British ski holidays, both my own mum, my mother-in-law and my boss learnt to ski there. With the prices in France a little higher due to the current rate of the Euro, Austria is an attractive destination right now, though saying that the in resort prices in Ischgl, St. Anton and Lech won't be much different, due to their status as the country's top resorts.
Other resorts worth a look are Saalbach for Scandinavian-fuelled après ski, Zell am See for a stunning traditional ski town and Lech for exclusive hotels and outdoor champagne ice bars.
Heading for a chalet holiday is about more than just the snow for some people, there are also the views, the food and the relaxed atmosphere to look forward to.
The best food is fairly easy to work out, if you are heading to a luxury chalet you are likely to get restaurant-quality cuisine and impeccable service, if you head to a 2* property you'll be getting a hearty meal and service from teenage chalet hosts. But which chalets have the best views?
Location, Location, Location
A great view is all about the location of the chalet, the direction it is facing and of course the use of huge picture windows and balconies. So, with this in mind what are the chalets with the best views on our site? This of course is subjective, but here are my favourites.
Chalet Grace, Zermatt
Chalet Grace in Zermatt offers phenomenal views, from the double-height floor to ceiling window views of the Klein Matterhorn in the dining room, to the stunning valley views. One of Europe's most famous and most recognisable mountains, the Matterhorn, can also be seen from the living room's picture windows, or the strategically-placed window in the dining room, which perfectly frames the mountain's peak. It doesn't stop there either, as well as beautiful views across Zermatt itself, you can pop out to the outdoor hot tub which, you guessed it, has views of the Matterhorn.
Perdrix Blanche, Courchevel
The chalet Perdrix Blanche is situated in a quaint corner of Courchevel, down in Courchevel 1550, but it offers stunning views along Bozel Valley and the famous Tarantaise Valley. From the living rooms windows to some of the bedrooms, you have this incredible scenery dropping down the valley toward Brides les Bains and back up the valley to the unspoiled mountains on the opposite side. From the other side of the chalet you can take in the views toward Courchevel 1650 and the national park and, of course, there is the imposing Courchevel 1850 located at the top of the piste.
Chalet Hotel Montpelier, Verbier
Okay, so technically this is a chalet hotel, but as it is essentially just a really big chalet and it has incredible views, it is worth a mention. The hotel pool and sundeck has one of the most incredible indoor views you'll find in the Alps — straight out of the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows you have an undisturbed, panoramic view of the region. With Mont Fort and Mont Gele both visible from the chalet, this property offers truly stunning views across and around Verbier.
Chalet Haute Cimes, Nendaz
Now, the Chalet Hautes Cimes is a risky one, as the images we currently have been given are artist's impressions and 'what you can expect' pictures from the tour operator, but if they live up the their promise, it will have been worth the risk.
Mira Belum, Meribel
The Mira Belum has a great location with views across the Meribel valley. You can see along the ridge line toward the Olympic Express chairlift, which takes you to St. Martin, and down the valley toward the quaint village of Les Allues. The views give you a real feel for the shape of the Three Valleys and why mother nature's layout makes it one of the best ski areas in the world. If you strain your neck, on a good day you can just about make out the top of the valley and where Meribel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens meet.
From beautiful vistas and panoramic mountain views, to deep valleys and national parks, the views on your chalet holiday don't have to be just those of high rise apartment blocks. The Alps have some of the most inspiring and even frightening mountains out there, so why not sit back with a vin chaud and take it all in after a day on the slopes.
With more chalet hotels to choose from in the Alps then ever before, a few properties have re-branded in an attempt to stand out from the crowds. Here are a couple of my favourites, offering a similar name, but a very different experience. So, let's check out the lodges.
The Ski Lodges
The Ski Lodges to me are a great idea, the only problem being that when I hear the name Ski Lodge I think of a lively, British-run pub in the Three Valleys' resort of La Tania. These Ski Lodges however, offer a very different, and more relaxed experience.
The three ski lodges on offer are one new property, where the name has been taken from — The Lodge in Val d'Isere, and two very popular, former chalets hotels, the Aigle in Tignes and the Stoanerhof in Mayrhofen. The experience in many ways will resemble that of a chalet hotel — along the lines of chalet-style food and friendly service, but on a larger scale — with some subtle and major differences.
The Ski Lodge concept is to offer a more elegant, almost exclusive experience, but in a large chalet environment. The three Ski Lodges will all feature a dedicated Snow Concierge, to help with all things snow and a wellness area with hot tub, sauna or swimming pool (in the Aigle). The properties will also boast free Wi-Fi, heated boot racks, occasional English papers and a selection of ski magazines and DVDs in the lounge or bar area.
To me, this makes the whole chalet hotel thing more appealing. I love chalet food and hotel-style facilities, but I usually prefer accommodation for sole occupancy when skiing. With these properties you get the feeling that you can escape to your room or the wellness area, as you would in a hotel, for peace and quiet, but could also mingle with friends or new found acquaintances in the bar or lounge. The free Wi-Fi is a nice touch as are the English papers and magazines.
Another thing I like about these properties is the food, as I mentioned I love chalet food and as with a few properties of this ilk, you can enjoy a later breakfast until 10am and a choice menu each evening. The choice menu in this style of property is increasingly popular, with the menu usually put out at breakfast a choice of start, main and dessert — with fish and vegetarian options available.
The Riders' Lodge
The Riders' Lodge, as it sounds, is aimed at a younger crowd, with a real emphasis put on freestyle skiing and snowboarding. With similar names you wouldn't want to mix them up as relaxed conversations over a cheese board are replaced with tales of shredding the park and riding knarly lines, before hitting the resort bars until the early hours.
The Riders' Lodge is a great concept though. There is a whole crowd of skiers and snowboarders in their more youthful years looking for a less 'stuffy' environment, where they can hang out with their mates and meet new people to hit the hill and bars with. The two properties are based in high altitude and high octane resorts with the Riders' Lodge Tignes and Riders' Lodge Val Thorens and offer ski-themed artwork, big TV with Xbox 360 and in Tignes a table football and pool table.
The Riders' Lodge have their own answer to the Snow Concierge with their Snow Guru — an expert in all things snow and social in the resort. The Snow Guru will organise freestyle lessons, take you guiding on the mountain and show you how to party seasonaire-style.
These two very different concepts, targetting very different audiences, in my opinion are just what we needed. I love the idea of heading to The Lodge in Val d'Isere with my misses and the family, having a relaxed holiday, enjoying great food and elegant surroundings. I also love the idea of heading to the the Riders' Lodge in Val Thorens or Tignes with a few of the boys and enjoying long days on the hill, chilling with a few games on the Xbox before dinner, then heading out on one of the bar crawls or recharging ready for a freeride lesson the next day.
Every year the ski industry broadens its appeal, and to me this is part of the charm of working in it. There is something for everyone these days, no matter what your needs — you just need someone to point you in the right direction.
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