Best ski resorts in Italy

Like many before me, I went on a pretty awful school ski trip when I was 12 years old to a place called Passo Tonale, and until a month ago I hadn’t been back to ski in Italy since – call it a case of ‘once bitten twice shy’. I have skied all over the world in the last 13 years and have ticked many resorts off the bucket list but after my first experience, the thought of returning to ski in Italy had never really appealed. This season, though, I overcame my aversions to skiing in Italy and after hearing such good things from other people in the office about certain Italian resorts I decided to give skiing in Italy another go. So which are the best ski resorts in Italy?

At Alpine Answers we often get hotels and chalet operators in to the office so that they can explain their properties and describe the sort of food and service which they offer to our clients. This gives us a much better understanding of the different accommodation options out there and allows us to recommend suitable options to our clients. One day last summer the Hotel Nira Montana, La Thuile, came in to visit and to talk to us about their new hotel in a little ski town in Italy. I already new the hotel was going to be good because the sister hotel, the Nira Alpina in St Moritz, had received glowing reports from previous clients and had also recently won numerous awards, including best new ski hotel 2015, and luxury design hotel of the year. Due to the praise the Nira Montana group was getting and the reports I had read of a ‘little Siberia’ in the shadow of Mont Blanc I thought the Nira Montana and the town of La Thuile would be a great alternative to the Three Valleys ski area where my family had been skiing for years.

The view down to La Thuile on a snowy January day

The view down to La Thuile on a snowy January day

After Christmas my family and I packed our bags and flew to Milan Malpensa airport; hopped in a taxi and after an hour and a half of driving down the beautiful Aosta valley we arrived in La Thuile. I was a little surprised by how small the centre of the resort actually was, it’s about 500m of local shops and then it is just residential properties but that only added to the charm of the place. The Nira Montana in La Thuile is located just outside the centre, sitting rather unassumingly on the side of the road. However, once inside it is a different matter. The hotel effortlessly combines modern design furniture with discrete functional luxury. It really is finished to a very high standard and we all instantly felt relaxed and at home, the friendly staff only adding to this welcoming atmosphere. At the hotel you can find an excellent spa with a large indoor spa pool, sauna, steam room and numerous relaxation areas but what we really enjoyed was the food. Every night we were treated to four to five courses of truly exceptional Italian cuisine. The homemade pasta was addictive (I just couldn’t get enough.) and on numerous nights we would insist on having three pasta courses in a row.

The restaurant at the Hotel Nira Montana, La Thuile

The restaurant at the Hotel Nira Montana, La Thuile

The skiing and why it makes La Thuile one of the best ski resorts in Italy

We were in resort for the New Year week and sadly the level of snow cover was pretty poor, as indeed it was for the rest of the Alps. However, although the off-piste conditions were not good the piste skiing was in fact perfectly OK. La Thuile boasts an extensive ski area, with 150km of slopes reaching across the border into France, and down to La Rossiere – there is definitely enough piste skiing for a week and plenty of lovely little Italian restaurants to enjoy long into the afternoon such as La Riondet. The lift system isn’t particularly modern or quick in La Thuile but it does the job, over in La Rosiere it is a different matter with plenty of new six man chairs, it’s a joy to do quick piste laps here.

One of the best mountain restaurants in La Thuile, La Riondet

One of the best mountain restaurants in La Thuile, La Riondet

The off piste potential looked so good and so tempting that I managed to persuade two friends to join me on a second visit to La Thuile a couple of weeks later. Wow – what a difference those three weeks made. The snow in late January was sensational and the off-piste tree skiing terrain and conditions were some of the best I have experienced anywhere in the world. The real beauty of it was that as La Thuile is such a sleepy resort we were skiing fresh snow with empty slopes for our entire stay. Widely spaced conifers, perfect for tree skiing, cover the entire bottom half of the mountain in La Thuile so that you can ski for hours without seeing another person. Up top there are large open bowls and plenty of lift accessed off-piste terrain. My own theory for the lack of hardcore skiers in La Thuile is that they will generally head to the free ride Mecca of the Monterose ski area (Alagna, Champoluc and Gressoney) which is just down the road. This is fine by me as it leaves La Thuile empty of skiers tracking out the fresh stuff.

Showing some style in La Thuile - January 2016

Showing some style in La Thuile – January 2016

La Thuile is a great resort and certainly one of the best ski resorts in Italy but it’s not for everyone. It is very quiet; the majority of slopes coming down to resort are relatively steep and it can be windy at the top. However, if you are looking for a good value and authentic Italian experience then I couldn’t recommend it more! Time it right with great snow conditions and you will be in ski nirvana!

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Get skiing in Laax and ‘Happy up!’

If you are looking to try a new ski resort for next season and want to explore a whole new ski area then we recommend skiing in Laax! This little known ski area has been voted Switzerland’s Best Ski Resort at the World Ski Awards three years running, and yet still hardly any Brits know about it.

Although the neighbouring resorts of Lenzerheide and Davos are better known Laax is actually Switzerland’s second largest ski resort and offers a mighty 235km of pisted runs and huge areas of off-piste terrain. For some reason Laax seems to have slipped under the radar but this means it attracts very few people from the UK – it has therefore a very Swiss atmosphere and we say “hurrah” for not hearing too many Brits on the slopes. The Laax ski area ranges from 1,100m (at village level) to a lung busting 3,300m on the Vorab glacier. In between top and bottom it has all manner of pisted runs ranging from easy, cruising blues to genuinely steep blacks, and there are several easily accessible freeride areas for the powder hunters amongst you. In fact the skiing in Laax is hugely focused on freestyle skiing and snowboarding, with the world’s longest half-pipe, a freestyle run and freestyle parks ranging from beginner to the pro line where some of the world’s best come and compete each year. However, don’t let this put you off – all this is pro stuff is confined to one side of the main bowl leaving the rest of the large ski area free from flash Harries skiing backwards or riding switch!

Skiing in Laax - the terrain park

Alex in the terrain park

Skiing in Laax – the three villages

The ski area of Laax consists of the three interlinked and distinct villages of Flims, Laax and Falera. As each has its own character there is something to suit everyone. Flims (read our resort guide on Flims) is a large village split by the deep gorge into two halves – Flims Dorf (the main town) and Flims Waldhaus (where the hotels are located). There are several modern lifts from the base of Flims Dorf that will quickly get you into the ski area and it is possible at the end of the day to either ski back to Dorf or Waldhaus. Laax is probably the liveliest of the three villages with the Rocks Resort, built in 2009, which has several restaurants, a huge nightclub and the best après bar in the area. You can also stay in the Rocks Resort in self-catered apartments and have use of the spa facilities of the nearby Signina Hotel. Falera is the smallest of the three villages and is located a bit further west down the main valley and would be perfect if you wanted a quiet location in the Alps.

Skiing in Laax - the Rocks Resort

The Rocks Resort in Laax

Why has skiing in Laax remained the best kept secret?

So why has Laax remained such a secret amongst the British ski industry? I have spent two full seasons and three part-time seasons working as an instructor in Flims and still I have to explain where I spent 6 months of my year. Probably the main reason that this great resort remains something of an unknown quantity with UK skiers and boarders is the lack of catered chalets in the area. Although there are in fact chalets everywhere you look they are all privately owned, or sadly not rentable through UK holiday companies.

Skiing in Laax – the modern lifts make it a breeze

Laax has undergone some serious redevelopment in the last few years with nearly all the old t-bar lifts, much hated by adults and children alike, being replaced with superfast chairlifts. One of the best new lifts was designed by Porsche and slowly spins as you ride up the mountain, letting you take in the spectacular scenery on the way. These modern lifts mean that even at the busiest times of the year the queues and the journey time to the top are both minimal.

Skiing in Laax - the new Porsche chairlift

Skiing in Laax – the new Porsche chairlift

If you are planning on going with your children, the ski school offers several options. There is actually only one ski school in Laax which is available in all three villages but it is a very international and therefore has many English speaking and some native English instructors (like me) as well. I learned to ski in Laax and absolutely loved every single lesson that I had, so much so that I ended up working for the same ski school for five years!

Skiing in Laax - happy Up!

Happy Up!

I cannot recommend Laax enough – it really does have everything that you could want from a ski resort and although is Swiss it’s not nearly as expensive as Verbier or Zermatt. The resort slogan is “Happy Up” and I would wholeheartedly agree – Laax is one of the most fun, laid back and happy resorts that I have had the pleasure of skiing. So, if you want to try a new ski resort and go skiing in Laax why not give me a call? If you want to see some resort maps and more details and images on Laax please check out our resort guide for Laax.

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Why book for winter 2016/17 now?

Here we are at the beginning of 2016 and I find myself writing this blog encouraging you to consider booking your ski holiday for next season already – are we a little too keen? Well not really, we have been selling ski holidays for over 24 years now and there are too many compelling reasons why you should be considering booking for next season now!

Family ski holidays in the Alps

Having quality family time on the slopes.

WHY BOOK YOUR SKI HOLIDAY NOW?

CHOICEno need to compromise, as we will be able to book something to fit your exact requirements. So whether you are after luxury with a ski-in ski-out location, an indoor pool, hot tub and gourmet food, or a large chalet for 2 to 50 people to celebrate the New Year, now is the time to start looking. Our tailor-made approach means no stone is left un-turned and we can accommodate pretty much any request whether it’s a standard 7 day itinerary, a short break, a European or North American ski holiday ,we have the answers.

PEAK DATES – every winter is the same; Christmas, New Year, February half term and the Easter weeks sell out faster than you think. By getting in early you will guarantee the best choice of accommodation to suit your budget and requirements. Let’s be honest there are few things in life that beat the excitement, exhilaration, and sheer joy of spending time in the Alps. We say don’t delay! Round up your friends and book a chalet for New Year and you could be sitting in a hot tub on the deck, with a glass of champagne while watching a spectacular fireworks display while the snow comes down, it does not get better than that.

DEALS, DEALS, DEALS…..yes its true there are some great deals to be had by booking early, so as my title suggests early birds do catch the worm. Groups can get as much as one in five people go free; couples can save £120 for a week in the Alps; there are plenty of “buy one get one free” on lift passes as well as up to 50% off ski hire. These types of early booking incentives don’t last forever so hurry and get you next ski holiday booked up and have something special to look forward to.

L a Cluzaz ski resort

The beautiful ski resort of La Cluzaz

As the UK’s foremost ski holiday broker we deal with 100’s of operators who all offer incentives, the only problem is they don’t offer the same incentives, so to help you decipher who offers what, please feel free to call us and one of dedicated members of staff will be able to find you the best deals the market has to offer or alternatively have a look at our Alpine Answers website.

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Synopsis of ski holiday booking patterns

As a specialist ski travel agency and tour operator we have come to the end of a very busy three months booking period for clients both old and new for winter 2015/16. The market has been a tough one, as booking patterns have fluctuated from one week to the next, not dissimilar to the fluctuations in the Euro and the FTSE 100 which somehow seem to be intrinsically related. Now that we are in early December we are keeping tabs on the weather reports, web cams and which way the cows are sleeping, as these factors are most definitely related to booking enquiries. So far so good, the snow fell in late November in large amounts transforming green fields into white gold. As I write this blog we could do with colder temperatures and of course we can always do with more snow. We are hopeful that we will see some fresh snow in the next 10 days.

Fresh snow in December

Fresh snow in December

DECEMBER –  If you are keen to go in the next few weeks, aim high and you will not be disappointed. This does limit your choice but at least you will get the best of the snow conditions; Tignes, Val d’Isere, Val Thorens, Zermatt, La Plagne, Les Arcs, Engelberg, Grimentz, Lech are some of the resorts which should have plenty of good snow conditions.

Typical ski conditions in January

Typical ski conditions in January

JANUARY –  Just like Harrods you can always pick up a late deal in January. Catered chalets from £349 including flights and transfers, this is the month to go if you want a real bargain. The later you leave things the cheaper the holiday should be. We would recommend calling one of our friendly and knowledgeable sales team, as they know where the best snow is and who has the best deals in that particular resort.

FEBRUARY – Always a great month to go as generally the snow is at its best, the temperatures are ideal and as long as you avoid half term the slopes are generally not too busy. For adult groups the week before half term would be a good week to pick up a great chalet at a very reasonable price. The half term week is now very busy so don’t expect any deals this week. The week after half term is again a good week although the slopes are busier as half of Europe seems to be skiing!

Sun and skiing, the perfect combination.

Sun and skiing, the perfect combination.

MARCH – Spring is in the air, the days get longer but the skiing just gets better. First week of March is always busy with lots of European schools on holiday, however the middle of March tends to be less busy and again there are usually some bargains to be had staying in catered chalets. Easter is early in 2016, so the last week of March is super busy. If you can go the first week in April you will save a packet.

APRIL – Aim high and again you will be rewarded handsomely, with longer days the snow will get slushy in the afternoon but have a long lunch and just enjoy the amazing scenery with a glass or two, oh remember don’t overdo it as you will still have the bumpy slush run back to the resort to negotiate! Plenty of great deals in April, just call and we can advise.

Spring skiing can get a little hot!

Spring skiing can get a little hot!

FANCY A SKI WEEKEND? – If you have not as yet booked your ski weekend we would strongly recommend doing a reverse weekend as flights coming back from many airports on a Sunday afternoon/evening are now very expensive. Think about going on a Saturday or Sunday and returning on a Tuesday or Wednesday. You will be amazed at how much you can save by doing so. Again, just call us and we can let you know your best options.

 

It’s amazing how time flies when you are having fun. We love helping clients find their perfect ski holiday and would love to hear from you!

We now look forward to going on our educational ski trips to look at new resorts, chalets and hotels so you get the insider knowledge. We will send you our findings shortly.

Happy skiing Earl Knudsen

 

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The best restaurants in the Alps

Much has been written on the best restaurants in the Alps – after all there is nothing more deserving than a full on gastro blow out after taking the mountain airs. A six or seven course extravaganza comes (almost) guilt free after a hard day’s skiing or hiking so why not indulge yourself the next time you go on a ski holiday. The list below of the best mountain restaurants in the Alps has been part put together from firsthand experience (lucky duck that I am) and part through our 20+ years of experience as a leading specialist ski holiday agency and tailor-made tour operator.

We have been booking luxury ski holidays for discerning clients since the early 1990’s and have come to appreciate that a superb mountain dinner or lunch is every bit a part of a fantastic ski holiday as the hotel or chalet in which our guests stay or the resort in which they ski. In fact we might go as far as saying that an entire ski holiday can (and perhaps should) be planned purely around our clients’ gastronomic needs and desires. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach then he will love, love, love to eat in these great restaurants.

The best restaurants in the Alps – Zermatt

Zermatt is a majestic Swiss ski resort with great skiing, a wonderful resort atmosphere, superb restaurants both on and off the mountain and all of this topped off by the ever present iconic peak of the Matterhorn. What a ski resort! There are over 100 restaurants in Zermatt and no less than 17 of these have been awarded GaultMillau points making it the most enriched ski resort in the Alps when it comes to fine dining. The restaurant at the Hotel Omnia has one Michelin star as does the Capri (at the Mont Cervin Palace Hotel), the After Seven (at the Backstage Hotel) and the Corbeau d’Or (at the Mirabeau Alpine Residence). In 2015 the Prato Borni at the 5 star Zermatterhof Hotel was awarded 14 GaultMillau points, firmly adding it to the list of the culinary highlights in Zermatt.

There are of course some amazing mountain restaurants in Zermatt with Chez Vrony and Franz & Heidi’s Findlerhof restaurant being the most revered and talked about mountain restaurants in the world, let alone the Alps.

Best restaurants in the Alps - Franz and Heidi Schwery's Findlerhof

Best restaurants in the Alps – Franz and Heidi Schwery’s Findlerhof

The best retaurants in the Alps – The Hotel Rosengarten, Kirchberg, Tirol

Simon Taxacher is the proprietor and head chef of the exceptional Relais & Chateaux Hotel Restaurant Spa Rosengarten. The hotel’s restaurant has no less than 19 GaultMillau points and 4 toques putting it amongst the very highest echelons of global culinary excellence. The hotel, which has 26 rooms, restaurant and its spa are all unashamedly modern in decor and style with an extremely fine quality of finish in all departments – as you might expect from an exacting man like Taxacher. This is not your traditional Tirol experience and the modernity of the decor might seem a little out of place when you consider that ancient and traditional Kitzbuhel is just over the hill. However, the uncluttered muted decor of the Rosengarten I suspect has been designed so that the quality of the food coming from Taxacher’s kitchen does all the talking.

The best restaurant in the Alps - Simon Taxacher's Hotel Restaurant Spa Rosengarten

The best restaurant in the Alps – Simon Taxacher’s Hotel Restaurant Spa Rosengarten

The best restaurants in the Alps – La Bouitte, Three Valleys

Just up the road from St Martin de Belleville you will find the converted old Savoyarde farm building that is now the extraordinary restaurant, La Bouitte. Recently awarded its third Michelin star this father and son double act surely has secured its place as one of the finest restaurants in the Alps. Rene and Maxime Meilleur have over the years built their reputation for creating wonderful cuisine, often using local ingredients of their local mountains in the Three Valleys, France. In stark contrast to the Rosengarten the style of La Bouitte is homely, traditional and cosseting. The atmosphere is relaxed (dining in ski boots is perfectly acceptable) and the essence of the old chalet building with its large open fireplace and stone walls create a welcoming mountain atmosphere. We recommend a stay in nearby St Martin de Belleville in the Chalet Abode which carries on the theme of fine dining and a professional yet relaxed atmosphere.

Best restaurants in the Alps - 3 Michelin stars at La Bouitte

The best restaurants in the Alps – 3 Michelin stars at La Bouitte (Rene and Maxime Meilleur)

Best restaurants in the Alps - La Bouitte

The best restaurants in the Alps – the dining room at La Bouitte

The best restaurants in the Alps – Alta Badia and San Cassiano, Italy

The third generation of the Pizzinini family has done much to develop this corner of the Italian Dolomites into a culinary hot spot. As owners and managers of the excellent Hotel Rosa Alpina they had a vision to put their little ski resort of San Cassiano on the gastro map. In 1996 they were joined by Norbert Niederkofler, now their head chef, who shared their vision and together they created not only the St Hubertus restaurant (with 2 Michelin stars and 19 GaultMillau points) but also the whole on-mountain dine around experience. Guests staying at the hotel can now explore the Alta Badia and Sella Ronda ski domains and also eat at any number of mountain restaurants that serve Michelin chef inspired signature dishes.

Best restaurants in the Alps - Rosa Alpina Pizzinini family and Niederkofler

The best restaurants in the Alps – Norbert Niederkofler and Mr & Mrs Pizzinini of the Hotel Rosa Alpina

Best restaurants in the Alps - the Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano

The best restaurants in the Alps. The lounge at the Hotel Rosa Alpina, San Cassiano, in the Alta Badia region of the Italian Dolomites

Best restaurants in the Alps - one of the bedrooms at the Hotel Rosa Alpina

The best restaurants in the Alps – one of the bedrooms at the Hotel Rosa Alpina

St Hubertus, San Cassiano, one of the best restaurants in the Alps

St Hubertus, San Cassiano, one of the best restaurants in the Alps

Apart from the fine mountain restaurants in the Alta Badia ski region and the wonderful St Hubertus at the Hotel Alpina there is also La Stua de Michel (in nearby Corvara) and La Siriola (also in San Cassiano) which both have 1 Michelin star. The romantic and traditional Hotel La Perla, Corvara, also has a fine dining restaurant that until recently had a Michelin star. Arguably the Alta Badia ski area with its resorts of Corvara and San Cassiano is the premier fine dining destination in the Alps (sorry Zermatt – for me the Dolomites just edge it).

The best restaurants in the Alps – Courchevel 1850, Three Valleys

Love it or loathe it we cannot omit Courchevel 1850 – no blog post on fine dining the Alps would be complete without a mention of this chic Three Valleys resort. Although originally conceived soon after WWII as a ‘ski resort for the people’ by the mid 1980’s Courchevel 1850 (the uppermost of the 5 Courchevel villages) had secured its place as a ski resort for the rich and famous. The Hotel Les Airelles, with its connections to St Tropez, and the Melezin were two famous luxury hotels that put 1850 as the destination of choice for those that had serious spending power. The influx of the Russian market some 20 years later spawned the development of much of the luxury hotel market so that now there are 20 – 30 truly luxurious hotel properties, and of course any number of luxury chalets in Courchevel 1850.

Best restaurants in the Alps - Hotel Chabichou

Best restaurants in the Alps – Hotel Chabichou, Courchevel 1850

The restaurant at the Hotel Kilimandjaro has two Michelin stars as does the fine dining restaurant at the Hotel Chabichou (see photo above). Also with 2 Michelin stars in Courchevel 1850 are the Pierre Gagnaire (at the Hotel Les Airelles), restaurant Le 1947  and also Le Kintessence. There are a further two restaurants with 1 Michelin star including the very good Azimut down in pretty Courchevel Le Praz. If it’s fine dining in the Alps that you are after then you could eat at no fewer than 7 different Michelin starred restaurants in Courchevel – enough to keep any gourmand happy.

The best restaurants in the Alps – Megeve and Verbier

The other key resorts for a top quality mountain meal are Megeve in France and Verbier in Switzerland. Megeve is a charming ‘old school’ style resort with cobbled streets, horse drawn sleighs, top brand shopping and oozes style and glamour. Verbier has in recent years been slightly mobbed by hedge funders and high earning other banking professionals so has taken on a more fast paced and lively apres ski scene in recent years. The new kid on the block regards accommodation is the W Hotel which gives you some idea of the clientele now heading to this famous Swiss resort. There are three restaurants in Verbier with one Michelin star including the renowned Chalet d’Adrien and there are two restaurants in Megeve, each with one star (the Alpaga Hotel and the restaurant 1920).

Although we are not saying that this is the definitive list of the best restaurants in the Alps I think it’s fair to say that we have covered the most important culinary orientated ski resorts in Europe plus also introduced some of the very interesting individual restaurants such as the Rosengarten and La Bouitte.

We would be delighted to advise you further on any restaurants listed and would equally be delighted to hear about any of your own favourites – if you are happy to share them.

 

 

 

 

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