Skiers have a tendency to return to the same resorts, but there are some delightfully undiscovered Alpine villages if you’re prepared to do some off-piste research, advises Arnie Wilson.
Although the ski world’s most familiar names boast some of the best slopes, have you considered trying pastures new? More sophisticated links mean that there are now several so-called ‘gateway’ satellite ski resorts in which you have the benefit of skiing a large area, but can retreat by night to a small village that has a quieter, more charming atmosphere and in theory cheaper restaurants.
There’s even at least one tour operator (Peak Retreats, based in Portsmouth, 0844 576 0170; www.peakretreats.co.uk) that specialises in such resorts. But what about the reverse concept: staying in a big ski area and taking a day out to explore a little-known valley?
Then there’s the scattering of wonderful areas, known mainly to the cognoscenti, that fall into the so-called ‘best-kept secrets’ category. Of course, no marketing director would keep their job if they truly wanted to keep this kind of secret, but, for various reasons, there are some excellent resorts that rarely feature in the media. They may somehow have survived without the oxygen of publicity or often through no fault of their own have been famous once, but have slipped off the skiing public’s radar.
The former garrison town of Andermatt is at the crossroads of north, south, east and west Switzerland and is connected by four Alpine passes: Oberalp, St Gotthard, Furka and Göschenertal. Its uncompromising Gemsstock mountain has views from the highest slopes of four different cantons. Like Grimentz and Zinal, it’s also at a crossroads.
Throughout both World Wars, Andermatt was occupied by the Swiss army. They essentially had the resort to themselves, keeping restaurants and bars in business. Why worry about tourists when there are cohorts of mountain troops? Andermatt became the semi-secret retreat of a dedicated, off-piste cognoscenti, but, by 2003, the army had more or less abandoned the resort and the town’s income took a huge dive.
It was once writ large in UK ski brochures and bustling with British tourists, but once traffic was re-routed through the road tunnel in 1980, it suddenly seemed remote, with a touch of the ghost town about it. Now, an Egyptian millionaire, Samih Sawiris, with the help of the Scandinavian SkiStar resort network, is giving Andermatt a facelift, with six new first-class hotels, 490 apartments in 42 buildings and 25 villas.
Planning regulations have been relaxed. So will it be back in brochures soon? That’s the general idea, but critics say that, although glorious, it’s tough and, thanks to frequent severe weather, more suited to advanced skiers than families. The resort is due to be linked with Sedrun in 2015–16, which will create a single ski area boasting more than 80 miles of pistes.
This attractive ‘monastery village’ is named after the prominent local peak of Angel Mountain and originally sprang up around a 12th-century Benedictine monastery. In 1744, two monks became the first to climb Engelberg’s greatest landmark: Titlis, the highest point in Central Switzerland at 10,624ft.
Engelberg rather falls into the category of resorts that drifted out of fashion, but are now back in the ascendancy. The terrain is too magnificent to ignore, with some of the finest off-piste skiing in the world a vertical drop of 2,000m (6,560ft) takes skiers all the way down to the valley floor. Brunni, on the sunnier side, is gentler and favoured by families.
In 1967, the quaint resort built what was then the world’s first revolving cable car. More recently, the economy has been driven by an explosion of Indian guests who are eager to see the mountains used in Bollywood films now that the peaks in Kashmir aren’t so safely available.
Heard of it? Unless you’re German, probably not, even though it’s arguably as important as Germany’s only really well-known ski area, the Olympic resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Oberstdorf’s traditional role as a centre for Nordic skiing and as a spa resort should have put it on the map decades ago, yet, somehow, it’s escaped the attentions of the international set.
This in spite of claiming the country’s longest downhill slope almost five miles from the Nebelhorn (Misty Mountain)—plus its longest continuous gondola (the Söllereck lift) and the longest drag lift: the Höllwieslift on the town’s third ski area, the Schönblick. The Bavarian resort, perched in Germany’s highest valley at 813m (2,667ft) in the Allgäu region claims its two main ski areas, Fellhorn and Kanzelwand, form the largest linked ski region on the northern side of the Alps.
It’s also linked with the Austrian enclave of Kleinwalsertalthe combined ski area is known as the Zwei-Länder (Two Countries) ski region. The long, meandering Kanzelwand run to Riezlern enables reasonably experienced skiers to wander down to Austria. Oberstdorf also has a 46.6-mile cross-country network, which was rebuilt for the 2005 World Championships, and is renowned for ski jumping.
These two resorts in Switzerland’s highly rated (by those in the know) but comparatively little-known Val d’Anniviers, with its superb off-piste skiing, are prime examples of areas about to burst into British visitors’ collective conscience. However, the decision to link them with a 125-person cable car has caused controversy.
The townspeople of Grimentz wanted the link and the subsequent influx of tourists to avert the crisis facing their traditional economy, which is based on farming. However, ‘outsiders’ who had bought chalets here decades ago wanted none of this and some became quite belligerent. ‘Grimentz needs to be protected to keep its beauty,’ said one, but, last winter, the link went ahead.
The new cable car whisks skiers to within a couple of hundred yards of the top of the Zinal ski area in less than eight minutes. From here, you can ski back to Grimentz on the iconic Piste du Chamois or you can return by cable car. The new lift effectively doubles the linked ski terrain available. The neighbouring resorts of St-Luc and Chandolin are linked to each other and are a ski-bus ride from Grimentz/Zinal. All can be skied on the same lift pass.
I first encountered this bijou village in France’s Rhône-Alpes skiing off-piste with a guide up and over the Col de l’Iseran (9,088ft) from Val d’Isère via the D 902 Route Des Grandes Alpes (High Alpine Road). Arriving in one of France’s prettiest villages makes for a delightful conclusion to a classic tour.
Or, you can approach it from the other direction, from the better-known resort of Val Cenis in the Haute Maurienne Valley. But unless you know it’s nestling at the furthest point of the valley, some 10 miles away, you might never go off in search of it.
It’s well worth an excursion from Val Cenis. Bonneval has its own small but impressive ski area, with a surprising amount of steep off-piste terrain ranging from 1,800m to 3,000m (5,905ft to 9,842ft). The village is atmospheric but deceptive: the stone-built houses appear to be vintage Savoy chalets, but, on closer inspection, many are quite recent. It doesn’t spoil the charm. And the ancient church of Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Prudence is certainly genuine.
A Tyrolean surprise
Most skiers flying into Innsbruck, Austria, head to St Anton or Obergurgl, but they’re missing a trick. Sölden, where only 25% of business is British, is an Austrian glacier resort offering squeaky, icing-sugar snow and queueless pistes into the Easter holidays. Planned developments will make it the largest area of glacier skiing in Europe; leave Gatwick at 7am and you’re on a sunny chairlift by noon.
The best hotel is five-star Das Central owned by Angelika Falkner, a legend in the valley and to guests, some of whom have been coming for 30 years. There’s excellent traditional food and long-standing, friendly staff in national costume plus yodelling. The hotel owns the James Bond-esque Ice Q restaurant at 3,048m (10,000ft) with views of the Italian Dolomites, German Zugspitze and, if you’re lucky, eagles. Prices from €157 per person per day half-board (00 43 5254 22600; www.central-soelden.at).