PLANNING ON TAKING A TRIP OUT OF THE COUNTRY? HERE ARE OUR FIVE TOP INTERNATIONAL SKI RESORTS
BY KAREN OVERTON
There was a time when jetting off to Zermatt, Cortina or St Moritz for one’s winter break was the norm… that is, providing you had playboy millionaire status. These days, the resorts aren’t any less luxurious, but thanks to the addition of purpose-built complexes and package holidays, they are no longer the sole retreat for the rich and famous. The trouble now, is how to choose winter break that best suits your impeccable needs…
Whilst seeking out a snowy spot where the skiing is first class ought to be your main priority, there are many other aspects to be considered. For there is only so much time in a day that can be spent careening down a mountain through untouched powder with the winter sun beating down. Indeed, apres ski is as much an art as the sport itself, and a reservation to the right restaurant as essential as having the latest ski goggles.
Fortunately, most resorts these days boast Michelin-starred restaurants, five-star hotels and destination spas. And for those really looking to splash the cash, ultra-luxury chalets come with chauffeur-driven cars, personal chefs, cinemas, helipads and spas as standard, meaning all you have to do is decide if you want your post-ski massage before or after supper!
Aspen – Colorado, USA
Rather than one single, sprawling area, Aspen is spread over four very different local mountains – Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass – and is linked by efficient free buses. It’s thanks to this that Aspen has such diverse and exciting slopes, making it the ideal place to go if you have a group with wildly different experience levels.
Aptly, Buttermilk mountain is aimed primarily at beginners: lots of easy open runs and plenty of nursery slopes down at the base. For those who enjoy long, smooth cruises on immaculate terrain there is the lightly wooded Big Burn area, regularly groomed black runs, and one of the world’s best intermediate runs – the 5km Long Shot. And for adventurous types, the Hanging Valley area of Snowmass and Aspen Mountain also has some steep, short black runs for the experienced skier.
But for the ultimate thrill, it has to be Highland Bowl. Reached by a free snowcat ride and short hike, the intensity of the run is really down to wherever you choose to drop into its spectacular horse shoe-shaped basin.
When it comes to skiing in Colorado, both Vail and Aspen have some spectacular slopes, but when it comes to having the best nightlife and restaurants, the latter takes the title hands down. Naturally, the clientele reflect this, and whereas Vail attracts moneyed banker types, Aspen hosts some of Hollywood’s finest; so don’t be surprised to find yourself sipping hot cocoa next to the likes of Kate Hudson, or catching a ski lift with Jack Nicholson.
Once a busting silver mining town in the 1880s, Aspen is unrelentingly proud of its heritage, with the historical centre being lavishly restored whilst staying true to its roots. Take, for example, Element 47 at The Little Nell Hotel, which is named after silver’s position in the periodic table. It claims to “toast the towns flavourful mining history and the essence of Aspen: seasonality, decadence and memorable social gatherings”, where you can expect a wine list that boasts some of Napa Valley’s finest, alongside butter poached Maine lobster, and hearty Colorado lamb – Ideal for sating that après ski hunger (and thirst).
The Ajax Tavern is the place to go if you want sumptuous seafood, and on Ajax Mountain from late February through to April you might want to hunt out Little Nell’s Oasis pop-up champagne bar for a glass of fizz and some caviar. For late night entertainment it has to be The Caribou Club which is an exclusive members’ joint – though one-week membership is available.
After all that skiing and dancing there is really only one place to stay, and that’s the 100-year-old Hotel Jerome; a base that offers the perfect dichotomy of old and new, following a recent revamp. Nab a mountain view room for an awe-inspiring view, relax in the heated outdoor pool, and sip a whiskey cocktail in the infamous J-Bar, once a favourite hangout spot of Hunter S. Thomson. It’s all here waiting to be enjoyed.
Nestling in what has remained the rural part of the Prättigau, Klosters is everything one could ever desire from a ski resort: romantic, picturesque and elite. Casually touting the nickname ‘Hollywood on the Rocks’ during the 1950s, this seemingly humble farming village has a serious reputation. Greta Garbo, Gene Kelly, Princess Diana and Prince Charles are just some of the names who have vacationed here, seeking refuge in the privacy of this mountainous hideaway. Though it has become much larger over the years, accommodating a whole host of swanky new hotels, it still maintains its traditional – not to mention exclusive – atmosphere.
Naturally, in order to attract such classy clientele, the skiing must also be world class, with a mere 300km of pistes, shared with neighbouring Davos, and superb, barely touched off-piste terrain. A ski pass covers both areas, with Parsenn, another sprawling ski, terrain nearby. Intermediate and starting-out skiers can take the cable car to 2,602m (8,537ft) for smooth and sunny slopes with reliable snow, while freestylers and snowboarders are also well catered for with a superpipe, parks on Jakobshorn, and boardercross courses available.
However, it is for the truly brazen and thrill-seeking that Klosters excels. Off-piste adventures include long descents to Jenaz and Fideris – be prepared to climb in some sections – and return via the regular train service. There are around 45km (28 miles) of cross-country trails for all abilities to explore, and for a truly breathtaking drop, descend from Parsenn to Klosters with its steep drops and moguls.
It goes without saying, the hospitality here is superb. For those craving glitz and pizazz, sure, head to Aspen, but Klosters represents the epitome of old Switzerland – elegantly stylish rather than brash or bombastic. The shabby chic Chesa Grischuna is the place to stay, with delightfully rustic alpine exterior and cosy, reindeer adorned decor once inside its seductively lit rooms, including a piano bar – ideal for star spotting. For ultimate convenience, many guests choose hotels in Central Platz, which is located near the train station. Other options include the Sunstar Albeina in Dorf, and the rather more modern Hotel Alpina.
You could also make like Prince Charles and stay at Walserhof – he prefers the top suite, which has a log fire fire and free-standing bath – or simply eat at its Michelin-starred restaurant which serves delights such as black shellfish ravioli and red mullet fillet with bouillabaisse.
Another fantastic dining option is Prättiger Huschi, a farmhouse renowned for serving six kinds of fondue. After all, what is a trip to Switzerland without a night dunking toasted bread and fat potatoes into unctuous melted cheese?!
For those still able to move after such exuberant skiing and dining there is Casa Antica, a gorgeous little nightspot that has been keeping within its walls the secrets of the stars since 1959. Order a bottle of your favourite spirit and, if you’re unable to see off the lot, they will write your name on it and move it out the back for safe keeping, making your next visit equally attractive.
Courchevel 1850, France
Does the name ring a bell? Perhaps because it is, hands down, the most glamorous ski destination in the world. Naturally, part of this is down to its excellent skiing terrain, thanks to a location at one end of the world’s largest lift-linked ski area, the Trois Vallées, which has 600km of pistes and over 170 people carriers. But it owes a debt of gratitude as well to a breathtaking array of swanky slope-side bars, Michelin-starred restaurants and habit of hosting the rich and famous.
One of the few resorts that truly caters to all levels of skiing, there are slopes to suit everyone and, despite having the entire Trois Vallées to explore, many guests find little need to venture away from the Courchevel valley. It also has unparalleled standard snow management, with pistes being groomed twice every night, so no matter the amount of snowfall in any season, visits will rarely be a disappointment.
In actuality, Courchevel is not one resort village but four distinctly separate bases. Despite being renamed in 2011, many still refer to the hamlets by their old names – Courchevel 1850, Courchevel 1650, Courchevel 1550 and Courchevel 1300. Linked by lifts, pistes and a road which winds its way up from Courchevel Le Praz (1300) to the highest resort (which is the most recently established), a free and regular shuttle service is provided.
While all resorts provide a terrific standard of ski and board, those seeking true prestige will always go for 1850. This is the bolthole of moneyed Russian oligarchs and spoilt Parisians, and the only place outside the French capital to boast such an array of fancy hotels, including three with the top ‘Palace’ rating, 16 with five-star status and five restaurants with two Michelin stars. And, if you do need to hurry away on business, there’s even an airport on the slopes.
Among these hotels is The Grandes Alpes which, as its name would imply, is grand on every level. Consisting of only nine suites – each one with its own butler, housekeeper and optional private chef – every one boasts its own wine cellar, with over half offering their own private gym and sauna. For those not requiring quite that level of opulence, there is a general spa and pool and Lacroix ski shop for all your sporting needs. Custom-made ski boots anyone?
The Grandes Alpes restaurant, rather incongruously, is an Asian affair, an exclusive ‘Japanese cuisine concept restaurant’ called Le Bizan. Directly from Kyoto, Japan, prestigious sushi master Masahiro Adachi is on hand to delight diners with delicacies, including artfully assembled sushi and sashimi, tender Kobe beef and a stunning sake selection.
However, for the finest dining in the resort it has to be La Cap Horn, one of the top 10 mountain restaurants the world. With an extensive list of 500 wines, first-class cuisine and exceptional vistas, it’s easy to believe, as you gaze at the clouds below, that you have actually arrived in heaven.
For those seeking a winter break that isn’t solely about the sports, Cortina is a fantastic choice. This famous racing town, which provided a base for the 1956 Olympics, is as well known for its top-rate shopping as it is for excellent pistes. Encircled by the Dolomites, these limestone monuments cast shadows of pink and gold across the white snow; some of the best scenery you will see in your lifetime. And the locals, enrobed in their furs and couture Prada, are equally as lust-worthy.
Skiing is a more casual affair here; there is focus on pleasure, and queues are rare as guests choose a leisurely lunch over hardcore piste-time. But that’s not to say Cortina cannot be both challenging and an exciting place to ski. Spread across four areas, Faloria and Tofana can be accessed by lifts, Torri and Lagazuoi by road. Though they vary distinctively in terrain and elevation, most are suited to intermediate level skiers – those seeking serious sport are probably better suited to Klosters or Courchevel.
Post-piste, there is no better place to be, as the town bustles with this fashionable and lavish crowd, and there are plenty of chic wine bars offering excellent cheese and cured meat plates, perfect for replacing those lost calories. Or for a proper feast head to Tivoli, the resort’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. El Toula, an elegant old barn on the edge of town with an equally enthralling menu, is another jewel in this winter wonderland.
For accommodation that oozes glamour it has to be the five-star Cristallo Hotel Spa & Golf, where it is isn’t too hard to fantasize you are in a dolce vita movie. Where the traditional meets the fantastically modern, it delivers a state-of-the-art fitness spa with pool, Hamman, relaxation area and treatment rooms. There are also four restaurants, the most impressive of which is the Gazebo, providing a wondrous 360-degree backdrop of the magnificent mountains.
What the resort offers that perhaps nowhere else can rival is an ultimate sense of unforced style. Yes, streets are draped in colour and fabric, and the architecture is as polished and profound as almost any part of Florence, Rome or Milan, but it is in the people that Italy really sets itself apart from its rivals scattered across Europe and beyond. Its people are sharp, expressive, admirably stubborn, yet warm, inviting and unrelenting involved. For some, that may prove so much – after all, why brush off a dropped pint of beer quietly when you can raise your hands to the white skies as if they are about to fall in – but most will decree the Italians the ultimate exemplars of passionate people and, to that end, impeccable hosts.
If music be the food of life on the slope, ski on! Far from labelling Gstaad a party resort, the Swiss base’s appetite for magnificent music – in an ear-tingling array of high-brow concerts in peak season – makes this a worthy final addition to our top five.
And yet, the contradiction between the silences on the slopes – save the reassuring crunch of snow under foot – and a passion for music and song, is a typical marker to the rest of the town. On one hand, the designer stores (think a burst of Chanel perfume, a timepiece from the best of Cartier’s vaults or a bag that shimmers with effortless Luis Vuitton excess) are polished, pristine and managed to a square inch of their lives. Yet their placement is within streets, roads and lanes that have a raw, rustic charm; and quite right too – after all, this is rural Swiss farming country.
In a similar way, alpine architecture is weathered, wily and, you’d be forgiven for thinking, in urgent new of renewal. Yet this misses the point of Gstaad, for it is in its imperfections that the base’s true quality lies – decades of silver screen stars, authors who’ve put pen to paper in describing its ranging promenade, and artists who have spent weeks lovingly layering paint on canvas for the benefit of those back home who will never have the luck to visit this opulent outpost.
And yes, of course, the natural beauty of Gstaad is there for all to see. The slopes are extensive, enveloping and relevant to all skill sets. It offers over 200km of trails, valleys and slopes, with the Gstaad-Zweisimmen-Rougemont area boasting five hills of varying difficulty. The Glacier 3000, located a bus ride away, is an altogether different beast, with a personality of its own that offers challenges for even the most accomplished skier. But the real lure of Gstaad is in everything that goes on away from the slopes. There are many resorts that only come to live once nighttime falls, but the Swiss town’s appeal is unapologetically daytime, with Le Grand Bellevue a hotel that combines the very best of a century’s tastes, from an art deco bar to modern spas and Michelin-starred tastes from the palates of the world’s most relevant chefs.
And back to the music – the sounds on every corner, the concerts that combine classical and contemporary. Wandering around Gstaad is akin to being accompanied by a constant, reassuring soundtrack that chimes through every corner, coats every chalet like a dusting of snow, and moves normal folk to muse that heaven may, after all, be a place on Earth.