My face hits the white cold substance when I fall down as my body gets out of control going down a small hill in the mountains of Austria. I have the hardest time getting up without falling again, as my feet are in the most uncomfortable shoes to which the rental skis are attached. I am surrounded by people who speak a language I cannot understand and during the lunch break I eat food I have never seen before: I was three when I started to learn how to ski…
Now, 27 years later, I am incredibly grateful for all those years in a row when my parents took my brother and I to the slopes to celebrate Christmas with our Austrian family. Skiing has become one of my favourite outdoor activities, and Austria my dream destination. The Würzeralm and Hintedstöder, where it all began, recall warm feelings of these precious holidays. But once I discovered Saalbach, Hinterglemm and Zell am See, and a few years later the endless amounts of kilometres of slopes in the Zillertal Arena, I could not return to the small 6-lift resorts anymore.
The possibilities with the superskipass in Zillertal Arena are endless: the wide slopes of the Hintertux glacier (after a very scenic drive up passing typical villages), Gerlos and Köningsleiten (smartly connected), Mayerhofen (with its popular après-ski), and Hoch Fügen, all connected by public transport. Skiing is quite comfortable with modern and often heated lifts with hardly any wait, fun parks, snow canons, and well maintained slopes (a bit too well maintained as I like ungroomed snow, but I can have my fun on a few itineraries or “ski routes”). At almost every slope corner, I would be reminded of the Austrian coziness in a nicely decorated wooden chalet serving traditional and affordable kaiserschmarn (scrambled sweet pancakes), germknödel (poppy seed pastry), gulashsuppe (goulash soup), hot chocolate and jägerthe (tea with liquor) by the fireplace or in the sun on an oversized Fat Boy overlooking stunning views. This was all I needed for relaxing days of skiing! I have returned at least three times after discovering Zillertal until, … Until one day I took the decision to check out the French Alps, and more specifically Les Trois Vallées (the 3 valleys)!
Staying for a full week, I was all excited to discover some new slopes, and I had lots to do: with its 600 km of runs (four times as big as the Zillertal Arena!), the 3 Valleys is the biggest connected ski area in the world, offering a wide variety of sceneries and difficulties. Every valley is unique. Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe at 2300m with its glacier and sporty slopes provides snow-certainty ; the cute Méribel valley with its dramatic views ; and the fashionable Courchevel with the latest ski-clothe collections stylishly slaloming its beautiful and easier slopes through the forests.
In terms of slope-skiing, the resort has it all! Lifts connect the valleys easily, the quality of the snow is superb thanks to the variety of altitudes and orientation of slopes, and snow-canons ensure skiing way into spring. I find myself speeding down from the moment the lifts would open at 9AM until they would close at 5PM, having so much fun I would not really regret the cozy atmosphere of the Austrian chalets.
Some of my favourites runs are the black and red of La Cime Caron in Val Thorens, the long slopes from the top of the Col de la Chambre back down to the Méribel valley, La Face (the slope from the 1992 Olympics in Méribel), and the beautiful Mont Vallon overlooking the Parc National de la Vanoise. I thought the Grand Couloir with up to 85% vertical gradient, ungroomed, mogul-heaven and only accessible after conquering an intimidating and narrow ridgeline would be my most thrilling ride. Indeed, it is considered to be among the top 5 most thrilling slopes in the world, and rightfully so!
But my most thrilling skiing adventure was yet to come: the itinerary du Lac du Loup! Starting from the top of Pointe de la Masse in Les Ménuires to the very bottom of Val Thorens, this ski route for advanced skiers provides me with the most beautiful scenery ever while skiing down in knee-deep fresh snow for about 8 km in a row, facing every technical challenge I could think of. On top of that, being in the middle of the February school holidays, I find myself completely alone in a pure environment enjoying French baguette and delicious mountain cheese by the refuge du Lac du Loup. Priceless!
In terms of winter sports, Europe is blessed with the Alps, present in eight countries. Each is unique and offers a different experience, from the type of the slopes to the atmosphere. If people tend to stick to the same resort year after year, exploring different ski areas based on ones’ preferences will definitely be a rewarding discovery.
For the 3 Valleys:
- Transportation: Since the 1992 winter Olympics, the infrastructure has been consistently improved. The 3 valleys in Vallée de la Tarentaise are easily accessible by train to Moutiers (night trains and even Eurostar) and buses (1 hour from the resorts), or plane (Lyon, Genève). If driving, avoid the Saturdays of the French school holidays as you are sure to spend hours at the toll to get in and out of the valley, and take some chains. Once at the resort, the car is not needed and needs to be parked.
- Food: If Courchevel offers gastronomy on the slopes in a few high-end chalets (booking required), most restaurants on the slopes are quite expensive with rather low quality food and smelly toilets for customers only. A good option to warm up on a quiet and snowy day is Chalet de la Moutière in Val Thorens with its hand-painted decor and good hot chocolates with whipped cream (chocolat viennois). Local supermarkets are expensive. They sell mountain cheese and cold cuts, and lend the cheese melting devices for the night to cook your own raclette or fondue. Make sure to taste the local white wine (Apremont).
- Food specialties: Make sure you try some local specialties in the restaurants in the villages. The melted cheese classics are tartiflette, raclette and fondue. The local cheeses are beaufort, reblochon, abondance, tomme de Savoie, raclette de Savoie and can be bought on the markets or supermarkets, as well as the dry sausages with many flavours…
- Accommodation: Hotels and all-inclusive chalets are often used by foreigners. Most French people rent a flat by the week (Airbnb is a good option), and bring the food essentials. Note that every resort is specific: Val Thorens is for partying and skiing, Les Ménuires is a very ugly resort, Méribel-Mottaret is cute and adjacent to the park of Lac de Tuéda for a stroll, Courchevel is cute and high-end.
- Ski passes: they may seem pricey: for the 2015-2016 winter season, count €289 for 6 days for the 3 valleys (you can also buy a pass for one resort only, or one of the valleys only). Taking into account the amount of lifts and slopes and long opening times, rates are comparable to Zillertal.
For Zillertal Arena:
- Transportation: The Zillertal valley is connected by train to the Innsbruck and Salzburg airports. Driving is probably the best option (if driving on Austrian highways, buy the mandatory sticker at the border). Chains can often be avoided, as accommodations tend to be located in the valleys and public transport is available to reach the slopes.
- Food: Enjoy affordable and hearty meals in the chalets on the slopes. Every chalet provides a free access to clean toilet facilities.
- Food specialities: Hearty, Austrian specialities will keep you going for the day. Try gulashsuppe (goulash soup), schnitzel (breaded pork meat) or local sausages, kaiserschmarn (scrambled sweet pancakes with compote), germknödel (poppy seed dumpling with vanilla cream), and apfelstrudel (apple struddle) to start. Try the strong and fruity Austrian schnapps (fruit liquor) which will definitely warm you up. If it is too strong, a glühwine (mulled wine) is a good alternative.
- Accommodation: Hotels with meal plans are common, as well as apartment rentals (Airbnb is a good option).
- Ski passes: they are a bit cheaper than in the 3 valleys: for the 2015-2016 winter season, count €238 for 6 days for the super ski pass (no resort-only option). Note that lifts close earlier (around 4-4:30PM).