James Young is a qualified ski instructor who has spent 10 straight seasons in the Alps. Read his guide to choosing a ski resort to suit your skill level.
Choosing the right resort for your holiday can be a difficult thing to do. Tour operators can sometimes sell you a package without even setting foot on the piste themselves or a friend may recommend a place that was fine for them but leaves you sitting in a bar all week as the runs are way too steep for your ability. While most resorts these days do try to cater for all abilities, some stand out more for beginners, intermediates or advanced skiers and snowboarders.
Mayrhofen, with its two separate mountains: the Penken and Ahorn, is a good choice for your first time on snow. The instructors are some of the most patient I've ever encountered and the runs are long, wide and easily accessible by state-of-the-art chairlifts. I learned to snowboard on the Ahorn Mountain as it has wide, gentle runs and not too many people to collide into. The fact that you don't have to contend with button-lifts (a painful and daunting experience on a snowboard) is an added bonus as the Austrian T-bar lifts seem almost made for snowboarders. The instructors on the Penken Mountain can start and finish their lessons at the top of the cable car so it's so much easier to meet up with your more advanced friends, enjoy the views and exchange amusing stories at lunch time.
Gently sloping piste in Grindelwald
Another good destination for beginners is the very picturesque resort of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps. Access to the top of the mountain is either by cable car or a gentle train. Once you're at the Kleine Scheidegg area at the top, you have a multitude of long, gentle runs to practise your turns before or after your lessons. By the end of the week you'll be racing the train all the way down to resort.
If your group is after more intermediate runs, you can't beat Montgenevre in the French Alps. Located right on the Italian border, the area has some fantastic red runs that will keep you on your toes all week. For sheer speed, try the ‘Eagles Rock' run or ski the ‘Colletto Verde' run into Italy and enjoy some pasta for lunch (a good idea as the food in France is extremely expensive).
The ski and snowboard instructors in Montgenevre are fantastic and will have you coming on in leaps and bounds. If possible, get together with a friend of similar standard and book a private two-hour lesson with one of these guys. You'll learn a great deal more than you will in a big group and there's no waiting around.
The Andorran resort of Soldeu used to have a reputation for being a ‘bucket deal' destination for beginners but has, over the last couple of decades, installed a huge number of new lifts opening up lots of predominately intermediate runs. If you're interested in trying your hand at some moguls, they have a couple of excellent bump-runs here that are not too steep and ideal for learning the tricky art.
The two most famous areas for advanced skiing in the Alps are Le Grave and Chamonix. Both have infamous reputations for claiming people's lives but you shouldn't let that put you off heading to either destination. As long as you're careful to take notice of any warnings and don't duck under the ropes on any closed runs you'll have a great time.
Le Grave itself is a tiny little village with not a huge amount going on so most people stay in Les Deux Alpes and ski over from there. It is highly advisable to book a guide for this run as it is completely un-pisted and there are no fences or warning signs for crevasses. The run down is long, steep, and pretty scary but you can't help enjoying yourself. If conditions are bad, the area can be closed but don't fear, there's plenty of moguls and steep black runs to keep you occupied in Les Deux Alpe itself as well as one of the biggest snowboard parks in Europe.
At the top of the Valley Blanche run, Chamonix
Chamonix is a must for anyone who loves off-piste skiing and snowboarding. The Valley Blanche area with its legendry long powder runs attracts huge numbers of advanced skiers from all over the world. If conditions are bad or there are avalanche warnings, the mountain has a great number of testing pistes that will keep even the most hard-core skier gritting their teeth. A ski guide here is not essential, but I'd definitely splash out on some private lessons in the deep snow as the instructors on this mountain ski powder more than almost anyone in Europe.
Taking some time to pick your resort can make the difference between a good holiday and a trip you will never forget. No one wants to be that depressing character sitting in the bar all day, drinking heavily and making paper hats out of piste maps.