There's no doubt that North American mountain resorts offer a superb opportunity for a winter vacation. But, while staying close to home is a plus, hopping the pond to ski in the Alps offers a whole new kind of experience. It's another, different, experience you will savor for many years.
"Excuse all the adjectives," says Ted Heck, a travel writer and admitted Europhile, who is also the publisher of The Blue Book of European Ski Resorts . "But, the Alps are all about glorious scenery, majestic interconnected mountains, endless ski terrain, outstanding lift facilities, charming villages, comfortable hotel rooms, lively après ski scene, fine dining opportunities, colorful museums, and magnificent castles."
Heck, who remained in Germany after World War II as a sports consultant to the U.S. Army and sports broadcaster for the Armed Forces Radio Network, explains that many North American resorts have ersatz versions of the alpine environment, but "in the Alps, the surroundings are real, not simulated. The ambiance is shared by friendly residents with a similar passion for skiing and snowboarding," Heck says.
"But, probably the quintessential difference across the pond is the many mountains and their villages that are linked by trails, slopes, and lifts to provide day-long adventures, in some cases, across the border into another country," says Heck. "The uphill transportation includes more state-of-the-art funiculars, cable cars, gondolas, chair, and surface lifts than the average skier has ridden in a lifetime."
Heck points to several other things that make a vacation the Alps so enjoyable. The temperatures are warmer than in North America because of the south winds from the Mediterranean and lower heights of mountains. The tree line is roughly half as high as the major ski mountains in America.
George Schissler is a transplanted New Englander, now living in Florida. He has a different take. He's an avid skier and escapes to the Alps regularly. "I ski in the Alps so often, not just because it's there, and not because it offers anything more on snow than a top North American destination resort offers.
"The attraction of skiing in the Alps for me is meeting people of different cultures who truly enjoy the beautiful mountain surroundings. They seem to have a laid back attitude which makes one realize that skiing, no matter how great it is, is only one of the pleasures a day on or off European snow allows," Schissler says.
He also likes heading to Europe for the education to be gained by spending time mingling with local residents, traveling vicariously back centuries in time, appreciating the history and traditions of another country.
"Hundreds of years making visitors feel at home makes guests feel comfortable and at ease, but don't go just for the skiing or riding. There's so much more to a ski vacation in the Alps," he says.
Language is generally no barrier in the Alps at all. My last name is Altschul (that's "Old School" in German), but knowing my name is the extent of my understanding the language. I picked up many words and phrases over numerous ski trips to Austria and Switzerland, but most people in ski towns and villages can converse in English and enjoy doing so. So, yes, you will enhance your experience with a quick submersion via Rosetta Stone, but you'll do just fine on your own. I also took French in high school, but "s'il vous plait" and "merci" will take you a long way in the French Alps.
What about night life? Heck says "dining among different accents with people who can actually identify the vintage of local wine and help choose the right cheese from among 21 varieties on the dessert table is wonderful," he says.
Taking a vacation to the Alps has another advantage: Combine it with a few days in a city you've always wanted to visit. Going to Austria? Spend a few days in Innsbruck or Munich. Switzerland? How about Zurich or Geneva? France? Why Gay Paree, of course. There's always the option of connecting through Heathrow and adding a tour of London.
Let's strap on the skis and boards and visit Austria, France, and Switzerland.
Austria: Large interlinked ski areas offer something for all levels of skier at an affordable price, from extreme snowparks and stomach-lurching verticals to wide open green runs and world-renowned ski schools.
There's also plenty to see and do for non-skiers. Sleigh rides, snowshoe adventures, and ice skating are available at most resorts. Austria boasts a modern transportation infrastructure as most resorts are within an hour's drive from the airports of Innsbruck, Salzburg, or Munich. Scheduled buses and trains are also fast and reliable.
Nicholas Boekdrukker is an international marketing manager for Innsbruck Tourismus and lives in that beautiful city. He suggests a variety of reasons why a ski vacation in the Alps, and specifically Austria, is ideal: European ski passes cost less than in North America; rental equipment is of the highest standards; Austrian ski instructors are the best in the world; and the slopes in Austria are perfectly groomed every day.
Boekdrukker also notes the lifts in most Austrian resorts are modern, high-speed chairs and cable cars; the après ski fun is famous throughout the world and 18 to 21-year-olds are welcome to enjoy it; the quality of the food is very high; the resorts are much closer together, and make a ski safari easier to plan; and remember, "we invented modern skiing."
France: The French Alps offer huge interlinked ski areas combining more than 200 resorts. The vast majority of ski resorts are scattered down the Rhone and Provence Alps on the border with Switzerland and Italy. The remaining resorts can be found in the Midi-Pyrenees on the Andorran border.
There's another reason to head to French resorts: pour mange (to eat). This just has to be the gastronomical capital of winter cuisine.
Michaël Bayart from France Montagne offers his personal list of great reasons to ski in France: It's the "world's largest ski area" with vast, interconnected ski domains; it's excellent value for your money, with ski passes, on average, 15 percent lower than other countries; there's charm and diversity with magical landscapes; and "doorstep" ski resorts are a French specialty with everything from lifts, equipment rental, restaurant, shops, and child care all within walking distance.
Then Bayart lists gastronomy along with the art de vivre (art of living). Mountain cuisine is simple, rustic, and perfect for sharing with new generations of chefs adding to the traditions; and there's "buzzing night life" with restaurants, bars, casinos, clubs, concerts, and festivals.
He notes that ski areas are mostly situated toward southern France, so the climate is pleasant and the sun often shines; all ability levels are welcome and non-skiers in the family have a huge number of alternatives; and resorts most suitable to serving families are grouped under the Famille Plus Montagne label, a unique national tourism standard.
Switzerland: This beautiful country is another lure for North American skiers and snowboarders. Some of the major ski destinations in Switzerland include: Verbier, Zermatt, Saas Fee, Gstaad, St Moritz, and Davos.
Switzerland is in the heart of the Alps and the best part is the easy access from gateways like Geneva, Zurich, and Milan.
Alison Westwood is a travel writer Getaway Magazine. She has numerous tips.
"Swiss public transportation is comfortable and efficient," she writes, "and many of the scenic train and boat routes are fantastic travel experiences in themselves." She recommends the all-in-one Swiss Pass, entitling buyers to unlimited travel by train, boat, and bus. The Swiss Flexi Pass lets you choose a set number of days, while the Swiss Half Fare Card gives you 50 percent off travel for a month.
Looking for cheap lodging, even in high season? Westwood suggests checking out hostel accommodations that are "anything but grungy. You're assured of super clean self-catering facilities." She also suggests self-catering holiday apartments or chalets for families. "Some places, like Interlaken and Montreux-Vevey, offer free visitors cards with lots of discounts."
Westwood lists some things that are well worth splurging on, too: The Chocolate Show at Schuh in Interlaken ("all you can eat"); a bottle of wine from an independent wine grower in Lavaux (Chablis is the regional favorite); The Villars Night Show ("funny and fantasical"); lunch at the Grand Café at Porto in Lugano ("oodles of elegance"); and a night at Whitepod Resort in Cerniers ("a pricey eco-lodge, but boy, is it worth it").
Perhaps Bob Enzel, a Washington, D.C. publisher and travel writer who heads for the Alps for a vacation at least once every winter, sums it all up like this: "The excitement of skiing the Alps, whether you are heading to my favorites of Lech, Austria; Chamonix, France; or Davos, Switzerland is all wrapped up in the stunning scenery and long sunny runs. That's what skiing across the pond is all about."