When it comes to our ski resort choices each winter, we tend to be swayed by the big-name resorts with the impressive stats – hundreds of kilometres of pistes, dozens of fast comfy lifts and a vibrant après ski scene.
But while it’s increasingly difficult for Europe’s thousands of small ski resorts to compete, many can offer advantages. An obvious one is often price – smaller and less-well-known usually (though not always) means cheaper.
Some small ski resorts are included in giant lift-linked ski regions, like the Portes du Soleil or Three Valleys and, although they may lack the nightlife of their more famous neighbours, they can sometimes offer an easier route to the most popular ski slopes by avoiding the morning scrum at the larger resorts.
Other small ski resorts are simply worthy of consideration in their own right – perhaps due to a spectacular ski offering, great scenery or an unspoilt character – the discovery of which will leave you able to smugly tell your skiing friends you have located an unknown gem in the ski world.
Here are five of the best small ski resorts in Europe:
1. Champéry, Portes du Soleil, Switzerland
Advantages: Easy rail access from Geneva, uncrowded, close to The Wall.
Disadvantages: Swiss prices in resort (although getting to and staying there is quite affordable), but you can shop in the supermarket and eat in some nights if you book an apartment or look for half-board options to avoid restaurant prices.
Best for: Intermediate to advanced skiers and boarders.
Although resorts like Avoriaz, Chatel, Les Gets and Morzine on the French side of the giant Portes du Soleil, which straddles the Swiss border, are better known in Blighty, the well-equipped village of Champéry in Switzerland is one of the easier centres to reach and provides quick access to the vast ski circuit.
Only 80 miles from Geneva airport, a trip you can make by efficient Swiss railway from within the airport rather than battling the infamous French autroroute queues and tolls, it is the ideal destination if you want to get away from the commercial side of the Portes du Soleil and experience a true Swiss resort.
Champéry is also home to “The Wall”, the infamous black run that looms above the Planchaux bowl, which itself contains a vast range of wide, sunny, long intermediate cruising runs, typically far quieter than over on the French sides of the Portes du Soleil.
Tour operator Ski Independence (www.ski-i.com) offer apartment holidays there with packages inclusive of flights and rail transfer. SI European Product Manager, Claire Hamilton, is a fan and says the village is a foodsie haven as well as a back door into the Portes du Soleil: “I would definitely recommend eating at a restaurant in a stunning traditional building called C21 which offers incredible food created by a Scottish chef in the heart of the resort. People come for miles to eat there, so guests should definitely check it out if they want to treat themselves!”
Skiing Champery, Switzerland
Copyright: Champery Tourist Office
2. Folgaria, Italy
Advantages: Low prices, short airport transfers, expanding ski area, new lifts and runs.
Disadvantages: Quiet après ski scene mid-week.
Best for: Intermediates, families
Folgaria is often missed by the British as they flock to the headline acts of Madonna di Campiglio and Passo Tonale, but it has invested heavily in recent years in new lifts, snow making and – a rarity in Europe these days – is even opening new ski runs.
Located in the Trentino region, three new quad chairlifts for the 2013-14 ski season have connected Folgaria to the previously moth-balled small centre of Fiorentini, over the regional border in Veneto, to create a joint ski area with 100km of piste between them. The lifts have enabled new runs, a 1.9km red and two blues (2.4km and 1km long) to be created.
“Folgaria is a gem of a resort and those who miss it as they head to bigger resorts are missing a real treat,” says Stuart McLeod of Zenith Holidays which operates low-cost packages to the resort. “It is a short transfer from Verona and offers an excellent variety of slopes. Ideal for a mixed ability group and a perfect place for beginners – with excellent value beginner packages.”
Folgaria, Italy is a great choice for beginners on a budget
Copyright: Joyce Costello
3. Les Houches, France
Advantages: Atmospheric village, easy to reach from Geneva, with lots of ambience and a great spot from which to venture into the wider Chamonix Valley.
Disadvantages: Expensive pass required to ski at neighbouring resorts (but plenty for families in local ski area).
Best for: Beginners, intermediates, families, mixed ability groups (as a base)
Anyone who has stayed in Chamonix is likely to have enjoyed the vibrant nightlife but perhaps been less enamoured by the kafuffle of getting to and from the slopes and with some of the prices. One popular option is to stay in the nearby village of Les Houches, 11 minutes away by shuttle from the famous ski town and pretty well as close to many of the valley’s ski areas are as those staying in Chamonix itself are, in practical terms, if distances can be covered more quickly when there’s no skier congestion to face.
But with around 50km of family friendly skiing on the local slopes and an increasingly well served restaurant and shopping sector, many people don’t bother to leave Les Houches, while mixed-ability groups use the resort as a base with some members staying there, others venturing off to Les Grands Montets and other famous slopes.
The only thing to double check if you do plan to ski at other Chamonix ski areas is which lift pass you buy for the wider valley. Unsurprisingly, the more expensive pass is required to ski everywhere. Les Houches is a part of the full Mont-Blanc Unlimited Pass (as is Courmayeur, and Verbier too for a six-day pass). However Les Houches is not included in Chamonix Le Pass.
Erna Low offers low priced accommodation here.
Family-friendly skiing in Les Houches, France
Copyright: Chamonix eGuide
4. Grimentz, Switzerland
Advantages: Superb snow and terrain, empty slopes, easy to access, great scenery, good infrastructure.
Disadvantages: Quiet nightlife and although prices are lower than the Alpine average, it is still Switzerland!
Best for: Powder hounds.
Although it remains a wholly unspoilt village in truly spectacular Alpine scenery, Grimentz, has started to be noticed, like St Foy in France, and is conveniently sandwiched between the Espace Killy and Paradiski. The village has been particularly recognised by freeriding fans.
The new cable car last winter has doubled the available terrain to around 120km thanks to a connection to neighbouring Zinal. And there’s more than double that again available on the local Val d’Anniviers Pass which also incorporates the resorts of St-Luc/Chandolin and Vercorin, linked by a free shuttle bus. Mountain Heaven offer catered and uncatered accommodation here.
“The motto here is, One Valley,” says local skier Martin Hannart. “It’s a large and easily accessible freeride area with 1,700 metres of vertical down from 3,000m at the top. There’s all kind of weather exposures (north, south, west, east) resulting in all kind of snows. It’s an unexpected area for families, far from the crowds. We could say that it’s a La Grave of Switzerland, or a Jackson Hole.”
Snowy rooftops in picturesque Grimentz, Switzerland
Copyright: Powder Heaven
5. Orelle, 3 Valleys, France
Advantages: A back door in to world’s biggest ski region, easy to reach from motorway
Disadvantages: Not ski-in, ski-out, limited resort facilities.
Best for: Budget conscious intermediate to expert skiers.
The little known ‘fourth valley’ of the 3 Valleys connects the Maurienne region to the famed ‘world’s largest ski area’ by means of one of the world’s longest gondolas – a near 5km long, 15 minute, ascent of nearly 2,000 vertical metres, emerging up near Val Thorens at the top of the 600km of lift-linked piste.
Located only 6km from the nearest motorway exit with no mountain roads needing to be conquered to reach the village, prices are typically much lower than elsewhere on the 3 Valleys circuit (up to half price) and past deals have included a free week’s apartment accommodation with your lift pass in low season. In any case tour operator Peak Retreats offer low priced accommodation here.
“Orelle differs from many of the big resorts in the 3 Valleys as it’s a typical mountain village with buildings made of local stone and wood,” says Vanessa Perret, director of the local tourist office. “We offer a calm and friendly ambiance, away from the impersonal welcome you may find elsewhere.”
For good skiers, the icing on the cake, when snow conditions are right, is the possibility of skiing one of the world’s five biggest lift-served vertical descents down from 3200m at the top of the 3 Valleys to 900m above sea level in resort. Normally you take the lift back down, there are no groomed trails, but a guide can show you the off-piste way.
Orelle is one of the lesser-known resorts in the Three Valleys ski area, France