One of the things many of us consider when choosing our ski holiday destination, particularly once we reach the intermediate standard, is just how much skiing is there? In other words: How big is big?
The truth is that most of us won’t ski or ride all there is on offer at these vast ski regions – most so big we need never ski the same piste twice!
The biggest ski areas in Europe are mostly of interest to experienced skiers who have direct access to more challenging terrain than they’re likely to find at any standalone resort – all accessible on one ticket. Those big areas also score the highest for acres-ski entertainment, dining and lodging opportunities.
Still, it’s good to note that most of the interlinked ski areas are among the more expensive lift passes in Europe and it’s worth considering whether you’re likely to make full use of what is available. Is it good value for you?
Beginners are unlikely to get good value from one of the big area passes, but, if money is no object, then why not enjoy sampling the blue runs in different resorts and perhaps skiing over the border from France for a real pizza in Italy or a cheese fondue in Switzerland?
When buying a ski pass for one of the biggest and best ski areas in Europe, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In the 3 Valleys, for example, you can opt for passes for individual valleys or for just one or two individual resorts, saving 20-30 percent on the full 3 Valleys pass.
The most popular of the interconnected ski areas are the largely lift-linked ones, where you don’t need to take off your skis to catch a bus between sectors.
Here are 10 of the biggest and best ski areas in Europe . . .
1. The 3 Valleys, France, 600km
Good for all abilities, snow-sure skiing, gourmet dining
Undisputed number-one for size, Les 3 Valleys is a ski region of spectacular statistics as well as superb skiing with more than 2,000m of lift-served vertical. Among the big-name resorts here is Europe’s highest, Val Thorens, as well as Courchevel, home of the world’s most expensive chalet holidays and Brits favourite, Meribel.
“A great feature on The Three Valleys iPhone app allows you to plan itineraries around the whole of the ski area,” says Ben Clatworthy, who has skied in the 3 Valleys every season for 20 years. “Simply specify your ability, start/finish location and the duration you want to ski, and the app will plan you a route. You can even tell it to keep you on groomed runs only, or take you a scenic route.”
2. Sella Ronda, Italy, (officially 40km, unofficially 500km)
Spectacular scenery, traditional villages, easy runs
There’s an unofficial entry at number two as the ski region around Italy’s Sella Ronda is never promoted as a region in its own right. It’s part of the giant Dolomiti Superski region (1200km), which is always keen to show off the Sella Ronda circuit of 40km of pistes but does not make much of the fact that the Sella Ronda is a hub with valleys like Gardena, Badia and Fassa radiating off it. One official publication some years ago did estimate that this equaled some 500km of linked piste, but this has not been confirmed. The region is known for its hearty Alpine-Mediterranean cuisine, particularly Alta Badia which is a foodie hot spot.
3. Les Portes Du Soleil, France & Switzerland, 650km
Cross-border skiing & choice of modern or traditional resort
One of the claimants to the title ‘biggest ski area in the world’, the Portes du Soleil has 650km of piste, 50km more than the 3 Valleys, but for purists, there are small breaks in the circuit – at the edge of Chatel’s ski area for example or when you cross Morzine on foot or by bus to get from Les Gets to Avoriaz – where you must walk or take a bus a few hundred metres across resort centres or similar, so it is not quite fully interconnected. But, close enough for fun.
About a dozen villages are linked on the pass, two-thirds of them in France, the others in Switzerland. Famous names include family-friendly Les Gets, traditional Châtel, British favourite Morzine, snow-sure Avoriaz and the traditional Swiss resort of Champéry.
4. Paradiski, France, 425km
Family-friendly, good intermediate cruising, easy rail access
Created a decade ago by the connecting of the already giant ski areas of La Plagne and Les Arcs, Paradiski instantly became one of the world’s five biggest ski areas. The link was made by the Vanoise Express, a double-decker cable car that makes a spectacular crossing 380m above the valley floor. There’s a mixture of traditional valley resorts and high-altitude, snow-sure purpose built centres. Peisey Vallandry, which lies in a key location between the two giant resorts, has a reputation as a Nordic ski centre close to the Vanoise national park. Located above Bourg St Maurice, the ski area can be reached by Eurostar direct from London St Pancras.
5. 4 Valleys, Switzerland, 412km
Luxury accommodation, snow-sure skiing, awesome off-piste
Verbier, the most famous member of the biggest ski area in Switzerland, is known for its exciting terrain and après-ski vibe. The region is one of the most snow-sure in the Alps and when snow cover is at its greatest, off-piste descents of up to 2,500m vertical are possible down to the valley floor.
6. Milky Way, France – Italy, 400km
Cross-border skiing, intermediate runs, extensive snowmaking
The ski resorts within the Milky Way, or the ‘Via Lattea’, include Sestriere, Claviere, and Sauze d’Oulx in Italy and Montgenevre in France. The area used to rely on ropey old drag lifts and if you wanted to ski from one end to the other you had to employ a guide and take a taxi to the far end to have time to ski back. But the 2006 Winter Olympics brought huge lift investment on the Italian side and has led to what’s now a hi-tech area where you can zip from end to end and back within the day.
Nick Edwards of specialist ski travel agency Snowfinders says, “If you want to ski from one end to the other, the map shows two routes to follow to ski the Vialattea tour; one from left to right (Pragelato to Montgenevre) and the other from right to left (Montgenevre to Pragelato).”
7. Matterhorn Ski Paradise, Switzerland – Italy, 360km
Stunning views of the Matterhorn, long descents, year-round glacier skiing
Europe’s highest ski lifts take you up from Zermatt into the heart of one of the world’s biggest ski areas – crossing the Swiss border to the Italian resort of Cervinia and also including Valtournenche in the Aosta Valley. The area includes incredible runs for all standards, with the world’s second-biggest lift-served vertical drop (2,379m), and an epic 20km descent down to Valtournenche.
8. Espace Killy, France, 300km
Challenging terrain, snow-sure glacier, ski-in/out accommodation
Espace Killy, named after the famous French Olympian Jean-Claude Killy, connects the two world-famous resorts of Val d’Isere and Tignes. Regarded by many as one of the most exciting ski areas in the world thanks to its famous steep terrain including the Olympic Downhill run on the Bellevarde face, masses of off-piste opportunities and also having one of the planet’s biggest lift-served verticals of more than 2,000m.
9. Le Grand Massif, France, 265km
Family-friendly, deep snow, easy access from Geneva
The Grand Massif is one of the closest ski areas to Geneva and has a reputation for excellent snow conditions, all season long, thanks to its proximity to Mont Blanc. The area is centred on the modern resort of Flaine, surrounded by small traditional villages with long pistes, some up to 13km in length.
10. Le Grand Serre Chevalier, France, 250km
Sunny skiing, lowest prices of the big areas, relaxed atmosphere
The leading resort in the Southern Alps, Serre Chevalier is made up of 13 villages (three connected to the ski area) that are spread over 6km of the Guisane Valley floor from the old town of Briançon, the highest town in Europe. The area was created when Briançon was connected by a six-seater lift to the rest of the network in 1989.