Credit Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski St Moritz KISMV Exterior Winter Night credit Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski St Moritz

Snow Sports

These days, there are so many ways to make the most of Europe’s winter wonderlands, whether or not you’re a downhill ski enthusiast. Sean Newsom delves into the alternatives on offer, and what to look for at top resorts


It’s no wonder winter holidays developed first in St Moritz. Squirrelled away high in the Swiss Alps, it’s still – for the most part – reliably cold, and just about every imaginable snow sport is practised here as a result. Not just skiing, snow-shoeing and a spot of tobogganing – they play snow-golf, snow-polo and even snow cricket too. In any normal winter there’s plenty of ice to be expected: not just on the indoor and outdoor rinks, but along riverside skating routes such as the Madulain ice trail. The main draw, however, is St Moritz lake. Whenever there’s a hard, snowless frost, it’s coated bya thick and slightly sinister layer of black ice. Half the town is to be found skating there whenever it forms – but not until the resort’s safety team have declared it safe.

Nearby, Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski is a palatial treat, not least because of its giant, state-of-the-art spa (doubles from £482, including breakfast). It’s also a canny spot for cross-country skiers to settle, with the resort’s floodlit night trail next door. Meanwhile, beginner skaters will be happiest on one of the smaller rinks, such as the St Moritz Skating Club up the hill in St Moritz Dorf. Adult admission is £11 and lessons are available – then afterwards, tea and cake at the Café Hanselman hanselmann. ch is a must. But it’s only a warm-up before dinner: St Moritz is – as it has always been – properly posh, and the new restaurants at just-opened Hotel Grace La Margna bring beef wellington and tiramisu to join an already super-swanky party.


If you think skiing downhill is tiring, you might get a surprise when you have a go on the flat. Skiing’s cross-country cousin may look serene – the kit is much lighter and more comfortable too – but don’t be fooled. Sliding over snow, with just your toes attached to a narrow pair of planks, requires a sense of balance, a strong core and healthy lungs. Almost every muscle group will at some point be engaged as you learn to stay upright and mobile. If you’re not quite ready to commit, Hemsedal in Norway is one of the best places to compare the two. Its downhill area may be small compared with the behemoths of the Alps, but its cold, north-facing slopes pack a surprisingly varied punch, while 250km of cross-country trails coil through the valley and up on to its undulating fells. If you’re hiring a car, you can commute between the different cross- country areas – but base yourself right at the foot of the downhill pistes in one of Skistar Lodge’s crisp and modern studios (doubles from £145). Cross-country ski lessons can be had nearby – £110 an hour for two people – and after a couple of hours of tuition you should be comfortable enough to hire your own gear and start practising on flat, easy slopes. Just remember to eat well while you’re there. Even moderate cross-country skiing will devour 600 calories an hour – probably double what you’d burn pootling about on an early-intermediate downhill run. Among the area’s hearty, independent restaurants, the Kjokken Kroken is a firm favourite (three courses from £58).


Despite its ski-elite image, you don't have to be a cliff-jumping expert to try heli-skiing. Aside from being able to make controlled, fluent turns through every kind of off-piste snow, the key requirements are stamina and a steady nerve. Provided you're honest about how you ski, your guides will pick terrain to suit you. But you will still find yourself skiing in a wilderness, far from any piste, so it's important not to be overanxious or liable to panic. You'll need to be patient too. Helicopters don't fly in bad weather - and there's plenty of that in the mountains. In other words, the caveats are considerable. But still they don't come anywhere near outweighing the benefits, because if conditions are right you'll be starring in your own personal James Bond movie. If it sound like your kind of adventure, head for Alagna. Set beneath the mighty Monte Rosa massif, it is peppered with every level of hell-skiing terrain, and is also home to the charming Tre Alberi Liberi B&B run by Elena and Roberto Valzer (doubles from £100, including breakfast). Roberto is a mountain guide and will help you book help-skiing (£375pp for a group of four for one day, including one hell-drop). Couple with a hearty dinner in the rustic Montagna di Luce restaurant (three courses £44) just north of the main village, and you'll never want to holiday in an ordinary ski resort again.


Opening this winter in the Southern Carpathians, the Matca hotel promises earth-toned elegance and a gastronomic kitchen – faced by an amphitheatre of mountains and trees (doubles from £362). For the first couple of days, you’ll probably want to stay put to take advantage of all the in-house pleasures: steaming, swimming and hay- bathing in its glass-walled spa. Then, with your batteries recharged, you’ll be ready to explore. Developed in association with Transylvanian specialists Beyond Dracula, the hotel offers an array of expertly guided snowy walks, tailored to your tastes and stamina. The protected landscapes of both the Piatra Craiului and Bucegi mountains offer long ridge walks and enchanted forests. Meanwhile, some of the tougher routes involve climbing steep chutes and narrow limestone chimneys, equipped with ice axes, ropes and crampons. The fitter you are, the more exciting the terrain becomes, and the more essential your guide’s skills.There’s skiing nearby too. Less than an hour north of Matca lies Poiana Braşov, a pocket-sized but north-facing area of mainly intermediate skiing, where the pistes are all equipped with snow cannons in case Mother Nature is unforthcoming. The view is sensational: straight down the mountain and across the central Transylvanian Basin. And it never looks better than in winter, when the trees at the top of the pistes build up thick, icy coats of rime; they seem to hover beside you like ghosts.

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If you were one of those kids who stamped on every frozen puddle you ever came across, you’re going to love ice climbing. With an ice axe in either hand and climbing crampons on your boots, you’ll hack and kick your way to the top of a frozen waterfall or a glacier wall in a shower of fractured ice. Admittedly, it’s all a bit chaotic at the start, until you find your rhythm. But that’s okay, because your guide will keep you safe, with climbing harnesses and a top-rope anchor at the highest point of your ascent. And besides, the smash and grab of it is so cathartic and compelling you’ll quickly improve. Saas-Fee is a great place to learn, thanks to its glacier – whose turquoise walls offer
a steady, reliable climbing surface. A five-hour lesson for two people – bookable through – costs £326pp, excluding equipment hire. Hotel La Gorge (doubles from £194 including breakfast) makes a stylish base and, as well as being close to the ski lifts, it’s also home to Restaurant Zer Schlucht. Teetering just above the gorge, you can map out your next route while refuelling on regional delicacies like Alpine pike and Sulmtaler chicken. While there’s no doubt the resort’s intermediate pistes are long, snow-sure and satisfying for skiers – reaching all the way up to 3,572m – there aren’t quite enough to fill a whole week. So your best bet is to plan at least a couple of ice- climbing trips – not just to flesh out a Saas-Fee ski holiday – but because it’s way too much fun to do just the once.

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Remember tobogganing in your local park? Sledging in Grindelwald is the opposite of that. In part, that’s because this sprawling Swiss village is rather more scenic than the average British hillock. Crouching beneath the 1,800m north face of the Eiger, it’s the kind of place that will reduce even the most garrulous visitor to awestruck silence when first they alight from the Interlaken train. But it’s also down to the length of its toboggan runs. On a good day, when the snow extends all the way into the village, the longest – the Big Pintenfritz – lasts for 15 glorious kilometres. Tobogganing isn’t the only activity that sets Grindelwald apart. At some point during your stay you’ll want to get back on to a train and rattle upwards through a tunnel bored behind the Eiger’s towering cliff. Your destination: Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station, set
at a dizzying 3,454m. You’ll want to ski too, following the famous Lauberhorn World Cup race course down to neighbouring Wengen.Meanwhile, back in the village, the four-star Hotel Spinne is a great perch (doubles from £240, including breakfast). Not only does it have a rooftop pool, but it’s also just five minutes’ walk from both the railway station and the First gondola, which will whisk you up towards the start of the Big Pintenfritz on the summit of the Faulhorn. Bring a good pair of boots: from the top of the gondola it’s a 2.5-half-hour walk.

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Sledge rental from £15,


In the Alps, ski resorts are ten a penny. Often, you can even stand on the slopes of one, and gaze straight across the valley to the pistes of another. Not so in Åre. This handsome little lakeside town looks and feels like an outpost and, as you gaze north-west from Åreskutan, its central peak, the world seems suddenly empty. It’s both profoundly refreshing and tantalising. Snowmobiling is the obvious way to explore it, especially now that local company Åreguiderna has equipped itself with electric machines. The guilty pleasure of tearing through a pristine snowfield remains, but without the shame of the exhaust fumes. Even on a beginner’s two-hour taster session (from £72pp) you’ll leave a sense of normal life far behind. There are many other ways to investigate this vast, inviting landscape – ice-climbing, dog- sledding and snow-shoeing among them. But don’t lose sight of the downhill skiing back at base. Aside from Sweden’s school-holiday weeks Åre’s pistes are blissfully uncrowded, and range from the long, soothing beginner slopes of Björnen to the plunging descents numbered 55 and 56, which drop down to the race arena. Ski either sector on a midweek morning and you may well find you’ve got a whole piste to yourself. Budget for some good food too, perhaps tapas at highly rated Boqueria (tapas from £6). It’s just behind Åre’s oldest, cutest hotel – the wood-panelled Åregarden.

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Sitting at the top of Igl’s Olympic bobsleigh course, 14 bends from the bottom, you wouldn’t be the first to question your decision – wondering why, exactly, you paid £104 to be flung down the 1,270m-long course in a four-man bob. Wedged tightly between the driver and his brakeman, it’s all you can do to remember to breathe as the puny sled hits its first bend, moving like a bullet fired out of a gun. As you near 120km/h – just cm off the ground – the sled starts to roar and the towering walls seem so close to your helmet, you swear they’ll take your head off. So, no, it doesn’t feel safe – and no, it’s not much fun. Until, that is, you reach the bottom. That’s when the big, giddy wave of adrenaline catches up with you. It’s so powerful it’ll carry you all the way to next week. Not surprisingly, nothing else in this Innsbruck suburb will come close to matching the rush.
But book into the slopeside Sporthotel Igls (doubles from £140 including breakfast) and for a couple of days you’ll enjoy one of Europe’s most genre-busting city breaks. You can ski the 20km of slopes in the pocket-sized resort of Patscherkofel – where night ski touring takes place every Thursday until 10pm. The slopes are just a short city bus ride away from the 12th floor après-ski bar at the Adlers Hotel, where there’s a seven- course tasting menu (with a vegetarian option) at Oniriq (£165pp). Yet as exquisite plate follows exquisite plate, all the while you’ll be wondering: ‘Maybe we should ride that bobsleigh again...’

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