Slope off to Italy
As a glance along any travel agent’s shelves will quickly confirm, the skiing world is expanding.
The shelves groan under the weight of brochures featuring resorts from Canada to Scandinavia, taking in, en route, Bulgaria, Chile and even New Zealand.
As for the number of resorts available, Crystal Holidays, which claims to offer the widest choice, has no fewer than 111, in 11 countries. Among the locations on offer this season are Alaska and Quebec.
At first glance, the choice is almost too wide, but once you have eliminated some resorts on the basis of price, others on distance — one really doesn’t want to fly for 10 hours to enjoy just two days of skiing — and still others on grounds of ambience, quality of snow, height and difficulty of slopes, the choice becomes much more manageable.
And then, of course, there is the familiarity factor. In my case, ask me where I love to ski, and the answer is always Courmayeur, a small resort in Italy, set against the backdrop of Mont Blanc — or Monte Bianco, as they call it locally, with a town which lies just below the slopes.
It lies in the Aosta province — which offers some of the best cooking in Italy — while the town itself has Roman roots and a year-round existence as a market place for the local people. It also serves as a summer resort for walkers and climbers, meaning that Courmayeur is not one of those concrete hell- holes, with as much visual charm as Dartmoor prison, but a real town with shops and restaurants and a couple of good discos, a lot of bars, an abundance of Italian charm. And, best of all, it is just a two-hour transfer from Turin.
And on top of that, the skiing is good, too. The main ski area lies above the town and is reached by cable car from the town centre.
The snow range is from 4,000 to 11,400 ft and 80 per cent of the pistes are covered with snow cannons so the snow is reliable from December until well into April. As a little bonus, there is more skiing available on Mont Blanc and at Cervinia.
Courmayeur is the perfect resort for “improving intermediates,” which means most of us — I have been “improving” for the last 30 years.
Intermediates will find a wide variety of skiing, from open bowls to fast, curving runs like the Internazionale and the Gigante, plus a lot of good runs on the Plan Checrouit and just over the ridge line in the Val Veny, where a line of fine mountain restaurants offers sunny terraces and superb Italian food.
You may appreciate why I have never frequented the black runs if I share with you my daily routine in Courmayeur. At about 9.30am, I amble to the lift, take the ride to the top, pick up my skis from the depository and head directly for the nearest café. I then have a cappuccino and a sticky pastry while sitting on a sunny terrace watching colourful skiers swoop past against a backdrop of blue skies and high mountains — just so you know you’re on holiday.
Then on with the skis and up to the top station for a long run down and another cappuccino, and so it goes on until it is time to head into the Val Veny to get a table for lunch (don’t leave this too late or the best tables on the terrace will be gone).
Beginners will find the slopes on the Plan Checrouit smooth and easy, and the fast skiers and snowboarders are kept well away from the nursery slopes and drag lifts. All the instructors speak adequate English, the tuition is of a very high standard. And since the Italians are very fond of children, the junior skiers seem to have a very good time.
Expert skiers are also well catered for. There is an adequate supply of steep, fast runs, plenty of off-piste and heli-skiing for those who can afford it.
And as a bonus, from mid-March, there’s the 20km run from the top of Mont Blanc down the Mer de Glace to Chamonix, in France.
This run can be made only late in the season, when the guides can see the crevasses. But as one of the world’s great ski runs, it should not be missed by any keen skier on a visit to Courmayeur. It can be made by anyone of intermediate ability, or better, and takes about half a day, weather permitting.
Since the weather is the dodgy part, it is as well to book a guide on arrival and stand by for the trip on the first suitable day.
This involves a call from the ski school and an early start on the series of lifts running up to the summit of the mountain.
Up there, it may well be blowing a gale but if all is well, there is a scramble down to the Mer de Glace followed by a long delightful run all the way to Chamonix, stopping on the way for a flask of hot coffee.
Have a picnic lunch on the ice or choose from one of the many good restaurants in Chamonix.
Courmayeur is also well provided with restaurants. Le Tunnel has superb pizzas and pasta, the Vieux Pommier offers a blend of French and Italian cuisine — and an ancient tree in the courtyard — and the Petit Mont Blanc farmhouse is known for its rib-sticking soups.
Those who are self-catering #will enjoy the weekly market and the food and vegetables stalls in the square, and anyone looking for nightlife will find all they can handle at Steve’s Cocktail bar, Ziggy’s, Poppy’s Pub and — my personal favourite — the Guide’s Bar, which has a roaring log fire and a thoroughly cheery atmosphere.
Any one of these is ideal for the immediate après-ski session, and after dinner there is dancing at Le Clochard and the Abat Jour discos, the last places in the world to play “Volare” — on my next visit to Courmayeur I intend to find out what “Volare” actually means.
Courmayeur is charming, but if all it has to offer is still not enough, why not veer off and spend a day or two in the nearby resort of Cervinia, about two hours away.
The Courmayeur lift pass (£99 for six days) covers Chamonix and all the other resorts in the Aosta valley, all the holiday companies offer day trips to other resorts and those with a car will have yet another half-dozen resorts to choose from.
Personally I would go for the wide, open, motor-way runs of Cervinia; very different from the tight and twisting runs in the Val Veny but ideal for those who fancy a day cruising on open slopes, under the sharp spike of the Matterhorn.
But don’t stray over to the Zermatt side, or you may never get back in time for the bus. Probably the reason I return to Courmayeur is that it not only has good skiing, splendid scenery, good food, adequate entertainment and a great deal of charm,it is not totally obsessed with ski-ing and that, for me anyway, makes it just about perfect.
Courmayeur features in many brochure; a one-week holiday through Crystal Holidays (0181-399 5144) costs from £239 at the Vieux Pommier, bed and breakfast, or from £395 half-board at the Hotel Palace Bron. In mid- March these prices rise to £309 and £599 respectively. A number of smaller specialist ski operators can be found in the AITO Ski Directory, which is available free from 0181-744 9280.