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Alpine Skiing

In response to a member query, the ski junkies at Indagare put together a comprehensive guide to Europe’s hottest ski resorts.

Long a destination for world-class skiing and striking landscapes, the Alps offer no shortage of thrills. But the mountain range, which spans 750 miles in eight European countries, is understandably overwhelming for the first-time visitor. Indagare’s Alpine Cheat Sheet breaks down the top resort towns so that selecting a destination is as easy as snapping on one’s ski boots.

Courchevel, French Alps

Who Should Go: Families, foodies

Skiing Level: Beginner to Intermediate

In a Nutshell: Very posh and with lots of good restaurants, Courchevel is great for family skiing because it is not too challenging, and there are excellent ski schools. Although it doesn’t offer a lot of trails for hard-core skiers, Courchevel covers a large area. It is part of Les Trois Vallées, so you can get access to three different resorts on one lift ticket.  The other two resorts, Méribel and Val Thorens, are easily accessible. Val Thorens has some serious skiing, while Méribel is like a bigger, less expensive version of Courchevel.

Getting There: Courchevel is about two hours by car from either the Geneva or the Lyons airport. Another option is to take the four-hour TGV train from Paris to the town of Moutiers, about thirty minutes from Courchevel by taxi.

Chamonix, French Alps

Who Should Go: Die-hard skiers, couples

Level of Skiing: Advanced

In a Nutshell: Chamonix is a dream for die-hard skiers. Arguably the best mountain in the Alps, it offers very steep runs and lots of different terrain. The French ski town is one of the most popular and has a buzzy scene, although it is not great for families because everything is spread out over different sides of the valley. Good skiers love this, though, because it means that there’s always one area where the wind has been perfect and created good conditions overnight, and many of the off-the-beaten-path runs see relatively little traffic. There are a few nice hotels in Chamonix, but it’s mainly for ski bums.

Fun Fact: Chamonix was host to the first Olympic Winter Games, held in 1924.

Getting There: The Geneva airport is just an hour drive from Chamonix.

Zermatt, Swiss Alps

Who Should Go: Families, adventurous skiers

Skiing Level: All levels

In a Nutshell: Zermatt is an ideal destination for anyone who enjoys being outdoors and wants an unrivaled high-elevation experience. It even has some of Europe’s best heli-skiing. Despite having grown significantly in the past few decades, the car-free village retains a charming small-town feel. And although the idyllic spot draws lots of visitors, the 155 miles of ski trails (you can even ski into Italy for lunch in Cervina) and resort capacity of almost 40,000 people per hour mean no crowded slopes or long lift lines. Glacier runs help extend the ski season well into the spring. The resorts aren’t ski-in/ski-out, but you can store your equipment at the base of the gondola that takes you up to the mountain.

Leave the Skis: Zermatt is a wonderful destination for nonskiers, too. The Swiss resort is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, so while half the family hits the slopes, the others can opt for curling, ice-skating, hockey, sledging, snowshoeing or winter hiking.

Getting There: The easiest option is to fly into Geneva or Zurich, then take a train to Visp and connect to Zermatt (a four hour journey.) Alternatively, you can fly into Milan and drive 2.5 hours. Zermatt also has its own heliport, which cuts down the travel time to an hour or less.

Verbier, Swiss Alps

Who Should Go: Ski junkies, friends traveling together

Skiing Level: Advanced

In a Nutshell: Verbier occupies a middle ground between Courchevel and Chamonix. It attracts lots of ski bums, but of a different kind: these are residents, not just seasonal visitors. Some actually prefer the skiing here to that in Chamonix, because you get more out of the mountain without having to traverse or take buses between areas. Verbier has a nice little village as well, and if the restaurants are not as good as in Courchevel, there are a handful of charming ones, and the scene is lively and fashionable. Verbier is the perfect resort for getting the Alpen Gemüt—great skiing, good food and good service. Because it doesn’t boast any fantastic hotels, it is best to rent a villa.

Designer Digs:As well done as his other properties (Morocco’s Kasbah Tamadot and the Caribbean’s Necker Island), Sir Richard Branson’s exclusive-use chalet The Lodge, Verbier, offers luxurious accommodations for groups of up to eighteen. The over-the-top rental comes with an indoor pool, spa and mini ice rink—perfect for a lively group vacation.

Getting There: The closest airport is Geneva, a two-hour drive away. Alternatively, you can take a scenic hour-and-forty-minute train ride from Geneva to Martigny, where you can get a taxi to Verbier.

Gstaad, Swiss Alps

Who Should Go: Scenesters, friends traveling together

Skiing Level: Beginner to intermediate

In a Nutshell: Because of its low altitude, Gstaad’s skiing is not as good as Zermatt’s, and there isn’t as much variety, but the scene is very social. The routine is to wake up late, ski for an hour or two in the early afternoon and then relax for the rest of the day. None of the hotels are ski-in/ski-out, so you should be OK with driving to the mountain. That said, if you are traveling with people some of whom want to ski and others do not, Gstaad is a great option.

Spring Skiing: With its impressive height (and snow-making machines), Gstaad’s Glacier 3000 accommodates skiing well into May. Although it’s a thirty-minute drive plus a forty-five-minute gondola ride from town, it’s one of the few places in Europe where you can ski so late in the spring.

Getting There: The airports in Geneva and Zurich are, respectively, a two- and three-hour drive from Gstaad. Swiss Federal Railways offers transport from other cities in Switzerland. Gstaad also has a private airport.

St. Moritz, Swiss Alps

Who Should Go: Non-skiers-welcome, outdoor enthusiasts, scene-seekers

Skiing Level: All levels, but best for intermediate and cross-country

In a Nutshell: Located in the Engadin Valley, to the southeast of Zurich on the border with Italy and Austria, St.-Moritz is one of Europe’s chicest winter resorts. With an average of 322 days of sunshine each year, it also boasts some of the best weather. The centerpiece is St. Moritz Town, home to billionaire chalets, Prada-clad ski teachers and luxury hotels and shops. But the rest of the valley is studded with quaint towns and stunningly scenic valleys, where non skiers can take advantage of a host of outdoorsy pursuits. The food, both on the mountains and off, is excellent.

Giddy Up: One of Europe’s top winter sporting events, White Turf is an alpine Triple Crown. The annual competition, which takes place on St.-Moritz’s frozen lake, includes polo, carriage races and skijoring, in which a skier is hitched to a horse. The multi-day extravaganza is the winter season's pinnacle event.

Getting There: From Zurich and Milan (Italy), St. Moritz can be reached in three hours by car. From Munich (Germany), it's about a four-hour drive. There's also an excellent train connection via Chur and red Rhaetische Bahn, which looks like it's straight of a storybook, makes stops in every town in the valley.

Lech, Austrian Alps

Who Should Go: Families

Skiing Level: All levels

In a Nutshell: Lech is ideal for families with young children: safe and picturesque, with the efficient, friendly Austrians running the show. For a real challenge, advanced skiers must go off-piste. Lech also has a lovely, very Austrian town that is charming and not glitzy or sceney. Most of the hotels are only a short walk from the lifts.

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