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Time to make tracks

Making tracks: What’s new for the 2019/20 ski season

Whether you’re a newbie looking to practise, a confident intermediate wanting to branch out, or a consummate skiier in search of a special experience, there’s plenty to consider this year

For those who’ve never seen the appeal of flinging themselves down a snow-covered hill, the beginning of the new ski season is of absolutely no consequence. For those who make a point of doing it as often as the bank balance will allow – safely tucking away the smartphone into a waterproof pocket, gulping down fresh mountain air and drinking in vast expanses of imposing rocky terrain and breathtaking, untouched ivory vistas, concentrating only on where their blades will take them next – it’s a form of high-octane mindfulness that much of the rest of the year is spent pining for.

You can see if it’s for you and, if so, get the practice in at UK winter sports hubs like The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead first, or the dry slopes in reach of Bristol – Gloucester Ski and Churchill’s Mendip Snow Sport. The Snow Centre is due to open a new indoor slope in Swindon too, but despite big announcements and planning approval, we’re yet to see any construction taking place.

Experienced skier? Tempting as it is to stick with known and loved resorts, why not try a new country this year? Slovenia, Italy, Romania, Poland, Georgia and Bulgaria are all lesser-visited ski destinations with many merits – perhaps most importantly they are less crowded which means more mountain for mastering moves.

Further afield, hot ski hubs include characterful Aspen – originally a silver mining town, the village has four ski areas with slopes to suit all levels, and new direct flights with United Airlines from Heathrow to Denver commence in December. This winter, flights are also resuming with Delta from London to Salt Lake City, Utah – allowing for exploration of coveted ski areas in Park City and Deer Valley.

In terms of changing habits, wearable gadgets improving safety and efficiency, and monitoring performance, speed and mountain positioning to analyse and help better ski technique, are increasingly popular. Unsurprisingly, sustainability is also becoming much more of a concern – how ski equipment is made, the use of repair services, biodegradable ski wax and such. You could take the train to Paris and hire a car to drive up to the French resorts rather than fly this year. Chalet operator Mountain Heaven has also launched an eco-discount of 10% off all holidays to the Alps for those travelling by rail. Below, we take a look at what else is new and super-tempting in the wintersports world…

The Hotel de Glace structure takes 50 workers, including 15 sculptors, six weeks to build using over 30,000 tons of snow

Festivals & events

Imagine whizzing down a mountain and discovering a massive stage graced by the likes of Annie Mac and The Sugarhill Gang – guests at Snowboxx in Avoriaz this March – or Foals, Liam Gallagher and The Streets at Snowbombing in Mayrhofen. If you’ve never been to a mountain festival, it could be time to take the après to the next level via forest parties and fondue, igloo raves and butcher’s shop bashes.

Swiss resort Crans-Montana has launched family festival Etoile Bella Lui (6 December – 5 January), named after a famous fairy of local legend and featuring a craft market, Ferris wheel and Father Christmas plus stories, light shows and street artists doing their thing beside the ice rink. Across the pond, Quebec City is home to the world’s largest winter carnival – if a transatlantic trip is on the cards you could plan it around this February spectacle complete with the ice palace, night parades, snow sculpture and canoe race on the frozen St Lawrence River.

Lech in Austria hosts a traditional market every December with brass bands, choirs, hot punch and whiskey sours; and local boutique hotel Kristiania has the largest collection of Schnapps in Arlberg for those who fancy popping in, plus a contemporary art collection to rival a world-class museum. Lech’s famous White Ring speed race in January sees amateur racers charge around downhill rings and ropeways, or you could celebrate the new decade with the Tanzcafe Arlberg festival in April – all the jazz and swing of the golden-age 1920s, which brought a new avant-garde clientele to the sleepy town. April also marks the fifth year of the Rufi 900 uphill challenge where runners, hikers and cross-country skiers attempt the steepest ski route – the Long Train ‘Lange Zug’ – with any non-motorised equipment.

Off-piste & affordable

In terms of cheaper destinations, it’s worth checking out Jasna – the largest ski resort in Slovakia and the Tatras Mountains region. It offers the best of both worlds with the prices of Eastern Europe and the facilities of France; modern, efficient infrastructure and the sort of ski lifts you find in the big Alpine places, although the ski area isn’t as extensive. The food is good and typically in a mountain restaurant, you’ll pay around £10 for lunch and a drink. Jasna Adventures caters mostly for the UK market and runs accommodation including The Dragon’s Lair Ski Chalet, set in the valley just below the Jasna resort and catering for up to 19 with five en-suite bedrooms, in-house ski hire, sauna, outdoor hot tub, massage and yoga.

A couple of hours’ drive away is Poland’s Zakopane; a beautiful location visited for snow-based fun between January and April. Alternatively, visit spa town and major ski jumping and mountain hiking centre Karpacz. As for Bulgaria, burgeoning Bansko is probably the best choice for beginners and intermediates, with a smaller, more manageable area to traverse and fresh lifts and lodgings. 

Wintersports is developing in Georgia, with new resorts and improved infrastructure. The country’s biggest, most popular spot is Gudauri, north of Tbilisi – food, hotels and lift passes are cheap and it’s an intriguing destination all round. The booze is also grand – see p62 for Jess Connett’s oenophilic explorations. Mountain Heaven has just launched an organised ski holiday to the former Soviet Union country for March 2020 that explores both slopes and cultural history.

Plans are also afoot to build a new destination in Romania’s Fagaras Mountains, which would make a considerable difference to its ski capacity and this season sees Ski Solutions make its first foray into Spain. It’s launching holidays in the Sierra Nevada – a resort known for long hours of winter sunshine, reliable snow and close proximity to historic Granada. On clear days, skiers can admire both the Mediterranean beaches and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and by night it’s widely regarded as one of the best stargazing spots in Europe. We like the sound of a day spent cruising down Sierra Nevada’s 110km pistes (see lead image) and accessible off-piste terrain, before heading out for tapas and paella.

If you’re open to meeting new people and making friends, Action Outdoors, the UK arm of French not-for-profit UCPA, could be a good shout both financially and socially. It has accommodation ‘centres’ across the French Alps, endless options for different sporting levels and all-inclusive full-board packages starting at a few hundred quid per person with passes, hire, lessons and entertainment covered. Accommodation is normally shared in rooms of four, and the centres are a bit like upmarket youth hostels. There are also more affordable family weeks during the notoriously pricier and sought-after school holiday times, in world-class resorts such as Val d’Isère, Tignes, Val Thorens and Chamonix.

New digs & resort news

In Courchevel, France, family-owned ski-in ski-out hotel Le Chabichou is reopening under new management this season, while in Meribel, Maisons Pariente’s five-star Le Coucou launches in December. All-inclusive operator Club Med is also opening its first resort in Canada’s Charlevoix region in 2020 – the 300-room Mountain Resort in Le Massif, an hour from Québec City International Airport, will offer outdoor sports and activities year-round.

Just down the road (in Canadian terms at least), the only hotel in North America entirely made of ice and snow opens for its 2020 run on 2 January. With snow vaults, ice sculptures, an outdoor Nordic spa, ice bar, ice chapel, ice slide and suites redesigned every winter, the Hotel de Glace structure takes 50 workers, including 15 sculptors, six weeks to build using over 30,000 tons of snow.

Meanwhile, Mountain Heaven is launching a new catered chalet in La Plagne 1800, on a peaceful French track, five minutes’ walk from the slopes. Chalet Ammonite sleeps up to 15 in eight en-suite bedrooms and has an outdoor hot tub, log fire, heated boot warmers (never underestimate the beauty of the boot warmer) and balcony overlooking the Tarentaise Valley.

Elsewhere, the Swiss area of Andermatt – renowned for its luxe ski holiday offering – has seen heavy investment over the last 10 years and, having recently joined up with Sedrun, this season Andermatt-Sedrun is to grow larger still with the addition of Disentis village. As well as adding to the runs and slope variety, Disentis has great terrain for guided off-piste – a bonus for those who already enjoy the challenging powder lines in Gemsstock.

Soon Saalbach, Kaprun and Zell am See on Lake Zell, south of Salzburg, are joining together to make the most diverse ski regions in Austria accessible with just one lift ticket. The Ski Alpin Card will allow visitors to enjoy over 400km of well-groomed ski pistes including the glacier skiing of Kaprun, and the final phase of the lift connection from Zell am See to Viehofen will be completed by December.

Time to make tracks
Le Refuge de Solaise, the highest hotel in the French Alps, is opening

The sky-high life

Le Refuge de Solaise is opening fully to become the highest hotel in the French Alps, at 2,551m. Set above Val D’Isère, it will be able to guarantee fresh pistes and five hours more sunlight than any other property in the resort and has 16 hotel rooms, four apartments and a dormitory (the only part of the hotel open in 2018). Relaxation choices include unwinding in the outdoor jacuzzi or sauna or sampling delights from the French restaurant and admiring the views.

Bucket-list experiences

For many (us included), completing a black run without collapsing in a heap is the pinnacle of bucket-list ambition. And that is fine. But there are some souls who observe wistfully when they spot some brave soul coming over the crest of a mountain using a combination of ski skills and paragliding (it’s called speed-riding or speed-flying). The exhilarating experience will have you descending the pistes and flying across canyons and you can sign up for lessons at schools such as Absolute Chamonix, Verbier Summits and Les Ailes du Mont Blanc.

Alternatively, you could try a bit of telemarking, floodlit night skiing or cat skiing – and if you’ve not experienced the simple joy of an alpine snowball fight, that obviously needs to go on the list. Avalanche classes are interesting as well as important for explorers – investigate Mammut Avalanche Training Centre’s courses in Switzerland. It’s also possible to ski volcanoes such as Mount Etna in Sicily, Mount Elbrus in Russia and at Niseko United in Japan if you’re a thrillseeker looking to up the ante.

Try summer skiing by heading to New Zealand any time from July to September and mixing it up with white water rafting, bungee jumping, jet boating and whale watching. Fancy yourself a pioneer? High-end heli-ski experience Ultramarine by Quark is launching in in Antarctica in 2021 for the most adventurous among us. For the first time, they can heli-ski remote peaks while staying on one boat, as the Ultramarine has two helipads offering access to pristine terrain barely been skied before. The Greg Mortimer, which sailed for the first time in October to Antarctica, is launching a multi-day ski expedition in 2020, where explorers can retrace the steps of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s journey across crevassed glaciers on the island South Georgia, besides floating icebergs, penguin rookeries and breaching whales.

After a rise in demand for remote ski safaris, luxury operator Scott Dunn is also running tailored tours through the Italian Dolomites and the world’s largest interconnected ski area. Ski between authentic refugios (mountain cabins) exploring off-grid locations, with luggage transferred from base to base each day. There’s magnificent scenery, varied terrain and a blend of Italian, Austrian and Ladin cultures and cuisine that co-exist in the region.

Not into skiing? Try snowshoeing in the Italian Dolomites’ Alta Badia (image: Freddy Planinschek/Scott Dunn)

Non-skiers & solo explorers

The Alps aren’t just the pretty preserve of those who like to get about on what is essentially a couple of glorified planks; there’s a range of fun fitness-focused and wellness options for non-skiers seeking gorgeous surrounds. At Giardino Mountain, St Moritz, you can get involved in exhilarating winter running through the mountains, ice hockey lessons or the popular Bergün toboggan run. At Adler Mountain Lodge in South Tyrol, there are UNESCO heritage mountain ranges to explore via snowshoe trails – tiring stuff, so it’s probably best to end the day with a soak in the outdoor hot tub under the stars, eh? There’s also loads to do in Crans-Montana for non-skiers – husky sledging, wine tasting, electric mountain biking on snow and winter walking as well as snowshoeing. If you are a skier but getting frustrated by trying to organise a big group trip; why not consider splitting off on your own for a mindful bit of me-time? Solo travel can be liberating and empowering even before you take into account the restorative mountain air. Action Outdoors is a pretty good shout for solo travellers in general but it’s also worth checking out for its specific solo-skier weeks.

Time to make tracks
Carnaval de Quebec
(© Jean-François Hamelin)

Useful Sites
[column size=one_half position=first ]• mendipsnowsport.co.uk
mountainheaven.co.uk[/column][column size=one_half position=middle ]• valcartier.com