On our first day of snowboarding in the fabled French village of Chamonix, my husband, Matt, and I were feeling the burn. It appeared that tooling around dinky ski hills in Ontario was not sufficient preparation for riding the highest peak in the European Alps. Having indulged so willingly in the gastronomy of Paris the day before probably didn’t help, either. But we had no regrets. After my third face-plant I looked up at Matt, who was sitting on his butt and panting hard. Both of us were grinning as wide as the corners of our mouths would allow. This was going to be a truly unforgettable vacation.
Don’t get me wrong — there are some great places to ski and snowboard in Canada, and you don’t have to endure an overnight flight across the Atlantic to get to them. But you’d better plan on hitting the slopes a lot, or you’ll be bored, bored, bored. With their gas-and-glass fireplaces and high-priced souvenir shops, most North American resorts have all the character of a shopping mall. “If you’re not into snow sports or clubbing, you’re kind of in the lurch if you go to Whistler,” says George Koch, the Calgary-based western editor of Ski Canada magazine.
In contrast, Europe offers not only the best skiing in the world, but lots of cultural experiences as well. Visit Innsbruck, Austria, for example, and you have your pick of seven ski areas, plus the chance to explore architectural treasures such as the Imperial Court Palace, listen to live opera, visit 18 art museums and soak up the city’s medieval history. Hop in a rental car, and romantic Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, is two hours away.
Europe also offers surprisingly good value. In fact, anyone who lives outside British Columbia can ski in the Alps for no more than a trip to Whistler, Canada’s most popular ski resort. Seven nights in Innsbruck, airfare and land transfers, six-day lift passes, two meals per day and taxes included, costs about $1,640 in January. A similar vacation in Whistler, minus the meal plan, will run most non-B.C. residents more than $1,700.
Europe is the perfect choice if you’re a novice skier or if you’re married to one. On the slopes, all skill levels, from beginner to adrenaline junkie, co-exist in complete harmony, which is a nice change from many of North America’s most frequented snow spots. And if you’ve never skied or boarded before, but want to give it a try, most Alpine hotels have in-house instructors who will happily book you in for your first group or individual lesson.
What about jet lag? If you’re flying from Western Canada, you can cut down on your travel time by avoiding Toronto and flying directly from Vancouver or Calgary to Frankfurt or London, then catching a connecting flight from there. And, no matter where you’re from, you can take the sting out of adjusting to a new time zone by starting your ski vacation with two or three days of gentle sight-seeing in a nearby city rather than immediately hitting the slopes. If you ski or snowboard in Chamonix, for instance, you can usually add an overnight side trip to Geneva (about an hour away) for $80 per person per day, based on double occupancy. Since our snowboarding vacation was also our honeymoon, we decided to splurge on a side trip to Paris ($225 per person for the first night, $140 per person for each additional night). Predictably, on the first night we fell into bed, exhausted, at about 7:30, but after two more days in Paris we were completely jet lag free and ready to tackle the legendary Mont Blanc.
The homey atmosphere you’ll find in Europe is a relief from the more stand-offish North American model. In Whistler, for instance, most skiers dine in their kitchenette-equipped condos or hotel rooms. But small, older European hotels in the Alps tend to be more social. “You’re more likely to see everybody down in the dining room for dinner,” says Iain MacMillan, Ski Canada magazine’s editor-in-chief.
The added bonus is that supping in your hotel’s dining room can save you money. Koch recommends signing up for your tour operator’s half-meal plan, which entitles you to breakfast and dinner daily at your hotel. It’ll add $25 a day to the cost of your tour package, but it’ll easily save you $75 a night on dinners. If you crave variety, some operators offer a “dine around” option, which allows you to “buy” dinner at other restaurants in the village with a special voucher.
In the end, you may decide, as we did, that there’s no need to go outside your hotel to sample different flavors. At La Prieure, the un-fancy but cosy chalet where we stayed, there was a markedly different menu every night. Our favorite featured Chamonix’s signature dish, an earthenware crock mounded with smoked bacon and potatoes under a molten blanket of the local semisoft cheese called Reblochon.
“The dining alone in the Alps is a wonderful aspect,” Koch says. “The on-mountain restaurants at their best are as good or better than any in Whistler village.”
And speaking of mountains, let’s talk some more about the skiing, which is nothing less than phenomenal. There’s a huge variety of terrain, not just the corduroy-groomed slopes that dominate North American resorts. European runs are well-marked with colored poles all the way down, so it’s impossible to get lost. (A tip for one-plankers: avoid the green runs even if you’re a novice, as they tend to be too flat for snowboarding.) If you’re feeling adventurous, no one will stop you from going off-piste alone, but you’d do better to find a few like-minded skiers and split the cost of a guide ($200 to $300 a day) who’ll lead you down the unmarked parts of the mountain. “With a guide, you can see things in Europe that you would never, ever see in Canada — spectacular runs that take you hours to come down,” MacMillan says. “Where else can you spend the entire afternoon skiing one run?”
Click here to find out how to get the most out of a European winter vacation.