Pete Tyler has spent over 25 years in the action sports industry. He’s MD of active holidays specialist Neilson and it’s hard to work out what his biggest passion is – skiing, sailing, surfing, yacht racing, mountain biking…or food and drink.
This just in: the best big ski areas in Europe are not necessarily the biggest any more, thanks to a German guy from Cologne. Christoph Schrahe discovered that the statistics published by many ski resorts and lift companies in Europe about the length of their runs don’t smell as sweet as we had all assumed.
He used Google Earth to measure all the pistes in the top 100 resorts in the world. When compared to the official figures normally quoted, his results were extremely surprising.
For example, The Portes du Soleil dropped from first to fourth place, while the Trois Vallees found itself promoted to the number one spot. So how exactly do you measure the length of a run?
Christoph chose to do what the FIS does when tracking a downhill course and go down the middle, which seems fair to me.
What’s So Good About Big Ski Areas, Anyway?
For many of us, the great advantage of huge piste map covering more than one resort is that they give us the chance to go somewhere each day, to get some mileage beneath our feet, rather than repeatedly skiing the same stretch of mountainside.
Some of the ski areas cross frontiers – such as the Milky Way and the Portes du Soleil – and some of them cover massive distances. As well as the variety of skiing, it goes without saying that there’s a wide choice of mountain restaurants too!
Whichever ski area you choose to stay in, always watch out for bottlenecks in the lift system later on in the afternoon (especially during high season) and plan your day allowing plenty of time to get back to your resort.
In places such as the Sella Ronda and the Trois Vallees, you have to actually complete most of the circuit even if you’re tired and it’s getting late. If you feel you’ve had enough you have to keep going because there’s no handy bus to take you home.
The last place you want to be is in the wrong resort – or worse still, the wrong country – at the end of the skiing day, possibly without your passport, and with a long and expensive taxi ride home that can take hours! In the worst case scenario your best bet is to find a B&B for the night.
Here is my choice of the best of the biggest ski areas, in alphabetical order.
Thanks to our German cartographer friend, quite a number of tourist offices have now revised their piste figures. We’ve given you both, but whichever you believe doesn’t really matter because, either way, the skiing is just great in all of them.
Grandes Rousses Massif (Alpe d’Huez)
238km no longer claimed, new figure 179km
The area offers a huge variety of terrain, both on and off piste. Alpe d’Huez itself is a great place to learn on one of the most extensive areas of nursery slopes in the Alps.
There are miles of linked runs here for intermediates, and it now seems increasingly likely that in 2017/18 we’ll see a lift link to neighbouring Les Deux Alpes. Their combined area of 314km would make this the third largest area in Europe.
The snow sure glacier and wide, open slopes suit all levels of ability and from the top of Pic Blanc there’s some outstanding off-piste skiing as well.
Where to Stay
Chalet Le Lac Blanc I and II (sleep 14 in each) are on the slopes with the main ski-lift and ski school meeting point 30m away.
Tourist Office figure 300km, new figure 236km
Espace Killy is a huge playground with 99 lifts that covers the linked areas of Val d’Isere and Tignes. It is especially recommended for strong intermediates and upwards with its 10,000 hectares of off-piste terrain, but both resorts suit all standards.
In Val, you can access the whole ski area from no less than eight different points along the valley road. Tignes is made up of five separate villages, each of them with direct lift access into the ski area.
This is also one of the most snow sure ski areas in the Alps. Over Christmas 2014, when conditions across the Alps varied mostly from poor to appalling, Espace Killy was skiing well.
High altitude resorts, with glacier skiing going up to 3456m. Plenty to keep intermediate to advanced skiers and boarders entertained for weeks on end.
Le Face de Bellevarde above Val d’Isere is especially good in the morning before too many people have been on it. Arcelle, reached from the top of Solaise, is a thigh-burning descent all the way down into the beautiful Le Manchet Valley. Another run to test your fitness to the full is from the top of the Grande Motte cable-car all the way down to Tignes Val Claret.
Where to Stay
Chalet Les Andes 70m from the piste and with a private swimming-pool in Tignes-le-Lac, or five-bedroom farmhouse-style Chalet La Vieille Maison in Val d’Isere.
Le Grand Massif
265km no longer claimed, new figure 174km
While the figures have been drastically revised, Le Grand Massif is still pretty big! Flaine, at the heart of a giant natural bowl is the most important resort, but the area includes Les Carroz, Samoens, Morillon, and beautiful little Sixt Fer A Cheval.
In Flaine the lifts only go up to 2500m. But its proximity to Mont Blanc usually gives the area exceptional snow cover. It’s an excellent destination for families with young children and there are good nursery slopes in and around the village.
From the 2204m summit of the Tete des Saix, steepish north-facing runs take you down to Samoens. Otherwise you can opt for easier pistes down to Morillon or Les Carroz.
A convenient ski-in ski-out resort that has reliable snow and is perfect for beginners and families.
Any of the runs from the top of Grandes Platieres are good, with fabulous views of Mont Blanc before you get going.
Where to Stay
Hotel Club MMV Le Flaine is in the heart of Flaine Forum and close to the main lifts and the ski school meeting point. It has in-house childcare.
Tourist Office figure 425km, new figure 383km
La Plagne and Les Arcs, both big resorts in their own right, joined forces in 2003 with the construction of the Vanoise Express, a double decker cable-car across the deep mountain gorge that separated them.
La Plagne’s ski area is spread across a high and mainly treeless plateau that’s linked to a huge mountain, the 3417m Bellecote. It’s principally an intermediate ski area although, due to the presence of the Bellecotte, there is some very serious off-piste indeed.
People tend to ignore the fact that La Plagne has challenging terrain for the higher standards of skier and snowboarder, and concentrate on what there is for beginners to intermediates.
In Les Arcs there’s yet more off-piste skiing to be found off the Aiguille Rouge, as well as some fabulous tree skiing towards Vallandry in the valley below.
On the whole, Les Arcs is where you’ll find the steeper piste skiing, but it is also a popular place to learn to ski.
High altitude resorts with snow sure glaciers and a good variety of terrain – both on and off piste – for all standards.
From the top of the Aiguille Rouge all the way down to the gentle slopes of Villaroger. The lower parts of the run make up one of the best long pistes in the area.
Where to Stay
Comfortable Chalet Montagnette 50m from the piste in Belle Plagne, or in the spacious Le Village apartments in car-free Arc 1950.
Portes du Soleil
650km no longer claimed, new figure 372km
The Portes du Soleil is a collection of a dozen ski villages straddling the border between France and Switzerland close to Lac Leman.
Herr Schahre doesn’t accept that it can be described as just one ski area because of the long walking distance between some of the valley lifts (and other small areas aren’t actually linked on snow). This accounts for the giant discrepancy.
But it’s still a vast and varied playground, with 193 ski lifts, 10 terrain parks and oodles of off-piste possibilities.
It would be one of the world’s greatest ski areas if only it were a bit higher – the top altitude is 2466m and the lowest point 1000m. Avoriaz has the highest snowfall average in France and therefore the best snow cover of the resorts here.
It’s got to be The Swiss Wall if I really want to test myself! The notorious mogul field goes all the way down from Avoriaz in France to Les Crosets in Switzerland.
Where to Stay
Retro-chic Hotel les Dromonts in Avoriaz, friendly Hotel le Dahu in Morzine, or the small but beautifully restored La Ferme du Montagne in Les Gets.
400km no longer claimed, new figure 252km
Via Lattea – or Milky Way – straddles the border between Italy and France and is located between Briancon and Turin. It has 71 lifts in total and is an excellent place for intermediates wanting high mileage without anything too tricky along the way.
Seven resorts share the ski area: Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere in Italy, and Montgenevre in France are the best known. But you can add to that the Italian resorts of Sansicario, Cesana, Claviere, and Pragelato.
Although everything is linked up, the lifts vary enormously, from the fast and modern to some which are pretty slow. This makes the journey between, say, Sauze d’Oulx and Montgenevre, one that you can’t do in a hurry.
Long and well pisted runs suit intermediates best of all. And there are some excellent and good-value places to eat all over the mountain.
The Women’s Olympic downhill run – number 79 – from Monte Fraiteve (near Sauze d’Oulx) to Sansicario is wide, fast, and one of the longest in the Milky Way.
In Sestriere, the red runs in the Amphiteatro bowl and the blacks at the top of Sises – including the men’s World Cup downhill course – and Motta above Sestriere are all good choices.
Soureou red from the Italian border towards Montgenevre has fantastic views at the top, then it’s tree-lined until it reaches a choice of black and blue options to the bottom.
Where to Stay
Family-run Hotel Stella Alpina in Sauze d’Oulx, the sophisticated Hotel Cristallo opposite the main pistes in Sestriere, and ten-person Chalet Chaberton which sleeps up to 10 people in Montgenevre.
Tourist Office figure 270km, new figure 197km
The main circuit of Saalbach-Hinterglemm is made up of blue and red pistes which are steeper than average, and can be skied in either direction. If you get tired you can head down to the valley and catch the bus home rather than complete the whole thing.
In fresh snow conditions, there are some good off-piste runs above the trees right along the valley. Make sure you book a guide to show you the way!
Excellent ski schools, nursery slopes in both villages, and gentle green and blue runs make it a great destination for beginners. The mountain restaurants are good, too.
The Nordabfahrt drops down over 1000 vertical metres and tends to keep its snow well. It’s a wide run that’s usually well maintained.
Where to Stay
The all-inclusive Alpin Resort & Spa with its indoor/outdoor pool in Saalbach, or ski-in ski-out Hotel Alpin Juwel in Hinterglemm complete with kids club and heated outdoor swimming-pool.
Tourist Office figure 365km, new figure 310km
This corner of Italy is home to the world’s biggest lift pass. The Dolomiti Superski pass gives access to 450 lifts and over 1200km of piste.
The famous Sella Ronda circuit with its 26km of downhill can take up to six hours to complete, depending on lift queues and weather conditions. It’s not difficult and anyone who can ski parallel can manage it. However there’s plenty of other skiing on the fringes of the circuit.
You can stay at a choice half a dozen different villages, ranging from larger Selva Gardena to the smaller villages of Corvara and Arabba. All of them with the incredible backdrop of the Dolomite mountains that turn rose pink at dusk.
But wherever you’re staying, one charming village leads to another by lifts and a network of runs. These give you a real feeling of travelling somewhere each day, rather than repeating the same stretch of mountainside again and again.
The runs are all long here, but the one with the biggest vertical is from Punta Rocca at the top of the Marmolada cable-car at 3269m down to Malga Ciapela with a vertical drop of nearly 2000m.
Aside from the mainly intermediate runs, the area also has some of the steepest off-piste skiing you will find anywhere in the Alps. From Passo Pordoi to the terrain around Arabba, there are some narrow couloirs that should only be tackled in the company of a mountain guide.
One of the most spectacular off-piste descents in the Arabba area – indeed in the whole of the Alps – is the Val di Mezdi. Nearby is Canale Holzer, one of the steepest and narrowest couloirs in Europe.
The Sella Ronda circuit suits all standards and is surrounded by magnificent scenery. The mountain restaurants are fabulous.
The Saslong racecourse above Selva is a good piste, which goes from the Ciampinoi gondola down to neighbouring village of Santa Cristina.
Where to Stay
In the luxurious Sporthotel in Arabba, the comfortable slopeside Hotel Greif in Corvara, or family-run Hotel Flora in Selva.
Tourist Office figure 280km, new figure 237km
You get up the mountain from Soll by two-stage gondola, which brings you to Hohe Salve and the highest point of the linked ski area.
There are some great beginner slopes and endless expanses of intermediate skiing. However, this is definitely not an area for experts, unless there’s been a recent big dump enabling you to go off-piste, as the skiing is all pretty benign here.
People who still have the energy after the day’s skiing, can spend the evening on the slopes of Austria’s largest night-skiing area in Soll, with a 3km run to the valley and three more runs in Hochsoll.
The area is an intermediates’ delight, linking eight villages. Soll itself has an award-winning ski school.
The most challenging skiing is on Lärchenhang, to the north of Hohe Salve, which is a short and sharp run.
Where to Stay
Sporthotel in Ellmau on the edge of the village and close to the nursery slopes, or Tirolean-style Sporthotel Moedlinger in Soll.
Tourist Office figure 600km, new figure 495km
The world’s biggest linked ski area is also one of the most popular, with villages to suit every taste, ranging from chic Courchevel to Les Menuires lower down the price scale and high-altitude Val Thorens. Right in the middle in terms of location is Meribel – the so-called heart of the 3 Valleys.
The 3 Valleys is one of the best places to learn in the Alps, with excellent nursery slopes on your doorstep in Courchevel and Meribel in particular, and free beginner slopes next to the village in Val Thorens.
The off-piste is excellent too, with Mont Vallon the pick of the pack near Meribel. There’s also some great tree-skiing in Courchevel and La Tania (good for those bad weather days), and snow-sure skiing on the glacier above Val Thorens.
Expert skiers with a head for heights can try one of the famous Courchevel Couloirs, reached by cable-car from the main piste hub.
Quieter areas include the Pointe de la Masse above Les Menuires and the ‘Fourth Valley’ above Orelle over the back of Val Thorens.
But intermediates are the best served of all in this vast area, with mile upon mile of wide and flattering slopes and tempting little forays down to the smaller villages such as St Martin de Belleville.
The seemingly endless choice of pistes for good intermediate to advanced skiers and boarders.
Combe de la Saulire in Courchevel is a great run. From the top you can ski down to Le Praz or even, if you’re lucky with the snow, all the way to St Bon at 1100m or even to Bozel at 870m.
The Jerusalem piste, just above St Martin de Belleville, has lovely rolling terrain, gorgeous mountain views, and there’s not a modern building in sight – just old mountain huts.
Where to Stay
Eight-bedroom Chalet Chardonnet overlooking Meribel centre, eight-bedroom Chalet Reberty part of a small hamlet in Reberty-les-Menuires, or the recently-renovated Hotel le Fitzroy right in the centre of Val Thorens.
How Was It For You?
In skiing terms, if you are a strong intermediate or above, big really is beautiful. That’s not to say that you can’t have an incredible time in a small resort that has just a handful of lifts – some of my best days ever have been in villages that few people have every heard of.
But on a week’s holiday many of us feel you need the variety of terrain that these giant linked areas have to offer. So which of these big and beautiful areas your favourite? Let me know by leaving a comment below.