Champoluc is part of Monterosa Ski, which is Italy’s very own Three Valleys. The area is home to the most underrated skiing in the Alps – both on-piste and off.
Simon Brown runs the Ski 2 British ski school in Champoluc, which is run exclusively for the guests of the Hampshire-based tour operator Ski 2. For nearly 20 years this cute, underdeveloped village in the Aosta Valley has been home to Simon and his wife Ruth.
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Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
Champoluc isn’t your average ski resort. It’s not bursting with apartment blocks and glittering big-brand boutiques. It doesn’t attract the fur-clad entourages of the super-rich. Set in a pretty, wooded valley, edged with soaring peaks, it still feels – and looks – like a village, with a character and purpose beyond winter sports: and it’s a lovely place to live and raise a family.
So what’s really surprising about it is that fact that it’s attached to such a big and exciting ski area. Called the Monterosa, it spreads across three valleys and takes its name from the mighty Monterosa massif at its northern end.
Offering 180km of piste (currently being reviewed by the resort – 73km is the linked skiing according to the Schrahe Report), and vast areas of off-piste skiing in between, it’s also the setting for the largest heli-skiing area in the Alps. And yet it’s never acquired the celebrity of areas like the Three Valleys in France, or the Arlberg in Austria.
Why? It’s probably a combination of two factors: the relatively undeveloped piste network, and the unpredictable nature of the climate. The groomed and way marked skiing is a perfectly respectable size, overall: but it includes three sectors which are unconnected to the main the ski area, so it doesn’t have the endless-skiing atmosphere you get in the big ski circuses. Meanwhile, the snowfall tends to come in glorious spells of endless powder, or not at all.
Thanks to an excellent network of snow-cannons, and painstaking overnight grooming, that doesn’t affect the holidays of your average piste skier. But it does mean that off-pisters can’t just turn up willy-nilly and expect to be skiing waist-deep snow.
Instead, it seems destined to always be the ski area on the brink of the big time. “Europe’s Best-Kept Secret!” or “The Next Big Thing in Alpine Skiing” is how it’s usually described. All of this is about to change, with plans happroved to link Frachey by two-stage cable-car to the Plateau Rosa above Cervinia. When the international scheme finally goes ahead, you will be able to ski/travel by lift all the way from Zermatt’s Sunnegga area to Alagna and it will become one of the largest ski areas in the world. Read our feature about it here.
Families love the quiet pistes and unhurried atmosphere
For many piste-skiers, of course, the lack of celebrity is a big bonus. Lift queues are a rarity, and you don’t have to keep glancing over your shoulder when you ski – to make sure some adrenaline-junky speed-freak isn’t about to come blasting across your path.
Families like it too: especially if they’re Brits and they’re skiing with my ski school! There’s nothing quite like proper, English-speaking tuition to help ease you into the sport.
For both groups Champoluc is the best base from which to tackle the area. It’s home to the best nursery slopes, and has just enough apres-ski to fuel the odd after-hours celebration for the grown-ups. There’s a good mix of hotels too – and prices are noticeably lower than they are in the A-list resorts of France, Switzerland and Austria.
Meanwhile, off-pisters should keep their eyes on the snow forecast – and budget for a guide. The weather pattern to look out for is low pressure in the gulf of Genoa.
These storm systems tend to muscle into the western end of the Italian Alps, and then roll eastwards, and can often dump a metre of snow on the Monterosa in a couple of days. They tend to come in clumps too – so you might get two or three during a one-month period.
Much less promising is the more frequent kind of storm that hits the Alps from the north-west. That’s great news for French resorts: but often, the snow doesn’t fall much beyond the Italian border.
At the start of each winter, it’s impossible to say which sort of weather is going to predominate, but if you can move at the last minute, and follow the snow, then the Monterosa belongs high on your hit list of possible destinations.
Guide to the Mountain
The real draw here is for advanced and expert skiers and boarders – and if the snow’s good, this is one of the world’s greats. Not only is the terrain within each of the three valleys superb, but it’s backed up by what’s available to heli-skiers on the Monterosa massif – which is home to ten peaks over 4000m.
But that’s not to say energetic piste skiers won’t have fun here.
Most Intermediates Love It – Provided They Stay in Champoluc
The 180km of pistes declared by the lift company may sound like a lot – but given the VAST area encompassed by Monterosa, there should be much more. Usually, there are only a couple of runs down from a lift, and you can count all the pistes above Alagna – in the eastern-most valley – on the fingers of one hand. In fact, the mileage is in part made up by pistes which don’t connect to the main system.
That said, those pistes that do exist are of exceptional quality, and are uncrowded – most are reds, so you should have at least a couple of trips under your belt before you have a crack at them.
Champoluc is the best base for intermediates, but if you are staying here, make sure you ski over to the far side of Gressoney, because some of the best runs are up there.
Gressoney is just as good as far as access to the pistes goes, but it lacks Champoluc’s atmosphere. For a short break, bear in mind that accommodation in Gressoney isn’t in such high demand and is often sold on a more flexible basis.
The video above will give you an idea of how wide and empty the pistes are. Yes, it was taken in January, but the area never gets crowded like some of the better-known ski areas in the Alps.
Awesome Terrain for Experts
If you do luck into the right conditions, however, you’ll have a blast here. Gressoney is the best base for experts, because it gives the quickest access to the full range of Monterosa skiing. Yes – that means missing out on the charm of Champoluc (and the Cafe Rimbaud’s collection of tequilas). But you’ll get dinner in the lovely Capanna Carla restaurant (+39 0125 366130) by way of compensation.
If you are feeling salty enough for a crack at the freeriding, you really need to hire a guide, because Monterosa’s relative lack of pistes means that the number of escape routes out of the powder is severely limited. You’ll be much better off with someone to show you the best routes.
If the snow’s good, this is one of the world’s great freeriding areas – home not just to fantastic slopes within the three valleys of Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna, but also the mighty Monterosa massif. This is the largest lump of rock in the Alps, and at least 10 peaks along its ridgeline rise above the magic 4000m mark. No expert skier should ignore its siren call. Not surprisingly, there’s a big heli-skiing scene here.
Where to Learn
The local Champoluc ski school, Scuola Sci Champoluc, as well as offering ski and snowboarding tuition to adults and children, also runs freeride classes for between one and four people. Ski 2 British ski school has mainly native English-speaking instructors so there’s no chance of a language barrier there. Gressoney has its own ski school, Scuola Sci Gressoney, as does Alagna with its Scuola Sci Alagna – both offer group and private lessons.
Gressoney and the Monte Rosa is the largest and most diversified heli-ski spot in the Alps, with more than 22 landings around the Monte Rosa. The mountain guiding companies here are Lyskamm Viaggi and Guide Monterosa, offering ski-touring and held-skiing. You can also book through heli-ski specialist, Luex.
Travelling British ski school Snoworks also visits Gressoney each winter, to run popular backcountry skiing courses – usually in January or early February. Guides from the Monterosa provide invaluable local knowledge about safety and terrain, while the Snoworks instructors focus on technique and tactics. A few years ago, Warren Smith Ski Academy started running five- and seven-day ski courses in the resort. Warren has a course in March 2018.
Family Skiing is in Complete Contrast to the Tough Off-Piste
Champoluc has Monterosa’s best beginner runs and is the village families should aim for. The Ski 2 Penguin Club is staffed by British-qualified nannies and accepts children from three months to skiing age, seven days a week. There’s also a ski school with BASI instructors for five hours a day for kids aged four to 18 years. Scuola Sci Champoluc accepts children from five years old.
At Stafal, above Gressoney-La-Trinite, Hotel Monboso (+39 0125 366302) cares for children from four to eight years. In Gressoney, skiers over six years must join Scuola Sci Gressoney’s adult classes. Scuola Sci Alagna accepts children from three years of age.
In Alagna there are two novice areas, one called Wold with a beginners lift and basic slope, and the other a children’s play area up at the mid-station. The latter is suitably positioned so that parents can grab some food and drink whilst watching their children having fun. Alagna doesn’t have a creche, but babysitters can be arranged on request.
Where to Stay
There are three separate valleys. Alagna, in the east, is for experts, Gressoney, in the middle, is for weekenders, heli-skiers and mixed groups, and Champoluc, in the west, is for families and everyone else.
Champoluc is also the prettiest. Actually the Val d’Ayas is one of the prettiest valleys in all the Alps – a striking mix of the rugged crags, unspoilt villages and sheltered farmland. There are several villages scattered along its length, but the one you want to aim for is Champoluc, where you’ll find the lifts to whisk you into the heart of the Monterosa system.
It’s a great place for people who are looking for a change from the usual Alpine megaplexes – without having to go the whole hog and check into a one-bar village full of bearded Scandinavian extreme-skiers (head to Alagna for that). The Scandy-types you’ll find here are far more fun-loving.
There’s precious little here in the way of the classic catered chalets – most accommodation is in hotels, with a scattering of self-catering apartments, as well as the odd hostel and bed and breakfast. One new B&B is Le Petit Coeur, which is an eight-minute walk from the bottom of the main lift. As its name suggests, the charming property has a heart theme throughout.
For those seeking a bit of luxury the best place to stay is the boutique hotel La Rouja, which is in a great position in the centre of the resort. It’s decorated using all natural materials and local hand-crafted furniture.
New last winter was CampZero, a pioneering resort-hotel constructed with great attention to detail. Its spa uses Gemology products that channel the power of beneficial minerals contained in precious stones. The restaurant serves delicious cuisine created with fresh, seasonal ingredients from the area – including aromatic vegetables and herbs grown in the hotel’s own gardens. There’s an indoor/outdoor climbing wall, two Tesla charging stations in the garage, and an in-house helicopter platform gives access to heli-skiing directly from your bedroom.
Relais des Glaciers isn’t particularly close to the lifts, but has immaculately-kept rooms and friendly staff. You’ll get a lot more luxury for your cash here than in the Three Valleys or Val d’Isere.
Le Rocher is a highly-rated four-star, with hard-working owners. It’s a ten-minute walk from the lifts, although there is a minibus transfer each morning. Hotel Castor is another recommended hotel, seven minutes’ walk from the lifts. It has been run by four generations of the same family since 1907. The bedrooms are all attractively wood-panelled and there’s a cosy bar and restaurant.
The unusual Hotel California is decorated with 1960s music memorabilia. The owners built the hotel based on their love of music and it plays a big part in the running of their establishment. Each of the 12 bedrooms is designed around a different singer or band – Bob Dylan, John Denver, the Doors, Janis Joplin for example. The Elvis Presley room has a bed-head carved in the shape of a Cadillac with indicators as bedside lights.
Hotellerie de Mascognaz is a gorgeous little retreat in the middle of nowhere up the mountain, reached by 4WD or snowmobile. It consists of 23 rooms in a variety of styles and sizes in different chalets, plus a spa and two restaurants – all within the old hamlet of Mascognaz.
Rascard Frantze is a lovely old wooden barn mounted on traditional mushroom-shaped stones – originally an ingenious way of keeping vermin away from grain. The building has been converted into a chalet-hotel that manages to retain all its rural charm. It is located along a short off-piste track from the top of the gondola down to the village, so you have to be able to ski in order to stay here.
All the bedrooms are completely different from each other – and the property is available by the room or for exclusive use. The hotel also happens to contain one of the best restaurants in the area, which is housed in an old cattle shed.
The nearest airports for Champoluc are Milan Malpensa (168km) and Turin Caselle (105km), and it’s roughly the same to Gressoney. Alagna is slightly further from both airports. Geneva Airport is also a possibility – a slightly longer 200km distance away. Monterosa Shuttle is a transfer service to the area from Milan and Turin, and the nearest railway stations are Verres for Champoluc, Pont St Martin for Gressoney, and Varallo for Alagna.
Gressoney is Rugged, Dramatic, and Full of Hard-Core Skiers
The two villages of Gressoney Saint-Jean and Gressoney La-Trinite sit in the central valley of the Monterosa ski area, right underneath the mighty massif of Monte Rosa – home to the second highest peak in the Alps. It’s actually quite a forbidding place – narrow, steep-sided and utterly dominated by the sky-high lump of rock – and it’s all the better for it. This is one of those destinations that makes the pulse quicken.
You’re either going to love it or hate it. You’ll love it if you’ve come for high-octane skiing and boarding – and early nights – and you luck into some good snow conditions. You’ll hate it if you’re looking for an Italian version of Meribel.
Actually, there are some creature comforts to be found here – notably the lovely Capanna Carla restaurant (+39 0125 366130) which is right at the far end of the valley. But mostly this is place for off-pisters, weekenders, and heli-skiers.
The Dufour is home to the heli-skiing brigade. The well-kept, three-star is close to the lift, with a good bar and fairly basic rooms. Crucially, it’s owned by Carlo, the valley’s top ski guide, and it’s the meeting point for days out with his team. Which means you get extra duvet time – compared with skiers staying in other hotels – on the days you’ve booked a session with him.
Ellex Hotel is a slope-side bio-hotel created using all natural materials – the roof, for instance, is solid wood with natural cork for insulation. The hotel’s 20 bedrooms are all named after Alpine flowers, have wooden floors and goose down duvets. The in-house Telcio restaurant is a welcoming refuge furnished with wooden tables and benches; it has old beams and the walls are clad with broad fir panels.
Alagna is for Off-Pisters Only
Don’t come here unless you’re really serious about your skiing and boarding – and even then only come here if you know it’s been snowing. If you time it right, however, you’ll have bragging rights for years to come. This is one of the great hard-core skiing destinations – on a par with La Grave and Chamonix.
Hotel Cristallo is strangely chic for such a hard-core destination. This is obviously the class act in town, looking more like a city-centre boutique property than an Alpine hideaway.
Hotel Monterosa is Alagna’s original hotel, built in 1865, and it’s convenient for getting to the ski area and skiing back to the door at the end of the day. It looks a bit basic to us, but its La Stube restaurant is in the historic Margherita room, maintained in period style, and the Caffe delle Guide can be reached directly from the hotel. Charmes Homes has a selection of delightful little apartments for rent in some of the village’s private houses.
Where to Eat
Many of the hotels in Champoluc have good restaurants, but if you want to eat out in the evening there are plenty of places serving typical Aosta Valley produce. Don’t forget to try the local wines while you’re here.
Le Sapin (+39 0125 307598) has good food at reasonable prices, while Favre (+39 0125 307131) features local game. Hotel Villa Anna Maria serves simple mountain food and has an exceptional wine list – all in cosy wood-panelled surroundings. Atelier Gourmand (+39 0125 307888) is rustic yet elegant, and close to the Champoluc funicular. The chef creates traditional dishes in an imaginative way.
Our favourite in Champoluc is Ristorante L’Essentiel da Andreone (+39 339 425 6102), on the main street through the village. It is a cosy little place with charming staff and delicious cuisine.
Hot on its heels is La Grange, 1km from Champoluc. It’s a typical Valdostana restaurant near the base of the Frachey gondola and open at lunchtime as well as in the evening. It serves delicious antipasti (small starters), whilst the pasta and meat dishes are delicious, too. Also at Frachey, Le Petit Coq (+39 0125 307997) is elegant-rustic, and serves Valdostana cuisine such as pierrade, bagna calda and Valdostana fondue. Casa Nostra (+39 0125 307566) at Ayas is another elegant-rustic place with great food.
You can have dinner at Stadel Soussun, which is set in a hamlet above Champoluc and can be reached on skis from the Frachey area. However, you can only leave by the restaurant’s private piste-basher, which takes you back onto the blue run at Frachey. It’s a great place for a long lunch – don’t miss the gorgeous chestnuts in honey served with local dried meats. In the evening you arrive by gondola from Champoluc and are then transported onwards to the hamlet by private snowcat.
In Alagna, Ristorante Bar Unione (+39 0163 922930) is a family-run bar-restaurant in the resort’s old theatre. Pizzeria Dir und Don (+39 0163 922642) is attractively decorated and has two sections: one which is mainly pizzas and pasta, and the other is more formal with really excellent food.
In the hamlet of Dosso, a short uphill walk from Alagna, is Trattoria Fum Diss, which has been serving home-cooked food including local game, Toma cheese, braised beef and polenta for many years.
In Gressoney, Norkapp (+39 0125 355096) is one of the top restaurants in the valley. The menu includes fresh pasta dishes and an extensive list of regional and Italian wines. Lo Stambecco (+39 0125 355201) has fine grilled steaks and lamb, as well as a pizza oven.
Campo Base (+39 0347 3780565), at the top of the Mandria lift above Frachey, offers traditional local cuisine – and once a week (on Thursdays) there’s a special Tibetan Menu. La Mandria, nearby, is a friendly place with delicious home-made pasta. Also in the Frachey area is Le Petit Coq (+39 0125 307997) which serves everything from fondue to game. Osteria Il Balivo (+39 0125 308036), near the Champoluc lift base, has an open fire and serves regional dishes such as millefoglie with game ragù and blue cheese fondue, agnolotti with beef, apples and walnuts.
Rifugio Aroula is a lovely rustic place which is considered to be one of the five best eateries in the Aosta Valley. Le Rascard Frantze is another of the top restaurants in the area, located inside an old wooden barn and serving simple but very tasty dishes.
Where to Party
You don’t come to the Monterosa area for rocking bars and banging clubs, for this is a region with a happy, laid-back vibe. You could start your apres-ski on the slopes at Rifugio Belvedere and Bruno’s Bar (+39 0349 941 0803). We’ve also had a great night sampling vintage tequila in the Caffe Rimbaud (+39 0125 307096) in Champoluc.
It serves a good selection of other cocktails, too. Local favourite, Atelier Gourmand (+39 0125 307888), is a popular bar next to the lifts. The Crest Bar is where to head for a beer.
In Stafal, the Wunder Bar is the main gathering point after skiing. In Gressoney try the Bierfall (+39 0333 692 7413) in St Jean, and Hotel Dufour’s bar in La Trinite. Try the regional cocktail, Fil d’Fer, which is a mandarin orange punch with a hint of cloves – served hot.
Later On There’s a Bit of Live Music
Pub Il Golosone (+39 0125 308747) has live music and Hotel California has a saloon bar with live bands performing occasionally. Lo Bistro (+39 0125 941066) has an occasional disco too, and serves free pizza and snacks after skiing each day. The alternatives is Herman’s Music Nights each Tuesday in Hotel Castor. Incidentally, the Castor also offers yoga and pilates classes.
In Alagna, however, you’d better bring your own company. Otherwise you might get stuck with a bunch of bearded Scandinavian blokes singing Beatles songs round a guitar.
Champoluc shops in the main square selling crafts and souvenirs, including the traditional sabots (hand-made wooden clogs), and figurines of shepherds and animals. There are snowshoe walks are on offer in the area.
Champoluc’s eco-adventure park is close to the bottom of Del Bosco piste coming back into town, and is open at Easter – weather permitting. It has routes through the woods with ladders, bridges and ropes, and is open to everyone – including children over six years of age.
What Do You Think?
Having read the post above, you’ll have a good idea whether Champoluc might be the right resort for your ski holiday. Or perhaps you’ve already been to the Monterosa Ski area and would like to share some of your own tips on the resorts and the skiing? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Also read our feature on what will soon become the Second Biggest Ski Area in the World.