Find the right resort, and Christmas can be a wonderful time for a ski holiday. Fairly lights in the streets, forests hushed and heavy with snow, a glass of Gluhwein by a log fire: these can all be part and parcel of Christmas in the mountains – with lashings of skiing on top.
And, at the end of the day, when you come back to your chalet or chalet hotel, someone else will be doing the cooking and washing up. Who knows? Bing Crosby may even be playing on the music system as you help yourself to another mince pie.
The only pity about Christmas ski holidays is they come early in the season, which can cause problems with the snow cover in low-lying resorts. So if you’re worried about the white stuff there is a simple expedient: build some altitude into your plans, and make sure your chosen resort has a good snow-making system. Above 2000m the snow cannons will be able to compensate for Mother Nature’s shortfall.
“But what about the festive meal, Christmas tree, crackers and presents?” I hear you say. Turkey with all the trimmings is available in every chalet or chalet-hotel, although Christmas lunch becomes Christmas dinner so it doesn’t get in the way of the skiing.
Meanwhile, in European hotels, the big gala dinner is usually on the night of December 24, and often adds a local twist to the celebrations, with traditional music and carols.
Just remember to be sensible about presents. This is not be the Christmas to give your children new bikes. Think “small and interesting” instead: maybe something that they can use on the trip, like walkie-talkies. And remember shops in the resort can help with last-minute skier-friendly stocking fillers.
So, where should you go? There are lots more options which are either high-altitude or romantic – or both.
Here are some of the best.
Obergurgl is set around a fine church at 1930m at the far end of the high, cold Ötz Valley close to Italy. It’s an easy drive from Innsbruck: and has been family favourite for generations. It’s a safe little village, uncrowded because its location at the end of a valley, with gentle and unthreatening skiing at a snow-sure altitude. Just to be on the safe side, however, 99% of the pistes are covered by snow-making equipment.
Christmas Plus Points: High and snowsure, family-friendly village, remote location deters crowds.
This is where to come for a more grown-up Christmas with lots of snow-sure skiing and some of the best apres-ski in the Alps. Much of Ischgl’s ski area is between 2500 and 2872m, and it’s backed up by a state-of-the-art snow-making system. As a result, last winter it was able to offer good skiing in early December when other resorts were struggling. In fact, the season here lasts from November to May.
Then there’s the added interest of a cross-border link on piste to duty-free Samnaun in the Swiss Engadin.
The former farming village houses some smart hotels, huge spas and vibrant bars. An airport-style pedestrian walkway, cut through the rock, provides fast access to pistes, shops and restaurants – regardless of where you’re staying.
Christmas Plus Points: Snowsure, excellent snowmaking, lively apres-ski.
The medieval silver-mining town of Kitzbuhel, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Wilderkaiser mountains, is one of the most enchanting ski towns in the Alps and therefore a perfect Christmas destination.
The only downside is the altitude (760m), although skiing conditions are normally adequate at this time of year. You do take a risk but, as Christmas destination, it’s the overall atmosphere that makes it so special.
The cobbled main street of the pedestrianised centre within the buttressed city walls is lined with magnificent frescoed and pastel-painted buildings. It’s a real pleasure just to wander the streets and pop into the odd shop or old-fashioned coffee house at leisure – and the nightlife is fun, too.
There’s plenty of terrain to try – not least the famous Hahnenkamm racecourse, and the Kitzbuhel area links to the vast SkiWelt via Kirchberg and Westendorf. However, the lovely village is just as good a destination for non-skiers as it is for skiers.
Christmas Plus Points: Village atmosphere, good apres-ski and eating out.
Santa Claus arrives on skis in Meribel, a resort that was founded by a Brit – Colonel Peter Lindsay – back in 1938. He decreed that all development should be in strict stone-and-wood style Savoyard and his wishes have been more-or-less adhered to over the years.
The large chalet-style resort is the most central and convenient base for exploring the giant Trois Vallees ski area and stretches in different sectors up the mountain from Meribel Village at 1400m to the top of Meribel Mottaret at 1800m.
The main village of Meribel at 1450m is the heart of the resort which houses most of the shops, restaurants, and La Chaudanne lift hub. Mottaret is the highest satellite at 1750m on the road above Meribel and is a convenient base for anyone wanting doorstep skiing and the most reliable snow-cover.
The skiing rises to 2952m on the Mont du Vallon at the end of the valley, and there are even more snowsure slopes if you hop over into high-altitude Val Thorens in the Belleville valley, next door.
Christmas Plus Points: Extensive skiing, reasonable altitude.
In Val d’Isere, Father Christmas arrives by helicopter, after skiing on December 24, distributing sweets and chocolates as he goes. For this is a resort that takes Christmas very seriously, and you’ll be sure of getting snow here too. For Val has an excellent snow record and modern lift system, as well as the largest snow-making operations in the Alps.
It was once a destination mainly for intermediates to experts, but it is now a good spot for beginners too – thanks to the reshaping of the Solaise mountain for the 2015-16 season. During the summer, the mountain top was flattened out by bulldozers and has now become a good learning area.
The resort’s dedicated fans – and they are legion – consider that Val and adjoining Tignes have the best off-piste skiing in Europe. There’s also a busy nightlife, as you’d expect in a resort of this size and sophistication.
Christmas Plus Points: High altitude, guaranteed skiing, excellent snowmaking.
Cortina is Italy’s smartest ski resort, dominated by a magnificent green-and-white bell tower and a glittering array of grand 19th-century mansions, along with some enticing shops, bars and restaurants. It is a convenient two-hour drive from Venice.
The resort is used to being in the public eye: it hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1956, and was the location for the Peter Sellers film The Pink Panther in 1963. The famous ski chase in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only took place here in 1981, and the Hollywood movie Cliffhanger starring Sylvester Stallone was located on the mountains here in 1993.
Christmas Plus Points: Village atmosphere, good apres-ski and eating out.
Sauze d’Oulx is only an hour’s drive from Turin airport, making it one of the most easily accessible ski resorts in the Alps. In the ‘70s and ‘80s it was a cheap and cheerful destination where people came for the wild apres-ski, but today it is a pleasant family resort with good intermediate skiing (it’s part of the vast Milky Way ski area) and some excellent places to eat both on and off the mountain.
The most attractive part of underrated Sauze is the medieval Old Town, with its cobblestone streets, friendly wine bars, unassuming little shops and enticing restaurants.
Christmas Plus Points: Village atmosphere, low prices, eating out.
The scenery in Zermatt, is arguably the most beautiful in the skiing world. The narrow, car-free streets are lined with traditional hotels, whilst ancient barns of blackened wood are incongruously sandwiched between designer shops and gourmet restaurants. Towering over them all is the magnificent spike of the Matterhorn. You’ll never tire of looking at it.
This is another resort reached by rail, and the wildly romantic journey is from the valley town of Visp, where you change onto a steep cog railway, and spend the rest of the trip staring at the mountains towering above you. On arrival in Zermatt, horse-drawn sleigh-taxis await you outside the station.
The old town of Zermatt attracts people wanting an all-round winter sports holiday experience. Apart from skiing, there is ice-skating, tobogganing, paragliding, zip-wiring and snowshoeing to try. You can also stay the night in a real igloo up the mountain.
Christmas Plus Points: Village atmosphere, snowsure skiing, good apres-ski and eating out.
Is this the Christmas when you finally get to meet Rudolf, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen? In which case, head to Levi. Yes, okay, daylight is in short supply inside the Arctic Circle at this time of year. But by way of compensation you can go reindeer and husky sledding, and – with any luck – the Northern Lights will put in an appearance along with Santa himself.
Finnish Lapland’s prime ski resort has got to be one of the most perfect spots for a Christmas break since it is a true all-round winter sports resort. Bringing a family group here, where some members don’t ski, is not a problem at all since Levi has such a lot to offer besides downhill skiing.
You can take a snowshoe tour, go ice-skating and cross-country skiing, or join a snowmobile safari. The more unusual activities include ice-karting, ice fishing, and of course reindeer sledding, which is an activity native to Northern Scandinavia (and throughout the world on the night of 24 December, of course!). You can either control the reindeer yourself from the sleigh, or simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
Christmas Plus Points: Reindeer central…need we say more?
Banff Lake Louise, Alberta
Banff is a busy little town in the beautiful Banff National Park. In 1883 the transcontinental railway reached the Rocky Mountains and railway workers came upon the natural hot springs bubbling from the base of Sulphur Mountain. Pioneers went on to build grand hotels for summer visitors, and today it is also a sought-after destination for good-value skiing at three different area within in the park.
The village is an attractive one, with a long main street full of hotels, shops, restaurants and some buzzing bars. The only real downside is the mid-winter cold. But the pros outweigh the cons, especially if you have slightly older children, with a ski school that’s genuinely child-friendly and the main teaching language English.
Christmas Plus Points: Town atmosphere, cold temperatures for snowmaking, lively apres-ski.
The big buzzing resort of Whistler has something for everyone: from families and beginners to couples, expert skiers, foodies and even non-skiers as there are so many spas to choose from here.
Made up of two mountains, it offers top-to-bottom skiing on both, and a fabulous variety of terrain. The rather sprawling resort will certainly offer the typical North American Christmas cheer, as well as lively apres-ski.
Christmas Plus Points: Glacier skiing, village atmosphere.