The view from atop Mont Gelé, Verbier (captured by the author in late December).
Snowfall has become notoriously unpredictable in recent years, but rump of the ski season beckons, the heavens are currently open for business, and so too are some of the continent’s flashiest and most bibulous ski resorts. Eddy Downpatrick selects a few high-profile lairs in Austria, Switzerland, and France.
Austria – The Arlberg
Why start here? Simple, the Arlberg has afforded the author some of his happiest memories, most sumptuous meals, and most important of all to any intrepid powder hound, some of the very best runs of his innings. There is also the admixture of local blood in the old veins. The Arlberg has more jewels in its lustrous crown than storied St. Anton alone. Now connected (since late 2016) to its transmontane siblings via a €45 million cable car, this massif is now the largest contiguous ski area in Austria and shared between Lech, St. Anton, Stuben, Schröcken, Warth, St. Christoph, and Zurs. I shall focus on two and a half of these.
St. Anton, for anyone who’s been, is renowned perhaps more than anywhere else in Austria for the quality and boisterousness of its après-ski, notably typified by the table-dancing, stein-smashing antics at the Krazy Kanguruh. To get to it, you’ll have to negotiate tired trunks to the bottom of a likely-moguled piste and to leave it, you’ll have to get those same legs, now likely full of hooch, down a most-definitely moguled hillock. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, type “Drunk guy trying to ski” into YouTube and you’ll see a not atypical example of St. Antonian post-après (not a futuristic movement of the arts). What else can you expect to find here? A lot of blokes. They outnumber the fairer counterpart (that sweet enemy) four to one and comprised of many Brits they seem to be. Why? Corporate trips.. Lads holidays.. False perceptions.. Fantasy expectations..
If looking for something a little more.. refined, look no further and up over than Zürs which sets a cap on the number of visitors encumbering the resort at any one time. The sexes are far better balanced and distinctly fewer drunken schmucks you’ll see zig-zagging their way across the thoroughfares. The Milch Bar consistently has the prettiest waitresses anywhere, honourable mention to the Flexenhütte just up the road and of course, to sexual objectification. The latter of these two can be booked out for whole-of-restaurant dinner parties in which dancing on tables ablaze is the done thing. Zürs 2 – St. Anton 0. A note on the skiing, it happens on either side of the village itself with the south-facing side generally favoured in the morning and the north-facing in the afternoon. The local physician, a most resourceful fellow indeed, is also a charming DJ notorious for his bizarre diagnoses and even more eccentric remedies who over the years has earned the moniker, Doctor Death. He has been known to prescribe yoghurt for sunburn and neck braces for migraines. You don’t have to break the bank to stay here, but if you want to, it won’t take much in the way of effort, just stay at the Lorünser or the Zürserhof. Haus Küng and one or two of the other B&Bs offer great rates, lovely rooms, and great service. Haus Küng also plays neighbour to kindly cows wintering in their alpine cattlesheds and is run by a wonderfully-dry-humoured farmer-cum-mountain-guide called Hans and his wonderfully-wittily-welcoming English wife, no less adept on a pair of skis, Lorna. If you time your trip to coincide with the Easter Holidays, you might just encounter the phenomenon of a British social set affectionately known as the Scottish Mafia. They dress well, tell fine jokes, and tend not to sound terribly Scottish.
Zürs the village in the valley below, dwarfed by her majestic peaks. (Credit: Snow Forecast)
Two culinary treats to mention: the Hospiz Alm in St. Christoph which even has its own slide in the restaurant – well worth a ride and probably the smartest such any of us is likely to see; the Mürmeli in Oberlech, tucked away to skier’s left of the south-facing slopes, this hotel is not irregularly placed at top of the Arlberg’s restaurant charts (but be sure to book ahead – a secret it no longer is).
Lech itself has not had a mention, but it would be remiss not to give a tongue-in-cheek’d nod to the Ice Bar which finds itself halfway between main road and top of loftiest chair lift. You can ski into your seat and be served exceptionally-overpriced champagne by vacant-eyed young ladies all to the monotone thump of consciously-ironic minimal house music.
Switzerland – Verbier
Honourable mentions to Gstaad and St. Moritz, and to dwell on them for a moment, the two most elite ski clubs in the world (The Eagle and The Corviglia respectively). Is there a secret battle of one-upsmanship betwixt the two? Is it actually smarter to be a member of one over t’other? No, I imagine their lustrous memberships would give neither hoots nor champagne flutes (oyster cups is a little trickier to rhyme) when sitting in dining rooms as cosy as their own homes with meat and drink to rival the Savoy. Both resorts have a Palace Hotel, the most notable features of which are an in-built rock-pool-waterfall’d swimming area (St. Moritz) and the Green Go nightclub (Gstaad) complete with its own pool and possibly the most expensive beverages purchasable in any Alpine dwelling (though Aspen must be a competitor). What are you likely to see and what sort of person are you likely to find? As painful as it is to generalise, you will see a lot of fur and a fair smattering of Moncler, worn by no shortage of affluent exiled’s. In St. Moritz you may encounter a jolly band of eccentric Brits, army officers especially, ready to hurl themselves down the icy chute of the other prestigious club in the vicinity, The Cresta, on a bladed tea tray.
A racer takes a tumble at the infamous Shuttlecock Corner on the Cresta Run. (Credit: Bayourennaisanceman)
Moving on to Verbier, on a par with St. Anton in terms of its popularity with Brits, though more heavily skewed to the second-home-owning crowd. A similar if not even greater number of British ‘seasonaires’ (generally, 18-20 year olds drinking and uh.. ahem’ing themselves into oblivion whilst skiing with drastically-varying degrees of commitment) grace Verbier as ski instructors, nannies, cooks, handymen, figures of fun, chalet girls, bar staff, and the like. So popular has the resort become with affluent Albions that the Canton of Valais (one of 26 regional, administrative authorities that comprise the Swiss Confederation), in which Verbier and also Zermatt find themselves, imposed a cap on the number of foreigners able to buy or build homes. Not that it seems to have had much of an effect. Without delving into statistics that I do not possess, from a mere optical comparison (March 2009 vs. January 2019), the already vast resort seems to have done a balloon act, so much so that pathway access to a great number of apartment buildings has simply disappeared. How to return to the flat the wartime generation may have owned in quieter aeons past? Climb over fences and through other people’s gardens. Surely the type of place any self- and privacy-respecting individual would seek to plague-style eschew? Not so former Chancellor-of-the-Exchequer turned media mogul (irresistible), George Osborne, who has decided the best place in the mountainous world to build a chalet and avoid being verbally abused as he hauls skis along bustling streets to heaving cable car queues, no doubt attired in Roman legionnaire meets 80s onesie garb, is this Brit-infested conurbation. James Blunt splits his time between Ibiza and this place, but anyone who may have seen him exchanging verbals on Top Gear or Twitter will know he is not shy of a witty retort. Now there is a great variety of skiing to be enjoyed, from beginner slopes to vertiginous couloirs. With the assistance of a little experience and/or a guide, the steep chutes of Mont Gelé and the freeriderishly-wild realms beneath Jacob’s Ladder await. A route up to, along, and down the latter will lead the recklesser of spirit around a large and rather picturesque dammed lake the wall of which becomes skiable, admittedly to a reasonably-exclusive band of lunatics, with a sufficient dump of snow. Are there tables on which to dance, as rightly you might ask? Yes of course, and the best of them is to be found at the Farinet, packed to the rafters with seasonaires, people who could very well be their parents, and some folks pretending to merely ‘chill’ by the bar whilst they (and everyone else) gets completely soaked in Carlsberg (for some reason the resort’s predominating barley-shake) and sing university-clubnight favourites such as Robbie Williams’ Angel and The Killers’ Mr Brightside. Nice and slightly more civilised place for a drink – Le Fer de Cheval. Decent place to eat – they abound, but Le Caveau and Chez Martin.
France – Les Trois Vallées (Courchevel, Méribel, Val Thorens)
Flashy Russians; old-school Brits; intoxicated ski-bums (largely Brits) unceremonially merged with uni-trippers. At a great and crude oversimplification: Courchevel, Méribel, and Val Thorens respectively, and these make up the largest skiing area in the world. Despite the oligarchic multiplexes that now (rather spectacularly) litter Courchevel, home to some mighty-fine skiing she is and among her most-prized assets, the Saulire couloir – among the more accessible and yet gloriously satisfying anywhere in the Alps. Courchevel is a place where managing directors of investment banks can genuinely feel impoverished by comparative measure and as a general observation, in few places and within such proximity is there so staggering a wealth gap as in a premium ski resort. Courchevel is one of those that serves to more readily expose the gulf, but think about it, ski bums and middle-income families vs. multiple-times-over billionaires rubbing shoulders in the same watering holes. Yes, if Bill and Melinda Gates walk into a West African village on a charitable mission to cure the next in a string of diseases the wealth gap will be the more pronounced, but ski resorts are places where people at least purport to play on equal terms. Courchevel, inter alia, has been a kindly breeding ground to some of Britain’s best skiing talent, most notably Scottish Olympian Alain Baxter who was so cruelly stripped of a bronze medal at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City all because of a supposedly-steroidal ingredient in a US-purchased Vicks Inhaler.
From what the author remembers, Courchevel is also home to a commendable cinema (first experience: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001) – for public enjoyment that is; plenty of home cinemas to be found here too.
Val Thorens.. and it would be a shame if too much personal bias interfered with an appraisal of the place, but to start with the positives: altitude and concomitant early-season snow; comparative affordability; rambunctious nightlife. The village feels like it has been expressly designed for inebriated university students to prolong the previous term’s misdeeds and it also looks, to more-politely paraphrase a close acquaintance, like a Soviet cinderblock. There is however a charming Irish pub where you can attempt to break the record for the fastest downing of a yard of ale (the record holder might still be a man by the name of Benjamin Tucker), but all this aside, it is the highest resort in Europe at 2,300m and as such, you are very likely to find good snow in the early and indeed late seasons and therefore be able to stay, affordably, outside of peak season. Lest it be forgotten, in VT you are of course very well connected to the glitzier neighbours that are Courchevel and Méribel.
Last of all we come to mirthful, multi-altitudinal Méribel, perhaps the prettiest (and by this I mean neither dramatic nor stunning) of all the resorts herein mentioned. The wining and dining is ubiquitously first rate and revellers will tend to coalesce around Méribel Centre, though the cosiest hollow is arguably Méribel Village, peaceful and sleepy, where families hide away in blissful seclusion perched at a favourable vantage point, views meandering down, along, and up the valley face opposite. Two refuges of particular note: Le Blanchot for its sun-drenched terrace, proximity to the altiport (which feels quite James Bond), and its wine list; Le Clos Bernard for its sylvan setting and the arboreal pathway that leads to what is a charming wintry cottage of a restaurant whither one could very easily lose one’s way. Not a lot comes close to the vast range of tree-skiability found in the Rockies (the tree-lines tend higher over there), but if quantity can contend with magic then Méribel assuredly has the latter. Quantifying as much is empirically challenging, but take it from someone who has cut a fair few lines through forested fluff, if woodland fairies could choose an alpine demesne to call home, it would most likely be Méribel.
Le Clos Bernard in all its woodland-fairy glory. (Credit: Tripadvisor.co.uk)
Special mentions deserve to go to a good many more, but that’s all for this instalment.