Ski BIG | Europe’s biggest ski areas…
Let’s face it, we’d all ski every day if we could, but as we all have to do those annoying things like working to earn the pennies we need to go skiing again (oh and pay the rent/mortgage), most of us are limited to a few weekends and ski weeks each season.
So, when we can get on the slopes, why would you limit yourself to some mid-sized ski area when it’s perfectly possible to go XXXL on ski area size and hit those giant ski regions where you could literally ski all season and STILL find runs you hadn’t tried before yet? We’re not talking those pseudo-big ski areas either, where you have to jump on a bus between ‘sectors’ which are all included on your hands-free lift pass, that’s just not good enough! We’re talking the places where you clip your skis on in the morning and can ski for 100 miles or so before you have to take them off again (OK it’s allowed for riding a gondola or cable car or stopping for lunch, but that’s it).
So here are some of our favourites…
The undisputed biggest of them all is the 3 Valleys in France, a vast network of some 600km of slopes with more than 2,000 metres of lift-served vertical too, which means that you can take big chunks of that huge total out in long, long wonderful descents from top to bottom. The region includes some of the world’s most famous resorts including Meribel and Courchevel plus Europe’s highest ski resort of Val Thorens and at least half a dozen smaller centres all linked in. There’s perfect terrain her for everyone from complete beginner to the most advanced pro.
Once called the Espace Killy, the neighbouring resorts of Val d’Isere and Tignes now like to just be called ‘Val d’Isere Tignes.’ It’s a little less catchy but they feel that youngsters won’t know who Jean-Claude Killy is anymore (time to get Googling if you don’t, and care). Whatever it’s called though doesn’t really matter, the skiing is the same and this is still one of the most dynamic, exciting ski areas on the planet, particularly popular with advanced skiers and boarders although there’s really plenty here for all. There’s 300km of runs altogether, huge verticals again, starting higher and going higher than the 3 Valleys, with both resorts topped by glaciers that are so snow sure they are two of France’s three summer ski destinations.
However you measure it Paradiski, our third huge French ski region, is in the world top three on size. There are about 425km of groomed runs and 10,000 hectares of terrain in total, which the area’s management have previously claimed actually gives them the biggest area on the plant. The jury is still out on that one but once again we have a huge vertical, tonnes of terrain for all and a pair of snowsure glaciers at the top of the slopes of the two main ski resorts making up Paradiski between them – La Plagne and Les Arcs. The two areas are linked by the amazing Vanoise Express double-decker cable car, installed a little over a decade ago after many years of planning and at a cost of around £50m, still one of the most expensive lifts ever built.
In Austria there’s been a bit of a battle in recent years to claim to ‘be the biggest’ with the Skiwelt region and an expanded Saalbach Hinterglemm area bot claiming the ‘biggest in the country’ until a big €50m+ splurge on some state-of-the-art lifts by the Arlberg region took them to the top spot last winter. The historic ski area known as the ‘cradle of alpine skiing’ was already world famous for its resorts like St Anton, with its famed apres ski scene and legendary off piste terrain, plus up-market Lech, a gourmet centre in the Alps even before this new title.
Back in France the Grand Massif area is another big player. It includes the huge snowbowl that surrounds the purpose-built resort of Flaine and is famous for its powder conditions. Down in the valley are traditional villages like Samoens, Les Carroz and Morillon which have a wonderful ambience and the whole area alsobenefits from being a very short hop from Geneva
Finally the Portes du Soleil. This is a contentious member of our ‘giant ski areas’ club as although it has a claimed 650km of runs, these are not quite fully inter-connected in the way that our other areas are, there are a few breaks in the circuit when you need to take a ski bus to make the connection. But you can still ski all day in one direction and back, or on a huge circuit with around a dozen villages on each side of the French-Swiss border connected, including famous resorts like Avoriaz, Chatel, Champery, Morzine and les Gets, so it still gets our vote.
Big Ski Areas Top Tips
- Download the free app. These days they all have them and they can help with geo-locating you in their vast expanse, recommending routes according to your ability and telling you at what point you need to turn around and head home to make it back in time for the last lift home.
- Buy the pass online in advance. Alas lift tickets for the big areas tends to be the priciest in Europe (although they can argue you are getting more for your money, France say that although their big area tickets cost the most in the Euro-zone, in terms of piste km and uplift for your Euros it’s the beast value. Many of these passes are sold at discount rates online in the autumn before the season so if you know you’re going to go, best to lock the lower price in then
- Look out for sign posted routes. If you can’t be bothered pulling your phone out to check the apps, lots of big areas have marked routes for different ability levels around their slopes using old fashioned metal; signs and paper maps. It’s old school but somehow it still seems to work.
Words by Patrick Thorne.