Skiing the storied slopes of Europe is not about racking up vertical feet or racing to catch the first chairlift of the day. It's about taking in the magic of the mountains—from the vast peak-to-peak networks of trails, to the infectious life-is-a-party atmosphere, to the snug history-rich villages. The venerable tradition of Alpine hospitality seems even warmer these days—in a recent poll by Leisure Trends Group, nearly 60 percent of Americans surveyed said they'd feel "very safe" at a mountain resort this winter. So we scoured the slopes for the 20 best ski resorts in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and France, looking not just for the best-groomed runs and fastest lifts, but for comfortable hotels, happening nightlife, and authentic Alpine ambience. Whether you're an off-piste adventurer or après-ski lounger, read on to decide which resort is right for you.
Surrounded by the pink crags of the Dolomites, this sunny resort is Italian to the core. Life in the old town revolves around the boutique-lined Corso Italia, where after-ski festivities are kicked off every day by the passeggiata, a loosely choreographed preen-fest of dressed-to-slay, cell phone—toting Italian pedestrians. For many visitors, shopping and dining simply leave no time for skiing, so the slopes of Cortina—from the bunny hills in the Socrepes area to the long, challenging runs at Tofana—are often remarkably uncrowded. For other fun in the snow, you can try dogsledding, skijoring (imagine horse-drawn skiing), snow-rafting, or parapenting (a form of parasailing). Place yourself in the center of the social gyre by booking a room at the Hotel Ancora, with its eclectic assortment of antiques and paintings. Reserve a table, if you can, at the romantic Ristorante Tivoli, a hillside chalet on the edge of town where the pastas are freshly made. Cortina d'Ampezzo, 39-0436/3231, fax 39-0436/3235; www.apt-dolomiti-cortina.it; one-day lift passes from $27. Hotel Ancora, 62 Corso Italia; 39-0436/3261, fax 39-0436/3265; doubles, including breakfast and dinner, from $204, $298 after February 2. Ristorante Tivoli, 34 Via Lacedel; 39-0436/866-400; dinner for two $96.
Nobody skis through lunch at this resort on the southeastern side of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak at 15,771 feet. A spa destination dating from the 1600's, the cobblestoned village of Courmayeur has cafés, pizzerias, and bars strung like pearls along its main road. One standout among many: the modestly priced Cadran Solaire, a centuries-old tavern with a vaulted ceiling, right in the heart of town. While the food on and off the mountain is indeed distracting, don't let it keep you from the downhill thrills. Intermediates can coast the slopes from the sunny Plan Chécrouit area; strong experts will get an adrenaline high from the off-piste options on Mont Blanc—including the chance to ski across the French border to Chamonix. (Repair work on the Mont Blanc tunnel linking the two resorts, closed since a devastating fire in 1999, was scheduled for completion by the start of this ski season.) There's also a fine Nordic center at Val Ferret, 15 minutes from town. Windows in the Hotel Palace Bron's 27 brightly decorated rooms frame the mountain, so you can pick your runs while you don your boots. Courmayeur, 39-0165/842-060, fax 39-0165/842-072; www.courmayeur.net; one-day passes from $27. Hotel Palace Bron, 41 Plan Gorret; 39-0165/846-742, fax 39-0165/844-015; doubles, including breakfast and dinner, from $177 with three-night minimum, $205 after January 27. Cadran Solaire, 122 Via Roma; 39-0165/844-609; lunch for two $60.
MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO
Tucked into a narrow valley in the Brenta Dolomites, Madonna is primarily a beginner and intermediate skiers' haven, with 97 miles of well-groomed slopes, many of which start at the summit and terminate right in town. Experts, though, won't feel shortchanged; Madonna has plenty of serious steeps. While the compact village exudes grown-up sophistication, it also attracts its share of spirited snowboarders, and last year the resort raised more than a few well-shaped eyebrows when it played host to the Snowboard World Championships. All types of skiers spend their nights in nearby Campo Carlo Magno at the 114-room Golf Hotel, housed in the former summer residence of Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph, and travel in heated Sno-Cats up to the Malga Montagnoli restaurant for on-slope Italian feasts. Madonna di Campiglio, 39-0465/442-000, fax 39-0465/440-404; www.campiglio.net; one-day passes from $25. Golf Hotel, 3 Via Cima Tosa; 39-0465/441-003, fax 39-0465/440-294; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $162, $270 after February 2. Malga Montagnoli, 39-0465/443-355; dinner for two $46.
The Paznaun Valley town of Ischgl is a relative newcomer to the ski circuit. Its first lift, installed in 1963, jump-started Ischgl's transformation from sleepy farming village to one of Austria's most elite resorts. On the Swiss border 60 miles from Innsbruck, Ischgl has a traditional village that offers every variety of nightlife, miles of easy and intermediate terrain, and a system of 41 fast lifts that has been impressively upgraded over the past decade. New this winter is the Idjochbahn, the first eight-seat enclosed chairlift in the world. The resort itself is part of the Silvretta ski pass, which gives access to three nearby ski areas: Galtür, where Ernest Hemingway once skied and wrote; the Austrian resort of Kappl; and Samnaum, a duty-free Swiss village where most Ischgl skiers go to shop. The resort also has one of Europe's largest snowboarding parks, as well as a night tobogganing course, a lighted descent through the forest. To keep in step with the modern aspect of the place, stay at the utterly hip Hotel Madlein, where sipping cocktails in a minimally furnished lounge is the après-ski activity. Ischgl, 43-5444/5266, fax 43-5444/5636; www.ischgl.com; one-day passes from $29. Hotel Madlein, 43-5444/5226, fax 43-5444/522-6202; doubles, including breakfast and dinner, from $253, $262 after February 2.
This ancient walled town, with its brightly painted buildings, smart hotels, and oompah-pah nightlife, is one of the Alps' great destinations for skiers and nonskiers alike. Kitz reaches its rowdy, cowbell-clanging climax every January when the World Cup comes to town for the Hahnenkamm downhill race. Despite the mach schnell (go fast) image, much of the terrain can be tamed by even the pokiest intermediate skier. After a day on the mountain, grab a pint at the Londoner Pub, an institution in the village center. For a respite from the hubbub, stay a half-mile from town in the thoroughly Tyrolean Romantik Hotel Tennerhof, built around a 17th-century farmhouse. Kitzbühel, 43-5356/621-550, fax 43-5356/621-307; www.kitzbuehel.com; one-day passes from $27. Romantik Hotel Tennerhof, 26 Griesenauweg; 43-5356/63181, fax 43-5356/631-8170; doubles with breakfast from $224, $272 after January 15.
Not only is it considered the birthplace of the modern downhill technique, but St. Anton also has one of Europe's wildest après scenes, with seasonal residents kicking up their heels at legendary bars like the Krazy Kanguruh. Before holding last year's World Ski Championships, the resort spent $100 million on improvements—adding a new gondola and moving the rail line away from the village center, so you no longer have to cross the tracks to hit the lifts. For classic Tyrolean comfort and easy access to shops and runs, check into the frescoed 50-room Hotel Schwarzer Adler, built in 1570. St. Anton, 43-5446/22690, fax 43-5446/2532; www.stantonamarlberg.com; one-day passes from $29. Hotel Schwarzer Adler, 43-5446/22440, fax 43-5446/224-462; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $186, $238 after February 2.
These two snow-smothered towns share a system of mostly intermediate trails that are as fastidiously groomed as the trim, silver-haired skiers who glide down them. Lift lines are rare here, since ticket sales are limited to 14,000 a day; priority is given to hotel guests. (Electronic signs warn day-trippers en route when the area is sold out.) In Lech, the chalet-style Gasthof Post, a favorite among royals, offers 38 rooms (including 10 suites) furnished with ornately painted antiques and private steam baths. Guests are fted with a formal cocktail party each night, but the real action after the lifts close is at the Tannbergerhof's outdoor ice bar, where the requisite gluhwein is served with style, in a robin's-egg blue porcelain carafe. Lech/Zürs, 43-5583/21610, fax 43-5583/3155; www.lech.at; one-day passes from $29. Gasthof Post, 43-5583/2206, fax 43-5583/220-623; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $424, $468 after February 2. Tannbergerhof, 43-5583/2202, fax 43-5583/3313; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $210, $316 after February 2.
At 6,332 feet, this tranquil village in the craggy ötztal Alps practically guarantees deep snow late into spring, as well as an exuberant, ain't-life-grand mind-set in delicious end-of-the-road isolation. An eight-person gondola connects Obergurgl to higher, colder, and even snowier Hochgurgl, where a cluster of large, modern hotels clings to the slopes. Most of the trails are wide and well-marked—just right for intermediates. Strong skiers can join a guided tour into the glaciated backcountry, and be rewarded with lunch in a rustic mountain outpost. By mid-afternoon, Gurgl skiers have already reached après mode—they've staked out tables at the rollicking Nedderhütte at the top of the Gaisberg lift, and in all likelihood they'll be dancing on them in just a few hours. Later, the Krump'n Stadl gets busy with some hard-driving—you guessed it—yodeling. Despite its partyers, Obergurgl is popular with families: there's plenty of gentle terrain, kids under eight ski free, and many properties, including the Hotel Alpina, near Obergurgl's center, provide free day care. Obergurgl, 43-5256/6466, fax 43-5256/6353; www.obergurgl.com; one-day passes from $26. Hotel Alpina, 43-5256/6000, fax 43-5256/6234; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $176.
A magnet for the adventurous since the 1800's, Zermatt is closed to car traffic and remains one of Europe's great Alpine villages, with its weathered timber houses, horse-drawn sleighs, and compelling mountaineering history. Above it all is, of course, the 14,690-foot Matterhorn, almost laughable in its iconic pyramidal perfection. The resort's 71 lifts (some of which, alas, require long waits) connect three ski areas, Rothorn, Stockhorn, and Klein Matterhorn, which includes a thigh-searing run to the Italian resort of Cervinia. The Riffelalp Resort 2222m—directly across from the Matterhorn—began taking guests in 1884 and was recently restored and expanded. Zermatt, 41-27/966-8100, fax 41-27/967-0185; www.zermatt.ch; one-day passes from $39. Riffelalp Resort 2222M, 41-27/966-0555, fax 41-27/966-0550; doubles, including breakfast and dinner, from $351, $437 after February 2.
High on a Valais plateau, about two hours from Geneva, Verbier attracts an international crowd of the cheeky and the chic. Twentysomething skiers and boarders try to out-extreme one another on Verbier's famed couloirs and bowls; Euro jet-setters try to outpose one another in the town's famed nightclubs and discos. But the main draw is the 250 miles of ski runs, accessed by a fast, efficient network of 95 lifts. Le Jumbo, a 150-person cable car, carries skiers to Verbier's magnificent apex—the 11,000-foot Mont Fort, from which most of Switzerland's major peaks are visible. There are knockout views, too, from the sunny terrace at Cabane Mont Fort, a high-altitude stone hut just below Mont-Gelé, where the tan and fit linger over fondue and fendant (a spritzy Swiss white). While most visitors stay in chalets or apartments, almost all splurge on dinner at the Rosalp hotel, widely regarded as the best meal (and lodging) choice in town. Verbier, 41-27/775-3888, fax 41-27/775-3889; www.verbier.ch; one-day passes from $36. Rosalp, Rte. de Medram; 41-27/771-6323, fax 41-27/771-1059; doubles with breakfast from $283; dinner for two $180.
The Bernese Oberland resorts of Wengen, Mürren, and Grindelwald feel like toy-train villages with their chocolate-brown wooden chalets, spiky fir forests, and cows that seem to moo on cue. By splurging on the resorts' shared ski pass, skiers gain access to 45 lifts, 132 miles of trails, and exceptional views of three famed Swiss peaks: the Eiger, Jungfrau, and Mönch. Grindelwald, on the valley floor, has a dynamic mountaineering heritage and the region's most formal old-world lodging, the Hotel Grand Regina. Wengen has fine beginner slopes and many good places to stay, including the recently renovated Club-Hotel Victoria Lauberhorn. Smaller, less-developed Mürren sits across the Lauterbrunnen Valley from Wengen. At the Tächi bar in Mürren's classic Hotel Eiger, you can drink a toast to the schnapps-fortified competitors in the Inferno amateur ski race. Grindelwald, 41-33/854-1212, fax 41-33/854-1210; www.grindelwald.ch; one-day passes from $31. Hotel Grand Regina, 41-33/854-8600, fax 41-33/854-8688; doubles from $282. Wengen, 41-33/855-1414, fax 41-33/855-3060; www.wengen.com; one-day passes from $31. Club-Hotel Victoria Lauberhorn, 41-33/856-2929, fax 41-33/856-2919; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $134, seven-night minimum. Mürren, 41-33/856-8686, fax 41-33/856-8696; www.muerren.ch; one-day passes from $31. Hotel Eiger, 41-33/856-5454, fax 41-33/856-5456; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $192, $204 after February 9.
Encircled by fiercely glaciated 13,000-foot peaks and closed to car traffic, Saas-Fee appears to have changed little since the days when it was reachable only by mule train. Still, there have been some developments since the first lift was installed in 1920, such as the Metro Alpin, an underground funicular that shoots up to the crevassed 11,483-foot summit. The mountain itself has great beginner slopes close to town, extensive snowboard facilities, and lots of exciting steeps.
Saas-Fee is the jumping-off point for the famed Haute Route, a challenging guided ski tour through Zermatt, Courmayeur, and Chamonix. Check into the recently expanded Hotel Ferienart Walliserhof, set in the woods and reached by an electric shuttle car. Saas-Fee, 41-27/958-1858, fax 41-27/958-1860; www.saas-fee.ch; one-day passes from $35. Hotel Ferienart Walliserhof, 41-27/958-1900, fax 41-27/958-1905; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $218, $348 after February 2.
Though Prince Charles's frequent visits have brought global attention to this former 12th-century monastery town, Klosters remains discreet and refined. About 21/2 hours southeast of Zürich, the resort shares its main ski area, the Parsenn, with Davos, its larger, less attractive neighbor. The treeless terrain has more than 50 lifts (some in need of updating) and 200 miles of well-groomed, sweeping runs, including the seven-mile-long trail from the top of the 9,328-foot Weissfluh. Book into the 24-room Hotel Vereina Klosters, housed in a rambling century-old landmark of the same name. Klosters, 41-81/410-2020, fax 41-81/410-2010; www.klosters.ch; one-day passes from $16. Hotel Vereina Klosters, 41-81/410-2727, fax 41-81/410-2728; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $262.
Surrounded by dairy farms and framed by chiseled white peaks, the chic fairy-tale chalet village of Gstaad, two hours east of Geneva, has long been the resort of choice for the diamond-drenched crowd. But lately, Gstaad has been attracting a different kind of visitor: young, athletic types who actually care about getting off the shop-lined Promenade and onto the slopes. Indeed, Gstaad's loosely connected 66-lift, 155-mile ski domain has been improved considerably by the recent addition of a high-speed cable car, a fast chairlift, new snowboard terrain, and expanded snowmaking capability.
In town, there's ample room for both camps. The old school favors the white-gloved opulence of the turreted hilltop Palace Hotel; new-wave hotshots have adopted the lively Steigenberger Hotel, on a sun-washed hillside just outside town, as action central. Gstaad, 41-33/748-8181, fax 41-33/748-8183; www.gstaad.ch; one-day passes from $16. Palace Hotel, Palace-strasse; 41-33/748-5000, fax 41-33/748-5001; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $451, $636 after February 1. Steigenberger Hotel, Auf der Halten; 41-33/748-6464, fax 41-33/748-6466; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $270, $324 after February 2.
Everyone knows about its hilariously wealthy, sable-clad clientele; its hoity-toity snow-polo matches; the reservations-only mountaintop haute cuisine. It may come as a surprise, then, that this historic lakefront resort in southeastern Switzerland's Engadin Valley also counts among its attractions 217 miles of mostly intermediate downhill trails, four top-notch snowboard parks, and more than 93 miles of Nordic tracks. St.-Moritz, about 21/2 hours southeast of Zürich, is quite urban—and large enough to accommodate a range of budgets. For comfortable, affordable lodging in the center of town, try the 51-room Hotel Waldhaus am See. The bar, according to the hotel's owner, has the largest collection of whiskeys in the world. To really do it up, check into the turreted 209-room landmark Badrutt's Palace Hotel, extensively renovated in 1999 when Rosewood Hotels & Resorts took it over. Make an effort to get out to the nearby village of Champfer for dinner at the chalet-style Jöhri's Talvo. St.-Moritz, 41-81/837-3333, fax 41-81/837-3377; www.stmoritz.ch; one-day passes from $34. Hotel Waldhaus am See, 6 Via Dim Lej; 41-81/836-6000, fax 41-81/836-6060; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $222, seven-night minimum. Badrutt's Palace Hotel, 27 Via Serlas; 41-81/837-1000, fax 41-81/837-2999; doubles with breakfast from $463. Jöhri's Talvo, 15 Via Gunelf; 41-81/833-4455; dinner for two $240.
Baroness Noémie de Rothschild built the Palace Hôtel du Mont d'Arbois here in the 1920's. By the 60's, guests like Rita Hayworth, Roger Vadim, and Brigitte Bardot were finding the place positively shagadelic. These days, the village, about an hour southeast of Geneva, attracts discreet, well-to-do French who want to ski, dine, and shop—though not necessarily in that order. Gastronomy is taken très seriously here; Marc Veyrat, one of France's hottest chefs, chose Megève for his restaurant, La Ferme de Mon Père, built to resemble his father's farm. An actual farm was transformed into the rustic-chic Les Fermes de Marie, a smart hotel with luxury suites and one of Europe's best mountain spas.
Most of the terrain on Megève's three expansive ski areas is best for those at intermediate and advanced levels. The Ski Pass Mont Blanc gives guests access to 10 regional resorts, including super-challenging Chamonix, less than an hour away. Megève, 33-4/50-21-27-28, fax 33-4/50-93-03-09; www.megeve.com; one-day passes from $20, Ski Pass Mont Blanc $176 for six days. La Ferme de Mon Père, 367 Rte. du Crt; 33-4/50-21-01-01; dinner for two $270. Les Fermes de Marie, Chemin de la Riante Colline; 33-4/50-93-03-10, fax 33-4/50-93-09-84; www.fermesdemarie.com; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $284, $330 after February 28.
The near-mythical town of Chamonix, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, has lured dedicated skiers and alpinists for more than a century. Daredevil skiers speak in reverent tones of the steeps at Grands-Montets at Argentière. Advanced schussers rhapsodize about the nearly 12-mile guided cruise through the glaciated Vallée Blanche. While Chamonix attracts its share of the young and the pierced, the handsome late-19th-century town is, overall, quite refined. Among its best hotels: the 100-year-old Hameau Albert 1er, with 15 rooms, 12 suites, and a top-rated dining room. Chamonix/Mont Blanc, 33-4/50-53-00-24, fax 33-4/50-53-58-90; www.chamonix.com; one-day passes from $28. Hameau Albert 1er, 119 Impasse du Montenvers; 33-4/50-53-05-09, fax 33-4/50-55-95-48; doubles from $133.
Founded by an Englishman in 1938, Méribel, a 90-minute drive from Geneva, is the world's largest linked ski domain, with more than 373 miles of trails served by 190 lifts. Luxurious ski-in/ski-out chalets, complete with chefs and, in some cases, nannies, are the rental of choice here. (Meriski, an English firm, manages many of the best properties.) On the chef's night off, chalet dwellers venture out to one of the resort's handful of good restaurants, such as the dining room at Le Grand Coeur hotel, overlooking the lamplit village. Méribel, 33-4/79-08-60-01, fax 33-4/79-00-59-61; www.meribel.net; one-day passes from $27. Meriski, 44-1451/843-100, fax 44-1451/844-799; www.meriski.co.uk. Le Grand Coeur, 33-4/79-08-60-03, fax 33-4/79-08-58-38; doubles with breakfast and dinner $268, $296 after February 2; dinner for two $108.
The largest and most cosmopolitan of the Trois Vallées (which includes Méribel and Val Thorens), Courchevel is actually a quartet of villages, each named for its altitude (in meters, of course). Courchevel 1850, the highest—and haughtiest—of the four, claims ownership of the palatial 78-room Byblos des Neiges (sister hotel to the St.-Tropez Byblos), as well as several other posh properties.
Besides the vast amphitheater of challenging ski terrain, Courchevel has all sorts of adrenaline-producing off-slope activities: ice-climbing on a man-made frozen waterfall, village-to-village night tobogganing, and shopping at the dazzling boutiques in the Espace Diamant indoor mall. If you can do without the glitter, consider staying in the 45-room Hôtel Portetta in earthy Courchevel 1650, which has its own, uncrowded slopes and easy-access lifts. Courchevel, 33-4/79-08-00-29, fax 33-4/79-08-15-63; www.courchevel.com; one-day passes from $27. Byblos des Neiges, 33-4/79-00-98-00, fax 33-4/79-00-98-01; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $573, $635 after February 2. Hôtel Portetta, 33-4/79-08-01-47, fax 33-4/79-08-16-23; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $158, $184 after February 2, with a five-night minimum.
Wide-open Val d'Isère attracts a sporty crowd that is serious about skiing. Together, this area and smaller, higher-altitude Tignes make up L'Espace Killy, with 90 lifts, 186 miles of marked trails, two snowboard parks, and acres of challenging off-piste terrain. The lift system is tops: two high-speed funiculars, a slew of fast six-person chairlifts, and a high-capacity gondola have nearly eliminated lines. Beginners benefit from five free lifts and confidence-building bunny hills in the Solaise area; experts have lots of steeps, including the Face de Bellevarde, the 1992 Olympic downhill course.
Check into Val's 69-room, chalet-style Hôtel Christiania, just a few minutes from the lifts and within stumbling distance of the resort's most famous nightspot, Dick's Tea Bar. Val d'Isère, 33-4/79-06-06-60, fax 33-4/79-06-04-56; www.valdisere.com; one-day passes from $29. Tignes, 33-4/79-40-04-40, fax 33-4/79-40-03-15; www.tignes.net; one-day passes from $27. Hôtel Christiania, 33-4/79-06-08-25, fax 33-4/79-41-11-10; doubles with breakfast and dinner from $219, $236 after February 2.
WHY THIS IS THE YEAR TO GO It generally costs less to fly from the East Coast to Europe in winter than to the Rockies; transatlantic fares this year should be even more affordable. Specialist agencies that buy in bulk from airlines and resorts are a good source for packages, which tend to include airfare, airport transfers, and one or two meals per day. A Kitzbühel package from Ski Europe (800/333-5533; www.ski-europe.com) includes seven nights in a four-star hotel, airfare, a rental car, and breakfast, and costs as little as $960 a person (all prices are subject to availability). Moguls Mountain Travel (800/666-4857; www.moguls.com) will put you up for seven nights in Zermatt, with breakfast, dinner, and airfare, for $1,239. Penny Pitou Travel (800/552-4661; www.pennypitoutravel.com) has a seven-night air-inclusive package at the Hôtel Christiania in Val d'Isère starting at $1,412 per person.
Most agencies can customize your trip, combining a few days on the slopes with a stopover in, say, Innsbruck or Venice—another appealing aspect of a European ski vacation. Note that January and March are less expensive than the Christmas/New Year's holiday and February, when school is out.
A note on airlines: at press time, Swissair's financial status was iffy at best; we recommend using another carrier. Finally, the closure of the St. Gotthard tunnel between Switzerland and Italy due to fire is unlikely to affect traffic to ski areas.