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If you’re looking for a ski area where you can ski new runs every day over a two week holiday and still not run out of new options then Portes du Soleil is for you. Spanning the Swiss / French border the 12 village resorts first came together to create this unique ski area in the 1960’s under the leadership of Jean Vuarnet, a local Olympic ski champion. Since then, the area has become famous as one of the largest interconnected ski areas in the world with over 650 km of piste (and plenty of backcountry skiing too) all covered by one lift pass.

These resorts are set in a part of the Alps with sensational views and each of the 12 villages has its own style and personality from the ultra modern Avoriaz on the French side to the chocolate box Morgins in Switerland and our personal favourite, Les Gets.

The skiing is second to none throughout. Intensive piste management and care mean that the slopes are in great condition all season and for skiers moving from beginner to intermediate to expert the area offers an incredible range of runs for all levels. The area is also a favourite with Freestyle fans of all levels showing off their moves at one of the area’s nine snowparks.

www.portesdusoleil.com

BEST FOR GUARANTEED SNOW

At 2,050m Cervinia links to the highest ski area in Europe, with lifts going up to the Swiss frontier at 3,899m. It shares its ski area with Zermatt and both resorts have guaranteed snow during a long season. The limited glacier area is open for summer skiing. Then the lifts open for the last two weekends of October and full-time from November through to May. The best thing about Cervinia is the length of the runs – 11km down the Ventina run to the resort – and even further, another 2km, to Valtournenche, its lower neighbour. Cervinia is wonderful territory for beginners who should be able to tackle the Ventina at the end of their first week on skis or board. However, experts will be frustrated by the absence of challenging pitch. Of course, they can head over to Zermatt. But both areas are so large it’s difficult to explore far afield on the Swiss side and be home before sunset. Miss the last lift you’ll need to spend the night in Zermatt – unless you want to take a four-and-a-half hour taxi ride.

 

BEST FOR BEGINNERS

Portes du Soleil has three main centers. Morzine for English-speaking family friendly slopes and nightlife. Higher, more snow-sure Avoriaz suits boarders and young party-lovers but its carfree status means it works well for family groups too; lovers of modernist ski architecture will be in heaven in this purpose built town. Les Gets is the most authentic French town and has dedicated unthreatening learner areas with free beginners slopes. All these towns are within an hours drive from Geneva.

BEST VALUE

Val Gardena is one of the most beautiful ski areas in the Dolomites. The Grödner Valley, or Val Gardena (German and Italian are both spoken here) covers the three villages of Selva, Santa Cristina and Ortisei. Selva is the place with the most hotels and offers the most direct access to the vast lift network that connects the Val Gardena with the neighbouring Alta Badia and Fassa valleys. Santa Cristina offers tranquillity and tradition. Ortisei is almost a small city and is characterised by a beautiful old town with a pedestrian zone. The most famous ski run is the Saslong. Experts will find challenging black runs  on Col Raiser, Mont Seura and Dantercepies. But almost every spot of the vast ski area can be reached on easy runs too. A wide range of accommodation means costs can be kept low and food options are unparallelelled with the best of Italian cooking and German beers are available at reasonable prices.

 

BEST NIGHTLIFE

The French-speaking ski town of Verbier in the western part of Switzerland gives Chamonix a run for its money in terms of lift-accessed steeps. What it lacks in terms of hardcore ski alpinism, it makes up for in style, world-class amenities, and convenience. The hotels, restaurants, and nightlife are sophisticated and polished—Richard Branson opened a chic chalet-hotel here called the Lodge. The lifts are fast and offer easy access to 254-miles of slopes and off-piste zones like Bec des Rosses, a hairy  50-degree face accessed from the Mont Fort tram. After slaying Verbier’s steeps, grab a sausage and sit outside on the deck slope-side at Cabane Mont Fort before ordering a Carlsberg at Pub Mont Fort in town. If you’re itching for a big night, head to the Farm Club, a disco where you’ll rub shoulders with ski bums and European aristocrats alike. For something low key, hit the Fer à Cheval, a bar popular with locals. Stay at the centrally located Hotel Farinet, which doubles after dark as a Bedouin-inspired nightclub.

BEST NORTH AMERICAN

The towering mountains of Whistler provide the best skiing in North America, with the biggest vertical drop. It’s funny what a difference 30 years and $600 million can make. Whistler’s charming village offers everything snowboarders and skiers crave: cafes, international stores and over 100 restaurants that cater to all tastes including Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Mediterranean, Mexican, and Thai.

Food is key after partaking in the activities that really make Whistler legendary. Whistler quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the strongest contenders for the much disputed title of “World’s Greatest Ski Resort.” Over the past decade, Whistler was consistently voted “Best North American Ski Resort” by North Americans. The Japanese repeatedly rank it as their favorite international destination.

 

Choosing a ski resort for your holiday with friends or family can be a tough task. High-altitude with guaranteed snow? Or a majority of sunny bluebird days? You want awe-inspiring mountain peaks straight out of Lord of The Rings, and a cute chocolate-box village atmosphere? Perhaps you need something with challenging red and black slopes for the experts in your group – but what about the kids and beginners who are just learning? Of course you want good food, stunning scenery and an excellent choice of ski schools.  And some jumps or rails for the snowboarders and freeskiers among you. Impossible! 

Surely you’re not demanding enough to request highlights like the world’s highest revolving restaurant, or the world’s highest underground train? You are? Well, welcome to the one resort which ticks every one of the boxes above – Saas Fee, the pearl of the Alps. Oh, did we mention that Wham’s Last Christmas video was filmed here?

Travelpod.ie went to Saas Fee expecting picturesque scenery, great skiing and Swiss efficiency in transport both on and off the mountain. We got all of that and much more, and are already planning our return. Flying from Dublin or Cork to Geneva (with Aer Lingus), or Dublin to Zurich (with Aer Lingus or Swiss), the 2-hour flights to both destinations link up perfectly with the unbeatable Swiss Rail System. From both airports it’s a 3 hour train trip through stunning views of lakes and snow-covered Alpine mountains. Disembark the train at local village Visp and hop on the connecting bus which will have you in Saas Fee in under half an hour. Check timetables and reserve train tickets here.

By this time you’ll be longing to get into your accommodation and out onto the slopes. Saas Fee is a car-free town but a freephone by the bus station exit will reach your hotel, who speedily dispatch little electric cars to transport you and your luggage. The effect of the car-free village is a peaceful and safe one, the effect of which may only be felt after a day or two. The length of the village, from bus station to slopes and furthest lifts, can be walked in about 15 minutes and there are many electric buses to drop you right at the cable car.

Staying half-board in a hotel can be an excellent option and deals and offers are frequently available if you check the listings. Half-board is easy and affordable; the Swiss really know how to provide a mountain breakfast, and evening meals are healthy and plentiful. Here is where we should have a word about prices and the dreaded Swiss Franc/Euro exchange rate. Yes, some prices in Switzerland can seem high, but we found Saas Fee prices to be very fair. If you’re careful you can end up spending no more than a comparable stay in France or Austria. Supermarket prices are as cheap as anywhere in Europe so self-catering can also work out well, especially for families. For hotels and other accommodation in Saas Fee please see the listings here.

Heading to the slopes one of the first things you’ll notice are the two large nursery slope areas, one almost flat, one with more of a gradient and a few small bumps – both perfect for beginners. If you’ve conquered these, then head up on the Felskinn lift and then take the connecting underground funicular (world’s highest) to the 3500m high Allalin. From here you’ll find pleasant blues and straight-forward reds, nothing too steep as you’re riding on a snow-covered glacier. These pistes are perfectly maintained and groomed. Off-piste it is advised to be accompanied by a guide, as crevasses can be frequently found on the ungroomed terrain.

Allalin is home to some of the most beautiful alpine scenery we’ve experienced. You could spend quite a while here taking in the mesmerizing views of white snow above and blue-green glacier underneath. We suggest you do some of this gazing from the warmth of the Three Sixty the highest revolving restaurant in the world. It takes a full hour to spin 360 degrees ensuring you an uninterrupted view of literally the top of the world. Food is healthy and tasty here, we recommend the burgers and local non-alcoholic pick-me-up drink Rivella. You may need to book a table in high season, but it’s well worth the effort.

Underneath the restaurant a progression of cavernous passages and steps leads you right inside the glacier towards the world’s largest ice grotto. While it’s quite something to think of walking under 15 meters of glacial ice, the ice sculptures and children’s slide means you feel quite safe in the ice caves. The most dangerous element is perhaps the hike back up stairs which feels more challenging than normal at this altitude. Go slowly and save your speed for the breath-taking downhill descents waiting for you at the surface.

Runs below the mid-station at Morenia are a little more challenging than those higher up but do lead to lovely tree-lined runs back to the village. The terrain park provides plenty of kickers, rails and boxes. For kids big and little there’s the exhilarating railed Feeblitz toboggan run, the steepest in all the Alps.

Let’s not forget summer skiing. The glacier skiing area around Allalin is open through the summer, with 20kms of slopes to suit all levels. You’ll find some of the world’s best ski teams training here then, and a real buzz of activity in the town.

If you want to improve your ski or board ability there are a number of ski schools in Saas Fee. We recommend Eskimos an English language ski school who are professional and highly innovative in teaching techniques. You’ll find their office on the main street and will see their distinctive powder blue ski suits around the slopes. Their private and group lessons are absolutely worth taking, and can make a noticeable improvement to your style.

It’s clear that visiting Saas Fee is an exercise in superlatives, but our stay was enriched by other elements which can’t be measured: the friendliness of the locals, the effort taken to make all elements of the stay smooth, the clean sweet air. The town recently won Best Swiss Ski Resort 2012, voted on by over 40,000 visitors. Sipping a piping hot gluhwein by the river running through the pretty village centre, we couldn’t help but agree with their choice.

Essential Information

Vertical Drop 1800m
Top Elevation 3600 m
Total Pistes 100km
Terrain  9% Green   37% Blue   40% Red   14% Black
Lifts 22
Terrain parks 1

Information www.saas-fee.ch

Advances in ski & snowboard gear are rapidly improving the environment for even recreational visitors to the slopes. Here at travelpod.ie we‘ve made our picks from the latest gear to keep you safe and warm on the coldest of mountains.

Starting from the top down and first up is Smith Optics’ Voyage Helmet. Using a Hybrid In-Mold construction, the Voyage maintains a lightweight feel and a reduced volume so you can forget you’re even wearing it. The AirEvac 2 ventilates your head completely by pulling cool air under the brim and pushing warm air out through sixteen vents all over the helmet. If you get chilly, you can close the vents with a regulator switch found on top. Adjust this helmet precisely to fit your noggin using single-handed micro-adjustments on a dial system behind your head. A fleeced tricot lining provides plenty of warmth and cushioned comfort that feels like you were wearing a beanie. The removal Snapfit SL2 ear pads are also incredibly warm and comfortable, and headphone compatible.

 

Also from Smith comes the very stylish Virtue Goggles. We found these to be a comfortable fit, with excellent lateral visibility and a flattering profile on the face. These lenses come with a choice of lenses so check out the Smith Optics website for info on which lens suit which conditions. We used the Ignitor Mirror lens for a week of sunny skiing but think an alternate lens like the Blue Sensor would be a good option for low light skiing. Smith also do a photochromic lens which adjusts the amount of light hitting the eye according to conditions. Purists may say a photochromic lens can never perfectly fit all conditions but we have found for recreational skiing they work just fine.

Find out more at www.smithoptics.eu

For the snow fiend who wants it all (interchangeable goggle lenses for varied conditions,

without having to carry a backpack with a spare pair) we present to you the Uvex g.gl 300 Take Off polavision goggles. These have a unique magnetic snapping mechanism which allows one lens layer to be removed, revealing a lighter lens for overcast conditions beneath. The removable lens is made of a malleable non-rigid fabric so can easily be stored in a pocket. When the sun reappears just whip out the outer lens, and the magnets on each side of the goggles snap it back into place. We tried this out on a windy slope and it worked like a dream. The goggles have a slightly larger profile on the face so can be worn over regular glasses.

Find out more at www.uvex-sports.de/en/

For outer wear Helly Hansen provide a complete outfit in the Eclipse Jacket and matching Eclipse Pant. The Eclipse jacket has a feminine fit with waterproof and breathable construction. The Eclipse Pant is a form-fitting stretch trouser emphasizing style and good looks, but with solid construction like boot gaiters and reinforced hems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Helly Hansen Floria Jacket, inspired by ski racers features breathable, waterproof 2-way stretch Helly Tech Professional fabric and is insulated with PrimaLoft. It’s a great quality jacket complete with integrated Recco system, articulated arms and seam sealed. You can rely on this Helly Hansen jacket to keep you warm and looking both stylish and athletic on the mountain.

Find out more at www.hellyhansen.com

 

A gorgeous women’s ski pants is this season’s new Eider St.Anton Pants. These 2-layer and 4-way-Stretch Defender ski pants are feminine, comfortable and soft, for those who likes skiing with a neat look. A higher back gives a feeling of warmth and protection, while preshaped knees offer increased range of movement.

Eider have really thought about what the female skier needs and you won’t want to take these pants off at the end of a days skiing or riding.

See more at www.eider.com

 

 

 

Underneath the jacket we suggest a mid-layer like the SmartLoft Divide, a wool insulated jacket from Smartwool. It features their new SmartLoft Wool insulation around the core with the rest of the jacket made of thinner merino wool. This jacket doesn’t take up a lot of space since the core is the only thing that’s insulated while the sleeves and back are merino wool, giving you a wider range of motion. This clever fabric is machine washable and stain and water resistant, with scoop hand pockets and a zipped chest pocket. Smartwool products are durable and long-lasting – with a jacket this stylish you’ll want it to be.

Buy at www.smartwool.com

 

Let’s talk skins, the vital close-to-the skin layer essential for activity in cold climes. Sportswear brand Odlo have developed an interesting new technology called Muscle Force. Muscle Force provides zoned muscle support which is designed to help conserve energy through the reduction of muscle vibrations in key areas of the body. By minimising this extra energy usage, skiers and snowboarders will apparently be able to stay energised and on the piste for longer. We really like the idea of zoned tailored fabric and Odlo, a highly trusted brand, should be commended for trying this idea out. The fabric looks hi-tech and feels great. It certainly kept us warm though we couldn’t work out if our mid-afternoon energy spurt was due to Muscle Force or that laced hot chocolate. Find out more at www.odlo.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile German brand Falke offer their Ergonomic Sport System Underwear and Socks range. These provide thermal insulation, optimum moisture wicking and fast re-drying through a combination of seamless technology and innovative plush technology. Double-sided material supplies uncompromising comfort: climate-optimised, close-fitting, warm and soft. We think these Falke skins and socks provide excellent quality for their price.

Find out more at www.falke.com

 

Another sock provider are Teko, whose Medium weight organic, chlorine-free merino wool sock wicks moisture effortlessly. The Ski Medium Sock is for those who like a little extra cushion and warmth. They also do a Light and Ultralight Pro range for those who like to go a little faster and don’t need as much warmth. This great range of socks are machine washable, can be tumbled dryed and source their non-toxic merino wool from environmentally sound Argentine farms.

Find out more at www.teko.co.uk

 

 

 

When the light lowers and you are forced to admit that this really is the last run, it’s usually time to investigate some après-ski or shopping. We suggest doing so in the Merrell Decora Sonata Boots. Waterproof full grain and pig suede upper protects while a faux fur collar provides comfort. Waterproof construction keeps your feet while dry low bulk insulation keeps you warm down to -20C. Meanwhile a breathable mesh lining wicks moisture away and an air cushion in the heel absorbs shock and adds stability. The boot sole is slip resistant and provides great traction. We love these boots and can’t wait for it to get colder so we have an excuse to wear them.

 

Find out more from www.merrell.com

 

Another great boot comes in the form of the Hi-Tec St Anton Boot. Thinsulate insulation keeps you warm when the temperature drops. The CMEVA midsole keeps your feet cushioned, and the MDT rubber outsole provides superior grip in all conditions – dry, wet or snowy. These have a wider calf fit than the Merrell boot, so are perfect for tucking jeans into. The generous fur lining makes your feet feel like they’re sitting by the fire, even as all around you snow flakes fall.

 

Buy from www.hi-tec.com

 

Last but not least we think we have discovered the final word in ski backpacks. We’ve searched long and hard for a backpack to take out on a days’ skiing, one that will carry spare gloves, goggles, water and energy bars. One that might carry some more serious gear like a shovel and transceiver if we ventured on a day going off piste or side-country. Any pack that fulfilled all the above demands was usually large, bulky and most unsuitable for chairlifts. In other words there were serious packs for gnarly off-pisters who skinned up and never used lifts. And there were smaller packs which weren’t very well designed for the ski enthusiast. Now Osprey have provided us with the Reverb Pack (in 10 and 18 liter versions) and our problems are over.

Sewn from 420 Dobby poly and nylon, the Osprey Reverb is beefy yet carries all of your mountain essentials without feeling bulky. The Reverb has probes and handle sleeves and a blade sleeve in the back panel compartment for secure carry and quick access. On the front, skis or snowboards are attached via a series of configurable straps. To keep you hydrated, an internal pouch with a hanger holds your bladder of choice, and an insulated sleeve for the hose keeps your beverage from freezing. The pack’s shoulder straps are EVA lined for comfort, while the strap and waist buckles are glove-friendly. After a day using the pack we were hooked. The slim profile means you can jump on and off lifts with comfort and without ever needing to remove the bag. The ergonomic design means you don’t notice the bag during a day skiing, yet it contains everything you might need on the mountain. The good-looking Osprey Reverb adds style and provides freedom – we won’t be skiing without it.

Find out more at www.ospreyeurope.com

This jacket certainly lives up to its name, giving the wearer that slightly invincible feeling. It’s ultra-light and ultra-warm, filled with primaLoft® and has been developed in conjunction with professional guides and ski patrollers.

For mountaineers and Alpinists the jacket comes equipped with Recco technology, and works well under a hard shell as a full-featured skiers, boarders or climbers jacket. If the sun comes out the Odin packs away to the size of a pair of ski gloves,  weighing only 444g in a Men’s size XL.

The Odin Isolator is as at home on the summit of Mont Blanc as it is in wet and chilly Irish winters. The Helly Tech® Professional waterproof breathable protection built into the 15D ripstop nylon shell repels water extremely well. 

There are two side handwarmer pockets and a further chest pocket, all reinforced with tape to protect the thin shell fabric. An inner removable skirt, similar to a ski powder skirt keeps drafts firmly at bay. Comes in Men’s and Women’s body-conscious styles and options with and without hood.

See www.hellyhansen.com for more