Skiing off the Beaten Track

So you think you know everything there is to know about skiing in Europe? Done the Three Valleys? Of course you have. Val d'Isere and Tignes? Without a doubt. Les Arcs, La Plagne, La Rosiere? We cover all of these resorts time and time again in our blog posts and for the majority of the holidays we sell. Some of the more niche destinations are also becoming well travelled roads amongst the UK ski package holiday market. Chamonix, Morzine, Zermatt and Verbier have all become popular destinations in recent years and whilst a blog with this title would have featured them a few years back, these days we send so many people to such destinations that they simply no longer qualify as anything other than mainstream. Not that there's anything wrong with the mainstream resorts, mind you. They all have superb modern lift systems, large ski areas, established ski schools and the altitude to ensure good conditions all through the season.

<--break- />A phone call from a client earlier today got me thinking. As I reeled off chalet options in all of the above destinations for a possible Last Minute Ski Deal, the chap at the other end of the line simply wasn't getting into it: "The thing is, David," he said, "I want to go somewhere that few others have visited. I want to be able to talk with authority to any ski bore I meet about somewhere they almost certainly can't claim to have 'been there, done that'." I racked my brains and searched our system. It didn't take very long to come up with a list of destinations which offer all of the benefits of the big boys and also the chance to go somewhere that the majority of people taking package ski holidays won't ever have heard of.

Saas Fee - Hidden Swiss Gem

Not many Brits visit Saas Fee and that's down to the lack of catered chalets in the resort. In fact we only feature 2 chalets and 2 chalet hotels here. Most of the accommodation in the resort is hotel-based but that's no reason not to visit this wonderful Swiss destination. The resort is traffic free, the only way to get around is on foot or by electric taxis, which swish around the resort in emission-free silence.

Saas Fee in Switzerland - A truly beautiful and nusual destination

It's also subject to stringent Swiss planning laws which over the years have ensured that no buildings are built above a certain height and the entire village retains a charm and aesthetic quality that you simply don't get in the biggest resorts. Add to this the ski area, which is big enough to keep even the keenest skiers entertained for a week and the altitude of both the resort (1800m) and the highest ski lift (3600m) and you're on to a winner. The nightlife is as quiet or boisterous as you want it to be and by Swiss standards (comparing with Verbier, Zermatt etc) it's not too pricey.

Les Gets - Charming French village

OK, so the Portes du Soleil (PdS) might not be right off the beaten track, with Morzine and Avoriaz looking more and more like mainstream resorts these days, but Les Gets is still relatively unknown despite being in the biggest ski area in Europe. Nestled on the western edge of the PdS, Les Gets is a charming French village which is the antithesis of the purpose built behemoths like Val d'Isere and Courchevel.

It is a fully functioning settlement which doesn't shut in the off-season and is all the more authentic for it. Not the most lively nightlife I've ever experienced, but there are a handful of good bars and a couple of places which stay open into the wee small hours. The resort is very linear, with two main roads running parallel through the centre and most of the accommodation and main lifts are on or near these thoroughfares. There's the usual choice of ski shops, fondue focused restaurants and also a genuine weekly street market with local produce. If you want a genuine French village experience, plus a huge international ski area then Les Gets should be on your list.

Serre Chevalier - The Highest City in Europe

Most UK skiers will have heard of Serre Chevalier but precious few will have actually skied it because the majority of UK tour operators don't have large programmes here, but if you know where to look, you can have a great time in this superb resort. Serre Chevalier itself consists of several smaller resorts, each of which has its own unique character:

  1. Monetier – A very traditional French alpine settlement with buildings dating back centuries. Don’t expect much nightlife.
  2. Villeneuve – The main hub of the resort and where the majority of the accommodation is based. There is a small “old town” hidden in the centre of the resort. Full of quaint little bars and restaurants. Two of the main ski lifts stem from Villeneuve too.
  3. Chantemerle – Most of the UK based skiers end up staying or at least drinking here thanks to a strong nightlife scene and good access to skiing. It’s no oil painting but it does offer affordable accommodation and great ski access.
  4. Briançon – The highest city in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  There are ski lifts from Briançon and it has its own ski area but what Briancon offers is a whole world of extra activities aside from skiing. The old fort at the top of the town is a must-do.

Now, onto the skiing. Serre Che has something for everyone and every ability. The area is larger than most UK skiers realise and has more than enough for a week's skiing. Highlights include the incredible larch lined tree skiing and the famous Montagnole off piste run. If you are partial to a few on-mountain après drinks then check out the Cafe du Soleil which offers some of the best value drinking in the Alps.

Les Gets by Night
Les Gets by Night

Nendaz - Convenience and Value

The beauty of Nendaz does not lie in its size, as it is thought to contain as many, if not slightly more beds than its near neighbour Verbier. Nor does it lie in its beauty, as it's not a particularly pretty town. Nendaz is a winner for convenience and most of all for giving instant access to the huge Four Valleys ski area. Nendaz might not have the fantastic nightlife of its more illustrious neighbour but it is large and lively and it offers a great place to base yourself if Verbier's prices leave you weak at the knees.

Another key to Nendaz is Sion. You can fly directly into Sion and the transfer to resort is simply 20 minutes (that's right, twenty!). On a clear day, you can see the runway of Sion airport from the pistes above Nendaz and when you compare that to Val d'Isere's 4 hour trek from Geneva, a 20 minute transfer feels like a little miracle!

Sainte Foy - Off Piste Heaven

Anyone who's ever been to Val d'Isere or Tignes will by default have passed through Sainte Foy on their way up the mountain. Very few tour operators bother with Ste Foy though as it only has a handful of lifts and less than 40km of pistes. Based on those stats, most people wouldn't give it a second thought, preferring to continue up to the Espace Killy with its far more impressive looking piste map. Those who ignore Ste Foy are missing out though. Yes, the pisted runs are limited and the village is small but for lift-served off piste there aren't many better destinations in the Tarentaise Valley.

With so many people ignoring Ste Foy, you can find fresh powder for days after a heavy snowfall, whilst in neigbouring Les Arcs, for example, everything is tracked out by lunchtime the day after a big dump. Even if this isn't enough for you, it's just 15 minutes by road to Tignes, Val d'Isere, La Rosiere or Les Arcs, so you can stay in Ste Foy and take your pick of which area to ski on any given day.

St Martin de Belleville - The Three Valleys' Best Kept Secret

This resort is part of the biggest linked ski area in Europe, but it makes it into this list regardless. The main reason is that lots of people never make it down to this little gem of a village during their week's holiday in the Three Valleys. Are they put off by the altitude (it is one of the lowest points on a Three Valleys piste map)?

Is it too far from the traditional routes through the Three Valleys? Do people simply not know about it? Whatever the reason for it, you should make a point of getting to St Martin the next time you head to any Three Valleys resort. The run into St Martin has been voted the best in the whole ski area over and over again and anyone who has skied it will testify that shooting down over the wide open rollers of Jersualem on the way to a lunch appointment in the village is one the best ways to spend your time in the Three Valleys.

Staying here is another matter, as just like Ste Foy it's a resort that so many mainstream tour operators bus clients through on their way up the valley to the purpose built, bums-in-beds chalet apartments of Val Thorens. Everyone seems to forget that a week in a traditional French village, being entertained to the highest standards in an old farmhouse, for example, is an absolute treat and this destination should be on the to-do list for any serious skier.

Geilo in Norway

Probably as far from the beaten track as any resort we feature, Geilo is hidden far into the hills of central Norway and you won't find many people who've done anything as different as this. Ski resorts in Norway are invariably small but Geilo is one of the biggest with nearly 40km of pistes, a huge variety of cross-country options and a fully functioning town in the middle.

Skiing is a way of life in Norway (the sport is named after the area in Norway from which it is claimed to originate) and there is no such thing as a ski resort in this country.  Anyone visiting Geilo might not be blown away by an enormous ski area or acres of off-piste, but it's a brilliant destination for families or beginners as it offers gentle rolling pistes, an efficient and usually queue-free lift system and guaranteed snow. Obviously there are loads more resorts that didn't make the cut but that merit a mention when discussing the best lesser-know ski destinations. Vemdalen in Sweden was visited recently by a couple of our staff and rated highly. The same goes for Ischgl in Austria, Champery in Switzerland (another PdS beauty), Grimentz, Kappl and several others.

There really are so many excellent resorts sitting on the periphery of most people's ski radar that are well worth paying a visit. Perhaps next time you look into booking your dream ski trip, give some thought to these not only for the quality of the destinations themselves, but also to expand your own horizons and give you bragging rights at the dinner table. If you've been inspired by any of the destinations above or if you'd like more information on any of our resorts, please give our knowledgable sales team a call in our London office or drop us an email.

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