By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Best of the Alps, a tourism promotion consortium founded 40 years ago, recently came to town to remind us travel writers that this is where skiing began over 100 years ago and that these iconic destinations are still for the most part villages and towns where people live year-round, where tourists come year-round, and where you can be immersed in heritage and traditions.
“There is more to skiing than a purpose-built resort,” said, Sammy Salm, CEO of the Best of Alps. Skiing began here 150 years ago – the first winter tourists arrived 130 years ago, but the Alps have lured summer travelers for 300 years.
These are the most authentic places. The businesses are inherited, have been in the same family as their grandparents. There are cultural and sports events throughout the year – some 1,000 in 11 destinations –covering all manner of interests. Cuisine that reflects the locality – “farm to table” before the expression was a thing.
There are iconic hotels – some five star, some with a history dating back a century or more – but modern amenities and technology to suit today’s skiers, even Americans. And while the Alps are regarded as upscale, there are accommodations to meet every budget and style of travel – you can find hostels; cool, trendy boutiques; hotels ideal for families or women traveling solo.
Best of the Alps consists of Chamonix Mont-Blanc, St. Anton Am Arlberg, Crans-Montana, Kitzbuhel, Megeve, Garmisch-Partenkirghen, Legh Zurs am Arlberg, Cortina D’Ampezzo, Courmayeur, Seefeld, and Davos- each that manifest charm and authentic style, a strong sense of place, identity. Together, they form the “cradle of skiing.”
“If you like skiing, you will want to go to the Alps at least once,” reflects Cortina’s Maria Alessandra Montuori.
Cortina D’Ampezzo, the “Queen of the Dolomites” in a national park within a UNESCO World Heritage Area, epitomizes charm, glamour and elegance. Today, it is in northern Italy, but Cortina was part of Austro-Hungarian empire for 400 years, until 1900, so manifests an Austrian ambiance. There is evidence of ancient Roman settlements, traces of the Barbarians. During its strategic geographic location on one of the crossings through the Alps, Cortina was part of the Republic of Venice and even today is on the Venice Simplon train route from Paris to Venice. The railway arrived in the mid-1800s bringing the first wealthy Anglo-Saxon, German and Russian travelers. Newspaper articles and guidebooks written by pioneering mountaineers soon made Cortina d’Ampezzo known all over the world. Beginning in 1896, Cortina’s “purity of air” made it one of the first tuberculosis retreats. Visitors started playing golf in summer (there are two courses), then skiing.
Set on a plateau 4500 ft. high, Cortina d’Ampezzo offers skiers breathtaking scenery. The resort’s three ski areas are connected by a free bus and offer 115 km of slopes with snow making. Winter activities also ski mountaineering, sledding in the moonlight after a dinner in a mountain hut, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. In summer, Cortina offers more than 300km of hiking trails, biking on hundreds of kilometres of marked trails amid magnificent Dolomite scenery, mountain climbing, a new indoor climbing center, indoor and outdoor tennis; golf, summer ice skating; horse riding, canyoning, and activities families can enjoy together – water park, skate park, zipline.
“New” isn’t a new lift, it’s new way to enjoy mountain,” Montuori tells me. “People can exercise the way they like.”
Seventy years since it was the first Italian venue for the Olympics, in 1956, Cortina will host the 2026 Winter Olympics (with Milan), spurring new development and improvements. The most convenient airports are Venice, Treviso, and Innsbruck. (cortina.dolomiti.org)
“Discover your true nature” is the motto of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a multifaceted mountain region at the base of the 2,962 meter high Zugspitze mountain. It features winter sports with 60 km of ski runs, state-of-the art lifts, snowmaking on four long runs into the valley, backcountry skiing; the legendary ski stadium and ski jump and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Bayerische Zugspitzbahn invites ski alpinists to a “Ski Tour Evening.” Also: 28 km of cross-country ski tracks, the famous biathlon and cross-country ski center in Kaltenbrunn (snow-making and flood lights for night-skiing); Visitors’ Biathlon in Kaltenbrunn on Wednesdays); ice skating and curling at the Olympic Ice Sports Center or on one of the many natural lakes. The racy 1.6 km run down from the cozy lodge, St.-Martins-Hütte am Grasberg, is an insider tip for bold sledders. Garmisch-Partenkirchen also offers 110 km of groomed winter hiking trails. Special experiences: a torch hike through the Partnachklamm gorge featuring amazing ice and snow formations; a romantic ride in a horse sleigh; guided winter hikes from the Gesundheits-Eck meeting point (book January-March).
In warmer seasons, hiking in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen region offers varied landscapes and breathtaking views of hiking along 300 km (124 miles) of paths (the GaPa tour planner, www.gapa.de/tourenplaner, has detailed route and trail descriptions); you can plan multi-day tour with overnight stays in rustic mountain lodges, or guided hikes ranging from herbal excursions to therapeutic climatic healing hikes. Also rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing, paragliding, hang gliding,tennis, horseback riding, fishing, archery or a ride in a historic horse-drawn carriage, plus 23 golf courses within one hour’s drive.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen can be reached by German rail, Deutsche Bahn (Saturdays ICE connection from Hamburg, Berlin and Dortmund-Ruhr Area-Cologne with no train changes). Nearest airports are Munich and Innsbruck.
Kitzbühel and the holiday resorts of Reith, Aurach and Jochberg, Austria, known globally as a winter holiday destination with almost 130 years of skiing tradition, offers a mix of down-to-earthness and cosmopolitan outlook, of rural charm and urban flair. Its accessibility, long winters, reliable snow conditions, multitude of sports activities and maximum comfort are the hallmarks of this town, also lovingly referred to as “Gamsstadt” (chamois town). It offers a total of 233 km of downhill runs, including the world-famous “Streif”. Families will delight in the free practice lifts in the valley. Kitzbühel also offers cross-country skiing, winter hiking and snowshoeing, tobogganing, ice skating, curling and new trend sports. An international, year-round top destination, Kitzbuhel also offers 1,000 km hiking trails; four golf courses; 1,200 km road network for road bikes and 800 km for mountain bikers. www.kitzbuehel.com
At 1.200 meters above sea level, Seefeld is a picturesque alpine paradise of five charming villages. Reith, Mösern, Seefeld, Leutasch and Scharnitz. In winter, Seefeld offers 30 km of alpine runs, modern cable cars and lifts, children‘s areas; 250 km of cross-country ski trails; 142 km of prepared winter hiking trails, one long distance winter hiking trail; 35 km signposted snowshoe hiking trails; eight toboggan runs; three ice rinks; 20 curling rinks; a fishing pond for ice fishing at 1,123 m; two wellness centers with in- and outdoor pools. Outdoor sports in summer include: 650 km of hiking trails; 570 km of bike and e-bike tours; 4 km roller ski trail; 3 climbing areas with over 280 routes; a panorama via ferrata in Seefeld with fabulous views; 18-hole and 9-hole golf courses; 2 bathing lakes; a beginner-friendly bike park in Leutasch. Travel direct from Hamburg with the ICE to Seefeld. It is also possible to travel by Railjet from Vienna and Zurich. Innsbruck Airport is 20 km, Munich International Airport is 138 km. (www.seefeld.com)
Davos, Europe’s highest city and the picturesque alpine village of Klosters are set amid stunning mountain scenery. Davos Klosters received its first winter guests 150 years ago. Today, it offers 300 km of slopes among six ski areas: Madrisa and Rinerhorn are the family-friendly ski areas, Jakobshorn is the “fun mountain” for freestylers and après-ski connoisseurs. Parsenn is the classic ski area with wide pistes, Pischa is considered the off-piste paradise and Schatzalp is the “chill” ski area for pleasure skiers. Among the activities: daily experiences with local guides, an extensive network of cross-country tracks, hiking trails, mountain biking routes in all the tributary valleys, adventure and theme parks, a lively art and culture scene including the Kirchner Museum. Davos Klosters has also been awarded the Family Destination quality seal, which distinguishes holiday resorts that specifically match offerings to children. www.davos.ch
Arlberg is a mountain region of five villages, which form Austria’s largest ski destination (the fifth largest in the world) – affording 305 km of ski trails (it’s famous for its off-piste territory, which is best explored with a guide). Besides alpine skiing there is also snowshoeing, cross-country, tobaggoning, sledding, ice skating, curling, horsedrawn sleigh rides, art installations, Arlberg can be combined with visits to Vienna or Zurich (by train). Closest airports are Altenrheim, Inssburg, Zurich, Friedrichshafen, Munich (www.lechzuers.com)
Megeve is a small alpine village nested at the foot of Mont Blanc that dates from the 12th century. In the 1920s, a Rothschild who was insulted by the unwelcoming attitude in St. Moritz, decided to create a new resort in France. It is one of the first ski resorts in France, had the first cable car, the first French ski champion came from Megeve, the first fondue restaurant, the French song made famous by Frank Sinatra (“My Way”) was written in Megeve. It has the highest 18-hole golf course. Megeve set the standard as a “place to be” for the jet set. (The Rothschilds still own the resort). It’s still high-end, with 32 hotels of which 10 are five-star; three Michelin star chefs (one three-star chef is rated among the top 10 in the world). It offers 400 km of ski trails (longest is 3.6 km), plus 40 km of cross-country, 50 km of winter hiking (150 km in summer), some 60 restaurants, 204 shops and galleries, 37,000 guest beds, 17 well-being and spa centers, a balneoform and aquatic area, indoor/outdoor skating rink. You can arrange an overnight stay in an igloo. Megeve is one-hour drive from Geneva airport; Megeve has its own airport, 15 minutes away. (www.megeve.com)
Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley is a land of legend crammed full of history and sporting feats, a natural environment and a mecca for skiers, snowboarders and free riders. The slopes are served by the Mont-Blanc tramway and the cable car of the Brévent. “The lift system in the Chamonix Valley enables anyone to reach a unique alpine environment of shaded forests, scintillating glaciers, alpine meadows and dramatic peaks.” The Aiguille du Midi cable gives unforgettable view of the Mont-Blanc range. The Montenvers and mer de glace is an exceptional sightseeing excursion on the nostalgic red cog railway to the “sea of ice “glacier. In summer among the 46 activities include hiking, mountaineering, paragliding, golfing. Nearest airport is Geneva. (www.chamonix.com)
Courmayeur is described as “a pure, authentic, elegant, traditional, cosmopolitan, lively and regenerating mountain experience both in summer and in winter. These are the many facets of the soul of Courmayeur Mont Blanc, a unique location offering visitors a chance to reconnect with their inner self and engage in life at the right pace.” The nearest airport is Geneva. (www.courmayeurmontblanc.it)
Crans-Montana, set on a sunny plateau above the Rhone valley, offers views of the Plaine Morte glacier and summits from Breithorn to Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Convenient airports are Sion (30 minutes0, Geneva, Zurich and Milan. (www.crans-montana.ch)
Ski passes like Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass and Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass have brought international ski destinations, from Europe to Asia to South America, within reach, giving passholders more of an ease and an incentive to explore, and discover these legendary ski destinations.
Ikon Pass, now in its fifth season, provides access to 54 destinations including three of the Best of the Alps resorts: Chamonix Mont-Blanc Valley in France, Cortina in Italy and Kitzbühel in Austria. (Passholders have access to Ikon Pass Travel, a ski specialist travel planning agency where passholders can have exclusive access to special pricing, promotions and deals.)
Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass includes Arlberg (Lech Zurs, St. Anton) in Austria.
Those seeking to venture afar can also take advantage of Ski.com, a ski travel specialist.
More information at bestofthealps.com.
Map: Best of the Alps is a consortium of 11 resorts, with a centuries long heritage of tourism.
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