“You’re going to love it, I promise.” Ah, the words of the skiing or snowboarding evangelist.
You’ve heard it from a skiing spouse, zealot friends or enthusiastic children, who are certain they’ll be able to lure you into the chapel of the mountain. They’ve told you how skiing combines the swooping exhilaration of surfing with the cyclist’s sense of journeying. They’ve told you about the thrill of feeding a need for speed, mastering a new skill, communing with nature (just don’t mention mindfulness) and celebrating your achievement with the après ski.
But still you’re not so sure. You’ve no idea how to plan it or what to expect. Or perhaps you’re just unwilling because you’ve heard tales of derring-do, of first-timers being taken by friends to the top of steep slopes and told, “You’ll work it out soon enough”, of adults being thrown into a class of five-year-olds because they were so hopeless.
Here we address those nagging reasons why you’ve never taken the plunge – and give you all the information you need to enjoy your first time on the mountain and keep you coming back for more. You’re going to love it, we promise…
Q. How do I even arrange a ski holiday?
If you’re used to independent travel, you might find things trickier in the mountains. Transfers are long and steep, and you need to organise so much – lift passes to get you (and the children) up the mountain, skis and boots, lessons at ski school. So book a package holiday, at least the first time.
See our Telegraph Ski Reader Trips
Q. Who can help with that?
Specialist tour operators such as Crystal (crystal.co.uk) offer specific beginners’ packages. For families there are experts such as Esprit Ski (espritski.com), which will arrange childcare and lessons. For all-inclusive ski holidays, specialists such as Club Med (clubmed.co.uk) go the whole hog with lunch, drinks, childcare and evening entertainment all part of the deal.
Q. What if I want something a bit luxurious?
Worry not. The higher end of the market features high-spec chalets and four and five-star hotels, provided by the likes of Consensio (consensiochalets.co.uk) and Scott Dunn (scottdunn.com). Ski-orientated travel agents and bespoke specialists include Ski Solutions (skisolutions.com) and Momentum Ski (momentumski.com). Fancy four days in an apartment with a view of the Matterhorn, helicopter transfers and champagne on tap? Just ask…
Q. Where do I stay?
In one of these four…
These have changed since the days of rice-paper walls between rooms, dinners of tuna bake with a cornflake topping, accompanied by Château de Vinaigre wine. Standards – and prices – vary, but well-trained staff, flexible high-quality meals, and maybe a spa are on offer. Some accommodate as few as four people (and there are also romantic, single-room bolt-holes).
Self-catering is good value if labour is shared. They’re better built than the shoeboxes of old, and many blocks are upmarket with concierge service and spas. Just don’t overpopulate them with people on the living-room sofa beds.
A small family-run hotel has a long-term interest in making you comfortable – and there are plenty of these in the Alps, especially in Austria and Switzerland. If you choose the higher end, then the service and facilities will easily wash away any tumble-related aches and pains. Plus, it’s easy to keep yourself to yourself if you prefer.
Like chalets, these are run by British tour operators, so no eclectic, international experience, but plenty of like-minded camaraderie and a whole lot of value.
Q. What if I don’t ski?
Many Alpine resorts were holiday destinations before crazy Victorians tried “ski-running”, so there’s no lack of extra-curricular activities.
Enjoy the mountains
Most ski resorts have stunning mountain views, many of justifiably famous peaks. Courmayeur in Italy has Mont Blanc, Zermatt in Switzerland the Matterhorn, and Wengen, also in Switzerland, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
Walk the walk
Ski resorts are a walker’s paradise even in winter – the piste-bashing machines that prepare the ski slopes also compact the snow on marked paths. Rent some snowshoes and get out there.
We have lift off
Pedestrian tickets for cable cars and gondolas allow you to meet friends and family for lunch up the mountain. In Wengen, some of the ski lifts are trains – and you can ride one through the Eiger. Once up there, there are thrill rides, too. Resorts have recently been competing to create evermore vertiginous platforms or suspended walkways – for example, the Big 3 in Sölden, Austria.
Take the waters
There are ski spa towns, with traditional, natural “take the waters” treatments – all the Bs: Bormio (Italy), Banff (Canada), and neighbours Badgastein and Bad Hofgastein (Austria). Elsewhere, there is barely a four or five-star hotel without a spa – aka a wellness centre. Just what the doctor ordered.
Shop till you drop
Shopping (or window shopping) is not all about ski kit. St Moritz and Gstaad in Switzerland, Courmayeur in Italy, as well as Courchevel, and even the hardcore skier’s paradise of Chamonix, in France, have Sloane Streets’ worth of famous fashion boutiques.
Which are the best resorts?
It depends on what you’re after, but…
Best for convenience…
Virtually purpose-built to help first-timers, with excellent piste preparation that creates corduroy carpets to make first turns easier. And it’s lively, so adult beginners can learn all the essentials of après ski, too.
Also try: Passo Tonale, Italy; Arinsal, Andorra
Best for a family of learners…
Most Norwegian resorts are child-friendly, but this is the largest, with steeper and shallower runs running parallel so more experienced skiers can keep an eye on beginners, and children can learn in a fun and safe environment.
Also try: Filzmoos, Austria; Avoriaz, France
Best for hanging with the big boys…
Val d’Isère, France
Your expert friends are getting one of the great ski areas here, but be sure to book accommodation handy for the Solaise gondola, which gives access to the beginners’ area and pistes to progress to.
Also try: Courchevel Moriond, France; Verbier, Switzerland
Best for bargain hunters…
Poiana Brasov, Romania
Close to Bran Castle (known as “Dracula’s Castle”, this resort gives you a chance to get your teeth into the sport at a bargain east European price, with suitable slopes and good English-speaking ski schools.
Also try: Bansko, Bulgaria; Kranjska Gora, Slovenia
Q. What if I don’t like “ski types”?
As on city streets, there are many tribes of skiers and snowboarders. Some spend all their time plunging into powder snow, others sliding gently around easy runs or flying into the air from jumps. Many prefer to spend most of their time in picturesque restaurants. This means you are sure to find someone to bond with on a chairlift or over an après beer. For types to avoid, see our panel (below).
Q. Won’t the ski kit cost me a small fortune?
As you progress, your equipment needs will change. But for week one, buy the stuff that’s likely to get sweaty – thermal underlayers, socks, gloves – and borrow or rent essentials like a ski-specific jacket and trousers, goggles (sunglasses don’t cut it in a snowstorm, or when wind is rushing past). Your helmet, as well as skis, ski boots, poles or snowboard and soft snowboard boots, should be rented. And don’t bother with a backpack – let other people carry your extra stuff this week.
Q. How do I rent equipment?
- Do go to the most hi-tech shop with the biggest range of stock (an Intersport branch or a good independent, for example Snowberry in Val d’Isère).
- Don’t be embarrassed by your lack of experience.
- Don’t lie about your weight or height. It determines how tightly your skis are attached – if they don’t release when you have a twisting fall, you’re gonna have a bad time, OK?
- Don’t feel rushed into saying, “Yes, these boots fit” – you’ll regret it up the mountain.
Q. Do I really need to wear a helmet?
Even before Michael Schumacher’s terrible coma-inducing accident, in which he was wearing a helmet, there was debate about helmets’ effectiveness against head injuries and concussion, and the argument continues. To summarise, it is definitely a good idea to wear one but, while they can protect you from some injuries, they don’t make you invincible. And they are the norm, so you won’t stand out wearing one.
Q. Do I really need to go to ski school?
People often say a friend will teach them. Oh, great idea – what could possibly go wrong? Oh, wait… remember when your dad tried to teach you to drive? By all means, practise in the afternoons with family or friends, but take professional lessons in the mornings.
Forget what you’ve heard about lessons being all “benzinees and follow me”. These days a new breed of independent ski schools (often run by Brits) have made lessons much more fun and individual. Even the old guard, such as Ecole du Ski Français, are vastly improved, with smaller classes. Always ask for an English-speaking instructor. To up your game fast – and enjoy basking in personal attention – pay the extra for a private instructor.
Q. What about the kids?
Many children can learn to ski from as young as three. Kent Berglund, from another of those cutting-edge ski schools, Performance Verbier (performanceverbier.com), explains more: “If your child is coordinated enough to climb stairs one foot per step, they may be ready. Ask them to do a snowplough [pigeon stance] with their feet. If they can do that without mirroring with their arms [thus separating lower and upper body movements], their motor skills are developed enough for skiing.”
Q. What if I have one lesson and hate it?
Here’s reassurance from Ruth Carter, managing director of Telegraph Events: “You will love the third. I tried skiing for the first time in my 50s, and my first lesson was a nightmare. I couldn’t get the skis on without falling over or push myself across the snow with my poles. I was beyond unhappy and ready to throw in the towel. But I stuck with it – and the joy, on day three, of skiing a blue run on my own, albeit slowly, was indescribable. Don’t give up – you’ll regret it.”