Föhn wind brings pristine ski conditions to Champoluc and Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley, Italy
13:40 06 February 2014
Deserted slopes, delicious food, friendly folk, and it’s a whole load cheaper than France, Switzerland and Austria... why Italy’s Aosta Valley beats its neighbours in the skiing stakes – especially this season, as it’s bathing in plentiful snow while Chamonix is suffering.
The snowmobile chugged up the windy mountain path in the darkness, as the snow fell around us blanketing the valley and pine trees with a soft peaceful layer.
I was wondering how long it would take the caterpillar-tyred jeep to cover the 5km ride to our destination when suddenly, ahead of us, a cavern seemed to appear out of nowhere and we shot straight inside, feeling as though we were in a James Bond film.
It was a fitting way to enter the exclusive, rustic-chic Hotellerie de Mascognaz resort, which can only be reached by snowmobile or helicopter.
The secluded 17th-century farmhouse and seven surrounding chalets have been refurbished to the heights of luxurious cosiness and are now replete with wooden pine interiors, stuffed animals and real fires.
If this unique mountain hideaway was in Verbier or St Moritz instead of Champoluc in Italy’s Aosta Valley, you would probably need to remortgage your home for a visit, but 220 euros per room per night, including half board, seems very reasonable.
We had set out at 7am from Heathrow to ensure an afternoon’s skiing on Champoluc’s empty slopes, where we barely saw another soul.
The quiet resort is set in Italy’s answer to the three valleys, the Monte Rosa, which boasts 200km of slopes with something for all levels of skiers.
It’s a perfect family destination, but there’s also plenty of off-piste fun to be had as my Kiwi friends found as they tore around with a Ski 2 instructor showing them the way.
My weary legs hadn’t seen a pair of skis in three years, so I felt it was high time to hit the Mascognaz’s spa complex – but it was on the “other side of the village”.
It was a mini adventure in itself to get there in the moonlight as the snow fell gently around – past the picture-perfect chalets overhung by icicles, over the little brook and up the hill.
Having unwound in the sauna, Turkish bath and Jacuzzi, we relaxed with prosecco and canapés beside the crackling log fire before a fantastic dinner.
Drawing on local ingredients, with starters such as foie gras crème brulée and mains including polenta and wild boar, this is an experience to remember. The rooms are equally impressive – as cosy as it gets with their stencilled decor.
The resort’s snowmobile is on call 24 hours a day, though sleepy Champoluc isn’t known for wild parties.
But if you fancy a lively night in the village, you could join the weekly singsong at Hotel Castor, which has been owned by the same family for the last century.
Its extrovert owner, Herman, has made Tuesday nights something of an institution, where it’s not unknown for guests to dance on tables as he plays piano.
An Aosta Valley ski pass will also cover Cervinia, La Thuile Pila and Courmayeur – all accessible by car.
Where to stay:
Spa, dinner and stay at Hotellerie de Mascognaz, Champoluc (www.hotelleriedemascognaz.com – half board from €210 per room per night).
Hotel Castor, Champoluc (www.hotelcastor.eu – half board from €70 per person per night).
Ski the Monterosa Ski region with Ski 2 (www.ski-2.com)
Hotel Crampon, Courmayeur (www.crampon.it - B&B from €130 per room per night, seven nights B&B from €840per room).
Ski with Courmayeur Ski & Snowboard School
For more information see www.aosta-valley.co.uk.
Just an hour’s drive down the valley, Courmayeur is a bigger and better known resort, boasting its fair share of shops such as Hermes along the pedestrian strip.
The Crampon makes a good base. This charming family-run hotel, open since the Seventies, enjoys a quiet but prime position on a small side street a couple of minutes’ walk from the shops, bars and restaurants in the pedestrian area.
It also runs a free shuttle bus to the Dolonne cable car, which would otherwise be a slog in the ski boots. Otherwise, you can leave skis and boots at Ski-In at the top.
Courmayeur has a smaller network of mostly red runs which become churned up by moguls by midday, so is perhaps more suited to intermediate skiers.
It sits right below Mont Blanc, but we missed what must be an awe-inspiring view as it was veiled in cloud during our three days there.
The upside was that the snow was out of this world.
Apparently the conditions created by the Föhn wind this year have left the Aosta Valley deep in snow, while in Chamonix on the other side it’s distinctly patchy.
The weather also meant that the free Freeride World Tour contest was delayed.
But before the clouds destroyed our vision, we got to see eight of the 31 lunatic “freestyle” skiers throwing themselves off the top of an unpisted mountain to find the best route down, jumping over rocks on the way.
The competition has been running for the last seven years and Courmayeur is one of six resorts it runs in.
My New Zealand pals got to ski with last year’s skiing champion, Drew Tabke, as he and an instructor from the Courmayeur Ski and Snowboard School revealed the best off-piste routes.
While they spent a couple of days careering down tree-strewn gullies, I, being more cautious, was shown the pisted slopes of Courmayeur by Paul, again from the ski and snowboard school, who spent his youth training for the Giant Slalom, and then Nicolau, who is big on the Super G and works at his family’s vineyard making pinot noir in his spare time.
Though I spent three seasons running chalets in the Alps, my skiing didn’t feel as natural as it should have, since I’d had no lessons since I was 15.
I picked up some tips from the lads such as how it’s better to ski “on the offensive”.
Apparently, people tend to lean into the mountain because it feels safer, but to make your turns sharper and more flowing it’s important lean your hips into the mountain and your body down the mountain.
It certainly made skiing in a virtual white out down the black run in La Tuiles, a 20-minute drive away, a lot smoother the following day.
Think Italy and one obvious thing that comes to mind is food. The Aosta Valley does not disappoint.
To enjoy an authentic Italian meal on the slopes try Maison Vieille, run by charismatic chef Giacomo Calosi. For grilled and cold meats and sensational pasta and antipasti, non-skiers can also reach the former shepherds’ hut by chair lift.
You’ll need to book to get a table, though, as it’s understandably packed out.
Off the slopes, Cadran Solaire is a good halfway house between a simple brasserie and full-blown gastronomic restaurant.
The pumpkin ravioli is not to be missed, while the tiramisu is as good as it gets.
Before dining, try Le Privé for après-ski cocktails and canapés and to taste the pinot noir made by my ski instructor down the valley.
Before leaving the Aosta Valley, it’s really worth soothing your tired muscles at the Pré-Saint-Didier spa.
The natural hot springs flow out from a nearby ravine and were used for many years to treat rheumatic and muscular disorders, as well as skin ailments and blood circulation problems.
The public baths were renovated a few years ago, and do attract a fair few smooching couples.
But it’s worth braving the crowds to lay back under the stars in the hot outdoor pool, in the flickering light of the flames alongside the medieval palace – made all the more magical if snow is falling around you.
Apparently the first tourists came to the Aosta Valley in the 1600s to “take the waters”.
With its world-class ski and snowboard terrain, great-value prices and convenience as a short-break destination, it’s no wonder holidaymakers are still flocking back 400 years on.
For more information see www.aosta-valley.co.uk.