Ski restrictions axed - but where to go?
Austria will drop most of its COVID restrictions from 5 March. The need to provide evidence of a negative test taken within 72 hours befre departure will go. Proof of vaccination or of having recovered from the virus will do. It's not clear yet how the moves might affect mask wearing in ski resorts - but that's a relatively minor imposition anyway. The Austrian Government will follow Switzerland and France in opening up fully to tourists again in time for late season skiing. As this was written, only Italy among the biggest European wintersports destnations, was still demanding evidence of a negative pre-departure test.
But where to test those out of practice knees? After two and a bit seasons in which you would have been lucky to have taken a ski holiday you may not be quite ready for serious challenges. Long before the pandemic I joked with friends that I no longer wanted to ski down the north face of the Empire State Building. Now even a stiff red run might look a little daunting. It goes without saying that you should get to the Alps before Easter, when relief from lockdowns suggests there will be a particularly heavy family rush. The biggest French resorts such as Val d'Isère and Tignes, La Plagne and Les Arcs and those of the enormous Trois Vallées have hundreds of kilometres of intermediate (blue) runs - and high enough slopes to avoid most icy leg burners as warmer spring wedather takes its toll. Other good options include Flaine, Argentière near Chamonix, Alpe d'Huez, with its linked centres such as Oz en Oisans and Vaujany, and Les Deux Alpes. But if you're a little concerned that you may not want to spend quite so much time on the snow as you did earlier, perhaps somewhere with undeniable charm might be in order. Though it's relatively low Megève, for example, has a lovely village centre and plenty of pleasant skiing in good conditions.
In Switzerland Zermatt, presided over by the Matterhorn and with glacier skiing, also has a centre with much to occupy you if you need a breather from the slopes. Much the same can be said of Verbier which, though it has something of a hard core skiing reputation, also has plenty of intermediate terrain. But perhaps the finest Swiss option for time out of the ski boots is St Moritz, with its smart shops - some have eye watering prices - and long walks around the lake. Not least among its advantages is the fact your can get there by train from Zurich airport. For those content to burn a part of the children's inheritance, the Hotel Kulm, orginally opened in 1864 and whose grounds are home to the Cresta Run, has a fine comination of sophistication, comfort and unsnobby hospitality.
Most well travelled skiers would accept that Austria's finest skiing – and some of the best in Europe - is in the Arlberg region. St. Anton, with superb descents from the 2811 metre Valluga balanced by long, swinging intermediate runs towards St. Christoph is generally held to pose greater challenges than its neighbours, though silver skiers and off piste aficionados may prefer Zürs, Lech, or the lesser known Warth, whose clienteles rend to be on the more mature side. Of these, Lech offers the best opportunities off the slopes. Kitzbühel, with its attractive town centre scene of the famous Hahnenkamm downhill course has lovely skiing in good conditions. When our kids were young we had great holidays in linked Saalbach and Hinterglemm. But my favourites, since those far off days when skis stretched way above your head when stood on end and half the village, it seemed came out to join British package holiday skiers on fondue nights up the mountain, have always been more modest. And this despite the risk of late ice and slush. I'm clearly not alone. Though its near neighbour Sölden has more expansive skiing and more obvious entertainment, Obergurgl, at the head of the Ötztal, has a relatively small ski area but is enduringly popular with Brits, some of whom return repeatedly. The same goes for Alpbach, Christmas card pretty in new snow, though its skiing, particularly now it's linked with a neighbouring valley (the Wildschönau), is much more interesting than you might think. Like stars on a map, a whole group of such villages make up the Wilder Kaiser area. Söll is best known but I also have happy memories of Ellmau and Westendorf, An then there is Mühlbach am Hochkönig, where I took most of my early lessons when it had a single chairlift in the village and a T-bar that stopped short of its intended destination. (the farmer who owned the higher land hadn't allowed its completion). The only other option was to catch a Land Rover to higher runs - ,ainly those around the Arthurhaus. Now Mühlbach is linked with the villages of Dienten and Maria Alm and is part of the vast Ski Amade complex in Salzburg province which, though they are not all lift connected, embraces now fewer than 27 villages or ski areas. After two and after two and a bit seasons frustrated by COVID, the urge to return is powerful.