The best ski resorts for a short break – and why this is the winter to book one
After a rocky start it looks as though we are in for an excellent season in the Alps. December and early January were far too warm for all but the highest resorts. But, since then the weather has turned much colder, and as we head into February there has been snowfall across the entire region and more slopes are opening daily.
So how do you make the most of it? While the majority of skiers rely on a week-long break each season, what if you can’t spare that much time away from work or the expense? Perhaps you find six solid days of skiing exhausting?
One excellent solution is a short ski break. Or, better still, a couple spread out across the winter, which break up the intensity and allow you to try different resorts at various times in the season.
According to Dan Fox of Ski Weekends (skiweekends.com), there has been a surge in interest for compact winter breaks. “The last two weeks have been the busiest of season for bookings”, he says. Some customers want to travel as soon as tomorrow, others give a week’s notice, but currently March is the most heavily sold – demand is double what was previously forecast.
The bulk of his clients are time-poor skiers, who are focused on maximising their time on slopes. Typically they take the earliest departure flight from the UK, so they can ski hard on their first afternoon until the last possibile moment on their final day – before catching an airport transfer when the lifts shut. They are often couples – pre- or post-kids – who want to avoid half terms and the “madness” of travelling at the weekend. Most short breaks run either Monday to Thursday or Thursday to Monday, staying in either chalets or hotels. Weekday travel also makes it easier to find availability – and lower fares – on last-minute flights.
For the transfer to resort, many gung-ho skiers find a hire car is better value for a short break, than when on a week-long holiday – it simply won’t be sitting unused for so long. But some operators, like Flexiski (flexiski.com), can also make bespoke arrangements in a minibus or taxi, so holidaymakers don’t have to waste time driving themselves.
One of the key problems with arranging a short break however, is finding accommodation. Gareth Ebbage of Snowscape (snowscape.co.uk), another specialist, says that many Alpine hotels expect bookings for a full week and are sometimes reluctant to accept shorter stays. This is a particular issue in Austria. But it can also mean that there is space available at the very last minute, because hotels relent and release rooms they can’t sell.
Words by Sophie Butler
The best resorts for a short ski holiday
Best for: clocking up the miles
The 600km of terrain in the Portes du Soleil ski area covers a dozen resorts in two countries. An 85km/75-minute drive from Geneva airport, Morzine is a great base for the area, ideally suited to families. Catch an early flight and it's possible to be cruising down the pistes above Morzine well before lunch.
The Portes du Soleil’s variety of slopes, which span 600km, suits everyone, from complete beginners to veteran powderhounds, and in a winter when there’s good snow cover the area goes straight to the top of the class. Morzine’s one disadvantage is low altitude (1,000m). Pistes are not always open the whole way back down, so booking an early or late-season holiday here can be risky.
Morzine isn’t just a ski resort – it’s a proper little Alpine town that has a year-round life stretching far beyond having fun on the mountains. One of the livelier French resorts, Morzine has a good après scene. Several places around the base area get busy as the slopes empty, before the party moves to venues nearer the resort centre. For those who enjoy off-slope activity there's a reasonable amount of other activities to fill the hours. These include ice-diving beneath a lake, nature discovery tours, snowmobiling, tobogganing, snowshoeing and shopping. There's also a world-class ice rink and a large swimming pool.
Book it: SkiWeekends offers a four-night stay at Chalet Tavernier from £575 half board, including transfers. Excludes flights. Departs March 23. Find more of the best accommodation in Morzine in our guide.
Best for: hitting the park
Mayrhofen will be whatever you want it to be, and very successfully too. It can rock, it can rap, it can be the king of cool, all wrapped up in a picturesque, heavily‑timbered, rustic village that has strictly maintained traditional Tyrolean architecture as it has grown. Innsbruck airport is close - 75km, around an hour’s drive away.
The Penken Park at Mayrhofen is widely regarded as one of the very best terrain parks in the Alps. At 2,100m, beneath the Sun-Jet chairlift on the main Penken mountain, it’s rammed full of kickers, boxes and rails.. It has a separate kids’ area, also with its own lift, as well as dedicated spaces set aside for intermediates, advanced and pro riders
The ski area is full of red runs (including blues which are tricky enough to qualify as reds) and suits decent intermediates perfectly – but it also has Austria’s steepest marked run, the Harakiri. And after fresh snow there is a respectable amount of off piste not far from the marked runs. The resort’s main nursery slopes are on the Ahorn mountain, on the opposite side of town from Penken and the slopes back down from Ahorn are pleasantly steep, very quiet in the mornings and usually freshly groomed.
Mayrhofen has a busy centre and is well served by equipment rental, clothing and high-end winter fashion shops. Après is manic here – it starts in huts up the mountain when lunch is hardly over. Bars, including the Pilzbar with oh-so-Austrian umbrella bar, surround the top of the Penken gondola at 1,800m, and more are waiting in the village, with Europop throbbing from the speakers. The Ice Bar next to the bottom gondola station goes completely wild. Harakiri Bar in the main street shows some sophistication, and is the place for a quieter drink either early or pre-dinner before morphing into a club with DJs and late night dancers. Mayrhofen also hosts a number of major events, and none bigger than Snowbombing, a week-long snow-sports and music extravaganza held each spring – this year April 10-15.
Book it: Hotel Elisabeth is a short walk from the centre of Mayrhofen and is the resort’s only five-star hotel. The best of both worlds is available here – luxury on the fringe of the village, with top bars just five minutes away. From €160 per night, B&B. Flights available from all major UK airports to Innsbruck with easyJet, British Airways and Jet2. Find more of the best accommodation in Mayrhofen in our guide.
La Clusaz, France
Best for: a traditional feel
Close to Lake Annecy and around 70km/an hour’s drive from Geneva airport, La Clusaz is all too often overlooked by skiers and snowboarders making their way to the Trois Vallées and other famous resorts of the Tarentaise. However, it has well‑groomed intermediate and advanced slopes to offer, as well as an unmistakeably French village ambience.
La Clusaz and smaller Manigod share 125km of slopes, while those of Le Grand Bornand and its lift-linked satellite village, St Jean de Sixt, are 10 minutes away by free shuttle bus. All four are covered by the same Aravis lift pass, and together they have 210km of terrain. Most of the slopes are intermediate, but the Balme area of La Clusaz offers long runs and considerable challenges.
Le Grand Bornand has a dedicated freeride area that is neither patrolled nor groomed, but is avalanche protected. It’s sufficiently extensive and challenging to satisfy even the most demanding visitor.
As well as making La Clusaz an ideal spot for the weekend, airport convenience explains in part why so many Brits have bought chalets and apartments here. However, their presence is muted – the Aravis resorts are mainly frequented by the French and, unlike in some big-name destinations, you feel you’re actually on holiday in France.
La Clusaz is a thriving community all year round. Le Grand Bornand is the home of Reblochon cheese, an inescapable inclusion in all its forms from fondue to raclette on every restaurant menu in the region.
Book it: Flexiski offers three nights at four-star St Alban Hotel & Spa in La Clusaz from £661 based on a classic room. Excludes flights and transfers. Departs February 24.
Best for: big off-piste routes
Engelberg is situated at 1,050m above beautiful Lake Lucerne. It’s easily reached in 75 minutes by car from Zürich airport, 100km away, or by train in two hours. This attractive small town has been dominated for the past 900 years by a magnificent Benedictine monastery, which looms vast and ancient amid Swedish-run bars and ski shops. The younger of the remaining monks can still be found enjoying the pistes, but sadly they no longer ski in their habits.
The main action is on Mount Titlis with some superb pistes and long powder runs from 3,028m. An eight-seater walk‑in gondola, the Titlis Xpress is accessed by escalator from the base and whisks visitors to the mid-mountain hub of Stand via a mid-station at Trübsee, an ascent that takes just 16 minutes. The sunny pastures of Brunni, on the opposite side of the town, form an ideal beginner and intermediate ski area dotted with huts providing welcome refreshments.
The resort’s long-standing rotating cable car to Titlis, with its stupendous views, is a tourist draw – as is Engelberg’s use as a location for Bollywood films. But in winter it’s mainly the domain of skiers and snowboarders. At weekends there’s full-on nightlife and an influx of young freeriders from Zürich and Lucerne.
Book it: Momentum Ski offers a three-night stay at three-star Hotel Terrace in Engelberg from £670 including rail transfer and ski pass. Departs March 17.
Best for: snowsure partying
Within an hour’s drive of Innsbruck airport, 80km away, Sölden offers high-altitude, intermediate-friendly slopes in the same Ötz valley as Obergurgl, and historically has had fewer British holidaymakers. But that changed when Sölden’s role as a backdrop in 2015 Bond film Spectre put it on more people’s radar – since the resort has made much of the connection, with a themed exhibition space called ‘007 ELEMENTS’ it is in a spectacular 1,300 sqm building built on two levels within the mountain.
Sölden’s record for reliable snow stems from its two glaciers, the Rettenbach and the Tiefenbach, and its season continues for most of the year. There are 31 lifts (including the 10-person high-speed Giggijoch gondola) and 144km of piste. But the slopes seem much more extensive than this suggests, largely because the three mountains above are well connected, without any annoying paths between them. Most of Sölden’s pistes suit good intermediates best but there are easy blue cruises too. All lift passes for three days or more also cover the Obergurgl-Hochgurgl ski area, which is 20 minutes up the valley by free ski bus and is popular with beginners and families. There are lots of off-piste opportunities too.
Sölden is certainly not the prettiest resort, stretching for 2km with hotels and shops dotted about the main valley road with no real centre. However, its buildings are in traditional Tirolean style and include several very comfortable hotels, and there’s a pretty church. The nightlife is younger and wilder than that of its more conservative neighbour Obergurgl, with countless bars, pubs and clubs pumping out music until the early hours. The après starts early at restaurants up the mountain too.
Book it: The five-star Das Central hotel is, as its name implies, right in the centre of Sölden. Rooms and suites are spacious, individually designed and vary from stylishly modern to more traditional. The three-story 1,500sqm wellness area (Water World Venezia) includes a large indoor pool, 10 different types of saunas and steam rooms and 16 treatment rooms. From €460 per night, half board. Flights available from all major UK airports to Innsbruck with easyJet, British Airways and Jet2. Find more of the best accommodation in Sölden in our guide.
Best for: a last-minute break
This medieval silver-mining centre, with its heavily buttressed walls and delicate painted frescoes, rightly deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful ski town in Europe. Salzburg (75km) and Innsbruck (95km) airports are both within an hour’s drive. Despite great slopes and a beautiful base, as a world-class destination Kitzbühel has one disadvantage – low altitude. The town stands at 800m and the top lift at 2,000m so it’s a destination that’s usually at its snowy best in the last week of January and the first three of February.
Kitzbühel is famous for the Hahnenkamm, the meanest and scariest downhill race on the World Cup ski circuit. But in reality, away from this single crazy race weekend, Kitzbühel is a piste pussycat that packs more miaow than kapow, with tons of largely intermediate terrain that seems to go on forever. The main ski sector is Hahnenkamm (home to the Streif downhill course, which is a family‑orientated run once the jumps have been removed), reached by a modern gondola from the edge of Kitzbühel. The others, all separate from each other, are the Kitzbüheler Horn, and neighbouring Bichlalm, a little area given over to freeride.
The pedestrianised Vorderstadt, the town centre inside the heavy old city walls, is set against a backdrop of the jagged teeth of the spectacular Wilder Kaiser mountains. Old coaching inns that have been converted into hotels vie for space in the ancient streets alongside smart fashion boutiques, wickedly expensive cafés and a buzzing nightlife scene. The Londoner is the resort’s long-established British pub, which has been entertaining party animals for decades. The coolest nightclub in town is the long-established Club Take Five. It has three elegant bars, a large VIP area, a range of cocktails and resident DJs. During January’s Hahnenkamm race weekend, the atmosphere is particularly boisterous.
Book it: Sunweb offers a three-night stay at four-star Hotel Pass Thurn, with a spa and next to the ski lift, from £628 half board including lift pass and flights. Excludes transfer. Departs February 23. Find more of the best accommodation in Kitzbühel in our guide.
Barèges/La Mongie, France
Best for: great-value France
Only an hour away from Lourdes airport (50km) or 90 minutes from Pau (110km), these two contrasting resorts share the 100km of pistes in the Grand Tourmalet ski area – one of the biggest in the Pyrenees. Packages to these resorts can be half the price of a trip to the French Alps.
Barèges is a centuries-old spa town a bus ride away from the lifts while paue, over the Col du Tourmalet pass (closed to cars in winter, frequently used in the Tour de France during the summer), is a purpose-built ski station that’s lacking in charm but convenient for the slopes.
The runs suit intermediates best, but there’s also some challenging off piste, including from the Pic du Midi observatory (where it’s possible to stay the night), which is reached by cable car from La Mongie. The terrain above La Mongie is open and treeless and includes black runs that are considered to be among the toughest in the French Pyrenees. The slopes in Barèges are gentler and tree‑lined, but much smaller in area.
Book it: The ski-in Résidence Mer & Golf Tourmalet is located in La Mongie, 150m from the ski lift. All the apartments are all south-facing and each has kitchenette and terrace. The residence has an indoor heated swimming pool, fitness area with sauna, hammam and fitness studio. From €40 per night. Flights available from London airports to Lourdes with Ryanair.
Best for: staying in the city
Finding a hotel in the Alps that will take bookings of less than a week is not always easy. That’s not a problem in Innsbruck, with its huge choice of accommodation. It boasts a medieval old town of narrow cobbled streets and colourful buildings along the River Inn, while short transfers and regular flights with BA or easyJet make this a very convenient hub.
Apart from being the Tirolean capital, Innsbruck is a ski resort in its own right. You can be on the slopes within an hour of leaving the airport, as the Nordkette ski area is reached by a funicular and a cable car from the city in 20 minutes. From Hafelekar (2,256m), novices can admire the city and Alpine views, and experts can tackle Karrinne, one of Europe’s steepest ski routes with plenty of gnarly off piste. There are 11km of mostly red pistes, and a small terrain park with kickers, rails, rollers and boxes.
The city’s City plus Ski Pass gives easy access – along with a free bus – to 13 ski resorts and a total of 340km of runs, plus entry to attractions in the city. The resorts covered include Mutteralm, Serlesbahnen and Hochötz, small, family-orientated places, Glungezer and Schlick 2000, best suited to intermediates, and Nordkette, Kühtai and the Stubai glacier, which offer varied runs, as well as off-piste challenges.
Innsbruck styles itself as the outdoor capital of the Alps – and has fair claim to the title. Its streets buzz in winter with après skiers, still in their kit, making the most of the cosmopolitan bars and restaurants.
Book it: The four-star Hotel Grauer Bär is located in the centre of Innsbruck with spa, swimming pool and three restaurant From €156 per night. Flights available from all major UK airports to Innsbruck with easyJet, British Airways and Jet2. Find more of the best accommodation in Innsbruck in our guide.
Best for: off-piste challenges
Chamonix lies just 100km/an hour’s drive along the Autoroute Blanche from Geneva airport. It’s populated on winter weekends by a 21st-century breed – the City Commuter. CCs have the funds to rent a flat for the season and buy all their airline tickets for the winter months well in advance. However, it’s not essential to be a serial weekender to enjoy its four ski areas. Ski instructors and mountain guides come here to qualify, and every dedicated skier and snowboarder has its challenges on their bucket list.
Chamonix’s setting beneath the cliffs and tumbling glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif is tremendous, and the bustling town isn’t lacking in charm. Its old buildings have kept their sedate Victorian and more fanciful Belle Epoque look, and now that the centre is traffic-free, it offers pleasant strolling, with cafés overhanging the river Arve’s torrent and a wealth of interesting shops.
Since its four separate ski areas are spread out along the valley, making the most of Chamonix requires planning and some patience with bus rides and queues – but its long descents are ample reward. Much of the resort’s legendary status is due to the Argentière/Grands Montets sector. The upper part is an immense freeride playground, much of it glacier, punctuated by two long black pistes. Renowned runs such as the Pas du Chèvre, Couloir du Dru and Rectiligne have pitches of up to 45 degrees – not for the faint-hearted.
In the centre of town, the two-stage cable car to Aiguille du Midi (3,842m) gives access to the famous off-piste Vallée Blanche, which runs back down through the glaciers, delivering some of the most spectacular scenery the Mont Blanc range has to offer. If the run is open all the way back to town, it’s a vertical of 2,800m and 24km in length. If not, it means taking a gondola near the end of the run followed by a train home.
Don’t rule out Brévent-Flégère on the sunny side of the valley. Adrenalin junkies who obsess about Argentière spend hours queuing there when they could be enjoying great conditions at Flégère – powder, spring snow or groomed corduroy depending on the time of day and year. Le Tour/Vallorcine is ideal for entry‑level off piste to build confidence, with an easy link to the attractive woodland runs and more rugged terrain above the village of Vallorcine.
Book it: British Airways Holidays offers a three-night stay at three-star RockyPop Chamonix - Les Houches from £408 room only. Departs February 24. Find more of the best accommodation in Chamonix in our guide.
Best for: putting on the ritz
Courmayeur lies an hour from Geneva (116km) and an hour and a half from Turin (150km), allowing for the essential weekend component of easy transfers from a choice of airports with lots of flights. This charming, traditional mountaineering village sits at the Italian end of the Mont Blanc tunnel, with Chamonix in France at the other end.
Well-heeled Italians from Milan and Turin arrive in numbers on Friday evening. They throng the pretty pedestrianised Via Roma, lined with smart boutiques, enticing bars, restaurants, as well as delicatessen, antique and homeware shops. You may be forgiven for thinking that the pistes will be crowded in the morning, but, fortunately, only a small proportion hit the slopes. They come for the party rather than the piste.
The ski area, which best suits confident intermediates, isn’t huge and can easily be covered in a single weekend, however with a top lift at 2,755m and the bottom of the slopes at 1,224m, the vertical here is pretty impressive. Restaurants both in town and up on the mountain are of a particularly high standard, and Courmayeur is one of the spiritual homes of the long, lazy lunch.
The off-piste terrain offers considerable challenges. There are classic runs from the Cresta d’Arp (2,755m) at the top of the lift network, while the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car from Entrèves, a five‑minute drive from Courmayeur, provides access to serious descents from Punta Helbronner (3,462m), including the famous Vallée Blanche. The cable car has 360-degree rotating cabins for taking in the view from all angles.
Book it: The three-star Berthod is elegantly designed throughout and is close to the resort’s main lifts. The hotel features a very comfortable communal lounge area, modern bar, hot tub and sauna. From €130 per night. Flights available from all major UK airports to Geneva with easyJet, British Airways, Ryanair and Jet2. Find more of the best accommodation in Courmayeur in our guide.
Need to know
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