It’s an ever-changing landscape on the pistes. Improved airport links and tunnels have made some resorts more accessible, while others have opened new runs for the coming season, says Patrick Thorne
Several ski resorts can be reached more quickly and comfortably this winter thanks to new airports, tunnels and flight routes.
The opening of a new airport north-west of Barcelona in Spain should make it quicker and easier for us to reach the Spanish Pyrenees and Andorra. The shiny new Lleida-Alguaire airport will begin taking charter flights — exclusively from tour operator Neilson — from December 19. The company expects to carry about 16,000 British skiers on charters from Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol bound for resorts in Andorra and Spain's Baqueira Beret, a destination that it has started offering this year. Neilson used Tolosa airport for the past 20 years but says the new airport choice allows guests holidaying at one of its Pyrenean resorts to enjoy shorter transfers (75 minutes less to Arinsal) and exclusive use of all check-in desks, security points and the arrivals and departures halls.
In Switzerland, the opening last month of the Sfr270m (£190m) Saas bypass has cut driving time to Davos Klosters by 30 minutes. The 2.6km road runs through the Saas tunnel and then over two bridges before reaching Klosters. The tunnel walls are covered in hi-tech paint that is self-cleaning thanks to nanotechnology.
If you like a little flutter with your snow fix, then the new US-bound Virgin Atlantic non-stop service from Manchester to Las Vegas on Thursdays and Sundays (complementing its existing daily Las Vegas service from Gatwick) makes it easier for those of us living in the north to access the Nevada tourist hot spot and combine a stay there with an easy three-and-a-half-hour drive up Interstate 15 to south-west Utah resorts Brian Head or Eagle Point, taking in stunning Zion National Park en route.
The ski areas
Many resorts in France have made new piste announcements for this winter.
But one of the most practical is at Alpe d'Huez. There, non-expert skiers can now enjoy the magnificent scenery at the top of the Signal de l'Homme thanks to the new 1.35km easy Pre Rond run. Access to the Signal de l'Homme run is quicker, too, because the journey time has been cut from 15 to seven minutes thanks to a new six-seater high-speed chair lift.
Les Orres, in the southern Alps, has installed a chairlift that opens up two new blue runs this winter. It now has 100km of runs, though it has cut its lift numbers to just under 20 by replacing old drag lifts with new chairs. However, the resort has one of the lowest-priced ski passes on offer, with a six-day ticket costing €148 (£128).
In Austria, the resort of Nassfeld has introduced an interesting service — the world's fastest language course is being offered in the cabins of the resort's Millennium Express. Teachers ride the gondola up with you trying to teach you words in the local Carinthian dialect during the 17-minute ascent — pass the course by the time you reach the top and you receive a diploma.
In Italy, Kronplatz has announced what appears to be the longest new piste anywhere this winter. The 7km-long Ried slope will descend more than 1,300 vertical metres and will be served by yet another new gondola, its 20th, meaning the ski centre runs more than any other.
Laax in Switzerland, a favourite with snowboarding and freestylers, is encouraging first-timers with a new six-seater chairlift offering access to more novice terrain and ‘Snow and Park’, a new park designed for absolute beginners. Advanced riders aren't forgotten, though, with an all-new Ils Plauns park plus a new boarder/skier cross.
Laax will again stage the Brits Snow and Music Festival from 18-25 March. Accommodation, admission to festival events and lift pass packages cost about the same as a week's lift pass.
Scandinavia's most popular resort, Are in Sweden, has come up with an unusual world first by using the white snow slopes at the top of its VM-8 lift station as the backdrop for a light show that tells a story of mythical Swedish creatures and legends. I'm told that from a distance it will look like the mountain is shimmering in hundreds of different colours. The idea is that while night skiing (open to 8pm daily from Christmas to Easter) once attracted only the most diehard skiers, this new project will entice families and beginners to Are's slopes to try it out for themselves.
In the US, a new double chairlift at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, will much improve the skier flow across the mountain, the resort claims, which will not only make it easier to travel across the ski area but, at the ends of the season, will allow guests to stay on the top half of the mountain where the snow is. The resort is also keen to let British skiers know it has “best ever” connections from the UK this winter, with “one-quick-change” at Dallas for arrivals on British Airways and American Airlines.
Kimberley Alpine Resort in Canada’s British Columbia has completed enhancements to its famed Easter Chair, which accesses some of the country's best and longest trails. These include a new rest room near the top station, so guests no longer have to return to the base area to spend a penny, and new chairs on the lift itself making it more comfortable.
Mountain restaurants are big news this winter with the building of spectacular new structures to provide complete year-round, on-mountain dining.
In the US, an eye-watering $15m (£9.4m) is being spent on the Elk Camp Restaurant at Snowmass, by Aspen, in Colorado, which will be completed for the 2012-2013 season. The resort has also spent $6m (£3.8m) on remodelling its existing Merry Go Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands — regulars will be pleased to hear it has kept the ‘duct-tape chic’ ambience. Similar eye-poppers are going up, or have opened, at Heavenly, Northstar, Vail and, over in the east, at Killington Vermont.
In the Alps, most new projects are on a smaller scale but equally noteworthy. In Villars, western Switzerland, L'Alpe Fleurie reopens next month. This chalet-style restaurant was once the haunt of stars such as Serge Gainsbourg and Roger Moore.
In France, another famous name, the Val d'Isere institution Dick's Tea Bar, will launch its new apres-ski bar and refurbished club in time for the coming ski season. The new bar will open at 5pm each day, with the nightclub opening later. The new interiors allow DJs and live bands to perform side by side.