The best ‘tween’ resorts in the world
The biggest and most popular ski resorts in the world didn’t get there by accident. Amazing alps and reliable snow sure help, but serious infrastructure and marketing are just as big a part of the pie.
While it’s nice to sit in the latest gondola, dine at the finest on-mountain restaurant and tuck into bed at a five-star hotel there’s often a flipside to the largess: namely crowds, costs and competition for first tracks.
Solution? The tween resort.
Not something Nick Kyrgios does between his legs (did I just say that?) – they are ski areas in between. Affordable and not too big. Yet they are not too small that you can’t spend a week there.
Following are my favourite ‘tween’ resorts in Japan, Europe, the US and Canada. What’s yours?
Myoko Kogen, Japan
Who’s it for?: Those who want some Japanese culture in their snow trip as well as a big mountain experience. Great for intermediates and powder novices.
The rundown: While Hokkaido’s Niseko has the best facilities in Japan and enviable snow, its popularity has come at a price. Quite literally. It’s expensive, gets tracked out quite quickly and is no longer a cultural drawcard. The good news is there are plenty of alternatives in Japan and the Myoko Kogen area, about four hours from Tokyo, is one of the best. Actually five resorts – Akakura Kanko/Onsen, Ikenotaira, Suginohara and Seki Onsen – Myoko differs from the niche North American and NZ resorts in that it has 30+ lifts, expansive terrain options and extensive riding opportunities for beginners and intermediates. While not as slick as the big US ski areas and without the fancy infrastructure there is plenty of riding on offer and some decent places to bed down in the Akakura village after a long day on the slopes. The snow also isn’t as fluffy as what their northern neighbours get but when you average 13 metres of the white stuff in a season, things can’t be too bad. Locals are friendly and there are plenty of places to enjoy traditional Japanese fare at good prices. Don’t expect much on the après scene as things are pretty quiet at night, but you’re here to ski or snowboard, right?
Other nearby options: Nozawa Onsen is busier and a bit funkier while still maintaining an authentic Japanese atmosphere. There’s a great village and 30-something onsens (hot baths) to soak your ski bumps away at the end of the day. The tiny Madarao is also worth a day trip to chase some powder with both places also close enough to visit the famous Jigokudani snow monkeys on a day off.
Who’s it for?: Euro-pinchers, those who’ve ticked off France, Austria and Italy.
The rundown: If your last memory or reference point for Eastern European skiing was the Sarajevo Winter Olympics of 1984 it’s time for a refresher course. While the ski areas around the former Yugoslavia capital have largely lain to waste, about 700km north there’s something of a winter sport renaissance happening. Jasna, the biggest and most popular of the resorts in Slovakia ,is not exactly the French Alps but the gulf isn’t nearly as big as you may think. With a massive boost in development over the past decade the ski area has 30 lifts (including three gondolas), a highly-rated terrain park, night skiing and some serious vertical of over a kilometre. There’s some delightful tree skiing and boarding when the conditions are right too. Best of all are the prices. Expect to pay a third to half of what you would at the major European resorts for lift tickets, accommodation and meals. Best access is through Poprad, an airport-serviced town in the eastern Tatras about 60km from the resort.
Other nearby options: There are a series of ski areas in the Polish Tatras around Zakapone which is a relatively straightforward two hours’ drive north. For a more classic European snow experience head to the Austrian Alps (about five-six hours’ away) and hit St Anton or any number of areas around Innsbruck, arguably the best ski city in Europe.
Who’s it for?: Good riders and beginners – but not really for those in between.
The rundown: Due south of Lake Tahoe on Highway 88 lies the fabled field known by locals as ‘The ‘Wood’. While California non-believers complain about ‘Sierra Cement’ – the heavier snow that sometimes hits the more coastal ranges here – Kirkwood gets the pick of the white stuff in the region. More than 15 metres will blanket the high alpine area in an average season. The steeps here are amongst the best you’ll find in the US; the advanced learning and backcountry centre Expedition Kirkwood gladly skilling you up to tackle the hair-raising chutes and open bowls on offer. There’s actually some pretty good learning terrain as well. While the resort is small by North American standards it still has 15 lifts and once inside it opens up like the Tardis; if you’re good on your planks a week here peak season is no grind at all. There are some decent on-snow apartments and a handful of eateries but this joint is more about pure riding than pure indulgence. The cherry on top of all this is three-decade Kirkwood veteran Kevin ‘Coop’ Cooper’s snow reports. His rundowns are something of an anomaly in the PR-driven snow world; informative, honest and entertaining. If you like outdoor spas and are heading from Kirkwood back to South Lake Tahoe it’s worth the 15 minute diversion to the unassuming Gover Hot Springs and Markleeville. They’re cheap, cheerful and very relaxing.
Other nearby options: There are 14 resorts in the Lake Tahoe district and none is more than two hours from the next. With the Vail Resorts Epic Pass you can ski at Kirkwood, the larger and cruisier Heavenly and Northstar (renowned for its terrain parks). If you want an ever bigger `big mountain’ experience the steeps of Squaw Valley are pretty hard to go past.
Whitewater, British Columbia
Who’s it for?: Powderhounds and alternate types. Not so much for the luxury set.
The rundown: The funky and free-wheelin’ town of Nelson may be best known as the setting for the Steve Martin comedy Roxanne but 20 minutes up the road you’ll find an alpine resort that’s anything but Hollywood. Found deep in the Kootenay region of BC, Whitewater has some natural advantages. Its location west of the Rockies allows it to make the most of the big storms that track from the coast while the high base elevation of 1422m (Whistler’s for instance is 675m) ensures that the snow is not only plentiful but generally light and dry. Expansion plans are in the works but for now there’s just three lifts to plant you in powder paradise and down what is an admittedly modest 623 vertical drop. But this place is more than the sum of its parts. Awesome organic and award-winning on-mountain food, amazing hiking opportunities up to the shark-toothed Ymir Peak and a bohemian town right at your doorstep cap the unique experience. A side note on the aforementioned Nelson: it’s thought to be one of the only ski towns in the world with more women than men!
Other nearby options: Red Mountain is bigger, has some on-snow accommodation and is serviced by the equally charming town of Rossland, which is less than 5km from the ski hill. If you’re looking for somewhere that offers more for beginners and intermediates there’s the kitschy Kimberley which is a tick over three hours away, or Fernie, a true allrounders’ resort that caters for every ability.
A version of this story first appeared in the July edition of the inflight magazine Virgin Voyeur