In praise of the little ski resort
When it comes to choosing your next ski or snowboard destination big must mean better, right? For many people with limited funds and time there’s a natural inclination to seek out the larger resorts.
You know the ones. They like to flop their stats around like they’re packing a ski stock in their trousers. There’s a knee trembling 1300 metre vertical drop, 126 restaurants and bars within five minutes of your condo and enough lifts to send Schindler out of business.
And that’s all well and good – to a point. But as the years chip away and the seasons mount up I often find myself pining a little for homey ski areas – ones with a couple of lifts that work, the semi-regular opportunity to find a little pow and that Cheers attitude where everybody knows your name (or at least act like they want to know your name anyhow).
With that in mind I have put together my list of the best little ski areas in each of the four key destinations. Give ’em a try sometime, even if it’s just tapping one on as part of another trip.
In my first visits to Whitewater near Nelson I skied with one of Powder Magazine’s then top 50-rated skiers in the world Kirk Jensen (who is now the resort’s GM); got a day’s worth of avalanche training for $10; and managed on three separate occasions to smack my poorly prepared car into snow banks on the way back down. That was 15 years ago.
My choice of cars has improved and ‘WH20’ has expanded significantly since then – yet it remains something of a hidden gem. There’s still only a triple chair two doubles and and a handle tow but you can lift access 623m of vertical, which is up about a third from what it was. Tap on another 350 metres to Ymir peak and you we’re talking serious resort territory – the fact 58 per cent of the terrain there is advanced/expert, only confirming that.
Given its relatively high base (the Glory Ridge lift goes down to 1422 metres) and WH20’s location in the snow-bound Kootenays the snow quality there is often blower without quite getting the temperature extremes across the border in Alberta.
Fun, funky, rustic and resplendent – you’ll also find great dining on the mountain and one of Canada’s best town’s in Nelson off it. My lasting memory is also of receiving a parking ticket for accidentally parking in a handicapped space (because it was covered in snow). It was for the princely sum of $8 but was gladly ripped up anyway when explained away in the council office. Imagine that happening in a big ski town!
I won’t tell a lie and say I’ve ridden there yet (despite having been close enough to) but I have always been drawn to this place with promises of ball-tearing terrain and 15 metres of snow each year. Located high in the California Sierras, the ‘Wood shares its reputation as having the best terrain in the state alongside Squaw.
There’s a respectable 2300 acres of terrain with a vertical drop that tickles over 600 metres. This is serviced by 15 lifts but it’s an otherwise pretty bare-boned nature of the operation.
Taken over by Vail Resorts in 2012, Kirkwood can be accessed by the Epic Pass but still maintains its cult status amongst those looking for deep snow and shallow lift lines. Less than an hour from Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe, its probably a big call for a week, but certainly an option to split between the two.
The snow may have failed to eventuate last season but Huey is doing his best to make up for it in 2015/2016. There’s already been near six metres of the stuff. Get me there, pronto! (I will report from Kirkwood next month).
Given it actually forms part of the Niseko resort, one could be excused for thinking Moiwa is another powder-scarred warzone that’s been demolished by ubiquitous Aussies.
It’s still the quietest of the five Niseko areas and is inconveniently located just enough to avoid the hordes. With a 470 metre drop and (effectively) just one quad chair it could be dismissed outright but this place is another classic example of when less can be a whole lot more.
On powder days the tree skiing is sublime and you can lap run after without hitting another track.
For a brief moment in time this place was called La Ponte and I skied there then, punching out some of the deepest turns of my life with about half a dozen others while the Japanese army trained on the rather limited piste.
Former World Cup moguls skier and Australian cricketer Dirk Nannes owns a lodge here – and if it’s good enough for this multi-sport legend it should be good enough for you.
Le Grand Bornand, France
There are so many great little spots in Europe it is tough to know where to begin. The more cynical amongst us would say not to even bother starting given the snowpack on offer thus far in 2015 – but in a good year this place rocks.
About an hour from Geneva, Le Grand Bornand is something of a locals’ delight but actually has plenty going for it to make it a perfect low key destination resort.
What sets it apart from some of the other places on this list is that there is genuinely a little something for everyone here. There’s quite a good selection of cruisey terrain, a tidy ski school and plenty to poke around on off-piste. Throw in a gorgeous village with a relaxed apres scene and easy access to Annecy (about 40 minutes away) and you’re on a winner.
You can get a five day pass and tap on another three resorts in the Aravis region for 172 euro – pretty sweet value in anyone’s books.