By Qin Xie, Journalist. @qinxiesays on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 6:00 am
The one thing that puts many people off skiing for the first time, apart from say, a total dislike of snow and the cold, is the cost.
Skiing has this reputation of being an extremely expensive hobby where you’re having to fork out hundreds of pounds for passes and equipment before you’ve even hit the slopes.
That’s hundreds of pounds before you’ve even decided whether you might like the sport or not.
Let’s be clear – it can be very costly to go skiing during peak season, buy new gear and get heavily involved in all the apres-ski activities.
But if you just wanted to go for a taster while spending the rest of your trip doing all the other things you might do on a holiday – eating, drinking, sightseeing and that sort of thing – it can be surprisingly affordable.
And, as I discovered after a long weekend in Courmayeur in the heart of the Italian Alps, there’s actually quite a lot to do in a ski resort that doesn’t require snow.
Here are a few things you could do instead:
See Mont Blanc close up
Courmayeur, one of the resorts in the Aosta Valley, is situated at the base of Mont Blanc.
You get stunning views of its snowy peaks from the town, especially near sun-rise, but the best view has to be close up.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be very fit to get a view near the top – you can go up to Punta Helbronner, which is at a staggering 11,371ft above sea level, on the Skyway cable cars.
The cable cars rotate, and are generally less busy on the way down, so your chances of getting a good view are pretty high.
At the very top, there’s a 360 degree view-point where you can see the highest point of Mont Blanc, the instantly recognisable Dent du Geant and the majestic Matterhorn.
A return ticket to Punta Helbronner costs €49 – though you can also buy one-way tickets up as you can ski off-piste down if you’re very skilled (you need a separate skipass for this).
You can even stay overnight – Rifugio Torino has room for up to 160 people though you’ll want to book Room 31, which offers a direct view of Dent du Geant.
It costs €100 per person per night, including dinner, and it can sleep two adults and two children.
Enjoy a high-altitude wine tasting
At Pavillon du Mont Frety – which is half way up between the starting point in Courmayeur and Punta Helbronner – there is a tiny winery where the sparkling Cuvee des Guides is produced under the label Cave Mont Blanc.
You can visit the winery as part of your Skyway experience, and maybe even meet the winemaker if they’re working.
If you’re travelling as a big group, and are looking to do something special, there are local guides who will offer tours along the Skyway route and arrange a tasting of the Cave Mont Blanc wines at the winery.
Alternatively, you could treat yourself to lunch and a glass or two at the restaurants on site.
There are many gourmet experiences in and around Courmayeur throughout the year – there’s even a festival celebrating the delicious, delicate lardo (pork backfat that’s been carefully cured with herbs and spices).
My visit coincided with the annual Chef in Comune, where a visiting chef hosts a series of charity dinners featuring hyper-local ingredients.
This year, the food was by Dave Pynt, who brought over his style of modern Australian BBQ from his Singapore restaurant, Burnt Ends.
We had a 13-course tasting menu featuring a fusion of flavours from Singapore, made with ingredients sourced from just down the road.
That lardo made an appearance, of course – melting over a portion of sweetcorn sliced right off the cob.
It sat on top of a paper-thin rye and wheat base, made using flour sourced from Diego Bovard, an agricultural consultant living in nearby Morgex, who grew the grains, and milled and mixed the flour himself.
In essence, it’s farm-to-table at its best.
The next Chef in Comune will be taking place during the first week of March 2019, to coincide with the area’s carnival week. Tickets will be around €250 per person.
Food and drink places to check out:
There are several small restaurants within walking distance in the centre of Courmayeur though most of the places to eat are in hotels.
If you’re after a gourmet experience, head to Grand Hotel Royal e Golf. It’s home to head chef Paolo Griffa who, at 26, is considered a rising star in Italy.
The menu is a little left-field – you choose an ingredient and he will create five dishes using it – but it’s delightfully inventive.
The restaurant at QC Terme Monte Bianco is more rustic, but features modern versions of Italian classics with some great desserts to boot. And they have a serious cheese board, too.
If you need a stiff drink to warm you up – which, let’s face it, is more than likely – then look no further than Caffe’ Della Posta, the oldest coffee shop in town.
I’d heartily recommend the Bombardino.
Chill out at the spa
There is a whole host of spa activities in Pre-Saint-Didier, a neighbouring comune.
QC Terme Monte Bianco, where I stayed, had a huge wellness centre on the ground floor.
The main thermal water pool is built with different whirlpool features and connects to an external pool with views of Mont Blanc.
There are also smaller pools, ranging from 15C to 36C, where you can relax or shock your system into speeding up the circulation.
It also has several saunas and steam rooms as well as spaces where you can just chill out while surrounded by the soothing scents of hay or lavender.
If you’re not staying at the hotel, you can get a day-pass to enjoy the facilities for €48.
There’s also a dedicated wellness centre in Pre-Saint-Didier – QC Terme Pre-Saint-Didier – where there are even more facilities.
The skiing bit
There’s so much to do in and around Courmayeur that you could avoid skiing entirely if you’re just staying for a long weekend.
But equally, if you do want to give it a go, they make it super easy.
You will need a ski pass, which starts from €39 for three hours – more than sufficient for a taster, or if you’ve booked a lesson.
You can rent skis from Lo Chalet starting from €8 for half a day – you can also rent boots and helmets if you need them.
Scuola di Sci Monte Bianco has group lessons for adults starting from €75 for two and a half hours.
Ski tuition is probably going to be the most expensive part of your trip – but if you’re a complete beginner, you won’t want to get on the slopes without it. And maybe some ski travel insurance too.
Where to stay:
I stayed at QC Terme Monte Bianco, where double rooms start from £220 per night.
This includes breakfast, access to their thermal spa, and a free shuttle to Courmayeur.
If you want to stay in the heart of Courmayeur town, the very fancy Grand Hotel Royal e Golf has double rooms, including breakfast, from £260 per night.
For something more simple, Agriturismo Le Reve has double rooms starting from £45 per night, which includes breakfast.
They even have a whirlpool and sauna – and, with things like cheese being made on site, you get a real insight into life in the mountains.
How to get there and how to get around:
The nearest airport to Courmayeur is in Geneva – yes, you have to travel from Switzerland, through France, to get to this part of Italy.
There are flights from London to Geneva with Jet2, which start from £54 return in February.
The easiest way to get from Geneva to Courmayeur, and to get around, is to hire a car.
There are daily bus services from Geneva with Savda, with tickets starting from €37 each way.
Within Courmayeur, there are free shuttles from the centre to the slopes, or your can hire one of the local taxis.