5 of the best European ski resorts to visit in summer
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Like the rest of the travel industry, ski resorts around Europe closed early due to the coronavirus outbreak, severely impacting the local economies in these regions that rely heavily on busy ski slopes throughout the winter for the bulk of their annual revenues.
A little known secret is that Europe’s ski areas are equally beautiful in summer — perhaps even more so than winter with their lush green valleys, fresh mountain air and delicious local cuisine from abundant agriculture.
While we can’t travel at the moment and are awaiting news on when and how travel will resume after the COVID-19 pandemic abates, here are five European ski resorts to put on your list, perhaps even for this summer, as most activities are outdoors.
Home to the Matterhorn, the iconic triangular cragged rock “tooth” mountain that reaches up 4,478 metres, Zermatt sits at the border of Switzerland and Italy with a picture-perfect Alpine village. If you’re actually hoping to ski or snowboard, Zermatt’s Matterhorn glacier paradise at 3,883 metres is the highest summer ski resort in Europe.
Though closed at the moment, if it re-opens for summer you’ll join many international ski teams and elite athletes that regularly train on the 21 kilometres of pistes and one of the highest snow parks in the Alps. Keep in mind the famous Matterhorn itself is only accessible to mountaineers, but there are several great viewing points around Zermatt — gawk at its majesty from the Matterhorn glacier paradise (Klein Matterhorn), which is worth a visit even if you don’t plan to ski — after all, it’s the mountain pictured on the Toblerone bar.
Be sure to catch the mountains’ reflection in Lake Riffelsee and pop into the Glacier Palace Ice Grotto, a 50-metre ice tunnel carved beneath the glacier’s surface and amped-up with slick lighting and music. Summer in Zermatt is usually blessed with lots of sunshine, perfect for extreme trekking and rock climbing or gentle hiking and mountain biking. The posh car-free town offers a range of high-end shopping, dining and luxury accommodation, which is cheaper in the summer season, though bear in mind Zermatt is one of the ritziest ski resorts in Europe.
How to get there
As cars are not allowed in Zermatt, consider flying and then travelling by train. The closest airports are Geneva (GVA), which is three hours by car and four by train, and Zurich, which is three-and-a-half hours by train or car to Täsch, with direct flight options on British Airways, EasyJet and Swiss Air. The final stage of getting to car-free Zermatt is taking the mountain railway via Täsch or local taxi service — there is ample parking should you decide to rent a car.
On the Italian side of the mighty Matterhorn — or Monte Cervino as it is called in Italy — sits the area of Breuil-Cervinia, considered by some to be the jewel in the crown of the Aosta Valley, the northern area of Italy bordered by France and Switzerland.
While the views of the Matterhorn itself aren’t as magical as from the Swiss side, staying in Italy is considerably less expensive and the Plateau Rosa, a glacier sitting at 3,500 metres above sea level also allows you the opportunity to enjoy skiing in the middle of summer.
You’re still close enough to access Switzerland for hiking and trekking, though you are already spoiled for choice on the 200 kilometres of trails around Cervinia, as well as similarly extensive mountain biking (an e-biking course with electric bikes was also recently installed). There are other options for watersports on the many lakes and rivers as Breuil, the ancient French name for the area, actually means “marshy land”, where visitors can enjoy canoeing, kayaking, white water rafting, canyoning and some of Europe’s best fishing.
There is also challenging golf on the highest 18-hole course in Italy, and for history buffs, the area is dotted with Roman ruins and offers the chance to visit castles dating back from the 12th century. For foodies, the region is renowned for the quality of its local salamis, meat, cheese and wine, inspiring specialities such as carbonada — meat and red wine stew — and fonduta valdostana, a soup made with local Fontina cheese, savoy cabbage and stale rye bread.
With the region’s micro-climate, the range and quality of wines are unusual and can be explored along the local route des vins, where you can sample and meet the vintners.
How to get there
There are three airports with easily accessible with flights from the U.K. Turin (TRN) is a one-hour, 40-minute drive, Milan Malpensa (MXP) and Milan Linate (LIN) are about a two-and-a-half-hour drive, and Geneva (GVA) is a two-hour, 45-minute drive. Carriers with flights include British Airways, Alitalia, Ryanair and EasyJet.
Chamonix is most famous as the home of the highest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, which peaks at 4,810 metres. The area attracts adrenaline junkies from around the globe, as the closest you can get to the peak is 3,842 meters on the L‘Aguille du Midi via cable car, making for a treacherous climb that only the uber-fit can attempt with crampons and ice picks.
Despite Mont Blanc having the highest fatality rate of any mountain in the Alps, don’t let that deter you from visiting Mont Blanc or Chamonix in the hot summer months. The area is renowned for its 350 kilometres of hiking trails, amazing rafting on the cool glacial waters of River Arve and waterskiing on several lakes, trail running, mountain biking, paragliding, ropes courses and a 1,300-metre Alpine coaster at Parc de Loisirs.
For animal lovers, there’s horse riding and guided hikes with the Siberian huskies used for dog sledding in winter or seeing where the local Saint Bernard mountain rescue dogs are bred. It’s one of the oldest and most renowned mountain retreats since it was where the first Winter Olympics in 1924 was held. The town oozes old-world charm and offers a variety of accommodation options from swish luxury lodges, funky modern 1980s-themed hotels to rustic hostels. There is also abundant choice in Savoyard cuisine — think fondues, raclette, rich Reblochon cheese, cured meats and local Alpine wines to wash it all down with.
How to get there
British Airways, Swiss Air and EasyJet all fly to Geneva (GVA), and the transfer time from Geneva to Chamonix is one hour by car, bus or train.
Just as Cervinia is the Italian version of the Matterhorn of Zermatt, Courmayeur is the Italian reflection of Mont Blanc and Chamonix. It is now known for the SkyWay Monte Bianco cable car, a speedy space-age unit built in 2015, which takes you all the way up to the Punta Hellbronner station at 3,466 metres for a 360-degree lookout over the glaciers and surrounding peaks. It’s as far-reaching as the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and the Gran Paradiso and a connection to the L’Aguille du Midi in Mont Blanc, uniting Italy and France.
The main differences between Courmayeur and Chamonix are the sun, which is more abundant on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif and the overall vibe of the decidedly upmarket and fashionable Courmayeur village, where the main cobblestone pedestrianised street, Via Roma, is lined with a mix of smart boutiques selling Prada, Fendi, Gucci and every other luxury Italian brand you’ve heard of, as well as enticing bars, smart restaurants and chic antique and homeware shops.
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Not to say there isn’t plenty of sport to be had — the town is an important staging post on three iconic long-distance hiking trails: Alta Via 1, Alta Via 2 and the famed Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-kilometre trail that circles the mountain with options to camp, glamp or stay in mountain refuges along the way.
There’s also mountain biking, rafting on the Dora Baltea river and swimming on the Plan Chécrouit swimming pool — the highest heated pool in Europe. For sightseeing, there’s the historic Bard Fortress, built in the 1800s and is now three attractions: the fortress itself (which was a location for the Avengers film), a science museum of the Alps and “The Ferdinando”, a museum dedicated to the military history of the Western Alp frontiers going all the way back to Roman times.
How to get there
Similar to Chamonix, the closest international airport is Geneva, then it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel. Alternatively, fly to Italy via Turin (TRN), which is a two-hour drive, or Milan Malpensa (MXP) or Linate (LIN), which are about two-and-a-half hours by car. British Airways, Swiss Air, EasyJet and Alitalia service those airports nonstop from the U.K.
5. The Dolomites: Val Gardena and Alta Badia
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Dolomites offer some of the most strikingly beautiful mountain scenery in the world, characterised by pale, vertical rocky pinnacles and outcrops that glow fiery reddish-orange in the morning and evening light above lush green meadows and wildflower-strewn forests.
Located in the northeast part of Italy, between Switzerland and Austria, the area is known as South Tyrol and shares influences from its neighbours and has a lovely traditional Alpine feel with chocolate-box villages. It also has its own ancient language, Ladin, only spoken by the locals.
Known for biking and hiking, there are over 800 kilometres of hiking trails, dotted with refugios (rustic mountainside dwellings that can range from simple huts to small hotels), but all renowned for the delicious local food that they serve, using local agriculture and wines, and some teaming up with award-winning chefs, earning the region its nickname “gourmet valley”.
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The area is noted for some 600 “Via Ferrata” routes — protected paths that run throughout the mountains with fixed anchors such as iron bars, ladders and bridges making difficult ascents safe and more accessible to less experienced climbers, some taking you through trenches and positions of importance from WWI.
Also worth visiting is Messner Mountain Museum, a series of six museums (one a real-jaw dropper perched on the side of a cliff designed by Zaha Hadid) that explore humankind’s relationship with mountains and created by Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest living mountaineers, who hails from this region.
There are many villages to use as a base — the best options would be Ortisei, Arabba or Cortina d’Ampezzo, where in the summer months, hotels and restaurants host prosecco-filled sundowners and Michelin-star worthy apéritivos around the cobblestone town squares.
How to get there
The closest airports are Treviso (TSF) and Venice (VCE), which are just over a two-hour drive and serviced by Ryanair, EasyJet and British Airways. Depending on which part of the Dolomites you stay, Innsbruck (INN) can be one-and-a-half to two hours by car, serviced by both EasyJet and British Airways nonstop from the U.K.
Europe’s ski resorts have so much to offer in summer, whether you missed the ski season due to coronavirus and want to try and get in some turns on a glacier, or hope to explore the outdoors on two wheels or by foot. There are also options for adrenaline junkies, gourmands or even those that just want a bit of history or culture. Let’s hope it is safe to travel this summer to try some of these ideas and support towns that may be suffering from the shortened ski season. Even if not, you can plan for next year!
Featured photo by Nicolas Jubin/EyeEm/Getty Images
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