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Winter holidays: 10 of the best snowsports destinations in Europe

Racers of The Glacier Patrol race climb the Rosablanche pass - Credit: Archant

There is a lot more to winter sports than skiing and snowboarding. And, far more places to experience them than just the Alps. We pick 10 places for snow and sport

Kainuu, Finland

You don’t have to traipse all the way across to arctic Alaska to experience the life of a pioneering dog musher.

The good news is that from gentle taster days to full-on expeditions, Finland’s frozen forests and lakes provide the backdrop to some of the best husky dog safari adventures anywhere in the world.

The life of a dog musher can be surprisingly hard work so don’t expect an easy ride.

However being whizzed through the snow by a team of manically barking husky dogs is easily one of the most exciting winter activities you can do.

A word of warning though: try to avoid falling off the sled into the yellow dog-stained snow.

A six day private dog sled tour for two in Finland costs from £1,038 each including full board. Flights to Finland not included.

Luchon, French Pyrenees

Whenever folk want their fix of winter sports action they instinctively head over to the Alps. Those in the know however quietly slip away to the French Pyrenees. Largely unknown by Brits, the French Pyrenees are indeed serious mountains stretching in one unbroken chain for over 300km between the Atlantic and the Med.

OK, whilst they aren’t quite as big and brassy as the Alps you’ll find the Pyrenees to be a more chilled option to the increasingly industrial-style skiing of the Alps.

A good way to explore the remote valleys and hills of the Pyrenees is snowshoeing, one of the fastest growing winter sports.

Graded snowshoe trails range from bimbley low-level walks that weave through forests to more ambitious and heart-pounding mountain assaults that reward you with suitably spectacular views. Awesome.

For details of snowshoeing holidays in the Pyrenees contact:

Gran Paradiso National Park Italy

If your inner adventure junkie ever tires of tearing down icy black runs, how about turning things on their head and go for climbing up a wall of glistening ice instead?

Widely regarded as one of the most extreme and dangerous of all winter sports, ice climbing involves scaling scary, yet beautiful icy blue frozen waterfalls, something which involves massive psychological and physical challenges.

You need nerves of steel to keep it together when the only thing stopping you from a potential terminal fall are the points of your ice axe embedded into the frozen ice.

The best way to learn how to climb ice safely, or to try the sport for the first time is to head to the Alps for an ice climbing course where the deep freeze conditions needed to turn thundering waterfalls to solid ice are guaranteed.

Europe has some of the best ice climbing in the world including Cogne in Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park. Here reliable, freezing temperatures and a short walk in to the action means that you can spend all day trying not to freak out high up on the ice.

Five days ice climbing course in Cogne in the Gran Paradiso National Park costs £1,375 including full board. Flights not included.

Beitostølen, Norway

As the birthplace of cross-country skiing, Norway is Europe’s number one destination for the sport which is still the country’s most popular winter pastime.

In fact cross-country skiing is a core part of Norwegian culture which is reflected in the provision of well-maintained cross-country ski trails in virtually every town and village that let you meander deep into the remote and wild Norwegian backcountry.

In many ways cross-country is the more chilled antidote to downhill as it’s all about moving at a slower pace through a hushed winter landscape, giving you the time to marvel at the scenery and is a far cry from the frantic hullabaloo of downhill resorts.

And the great thing about cross-country skiing is that you don’t need to have the stamina of an Olympic athlete to enjoy it. Instead you can explore the magic of the snow-bound Norwegian landscape at your own speed and go as far and as fast as you like.

A Cross-Country Ski Try It Out Week at Beitostølen costs from £1,125 including full board. Flights to Norway UK included.

Mayrhofen. Austria

Mass market Alpine ski resorts don’t get much more picture perfect than Mayrhofen in Austria.

Set in the centre of the dazzling Austrian Tyrol, savvy town planners have kept the curse of the concrete high rise hotel firmly out of town.

Combine this smart thinking with enough snow-sure runs to keep even the most voracious piste-hound happy and the result is that Mayrhofen adds up to being one of the most popular Alpine resorts with both boarders and skiers.

But what’s really helped put Mayrhofen on the radar though is the annual Snowbombing festival that’s cemented the resort’s reputation as being one of the Alps’ biggest party towns.

Launched in 2005 Snowbombing has now snowballed into Europe’s biggest music and snowsports festival attracting superstar DJs and bands from around the world.

Expect chaos, carnage, and causalities as thousands descend on the town for a week of hot action on the slopes during the day and even hotter raving on the dance-floor through the night. Cool.

Snowbombing takes place from 3-8 April 2017. Festival packages including hotel and festival wristband start from £249.

Chaillol, southern French Alps

Winter sports aren’t just about hurtling yourself down a snowy slope on skis or a board.

There are in fact a multitude of different ways to enjoy the sheer thrill of playing out in the freshly fallen snow.

How about paragliding, snake sledging or better still even building your own igloo and spending the night in it?

These are just some of the options on offer in the southern French Alps along with the more well known and equally thrill-tastic options of ice climbing and cross-country skiing.

The southern French Alps are largely untouched and unknown to us Brits, having escaped the industrial sprawl of downhill skiing that critics claim blots large swathes of the range.

Punters can unwind from the day’s adventures and sleep in one of the tiny and cutesy alpine villages without fear of being woken by any après-ski shenanigans.

For details of winter multi activity holidays in the southern French Alps contact:

Zermatt, Switzerland

Zermatt has yet again just been voted best ski resort in Europe. And quite right too.

This famed Swiss resort regularly and effortlessly scoops top prize simply because it provides everything that you could possibly wish for from a top-notch ski resort both on and off the pistes.

From the super-fast lifts that whisk you up to the slopes chokka with fabulous runs for all abilities to the best mountain restaurants in the world, Zermatt’s simply got it all.

Oh and let’s not forget that dominating all proceedings is the Matterhorn, the most famous and photogenic mountain in the Alps.

And once you’ve put your skis away, Zermatt won’t disapppoint either with a good mix of high and low brow apres-ski entertainment to take your mind off your aching thighs.

The bad news is that whilst Zermatt is many wonderful things, cheap it certainly is not. So brace yourselves: skiing here may well be outstanding, but don’t forget to stash swags of extra cash in your hand luggage to pay for it all.

Seven nights B&B in Zermatt costs from £599 per person based on two sharing. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Geneva and transfers. or contact 01483 791 114.

Bansko Bulgaria

Skiing and cheap rarely used to appear in the same sentence. Many used to believe that a skiing holiday’s exorbitant price tag was all a middle-class rouse to keep the riff-raff off the slopes. Plus, of course, skiing’s just got a load more expensive what with the plummeting pound thanks to you-know-what.

Thank goodness then for the emergence of the eastern European resorts that trade on offering cheap’n’cheerful ski breaks to the hoi polloi. At the front of the cut-price ski queue is Bansko, a small Bulgarian town dating back to mediaeval times that’s recently upped its game to make it fit for the 21st century.

Gone are the creaking Soviet-era lifts and in is a swishy, new lift system and equally shiny new visitor ‘village’ complex at the foot of the mountain.

It won’t ever have the chi-chi appeal of the Alps, but Bansko still can’t be beaten when it comes to providing cut-price holidays aimed at the skiing masses.

One week self-catering in Bansko costs from £246 pp based on four people sharing. Flights from UK included.

Chamonix French Alps

British skiers and mountain adventure junkies have long made Chamonix one of their top alpine hangouts. And it’s not difficult to see why: dominated by Mont Blanc, western Europe’s biggest mountain that towers over the town, Chamonix boasts some of the gnarliest and most challenging on and off piste skiing in Europe. Sure, there are some forgiving slopes that will ease the nerves of twitchy beginners, but Chamonix’s big deal is its uncompromising high octane, full-on skiing adventure.

Top of every hardcore skiers’ bucket list is the rightly famed 20km Vallée Blanche glacier run that gives skiers the chance to ski through the very heart of the Mont Blanc massif surrounded by the most spectacular and eye-popping mountain scenery.

And with climate change now stalking the Alps, Chamonix has been awarded the Flocon Vert – the green snowflake – a sustainable certifying label run by Mountain Riders, a French group that campaigns for a more sustainable winter sports industry.

Seven nights self-catering in Chamonix costs from £419 per person based on four people sharing. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Geneva and transfers. or contact 01483 791 114.

Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route

Stretching for 120km between the historic climbing centres of Chamonix and Zermatt, the legendary Haute Route is one of the most wildly exciting and dramatic ski tours anywhere in the world. Taking six heart-pumping days to complete, this high-octane route traverses glaciers and high passes to slice straight through the raw, mountainous heart of the Alps.

Your companions for the tour are among the biggest 4,000m high beasts of the Alps: Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, all of which are in constant view. With over 6,000m of climbing you’ll need to be in shape before you attempt the Haute Route.

However your reward is to discover a magical world a million miles away from the often crass commercialism of ski resorts and instead experience one of the biggest mountain adventures to be had in Europe.

An eight day ski tour of the Haute Route costs £1,320 including full board. Flights not included.

Simon Birch is a travel and environment writer. Find out more at

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