Perhaps it’s not the obvious choice for a family ski holiday – on the face of it, one the largest ski areas in the Alps, dominated by its second highest mountain range, Monterosa, known more for its off-piste and ski touring than gentle blue and red runs – Champoluc is more geared up to the hard-core freeride skier than a British family with young children.
But it’s also a place that was on the ‘must do’ list and I wondered if combining a holiday where dad could sneak off to explore the huge amounts of off-piste available whilst mum and daughter enjoyed the smoother, yet extensive and occasionally challenging slopes, would work.
In reality, it didn’t.
A family ski holiday should be just that and my plan was scuppered – the conditions weren’t quite right for off-piste skiing and the fact is, I was enjoying spending time on the slopes with my family too much.
What I discovered though, as I looked longingly up at the open wide powder bowls straddling the Italian/Swiss border, was a resort ideal for a family who wanted something a little different from the larger, more commercialised resorts – empty slopes, extremely reasonable prices for food on the mountain, a rustic Italian charm down in the village and locals so friendly, you felt like they wanted you to stay forever.
Champoluc is reached by transfer from Turin Airport in approximately two hours – it’s in the semi-automatous Aosta Valley region, a winter sports playground that also claims Cervinia, Courmayeur and La Thuile as ski jewels in its crown. We were staying in the Hotel Champoluc, recently taken over by the tour operator Inghams as a ChaletHotel – British run with breakfast, afternoon tea and a four course dinner served up after aperitifs in the bar area. Brilliantly located at the bottom of the slopes and within a skip and a hop of the gondola, it had a friendly, bustling atmosphere through the week and both grown-ups and kids forged friendships that endured after the holiday had ended.
One of my main concerns arose when looking at the ski run map and seeing red – my 6 year old daughter Amelie, was on her third proper ski holiday and I knew she could handle blue runs, but the Monterosa Ski Area is dominated by red runs that link together across three valleys and the villages of Gressoney and Alagna, the latter being the most popular base for the off-piste and heli-ski options in the area.
The runs are long, yet they are well maintained, generally wide and despite being marked red, are in the most part on the easier side of the colour spectrum. Amelie joined the local ski school where the meeting point is up on the first stage of the gondola style cable car from the village – an area called Crest. Here, you have ideal nursery slopes for beginners and access to another gondola heading directly up to Ostafa at 2420 metres – the final leg up to 2702 metres (Sarezza) is via a four person chairlift. Within the first morning, the ski school class had moved on from the nursery slope and had tackled the red from Ostafa to Crest and everyone seemed happy.
To access any blue runs from here, there are two options – a bus down the valley to Frachey, where a cable car gives you access directly to the single blue run, or via the Goat Run, from the top of the chairlift at Sarezza. Apparently the Goat Run had legendary status and whispers around the hotel bar on the first evening about how to tackle this animal, in order to access the blue run on the other side, started to spread some apprehension amongst the less confident skiers. The reality is that although it’s a steep red run, in good conditions it’s easily negotiable for anyone after their first week of skiing – but, it is a frustration that the link from Crest to Frachey isn’t more straightforward for beginners or intermediate skiers because in trickier snow conditions, the slope is a challenge for even confident red run skiers. Solving the Goat Run ‘issue’ would make a transition from the excellent nursery area to the mountain far easier for beginners.
For advanced and expert skiers, the challenges seem endless – simply getting over to Alagna on the far side of the area and back in a day is not to be messed with; miss the last lifts and you’ll have an expensive taxi journey back to Champoluc. But it’s the off-piste terrain that draws thousands of ski enthusiasts here every year, with everything from lift accessed powder bowls to serious ski tours and ski mountaineering routes rivalling the likes of Chamonix and Zermatt for sheer size and choice.
But I have to reign myself in. It’s Easter time and despite the plentiful amounts of snow, conditions are very spring like – an ideal opportunity to take advantage of the numerous, charming, mostly family run mountain restaurants that are dotted all over the Champoluc side of the valley. Even with a difficult exchange rate, you won’t feel too harshly done by when you finish your Italian lunch – it’s mostly simple, rustic, mountain food, but done so well. Tucked away behind the start of the Ostafa Chairlift is restaurant Tana del Lupo, owned and run by former Italian ski racer Tiziano Bieler and his wife – now retired from international competition, both Tiziano and his son Giovanni teach for the ski school as well as maintain the family business. The menu includes wild mushroom pasta, polenta with sausages and local wild venison ragu – really, who wants to ski in the afternoons when you can relax on a sunny terrace with that and a glass of local wine all for around €15 per person?
But I manage to drag myself away because the empty slopes seemed to beg to be used – and as ski school lessons for the children were booked morning only, it gave us the chance to ski as a family. The simplicity of the ski area on the Champoluc side – go up cable car, come down the same side again, makes it all very easy, the long run eventually taking skiers all the way back down to the village and the front door of the Hotel Champoluc. During one of the runs from the top to the middle cable car station we saw three other people on the slopes and it was still only mid-afternoon, everyone else had clearly decided to call it a day and head into ‘Le Bistrot’, a pizzeria and bar that seems to form the main après ski focus of the resort just below the lift station. With a bustling crowd mainly made up of families, ski instructors and British seasonal workers, the atmosphere is jolly without being the table dancing type you might find in larger resorts. We take advantage of the complimentary snacks offered with drinks, and head over to our hotel for the obligatory afternoon tea and cake, followed only slightly later by the 4 course meal – oh well, I think, I’m not writing about how to get fit on a ski holiday, I’m just writing about a ski holiday and surely this is what they should all be about? At least that’s the way I justified it in my mind anyway.
One thing I know for certain is that I’ll be back to Champoluc soon, not only for the food, but for the serious looking off-piste that the area has to offer too. Just ensure you’re in good shape before you get there, I tell myself, because I know I won’t be by the time I leave – although of course that isn’t the fault of Champoluc, the blame should firmly fall on Italy and its delicious, affordable food and wine.