Category Archives: Europe

The Snows of Park City

A week ago, I was gazing ruefully at the brown slopes of the Alps. For the record, according to today’s snow conditions reports, the situation sadly hasn’t improved a lot since then. Now, I am looking out my hotel window at the white-coated mountains of Utah, fading away in the dimming light. My view is of some of the runs at Park City Mountain Resort, where I see the headlights of snowcats prowling the mountain to groom the light chop created by today’s light skier/snowboarder traffic into corduroy. The same thing is going on at The Canyons, where I skied yesterday, and Deer Valley, where I plan to ski tomorrow.

These three ski areas surrounding the town of Park City among them have scores of runs open, but locals are champing at the bit for another couple of big storms so that the steeps, chutes and high bowls will be opened and for Utah’s fabled deep powder. Skiers who are at European resorts now can only envy the conditions that locals here are complaining about.

For visitors, conditions are already very good. I’m not sure when the last big snowfall was, but the ski mountains have been picking up a few inches a day. This evening, it’s warm and even a bit drizzly in town, but I suppose it’s probably snowing up higher. It’s not windy, so nothing is blowing off the ski runs. The packed powder surface is forgiving underfoot. Lift lines are non-existent. And the town and resort developments look festive with their Christmas trees and holiday lights.

The big snow the locals are lusting after is forecast for Sunday, and if there’s anything left, Colorado and perhaps northern New Mexico should get another dump early next week. I wish the world weather pattterns were such that the remainder would bless the Northeast with snow and continue across the Atlantic, sweeping across Spain and France to help the Alps out too. But alas, I’m not the weather arranger, and my wishes for snowy abundance everywhere don’t count. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the slopes and the early-season cruising here.

Still No Snow in the Alps

I’ve just returned for a quick trip to the Alps, to take a look at a trio of resorts being offered in an innovative mix-and-match package assembled by a new tour operator. Baobab Expeditions has an interesting concept for skiers who have a week or two and want to sample three or more resorts. The Ski Expeditions program is offered both in Colorado and in the Alps. The preview trip of three European resorts in three days (plus travel time) — long enough to affirm that there still is no snow in the Alps — left time to explore a bit and to indulge in the wonderful food of the Alpine region. I’ll add a post to http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com/ within a couple of days to share my dining experiences, which I hope will be sufficiently mouthwatering to convince you that European resorts have a lot offer, even when there is no snow. But for now, here’s the skinny on the sad state of skiing across the pond.

I skied St. Moritz on Tuesday, December 5. Of the resort’s 72 lifts, just six were operating. Four were running on a massif called the Corvatsch — a beginner platterpull beside the bottom station of the cable car, the first stage of the cable car below which three runs were open, a four-place bubble quad chairlift (top photo, right) serving two intermediate runs that come together to form one run and one T-bar on a short teaching slope. These runs are snowmaking-equipped, even on the glacier, so that when a spot had been scraped off, glacial ice showed through. Beside the runs were rocks, rocks and more rocks, plus tufts of grass and trees at lower elevations. The exhilaration of early-season skiing was tempered by the discouraging picture just off-trail.

The skiing was marginal by most measures, but Alpine panoramas nevertheless are magnificent. So that visitors could enjoy the scenery, no matter what the snow conditions were like, the second stage of the cable car was operating only for foot passengers who wanted to enjoy the panorama of sun-kissed peaks stretched out to the horizon (middle photo, right) and lunch in the summit cafeteria or restaurant. A couple of lifts and runs — even fewer than on the Corvatsch — were also open on the Corviglia/Piz Nair, but I didn’t ski there.

It was pouring in St. Moritz on Wednesday, and hopeful skiers and boarders headed to the Corvatsch lusting for powder. There was snow, indeed. It was blinding, goggle-coating snow that helped the cover but wasn’t a lot of run to ski in. And in the end, it didn’t seem to make a difference in the amount of terrain that was deemed skiable.

The next stop was across the border in Livigno, Italy, reached by a one-lane tunnel through the mountains. Of the 33 lifts, three were operating, one short surface lift and two chairlifts, betweem them serving two very modest ribbons of snow (bottom photo, right) laid down down on a sloping meadow just off the village’s main drag. So much snowmaking effort had resulted in so little cover that it was not even possible to ski between the loading areas of the two lifts, which are just steps apart. There was also a small moving carpet for children at the bottom of the easiest of the two runs, but I don’t know whether that is counted in the census of 33. The cover was so pathetic that skiing was free.

Many people who come to Livigno at this time of year are because they are Milanese who come for the duty-free shopping and don’t care whether or not there is snow. The long, thin town has charming little hotels and guest houses, restaurants and shops, the vast majority of which sell the same brands of tobacco products, cosmetics, perfumes and booze. It’s a little like a cross between a quaint Alpine village and an international airport terminal.

The last stop on Thursday, December 7 was St. Anton-am-Arlberg, Austria, the brightest star in a fabled galaxy of resorts that had hoped to crank up its lifts the following day. It’s now the 9th, and according to the slope reports on St. Anton’s website, nothing is running yet.

Hoteliers and resort officials publicly say that “it’s still early” and speak optimistically about the season’s snow prospects, but there are clouds of doubt in their eyes even as they try to put a good spin on the gloomy situation. BBC World ran a feature while I was there indicating that every year for the past 15 has been warmer than the previous one in western Europe, and that this fall has been the warmest in something like 1,300 years, according to an austrian meteorologist named Reinhard Boehm. Other reports, including a wire-service story that appeared in Ski Racing, confirm the same thing.

The U.S. Rockies also experienced an unseasonably warm, dry fall, but snowfall has been sufficient since late November to launch the ski season with enough cover. The Alps might get snow any day now (though the forecast is not encouraging), and the West could experience fewer storms after a good start. I’m rooting for good snow everywhere. I love Baobab Expeditions’ concept and just hope there’s enough snow in the Alps to give it a good shot at succeeding.

No Snow, but a Perfect Hotel

There is still no snow to speak of in the Alps, though it might be snowing at higher elevations even as I write this. In the valleys, however, all is wet and gray, including here in rainy St. Moritz, Switzerland. The community has pre-emptively canceled World Cup ski races scheduled for December 9-10, because even if it starts snowing very soon, it is impossible to assure enough cover and prepare the course for World Cup specifications.

I am consoling myself by hunkering down in the warm and welcoming — and very historic — Badrutt’s Palace. The Badrutt family entered in hotel business in 1856 when Johannes Badrutt established the Engadiner Kulm Hotel (still operating as the Kulm Hotel). His son Casper founded the Palace in 1864, and that winter, Johannes lured the first group of winter tourists to St. Moritz, launching winter tourism to the mountains. The present Palace was opened in 1896, and it has been expanded and refined ever since.

I view the Palace as a perfect hotel for myriad reasons: location, views, architecture, furnishings and above all, impeccable service that is correct and formal but not stuffy. Perfection comes at a price, but in this low season, the price is not off the charts. Still, one thing that I especially admire is that Badrutt’s Palace does not nickel-and-dime those guests who are already paying top dollar, as those who will arrive soon for the Christmas-New Year peak season will be.

I am writing this from my laptop plugged into the hotel’s free high-speed Internet connection in each room. I don’t even need and adapter, because in addition to the regulation Swiss outlets, one accepts North American plugs. I am sipping mineral water from the complimentary mini-bar. Beside me, the plasma TV is tuned to CNN, but I could be watching a pay film without having to pay. The hotel’s fleet shuttles guests to the railroad station, the local heliport and even the lifts (or golf course in summer). Many multi-starred hotels do offer such services but with added charges for each one.

Down pillows and comforters, high-thread-count sheets and large, fluffy towels enhance the poshness in each guest room. And the amenities — the soaps, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and lotion — are custom blended for the Palace and packaged in generous jars, not the smaller ones that hotels normally favor.

Of course, there are the usual facilities that ultra-luxe hotels also offer — spa, pool, multiple restaurants, lounges, lavish buffet breakfast, room service, high-end shops, twice-daily housekeeping — but it is the total package of complimentary and pay services, plus an excellent staff, that sets Badrutt’s Palace above luxury most hotels.

The next time I am in a US hotel or motor inn that makes a big deal of offering free HBO, WiFi or a lousy breakfast served on styrofoam with plastic utensils, I will think back to my stay at Badrutt’s and remember how it is here, in this perfect hotel.