Crystal Awards – And the big winner is….

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Banff, voted no.1 by our customers.

As the season draws to a close and most of the resorts start turning their chair lifts off for the summer, we’re going to look at the big winners from last season (2011/12) as voted by our customers.

Our awards cover the best holiday destination, where the best value is and where’s best to avoid the queues.

Best overall resort

This is the big one. Our version of the Best Film at the Oscars. These are the resorts our customers voted as the best place to go skiing. When it comes to a ski holiday it’s a completely personal experience, but the below 5 resorts got the best possible scores from our customers, and if you don’t have them on your ‘must-ski’ list, they need to be there.

Banff has fantastic slopes, as well as a lively town centre.

  • 1st Place – Banff, Canada
    A non-ski-in/out resort takes the big prize. But does it come as a surprise Banff scored so highly? Absolutely not. While the resort is commonly criticised for it’s lack of ski in/ski out, we don’t think it’s too much of a problem.The buses to the slopes work like clockwork, and if one bus fills up (and by that we mean the seats, no one ever has to stand) then they’ll put on an additional bus, following right behind. It couldn’t be easier and as you are in one of the most beautiful spots in the Canadian Rockies, your journey to the slopes will pass jaw dropping mountain ranges. The size of these are impossible to explain – they really have to be seen to be believed. Plus, you get to see elk and long horn sheep wandering around. Whether you are on a ski bus, a skidoo, a dog sled or even just walking around, the views here are nothing short of spectacular. Then you have the skiing. There are 3 superb resorts to explore, with Sunshine Village and Lake Louise being the two biggies – unlimited skiing for any ability and also incredible ski schools to boot. The town of Banff is great fun in the evening, with superb restaurants which are inexpensive and a number of lively bars. In the evenings it can get quite raucous, but you’ll always be able to get enough shut-eye for first lifts the next morning. Banff’s high season is over the summer, hence you always get great prices in winter as the locals see it as off-peak – you could spend two, three times as much visiting here in summer – we can’t help but love the winter and what our customers have been saying suggests you’ll feel the same.
  • 2nd Place – Selva, Italy
    A chocolate box village which is surrounded by spectacular views of the Dolomites.  Although not a big name on the ski circuit, the ranking is well deserved. The skiing is incredibly varied and whatever your preference there is something for you. Like long ‘uns? There’s a 10.5km run into the nearby resort of Ortisei . Like off piste? The head over to Colfosco ski area where you can find fresh-lines between the trees days after the last snow hit.  Just want to go fast? Selva’s runs are a collection of reds – whizzing around this area for any standard of skier is bliss. As the day comes to an end, unclip your skis and jump into one of the après ski bars, always complete with cheesy euro pop and a fun atmosphere. The small town is a great place to unwind in the evening, it doesn’t have thumping nightlife, but some fun bars and great restaurants too. If you want to explore the Dolomites, one of the greatest ski areas on the planet, then this is the perfect base – and now you don’t even have to just take our word for it.
  • 3rd Place – Whistler, Canada
    Seeing as Whistler has made the top 5 categories for advanced skiing, off-piste skiing, snowboarding, après ski and shopping, it’s no real surprise that it’s popped up here also. It gets voted pretty consistently the number 1 resort in North America by Ski Magazine. It actually wins so many awards it’s got an entire page dedicated to it. So why is it so good? First of all, it has massive terrain –  a recent survey that looked at the total kilometres of runs had Whistler coming in 5th in the world. In an “average” season  it also gets nearly 12m of snow. Terrain for everyone, and we mean everyone – from amazing, gentle greens to insane double black diamond runs. Plus a village with great après, night life and restaurants to die for. It’s got the whole package and we love it.
  • 4th Place – Grindelwald, Switzerland
    With a ski area of over 200km Grindelwald has a fair amount of terrain to explore – and sitting in the middle of the Jungfrau region the views ain’t too bad either – lots of runs are overlooked by the Eiger. The pistes are just sublime – there’s plenty of beginner and expert terrain, but for an intermediate or good skier who just loves blasting around the slopes, then the endless red runs are just absolute perfection. Couple the astonishingly large ski area with the pretty, Swiss, chocolate box village and you get the full package for those after that classic ski holiday, with great skiing at your doorstep. As I’m sure you can imagine a lot of the accommodation here isn’t too shabby either, but compared with a lot of its sister resorts in the country, it still represents great value for money. If you want a picture perfect Swiss ski trip then you’d struggle to do better than Grindelwald.
  • 5th Place – Zurs, Austria
    Zürs is an exclusive resort with a whole host of top quality 4* and 5* spa hotels to choose from, and the town itself is extremely pretty. You may spot a few paparazzi around the town too as it does tend to attract a few celebs. At 1,720m it’s one of Austria’s highest ski villages, and is higher than neighbouring Lech. The resort’s had good investment and high-speed chairs; heated seats are the norm now, with queues a rarity. With 7m of snow in an “average” season, whether you’re shooting down groomers or hitting the off piste you’re pretty certain of great conditions. For those that like to take things easy then there’s a 22km scenic trail called the “White Ring” ski circuit. If all of that isn’t quite enough then the lift pass also covers nearby St. Anton and Sonnenkopf – a total of 270km piste at your disposal.  The on mountain dining is superb, from traditional Austrian huts to fine dining. In the evening Zurs is quiet compared to some of its sister resorts, but there’s still some lively après, and pubs and clubs partying on into the wee hours.

Overall value

So, you want to ski but you’re on a budget. Where should you go? A lot of people will think Bulgaria, but there are other places out there with fantastic value. There may be a couple here that take you by surprise.

Kranjska Gora offers fantastic value, and doesn’t look too bad either.
  • 1st Place – Kranjska Gora, Slovenia
    Quite simply, compared to any other Eurozone country in Central Europe, Slovenia offers the best value for money – and has real quality to boot. First things first, the holiday package. You’ll struggle to find better priced, but what Kranjska Gora offers you is one of the most spectacular spots. It’s just up the road from Lake Bled, with superb service and excellent hotels. In resort you’ll find things cheap, from the excellent (all English speaking) ski school, to eating and drinking whether you’re on or off the slopes. You can ski to and from your door with many of the hotels here too, which means no faffing with buses in the morning. The Slovenians are incredibly welcoming and offer superb service wherever you go. We absolutely love Slovenia, it’s a less well known area, but absolutely worth a visit – especially for those who are new or reasonably new to the sport.
  • 2nd Place – Borovets, Bulgaria
    This is a great little resort just an hour and a half from Sofia airport. Well known for great value, Bulgaria sometimes gets a bad rap and it is completely unfair – the quality of accommodation is superb. Some of the big hotels aren’t particularly beautiful from the outside –  but inside they are as good a standard of any of their counterparts in other countries. Plus, thanks to the size they usually have a huge range of facilities. If you want a bit of luxury, then hotels like Lion and Yanakiev are lovely properties, again offering great value. Breakfast and dinner are included with all the hotels we feature here, and eating and drinking is really cheap – a pint of beer will cost you just over a quid. First Time ski packages cost from £184pp (lift pass, rentals and lessons) which is just staggeringly cheap. You’d struggle to find anything for less than Borovets.
  • 3rd Place – Bansko, Bulgaria
    This is the most modern of the resorts we offer, with lots of development over the noughties and a whole plethora of new hotels popping up. Now the cranes have gone, you’re left with brand new hotels of an excellent standard – hotels like the Kempinski and Premier Luxury Mountain Resort would be a top 5* hotel wherever you put them. For the standard you won’t get such a great hotel for such a small price anywhere else. There’s some great 3* and 4* options too, all of them central to the main town centre which offers an impressive range of bars, restaurants and shops. Prices aren’t as cheap as Borovets here but you’ll still get a beer for under £2, and compared with other ski resorts it’s still a bargain. It’s the largest ski area in Bulgaria too. The trail map doesn’t do Bankso justice, as it’s a big mountain with a modern gondola system whisking you up. More experienced skiers will love this, as will beginners.
  • 4th Place – St Wolfgang, Austria
    If we told you that this resort is 1 hour and a quarter from the airport and offers 150km of skiing, we’re pretty sure your ears would prick up. The ski area is huge, and is split between two areas. The Postalm is perfect for beginners with a great ski school, while Dachstein has the majority of terrain with 141km of slope split across all abilities – a great all rounder. There’s great value hotels, all of a high standard, and eating and drinking is cheap too. So – what’s the catch? You do have to get the shuttle bus to the skiing and it isn’t that close (45mins Postalm / 1.5hrs Dachstein) but for the price we think it’s worth it. Clearly our customers agree!
  • 5th Place – Alpbach, Austria
    Although not one of the cheapest areas we offer, Alpbach is one of the most beautiful resorts in Austria. Given what you pay for this sublime setting, it is exceptional value. Voted as ‘Austria’s most beautiful village’, the scenery is just astounding, a quaint green steepled church is the centre point of the village, alongside traditional houses and hotels. Eating and drinking here is inexpensive too, whether you’re in town or on the mountain. There’s lots to explore on the mountain as there’s a newly extended 142km of piste accessible from Alpbach. In the future prices will inevitably start creeping up, but on the face of everything, Alpbach is incredible value.

No queues

The bug bear of any skier or snowboarder is queuing – no one likes them, it’s a simple as that. So if you don’t like a scrabble for the lifts, read on to discover the best places to avoid them.

The quieter slopes of Hochgurgl.
  • 1st Place – Hochgurgl, Austria
    Sitting at a whopping 2,150m, this is Austria’s highest altitude resort with season long guaranteed snow and 110km of piste. The ski-in/out village only has half a dozen hotels, so Hochgurgl is never going to have a big backlog of skiers waiting for the first gondola in the morning. Add to that an efficient and well-placed network of high-speed chairlifts to disperse skiers around the mountain, and up to the magnificent ‘Top Mountain Star’ restaurant – which could persuade any would-be skiers with its scenic delights. After you have torn yourself from your coffee and views, head onto the Top Express gondola to Obergurgl. From here you can explore more equally fantastic skiing, including the off-piste powder trap delights of the Valley of the Kings. Again, there are plenty of high-speed chairs and impeccable pistes throughout. Bliss.
  • 2nd Place – Gressoney, Italy
    Part of the Monte Rosa ski area, but less well known than its neighbour Champoluc. The expansive 180km of piste can be accessed from a number of spots and as Gressoney is a quieter village you never get any crowds – queues here are very, very rare. Once you’re up there’s an expansive ski area, even if you don’t visit other resorts. The off-piste is phenomenal – voted in 3rd place to go for off-piste in an earlier Crystal Awards post, and it just doesn’t seem to end. It’s always worth getting a guide to properly explore. While the other nearby areas can be a little busier, for such a snow-sure, massive ski area you just don’t find many queues. Combine that with incredibly inexpensive on-mountain food and spectacular views and you’ve got the whole package – a true hidden gem and worth a visit for any keen skier.
  • 3rd Place – La Thuile, Italy
    La Thuile is well known for amazing food and proper Italian hospitality. When it comes to skiing you have a huge number of options. You can ski over to nearby La Rosiere in France, Pila (amazing tree runs) or even Courmayeur. You can’t get bored of the skiing here, it’s impossible – especially as you get killer views of the Matterhorn too. But the reason it makes it onto this list is that it’s also queue free. During the week days you’ll jump on the lifts with little to no queuing. This can change a little on some weekends, when the locals from Milan and Turin head to the mountains to ski, but the Italian weekend ski mentality will mean for the majority of your stay it is just you and the piste. And great Italian food of course.
  • 4th Place – Claviere, Italy
    Under 2 hours from Turin, Claviere is a charming little town which sits right on the Italian French border. Even though it’s close to such a big city (as above) the Italians tend not to ski during the week in vast numbers, so you have the place to yourself. As it’s a small town even at peak times, there is rarely any kind of queue for the lifts, and when there is it’s extremely organised. Hence the great reviews from our customers. Add to this access to the Milky Way’s 400km of skiing and you wonder why anyone would ski anywhere other than Italy.
  • 5th Place – Ruka, Finland
    Ruka has already appeared on a number of the Crystal Award posts, finishing in the top 5 for beginners skiing, families, snowboarding and kids ski school. Now it gets another for having very few queues also. If you’re a family, with beginner snowboarders/skiers and kids taking ski school, and you don’t like queues (FYI if you are new to the sport, take it from me – you don’t like queues!) then this is for you. Queues are almost non existent as the resort is small and not everything is focused around the skiing.  There are a massive range of winter activities – this keeps the slopes quiet and you’ll never have to stand in line – which is perfect for learning to ski. In January you have the slopes absolutely to yourselves, it’s like a private resort – the only thing to stop you will be your own legs and the phenomenal views.

We’d love your feedback on what you think of the winners and what we said about them – tell us on Facebook.

Michael is Ski-buzz's resident North America expert and writes feature articles and resort guides for Ski-buzz. There are very few resorts across the USA and Canada that Michael hasn't visited.

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