Ski Region: Europe

Stretching nearly 800 miles as the crow flies across five countries (France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Germany) with several thousand ski areas of all shapes and sizes, it’s safe to say that thing nothing prepares North Americans for their first visit to a major ski destination in the Alps.

The most obvious distinction is size — the ski areas are huge with even the comparatively small ones offering continuous vertical drops that dwarf those in the U.S and horizontally the difference is even more pronounced. Put together all four ski areas in Salt Lake City’s Cottonwood Canyons along with all three resorts on the Wasatch backside in Park City and the result still wouldn’t approach the Alps’ big players. At the same time, there are dozens upon dozens of lesser-known ski regions that are far larger and more varied than most on this side of the pond, but sufficiently off the beaten path to avoid feeling like an industrial-tourism meat grinder.

But size isn’t the only difference. A majority of ski areas there have a level of modern infrastructure (lifts, snowmaking, on-mountain amenities and non-skiing activities) that puts North America to shame, particularly in the area of food and beverage. Instead of traditional ski-area standbys of burgers, sandwiches, fries, and pizza or eating a granola bar on a lift, you can get a proper often spectacular meal in an atmospheric mountain restaurant with fantastic wine, or enjoy a delicious coffee or beer in a former cow barn transformed into an intimate cafe or bar.

Then there are the varied Alpine cultures — French, Swiss, Italian, Austrian and the numerous sub-regions inside each of those countries — each with its charming particularities and the fact that the vast majority of resorts there are based on authentic traditional communities that had been in existence centuries before the concept of tourism arrived. Moreover, with the dollar having fully recuperated against the Euro and Swiss Franc over the past few years, expense is no longer an excuse for not taking the plunge to skiing mecca. Once on the ground, costs are more or less the same as out west. Finally, via a nonstop overnight flight from NYC to the Alps gateways of Geneva and Zurich, more often than not you’ll be able to ski several hours on your arrival day. With most Europeans in tourist regions fully fluent in English, language barrier is no longer a dealbreaker.

About the only downside to a trip to the Alps is that you’ll never again feel quite as excited about a destination trip on our side of the Atlantic.