Italians are lucky. Aside from amazing food, architecture, design, fashion and art, Italy has incredible geography within a drive from the cities: beaches, countryside, hilltops and mountains. And oh those mountains… approximately 40% of the country is mountainous whether its the peaks of the Alps, the smooth crests of the Appennines or the crazy slopes of an active volcano Mount Etna. Skiing is more than just a pastime, it’s a integral part of Italian culture. Each year, school kids get off for a settimana bianca (white week), and almost annually Italians queue the cinemas to catch the latest Vacanze di Natale film, a groan-inducing comedy series that usually takes place at an Italian ski resort.
Even though I hate the cold, I love ski culture. There is nothing quite like the vibe of a settimana bianca or white weekend, and Italians know it. It’s all about good skiing, fun friends and great, territorial food in the mountain chalets. Year after year, my friends head back to the same white peaks that they’ve always gone to, but each year, we try to test out a new location. Last year, I fell in love with Courmayeur, and I think it’s time for a weekender.
Courmayeur. It sounds French, right? Nope, Courmayeur is 100% Italian. The quaint Alpine hamlet is located in Italy’s most northwestern region, the tiny bilingual Italian/French Valle d’Aosta, most famously known for Hannibal’s incredible overland march, bringing elephants through Valle d’Aosta’s Little San Bernard pass in the 3rd century BC. Meanwhile Courmayeur is considered to be Italy’s best kept winter secret, Picturesque to perfection, Courmayeur has been a travel destination for over a century. The town is a labyrinth of cobblestone-laden streets, vintage architecture, historic coffee shops, busy ski shops, centuries-old churches and gorgeous contemporary boutiques and chalets. It is where Italy’s very mountain guide society (and the second in Europe) was founded but most importantly, Courmayeur has the honor of being overshadowed, literally, by Europe’s highest peak Monte Bianco.
My Way or The SkyWay
At 15,777 feet above sea level, Monte Bianco is incredible. And incredibly cold. Sharp white, snow-capped peaks cut the cerulean blue sky like an early 20th century Russian avant-garde painting, which quickly turns into a futuristic installation thanks to the SkyWay, that futuristic globular funivie that links the Italian lowland to Punta Helbronner, an overlord look out at 11,371 feet. The courageous will hike up Monte Bianc, ski across the glacier to Chamonix, France or heliski, whereas the rest of us are happy just to enjoy the view. I’d save the skiing for Courmayeur’s slopes, a network of what seems like a million pistes but what is in actuality 31 with lifts. Beginners please note that I am the definition of basic and spent a few days dedicated to Courmayeur’s smooth beginner trails. I organized private lessons, graduated from the bunny slopes, scared myself to death on the chair lifts, and got a great work out.
I’ve learned that the best reason to ski in Italy are for the rifugi, the cosy mountain-ski chalets where eating is an art form. In the case of Courmayeur, the rifiugi are incredible and the food scene is even better. According to Courmayeur Mont Blanc’s official tourism site, there are twenty chalet-restaurants on piste- each with a different, very personal vibe, whether its gourmet cuisine or specialized, local Valdostan delicacies. Ski in to Chateau Branlat, a wooden chalet with beamed ceilings and funky decor, or snow mobile to La Chaumiere, a traditional Valdostan home built into the mountain. i discovered Maison Veille when I was lost skiing and need a restroom. The tiny igloo-like hut was cozy caffe that become a party spot in the evenings.
Back in the town, tiny osterie and Michelin spots creep up in quiet corners, like Al Camin, a traditional osteria/trattoria and Petit Royal, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Hotel Royal and its captivating La Tour, a private medieval tower with show cooking for couples. Superstar chef Heston Blumenthal fell in love with Courmayeur and combined his passion for food and skiing to create The Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience. Think of it as a three-day food fest with incredible Michelin-starred chefs, skiing and local cuisine.
Pro tip: Everywhere I went accepted credit cards, but it can’t hurt to have a little cash for some of the mountain top rifiugi.
Let’s Go Downtown
Courmayeur is the kind of place where everyone skis hard, eats late, goes out late and then gets up incredibly early for another of skiing. The two best take home tips I discovered were that in order to love (and acclimate to) Courmayeur, you must drink a lot of water and get a non-consecutive days ski pass. Of all the amazing things you can do in Courmayeur, most of them revolve around snow- skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, snow biking, snow kiting, et cetera, but Courmayeur also has a social life a few hundred meters below.
For a bit of daytime culture, head to the Museo Alpino Duca deli Abruzzi, a two-level chalet home that houses the Alpine Museum that tells the history of mountaineering, its heroes, and the region, along with a small exhibition space showcasing photos of Valle d’Aosta’s traditional communities and events. Après Ski the Via Roma, Courmayeur’s thoroughfare and a windy street where all of the posh and quirky shops are located, as well as several caffe and cocktail spots.
Courmayeur is small, so get out and explore Valle d’Aosta. The region is network of castles, and almost every weekend there is a traditional festival in the small towns. And then there are wonderful museums from archaeological and ancient remedies to planetariums and prisons.
Ski In, Ski Out
So far, my experience has been at the Grand Hotel Royal e Golf, a beautiful yesteryear ski lodge looking out on the mountains, with a lovely outdoor pool. The vibe is a bit Grand Budapest Hotel with its fabulous decor, doormen and bellhops. Location is in smack in the middle of town which means it is not at all ski in/ski out but once I realized I didn’t need to a ride pistes, it was a short and charming walk through town to the pistes. Eventually I felt like everyone knew me. A second option is the tiny Bouton d’Or, a family-run property a few minutes walk from Courmayeur’s main square. for a ski in/ski out vacation, I have my eye on the very new Le Massif, member of Leading Hotels of the World. Last year, I had the opportunity for a hard-hat site visit, and it had me at hello due to its chic contemporary design, its location on top of the mountain and that damn terrace view (scroll back to the top).
Getting to Courmayeur is quite easy. Airplane, rail, car, I’ve done it all and my experience, the easiest arrival is by car, once you’ve decided where you are coming from. Milanese will tell you to fly to Milan Malpensa MXP, and I agree, especially if you want to add on a few extra days for shopping. If you are a foodie, consider flying into Torino-Casselle TRN (or even Geneva GVA, if you have some banking to do). MXP and TRN offer bus shuttle service to Courmayeur but the least hassle is driving. Car rental services are always available or you can hire a driver service if you aren’t interested in exploring Italy’s smallest region.
Getting to Courmayeur by rail is a bit of a pain, especially with gear. From MXP and TRN, you’ll shuttle to railway stations Milano Centrale or Torino Porta Nuova, then catch a regional train to Pré-Saint-Didier , and finally take a bus to Courmayeur ( SAVDA buses run from airport and train stations to Aosta and Courmayeur). Do the math: you’ll save more time and energy renting a car/hiring driver - approximately 1.5 hours from Torino and just under 2.5 hours from Milan.