TRAVEL

Weekender: Ski escape to Courmayeur, Valle d'Aosta

Enjoying Monte Bianco from Le Massif. All photos by Erica Firpo.

Enjoying Monte Bianco from Le Massif. All photos by Erica Firpo.

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

COURMAYEUR

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.

SkyWay: aka that famous scene in Kingsman 2

Punta Helbronner is hella high.

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.

Ski pass: 49 euro/day, 240 euro/five non-consecutive da

View from Chateau Branlat

Inside Chateau Branlat

Inside Chateau Branlat

Chalet Bites

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.

Traditional Valdostan vibes at Chaumiere

Superstarred chefs Marcus Wareing, Sat Bains, Claude Bosi and Jason Atherton in 2018’s Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience

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.

Museo Alpino Duca degli Abruzzi.

Alpine Wine, showcased at Pavillon du Mont Fréty (the midway station to Punta Helbronner).

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).

Evidence of me as a ski bunny.

Andiamo!

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.

The Italian Destination Where You Should Be Skiing

This article appeared in Forbes Travel.

The settimana bianca (ski week) is perhaps Italy’s most cherished unofficial holiday. For a full week, friends, families and couples put everything on hold to head to the mountains for a bit of snow, snacks and shopping, without ever having to take out their passports. Italians know that their side of the Alps is the ideal location for a white week, thanks to optimal conditions, good food and unmatched ambience.

Though the Dolomites mountain range has long been on the map for Italy destination skiers thanks to the 1956 Winter Olympics and an incredible stunt sequence in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, the shy and sumptuous Valle d’Aosta, Italy’s smallest region, is where you want to put down your bags and get your ski pass.

These are the four cities to really focus your vacation:

Courmayeur Mont Blanc
Bordering France and Switzerland, the Valle d’Aosta has a series of charming villages with extensive and varied range of pistes, easily reachable via train stations and airports in Turin and Milan. Valle d’Aosta’s best-known area is Courmayeur Mont Blanc, the picture-perfect traditional Alpine village at the base of Mont Blanc (Italy’s highest mountain). Courmayeur boasts Italy’s oldest ski school and is host to the World Cup Downhill and the International, a four-mile run that drops 3,300 feet on descent.

Where to stay: Hotel Villa Novecento. This 26-room chalet exudes yesteryear charm with 21st-century luxury. Expect a traditional mountain style, onsite spa and restaurant.

Inside Nira Montana, Photo Courtesy of Nira Montana

La Thuile
Italians love La Thuile for its family friendly vibe and it is easy access to France. It’s one of the few towns where you can actually ski into another country for the afternoon. Charming La Thuile is perfect for a quiet getaway, and it’s ideal for beginning skiers and experienced, off-piste daredevils. 

Where to stay: Nira Montana. This hotel is the area’s newest high-end property. With 55 rooms, an on-site spa, sweeping mountain views and a pet-friendly nature, Nira Montana is the peak of rustic chic.

Monterosa
The Monterosa area is one of the world’s largest ski regions (the tri-valley of Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna) and is coveted for its 10-plus miles in lifts and wide pistes, which translates to ski tourism at its best. Expect all levels of skiers and lots of socializing.

Where to stay: Hotellerie De Mascognaz. Eight luxurious, multi-room chalets hidden in the mountains (and accessible by snowmobile) are what you’ll find at this Champoluc stunner. Beyond the private, convenience-filled units, you can also expect a spa and wellness center, gourmet restaurant and a virtual golf station in a restored farmhouse.

Cervinia
This section is exceptionally well known as a great destination for all levels of skiing and heli-skiing. Additionally, the village is linked to the renowned Zermatt resort across the Swiss border. Ski schools and instructors are available throughout the entire region, with a ski pass offering access to all slopes.

Where to stay: Principe delle Nevi. The super-chic ski-in/ski-out mountain lodge and hotel consists of six chalet suites (ask for a slope view). Aside from stunning vistas, you’ll also discover an on-site Balinese-themed spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a gym, an apres-ski bar with a barbecue terrace and a restaurant.

Snowy Mountain Fun, Photo Courtesy of Nira Montana

Beyond the skis
When not on the slopes, Valle d’Aosta visitors head to the thermal springs of Prè Saint Didier and Saint Vincent, historic wellness spas founded in the early 19th century as healing destinations. The newly inaugurated Skyway is literally breath-taking — a panoramic and rotating cable car connecting Courmayeur with Pointe Helbronner that reaches an altitude of nearly 11,000 feet and supplies spectacular looks onto Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

For alpine history and culture, visit The Duke of Abruzzi Alpine Museum in Courmayeur or Jovecan’s Center for Ancient Remedies. Generally speaking, enthusiasts of the past will love all of the ancient Roman ruins — arches, theater, towers and roads — radiating from Aosta.

And when it comes to dining, the Aosta Valley is a bread basket of incredible dishes, from fresh pasta and meats to world-renowned cheese and cured meats. The region also has some shining-star restaurants, including Morgex’s Café Quinson, Courmayeur’s Petit Royal and Aosta’s Osteria da Nando, all rustic and incredible eating experiences. If you can’t get to those eateries, never fear — after all, this is Italy. Most any mountain rifugio (like Frantze Le Rascard in Champoluc) or village trattorie will do you well when it’s time for a good meal.

La Thuile, Italy and Nira Montana

Once upon a time, my friends and I went to Aspen, Colorado for a very fabulous New Year's of chalets, parties and snowboard lessons. I lasted all of one day on the bunny slope as my gang of "I learned how to ski at 4" friends spent hours on the black pistes in what I viewed as cold monotony. I told myself I wasn't interested in snowboarding or skiing, in spite of how cute the instructors were, because it was cold and I had a "less is more" aesthetic, especially when it came to clothing.  So yes, I scoffed at their stylish ski outfits and après ski gear, telling myselfit made more sense to head to the beach with a light bag and possibly no clothing, than to pile up a suitcase with thermals. In reality,  I didn't want to learn anything new or cold at 30 years old but 12 years later, I had a change of heart.

Every year, la settimana bianca, the winter school break usually dedicated to a mountain holiday, falls during Darius' birthday week, and he and the little one head off for ski break with my logic thatit isn't always economically prudent to tag along unless I am actively participating.  Clever, huh?  But this year, I thought I'd give him the gift that keeps on giving.... I'd learn how to ski.

Our destination-  La Thuile, in Valle d'Aosta-- Italy's tiniest region in its northwest, a bilingual Franco-Italian ski and nature hamlet that may just be the best place for an adult beginner.  Niched in the Italian Alps, Europe's highest peak Monte Bianco overlooks the tiny valley and France's La Rosiere shares the mountains, so you can ski two countries in a morning- my goal, believe or not.

With zero ski skills, my overall experience at La Thuile was incredible.  The first few days were sunny, so learning the basics on the bunny slopes was more than pleasant- it was kind of like hanging out at the beach, but with layers.  La Thuile's ski instructors were incredibly patient and believe in morning lessons, not full day, so that I had time to recoup- which meant the Turkish bath to loosen up my muscles.  Day Three was very cold, but not *that* cold, thanks to a little help from The North Face whose wind-resistent gear kept me warm and dry every time that I fell.  Did I mention by this time I was on the top of the mountain on blue pistes with descents and turns?   Day Four was France, yes, I skied to the border and then some.   By this time, Darius, the girls and I did a few runs together (notice the ski jargon?) and I finally got the overall "it" of skiing-  cold air on my face, catching up to an expert, wiping out and then happily getting up again.  Day Five I was sore and tired, and vowed to come back.

Here's a beginner's look at skiing in La Thuile.

For your next ski trip you should be skiing in Italy's Valle d'Aosta- my article for Forbes Travel.