There can be few better combinations than ski and spa. If you fancy a luxury weekend ski break, travel journalist Jill Starley-Grainger has a heap of ideas for maximising your time on the piste and making sure your après-ski is seriously relaxing.
Jill Starley-Grainger is commissioning editor for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Each month she'll be musing for us on some of the finer things in life when it comes to travel. This month, she's planning some hassle-free ski weekends in Europe.
I didn't start skiing until my late-20s, but at least I started well. Sure, my skiing ability was (and still is) awful, but the trip was top notch: a weekend getaway in the glamorous Swiss resort of Gstaad. For decades it's been the favoured slope-side bolthole for Roger Moore, Bernie Ecclestone, Julie Andrews and the members of just about every royal family in Europe. OK, the pistes were a little slushy – its low altitude means it's not snow-sure except in the depth of the season. But I didn't mind. When I wasn't taking lessons, I was dining on Michelin-starred meals and being pampered in the spa of Le Grand Bellevue.
Image: Gstaad - swiss-image.ch Gian Marco Castelberg, Maurice Haas
Since that first taster short break, I've done several week-long chalet trips with friends. They're always a blast, true, but also hard work. Everyone wakes at dawn (for reasons I've yet to understand, but I madly feel compelled to do it, too), slaps on boots and doesn't remove them until they've conquered (or stumbled down) that last, frantic run home after the lifts close. Dinner in the chalet is followed by a group bar crawl in the village. I'm shattered by day three.
Weekend ski breaks are so much more relaxing. I go with my husband, check into a gorgeous spa hotel and we don't beat ourselves up if we aren't piste-bashing all day. We don't really care if there's a huge variety of slopes, either, choosing our resort based on the hotel with the best restaurant or spa rather than the vastness of its terrain. In two days, even the smallest ski areas usually have enough to satisfy.
Finding these resorts isn't always straightforward. Even weekend-ski specialists (Google 'weekend ski trip', and you'll see a dozen or so) tend to focus on the big-name resorts – Zermatt, Chamonix, St Moritz and Kitzbuhel – all of which require transfers of three hours or more from your arrival airport. But if you want a no-time-off-needed getaway – out on Friday, back on Sunday – you won't want to spend six or seven hours in transit from London to the pistes.
One tour operator has made it easier to find the resorts closest to cities. J2ski's excellent search at allows you to select an airport, then shows the transfer times to its nearby resorts. At a quick glance, you can see where is quickly accessible from Geneva, Zurich, Basel, Milan and Vienna – all places you can fly to from Heathrow. Fast-to-the-slopes resorts include Zurich to Engelberg in 85 minutes, Vienna to Semmering in 75 minutes, Geneva to Villars-Gryon in 70 minutes, and Milan Malpensa to Bergamo in 65 minutes. Ideally, you want a ski-in, ski-out hotel so you can hit the slopes straight away.
That's why last month, we booked into the five-star Chalet RoyAlp in Villars, one of Switzerland's most charming and sumptuous spa hotels. The hotel arranged a private transfer from Geneva Airport and, 90 minutes later, we strapped on our ski boots and glided onto the run that ran right in front of the RoyAlps' elegant bar. After a few hours, we skied back in, swapped our boots for flip-flops and swanned around the spa, from the mosaic-tiled steam room to the poolside Jacuzzi, followed by fondue in the hotel's chalet-chic Grizzly restaurant.
Image: Chalet Royalp
However, J2Ski shows only the resorts it offers transfers to. If you don't mind runs aimed at beginners and intermediates, you'll find plenty of slopes on the fringes of many cities. The hotel concierges can tell you where the day-trippable pistes are and how to reach them. Or use the 'terrain' tool on Google Maps, which shows mountain elevations, to see where they are likely to be.
When I did this, I noticed the Jura Mountains were minutes from Geneva. My husband and I hopped on a flight and were on the ski lift at Crozet, part of the Monts-Jura ski area, half an hour after landing at the airport. You could stay in Geneva, but we opted for the closer five-star Jiva Hill Park Hotel, a mere 15 minutes from Crozet. We skied the resort's 30km of slopes over two days, savouring its tree-lined runs and Mont Blanc views, and were back at our desks first thing Monday morning, invigorated and a little smug as everyone moaned about the rainy weekend we'd managed to dodge.
Beyond the Alps, Scandinavia's northerly latitude means many of its cities have snow-sure slopes nearby. Just 45 minutes from the Unesco World Heritage city of Bergen, you can be skiing above the fjords at Eikedalen Skisenter. Less than half an hour from the Norwegian capital is the Oslo Winter Park, with its mix of downhill and cross-country runs. And the handful of slopes at Hammarbybacken, 20 minutes from Stockholm, make for a fun afternoon side trip on a snowy city break.
Image: Bergen Hanseatic Wharf, Andrea Giubelli - Visitnorway.com
But my favourite quickie ski trip? The wide-open slopes of Scotland. I keep an eye on the snow reports and book a last-minute flight to Aberdeen when conditions are right. In less than three hours from the lounge at Heathrow, I'm on the slopes of Glenshee, the UK's biggest ski area. In the evening, you'll find me noshing gourmet cuisine at the turreted Dalmunzie Castle Hotel, a magnificent baronial hunting lodge 10 minutes from Glenshee, then sipping a whisky by the fire later as I plan out the next day's skiing. I'll happily share a dram with you, but don't expect me to share the dawn wake-up call – I'll see you on the slopes at noon.
Image: Dalmunzie Castle Hotel