Downhill to downtown: The best ski and city breaks
Can't decide between an urban escape or a weekend on the slopes? These European sojourns offer the best of both worlds, writes Chris Madigan
Whether using tour operators who specialise in tailor-made travel or booking accommodation and transport independently, many holidaymakers have escaped the bonds of the summer package deal. Yet when it comes to winter holidays, people are reluctant to break out of the week-in-one-resort constraints. Within couples, there is often one partner who is less keen on bashing slopes from nine to five. And, while some ski resorts can claim great off-piste facilities, it is not quite the same as a city break. So why not combine the two?
Lyon & Courchevel, France
The simplest city-ski combination is best. An early Saturday morning Eurostar from London St Pancras takes four hours and 40 minutes to reach the centre of France's third largest city, the gateway to the Alps.
It arrives in time for lunch, which is a good thing because Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France. Head straight to Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse, the covered market renamed after the city's most famous chef, to sample charcuterie and cheeses as well as to enjoy lunch at one of the many restaurants within. For dinner, choose between the traditional Lyonnais bouchons, coaching inns dating from the 17th century, or one of the city's many Michelin-starred restaurants. At Les Terrasses de Lyon at Villa Florentine, young chef David Delsart works in modern ways with traditional Lyonnais ingredients.
As the name suggests, Les Terrasses overlooks the old city, a Unesco World Heritage site. While wandering the streets, it's worth pushing on a few doors – some of them are entrances to traboules, enclosed secret passageways and courtyards between the buildings dating back to the fourth century and used by the Resistance in World War II. One of these has been creatively converted into a beautiful, tranquil five-star boutique hotel, the Cour des Loges.
If tranquillity isn't your thing, Mama Shelter is a party hotel with one of the city's most popular bars downstairs. But Lyon has much to offer culture vultures too. The Musee des Beaux-Arts has a collection spanning from Tintoretto to Picasso. More esoteric is the Musee des Confluences, a striking Deconstructivist building resembling a spaceship, which opened in late 2014 on the peninsula where the Rhone and Saone rivers meet. The name refers to more than the location though: it is a confluence of natural history, primitive art and science in intriguing thematic displays.
The reason Lyon works so well as a gateway city to the Alps is that a further three-hour train journey takes you to Moutiers, gateway to the Trois Vallees, including Courchevel. The Trois Vallees' 370 miles of pistes offer something for everyone and, for the really adventurous, the off-piste terrain provides even more. Courchevel's restaurants are not far behind the gastronomic delights of Lyon; some of the boutiques rival Paris; and the hotels are among the best in the Alps. The informal chic of Le Portetta in Courchevel Moriond would be familiar to fans of its sister hotel Lime Wood in the New Forest. For those who want to live out a Bond fantasy, the five-star La Sivoliere in Courchevel 1850 is all monochrome decor and clean lines, including staff with slicked hair and black polo necks.
For non-skiers, there is more than expensive shopping on offer. The stunning Aquamotion centre, opened in December 2015, offers pools, water slides, saunas and steam rooms, a complete spa and, for the more adventurous, wakeboarding and surfing lessons on the indoor wave machine. And at Courchevel Aventure (courchevelaventure.com), you can snowmobile, ride an inflatable sled or even learn to drive a piste basher.
Innsbruck & St Anton, Austria
The capital of Austria's western state of Tyrol is a historical city with a young population, and the mixture is very exciting. The 16th-century Ambras Castle, the Altstadt ("old town"), the glowing Goldenes Dachl ("golden roof") and other Mitteleuropean architecture are arguably outdone by the works of Zaha Hadid – the Bergisel ski jump and the space-age funicular stations on the Nordkettenbahn. Innsbruck's dining and nightlife is similarly diverse, from the very traditional Alfred Miller's Schoneck to the stylish Dengg and the kaffee und kuechen at the elegant Sacher cafe.
Just an hour away by train is St Anton, where the nightlife goes to the next level. It actually starts before the skiing finishes, at on-slope dance-on-the-table apres bars such as the Krazy Kanguruh and the Mooserwirt – leave your musical taste with your skis at the door and just have fun. St Anton is a serious skier or snowboarder destination though – the unmarked itineraries off the top of Valluga are a great challenge. And, this season, the newly opened Flexenbahn lift has linked St Anton to Zurs and on to Lech, opening access to 190 miles of ski runs.
Venice & Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
Given the crowds that flock here throughout the year, winter is not just the best time to visit the canal city these days – it's the only time. The damp streets and fog on the water are incredibly atmospheric (if you don't mind reminders of spooky films such as Don't Look Now, Comfort of Strangers and Death in Venice) – especially during February's carnival. Take a taxi boat from the airport; catch a performance at La Fenice opera house (teatrolafenice.it); enjoy the best of 20th-century art in the Peggy Gugenheim Collection; drink negronis at Harry's Bar; and eat folpetti (marinated baby octopuses) and schie (little brown shrimp), in season in winter, at Oniga.
On clear days, you can see the dramatic, cliff-like Dolomites in the distance from Venice – the pale dolomite stone glows pink and orange in the sunset. The nearest resort is Cortina d'Ampezzo. Many visitors are more interested in long lunches and the passeggiata – the Italian tradition of an early evening see-and-be-seen stroll, with stop-offs in fashion boutiques and the enoteca for a glass of wine. As a result, the pistes are often empty, giving less confident skiers reassuring amounts of room and more confident ones space to let rip.
Barcelona & Baqueira Beret
Barcelona is another city at its best outside the spring city-break and sweltering summer rush. Stay at the imposing Hotel Arts, with its huge copper fish sculpture by Frank Gehry, 43rd-floor sea-view spa, exclusive lounge for Club guests and the Michelin-starred Enoteca restaurant, overseen by Paco Perez. Continue the art theme with visits to some of Antoni Gaudi's lesser-known buildings, such as Torre Bellesguard, as well as the Fundacio Joan Miro, which was established by the artist himself. Revel in Barcelona's gin craze at Bobby Gin and have your senses assaulted at El Nacional, a collection of restaurants reflecting different regional cuisines of Spain (a surprise in this fiercely Catalan city) in a former parking garage just off Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes.
Baqueira Beret, in the Spanish Pyrenees northwest of Barcelona, would be a famous resort in any other country. With 90 miles of pistes for intermediates and lots of off-piste (including heli-skiing) for experts, it offers extensive terrain – good enough for the Spanish royal family. The culture is distinctly Spanish – late starts, breakfast of tomato on bread, skiing till mid-afternoon and a long lunch, with plenty of meat – as is the architecture and decor, all dark wood and heavy stone, with turrets and towers. It's a worthwhile experience. There are some fabulous luxury hotels, notably the Marriot AC Baqueira, or you can stay at the chalet-hotel Salana, run by British tour operator Ski Miquel, which can help with travel for more independent travellers.