By Isabel Conway
In a pre COVID 19 world – January 2020 – a dangling cable car spirited us up to an Alpine mountain top. Skiers and snowboarders huddled cosily together, our steamy breaths labouring under the weight of bulky jackets, skis and snowboards as we piled inside those confined spaces. Such extraordinary memories came flooding back as i recently trawled through photos of a magical few days exploring Les 2 Alpes .les2alpes.com among the most popular and lively French alpine winter sport destinations.
It set us at Travel Times wondering about how ‘the new normal ‘ of winter holidays, undoubtedly ones like no other, may look as the 20-21 ski season edges ever closer. Planned start dates have come and gone already in some resorts, with the majority still closed into New Year. Leading up to the Christmas season and beyond, France, Italy and Germany were keeping the slopes closed whilst Austria and Switzerland vowed to reopen resorts. For months European nations struggled to adopt a unified travel response, each imposing their own restrictions.
Very few ski destinations are currently accessible without the need to quarantine – either on arrival or when travellers return home – but there’s some light at the end of the tunnel since self- isolation is now reduced to five days under the new test and release system.
Yet, it seems unlikely that the launch of the vaccine will rescue the sector, until at least mid to late Spring. But a recovery of sorts is bound to happen in countries where too many livelihoods depend on winter sport for cancellation of the entire season.
The general view is the best chance of grabbing a winter sport holiday – and there are brilliant deals out there right now, from leading Ireland winter sports specialists, Crystal crystalskie.ie and also Topflight topflight.ie will come later on. Due to continuing uncertainties surrounding travel, tour operators are continuing to show a lot of flexibility.
Higher altitude ski destinations who have good snow cover for skiing and snowboarding, well into April are forecast to make a comeback. French resorts of Avoriaz a favourite with Irish visitors who also flock to the picture postcard town of nearby Morzine, La Plagne , Les 2 Alpes and the huge Trois Vallees terrain of Les Menuires, Val Thorens, Meribel and Courchevel are guaranteed snow sure skiing much later than others.
With the benefit of a mighty 3,600 m high glacier Les 2 Alpes opened her highest runs in late summer and autumn giving everyone there a head start on how to safely manage the COVID virus. Essential crowd control protocols have already been tried and tested, the wearing of masks on lifts made obligatory, along with social distancing and strict regulations for bars and restaurants to preserve distance between customers.
Les 2 Alpes popularity has been attributed as much to lively apres ski plus a ‘Vegas in the snow’ style main street strip which is lined with music bars, discos and restaurants. But this year will be very different and all that cosying up to strangers in the gloom of a cosy mountain hut out of the elements is outlawed along with the nightly resort trawl. Strict spacing between tables is the norm, the wearing of masks – and not just ski masks – will be required as the winter sport industry endeavours to salvage business safely.
Here we answer some questions
To ski or not to ski? Switzerland has opened some resorts for domestic traffic. France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Andorra are closed to international visitors into January. Austria where 230,000 jobs depend on its €2 billion winter sport industry, has pushed hard to open earlier than its neighbours. Ischgl, where crowded ski lifts and packed apres ski bars created the infamous Austrian COVID super spreader that led to infections being brought home to Ireland, the UK and elsewhere has spent €700,000 on new protection measures.
Is winter sport safe? Yes, provided that social distancing and prevention of crowds building up for cable cars, funiculars and gondolas and also in mountain restaurants are strictly policed. One of the major differences will be the drastic reduction of capacity – from accommodation to lifts – at most resorts. Skiing in the great outdoors is much safer than indoor activities as regards catching the virus. Some resorts will require skiers to board gondolas in their own group bubble. Masks are mandatory. Testing of lift staff and everyone else in contact with visitors will be carried out regularly also. Online booking of lift-passes and ski school has become more streamlined and some resorts are deciding to group adults and children from the same family into bubbles.
What’s different this season?
Apres ski will certainly change, with groups limited to six people per table in most restaurants and cafes. Resorts and their tourist boards have come up with non-bar style activities including night skiing, torch lit snow shoeing, pony trekking and such like, introducing socially distanced wine tastings and snacks but no partying as we’ve know it.
Do I need to be COVID tested?
That depends on where you’re destined and as we know regulations change with as much speed as winter weather does. know, speedily. Even under the ‘orange’ EU traffic light system allowing movement between various countries, at the time of writing Ireland still needs a negative PCR test to avoid quarantine when returning home. Best check entry requirements on www.reopen.europa.eu Your tour operator will also supply essential updates. Also see The Tropical Medical bureau (www.tmb.ie) the go to testing gold test PCR test facility.
If I need to cancel…what then?
Irish specialist award winning ski tour operators Crystal Ski, Topflight and Directski all offer comprehensive COVID insurance to inspire peace of mind among apprehensive travellers. Crystal has a Travel with Confidence cover allowing clients to amend the holiday for free if they test positive for COVID before travelling. The policy covers trip cancellation and the closure of the ski area with full cash refunds. Topflight’s Book with Confidence guarantee offers a full refund or a voucher, in excess of what you paid, if your trip is impacted by COVID. Directski (www.directski.com) offers a Flexibile Pledge of similar cover. But as usual skiers are urged to have their own EHIC card and travel insurance that provides winter sport cover. See also www.dfa.ie for the latest advice on altered travel restrictions.
Staying safe and bagging a bargain on the slopes.
Andorra offers great value, usually good snow conditions, excellent ski schools and wide uncrowded slopes. Topflight (www.topflight.ie) offers comfortable 4 star Hotel Patagonia Arsinal, with return flights, 7 nights half board from €625. Hotel Magic Pas at Pas de la Casa with its snow sure slopes, 4 star Hotel Magic Pas €656, including flights, transfers, 7 nights, HB, March 14 2021. Crystal Ski (www.crystalski.ie) is offering some apartment and half board accommodation, slashing prices by up to 50 per cent in France and Austria. In beautiful Courmayeur Italy you can bag half board and flights Dublin-Turin with transfers at Hotel Dei Camosci for a week reduced from €715 to €561 in late January. Topflight, Crystal Ski and Directski websites provide the latest updates on a wide variety of ski bargains.