With money troubles weighing heavier on Sweden than a fresh fall of snow, Jennifer Heape headed to the Åre ski resort to check out a more frugal alternative to the typical foreign alpine getaway.
Many Swedish winter sports fans are staying closer to home for their annual trip rather than venturing abroad, recent figures have shown.
SkiStar, which owns and operates alpine destinations in Sälen, Åre and Vemdalen in Sweden, as well as Hemsedal and Trysil in Norway, has reported a 10 per cent increase in sales so far this season, despite last year’s record numbers.
“The Swedish crown is low compared to other currencies, so we can see that Åre and Sweden is a good choice and alternative compared to many other countries, both for Swedish and international guests,” says Charlotte Jorlén, Project Manager International Sales & Marketing for Skistar.
The French Alps have long stood as the bastion for premier alpine skiing
, boasting such famous destinations as Val d’Isere, Chamonix and Courchevel amongst many others.
But with home grown resorts proving an attractive alternative in such sparse times, can a ski holiday in Sweden really offer the same thrill, glamour and top class skiing as the French Alps?
The ski resort of Åre, found in Jämtland on the western side of the country, has long been billed as the only ski resort in Sweden akin to continental Alpine destinations.
According to Jorlén, what makes the resort so international is “Åre’s combination of a variety of pistes and skiing for all levels, accommodation for all tastes, good restaurants, and nightlife, in combination with other activities, such as dog sledging, snowmobile riding and Zipline. We have also had many international events such as the World Cup finals.”
Anna Zetterqvist, a native Stockholmer who has one winter season in Åre under her belt and is currently working her third season in Val d’Isere, also agrees that Åre gives the Alps a good run for its money:
“The skiing is very similar except for the obvious fact that Val has a lot bigger system and a lot more off-piste runs to do. But I think Åre is pretty good.”
Lying in the shadow of Åreskutan’s summit, which rises 1,420 m above sea level, the Åre ski area includes Åre itself along with Duved to the west and Åre Björnen to the east.
100 prepared runs create over 100 km of groomed pistes, serviced by over 40 lifts and drags, in turn able to transport over 48,000 people across the mountain per hour.
The pistes are well maintained, with snow machines producing fresh powder throughout the day. However, Sweden does have a tendency towards more ice than the sunnier French slopes, so super sharp edges are a must.
Although there are some excellent beginner slopes in Björnen, most of the pistes in the central areas of Åre are quite challenging, requiring a good red-run ability level.
Björnen and Duved are not easily connected to central Åre (the route to Björnen takes skiers down pistes which may be challeging for beginners, and to reach Duved you must take a bus), and although a bus service runs between the ski areas, a mixed ability group may find the challenge of the lower central Åre slopes a bit of a problem.
However, for those who are not complete novices, central Åre offers a fantastic range of skiing, from scenic fir studded tracks, to wide open runs and extensive, easily accessible off-piste.
For more laid back, picturesque skiing head for the cluster of blue and green runs just to the left of the Åre Dreampark, or Duved, which is good for intermediates. For breathtaking panoramic views fit to rival any other European resort take the Gondolen lift up to the Åreskutan summit.
One of the drawbacks of skiing in Northern Europe is the considerably lower light levels and shorter days from December through to early March.
Åre has set to challenge this disadvantage by fully floodlighting seven of their pistes. This boosts the light level on darker days as well as at the end of the day, but furthermore allows for the adventure of ‘night skiing’.
Every evening in Åre from 6 to 8pm at least one full piste is open to the public. The pistes are groomed especially for the evening session and the floodlights are so powerful the visibility is actually better than in natural light.
After a day on the slopes you’re going to be hungry and for those watching the pennies, there is a range of restaurants catering to budget holidaymakers.
Madonna di Campiglio restaurant in Fjällby serves a set three-course menu for 300kr, and in Åre centre there is a Max burger outlet for a quick bite or Broken restaurant for American diner style meals.
All in all you can expect to be able to get a good, hot lunch for under 80kr and an evening meal for under 200kr.
Even more cost effective is the presence of both a large ICA and Konsum supermarket right in the centre of town – a far cry from Val d’Isere where the nearest supermarket is a 40 minute drive down the mountain and the resort food stores are so prohibitively expensive you might as well just eat out.
The bars in Åre are much akin to any Swedish city price-wise, which basically translates as painfully expensive - albeit very pleasant. You could always try the typical seasonnaire trick and head to Åre’s own Systembolaget and have a couple or three before heading out for a big night.
Werséns is a popular spot as is Dahlboms, which serves a wide range of cocktails. For an excellent afterski party with live music check out Bygget, which then becomes one of Åre’s liveliest nightclub locations.
Although there is some beautiful traditional architecture in Åre town centre, including a 13th century Church, it’s relatively recent status as a premier ski resort has resulted in a construction boom over the past few years.
Whereas construction in the older towns of the French Alps is heavily curtailed by heritage protection laws and limited building space, Åre has been able to develop the resort, building large amounts of accommodation, in particular self-catered apartments.
Furthermore, the presence of SkiStar (which dominates the resort and owns the vast majority of all accommodation), means that there is a level of consistency not found in most French ski resorts.
While private residences for self-catered holidays can be somewhat hit-and-miss in Val d’Isere, the two-fold factor of newly built housing and one, single management body, means that you really do get what it says on the box.
Staying in a two person, self-contained apartment in the Fjällby area, we were impressively located just five minutes walk from Åre town centre and mere minutes from the slopes.
The apartment was functional but still featured some home comforts, including a flat screen TV, underfloor heating and a fully equipped kitchen – all decked out in typical Scandinavian style.
Arguably it is here that Åre really does win hands down - for an excellent level of clean, convenient, budget accommodation, it would take a lot to beat Åre.
With prices for a four person apartment (although realistically two is the capacity), starting from about 800kr for a short week, Sunday to Thursday, accommodation is an area in which some of the best Åre savings can be made.
So all in all, a ski trip to Åre can definitely offer a cheap alternative for budget skiers. It might not have the old style glamour of the Alps, but if you want an easy ski holiday with plenty of low cost options and practical bonuses such as large supermarkets, then Åre is a great choice.