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Image: Gondola
Rich Earl
The Aiguille du Midi gondola in Chamonix, France takes you halfway to heaven — and magnificent views at 12,600 feet.
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Tribune Media Services
updated 1/6/2011 11:50:32 AM ET 2011-01-06T16:50:32

One of my favorite winter memories happened one night on the snowy slopes of the Berner Oberland in Switzerland. My friend Walter and I, warmed by hot chocolate laced with schnapps, decided to go sledding between mountain-high villages. We strapped flashlights to our heads, miner-style, and zoomed through the crisp, moonlit night.

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When people think of winter in Europe, many picture the Swiss Alps — swooshing down dramatic slopes; tramping through quaint, cobbled villages with snow blanketing chalet rooftops; or snuggling around a pot of fondue with loved ones.

These images are why Switzerland's ski resorts are understandably popular. They also offer an astounding variety of terrain, relatively mild temperatures, a lively apres-ski scene — and activities for non-extreme types, including snowshoeing, sledding, ice-skating, shopping, and sightseeing.

My favorite destination in Switzerland — winter or summer — is the Berner Oberland, with the grand old resort town of Interlaken as its gateway. This area in central Switzerland offers the ultimate diversity of terrain, good snow on its higher runs, reasonable prices, and character that's missing in many swankier resort areas.

The cliff-hanging town of Murren is relatively uncrowded and a good home base for expert skiers, with the 10,000-foot Schilthorn peak as its backbone. Across the valley, Wengen has skiing for all skill levels and a rental shop run by the family of Olympic skier Karl Molitor. Grindelwald, a little closer to Interlaken, has more than 100 miles of downhill trails, including the area's best range of beginners' runs. You can even swish with the Swiss down a 9-mile-long sledding run — the world's longest.

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At 11,300 feet, the Jungfraujoch in the Berner Oberland is Europe's highest train station. The hour-long train ride takes you from Kleine Scheidegg, up the notorious North Face of the Eiger Mountain, then through a tunnel inside the Eiger. At the top, you can visit a cavern of ice statues or ride an elevator up to the Sphinx observatory to view the Aletsch Glacier — Europe's longest, at nearly 11 miles.

The town of Zermatt in southern Switzerland lies in the shadow of the Matterhorn. Zermatt's high elevation and variety of runs — and the chance to actually ski or snowboard from Switzerland to Italy — make it deservedly popular. For classic Matterhorn views, ride the lift at Rothorn.

In southeast Switzerland, ritzy St. Moritz is a high-end shopper's paradise — and overly glamorous for my taste. It's also home to a museum displaying the works of Giovanni Segantini, the ultimate painter of alpine life, whose pieces are reminiscent of the French Impressionists. For more action, try a game of polo and cricket on snow, go bobsledding on natural ice, or check out skijoring — skiing while being pulled by riderless horses. Or you can ride up a lift, rent a chair in the sun, and warm up with a glass of Pflumli (plum liqueur).

The perfect end to the day is a fondue dinner, featuring a communal pot of melted cheese. For the Swiss, fondue is a purely winter specialty (only tourists eat it in summer). It's served with a wonderful Swiss white wine called Fendant. When Swiss plan a cozy party, they add "FIGUGEGL" (fee-GOO-geck-ul) to the invitation — "Fondu isch guet und git e gueti Lune" ("Fondue is good and gives a good mood"). According to tradition, if you drop your bread into the pot, you must kiss the person to your left.

Though Switzerland may be the most well-known winter destination, the scene can be just as good elsewhere. The Dolomites in northern Italy are popular for the Sella Ronda, in which intrepid skiers circle the Sella massif using a system of lifts and 28 miles of ski runs.

The Savoie region of France, centered around 15,771-foot Mont Blanc, feels more Swiss than French, with wood chalets overflowing with geraniums and fondue in every restaurant. Chamonix, the largest of five villages at the base of Mont Blanc, offers some of the best expert-level skiing in the world, jaw-dropping views, and a good balance between true mountaineer culture and touristy glitz. Non-skiers can go dog-sledding or hike along groomed winter footpaths.

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Innsbruck, in Austria's western panhandle, is surrounded by 150 mountain lifts. Hosts of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, it offers the rare chance to careen down an Olympic bobsled course — a 4,000-foot-long track covered with ice. For a superb view overlooking the city, head out to the Bergisel, where a modern ski jump stands in the same location as the original one that was used for both Olympics.

While most travelers visit Europe in the warmer months, a trip here in winter can be just as memorable. Whether your sport is skiing, snowboarding, or simply enjoying the good life, Europe's cozy mountain villages may just have the cure for the winter blues.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2010 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Popular ski and snowboard playgrounds in America

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  1. Heavenly run

    Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers skiers 91 trails and 4,800 acres of terrain. (Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort ) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Busy at Beaver Creek

    Colorado's Beaver Creek Snow Resort averages 311 inches of snow per year, gets 300 days of sun and offers more than 1,800 acres of skiable terrain. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Beaver Creek Snow Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Oh boy, Alberta

    Whiskey Jack Lodge is pictured at the foot of the ski hills in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the larger ski areas in North America with 4,200 acres of terrain. (Andy Clark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 2-mile-high club

    Looking for a high-elevation rush? The base center at Utah's Snowbird Ski Resort sits at 8,100 feet. The resort's highest point, Hidden Peak, climbs to 11,000 feet. (Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Va-va-va-Vail

    Vail, Colo., located west of Denver, is one North America's better-known ski towns. Vail Ski Resort features more than 5,200 acres of skiable terrain over 193 trails. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Après ski

    Skiers and snowboarders can do more than hit the slopes in Vail, Colo. Visitors can visit spas, go shopping and enjoy nightlife, festivals and family-friendly activities. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Take a Telluride

    Also located in Colorado, Telluride Ski Resort has 18 lifts, 120 trails, more than 2,000 acres of terrain, and features "Galloping Goose," the resort's longest run (4.6 miles). (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Road trip!

    Ski and snowboard enthusiasts can easily drive to Telluride from the Four-Corner states. Located in Southwestern Colorado, the drive time is seven hours from Denver and Phoenix, 2 1/2 hours from Grand Junction, Colo., and 2 1/4 hours from Moab, Utah and Durango, Colo. (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Stowe away

    Stowe Ski Resort is smaller when compared to competition west of the Mississippi, but it is a hot spot in the Northeast. The area offers 485 acres of terrain, but an average trail length of 3,600 feet -- longer than any other New England resort, its Web site boasts. (Stowe Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great spot for beginners

    Buttermilk Ski Resort is small compared to some of its Colorado neighbors. Located just outside Aspen, Buttermilk has carved out its niche by focusing on snowboarders and beginners. Buttermilk offers 435 acres of terrian over 44 runs. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Experience required

    Aspen Mountain is the backdrop for a horse and carriage ride in downtown Aspen, Colo. Aspen Mountain features 76 trails -- 48 percent considered "more difficult," 26 percent "most difficult" and 26 percent "expert." If you're a beginner, you probably want to get your feet wet some place less daunting. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Take a hike

    Members of Aspen Center for Enviromental Studies (ACES) take a snowshoe tour in Ashcroft, Colo.Ashcroft Ski Touring/Cross-Country Area offers about 22 miles of groomed trails, and is located 11 miles from Aspen. (Courtesy of ACES) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Lock and Keystone

    Another popular ski option in Colorado is Keystone Ski Area, located about 90 minutes from Denver International Airport. The area features 20 ski lifts, two gondolas and more than 3,100 acres of terrain. (Bob Winsett courtesy of Keystone Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grab a six-peak

    Vermont's Killington Ski Resort stretches across six peaks. Skiers and snowboarders can reach the area's 752 acres of terrain with 22 lifts. (Killington Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Beautiful Breckenridge

    Big crowds may descend on Colorado's ski resorts, but that shouldn't be a problem at Breckenridge. The resort has two high-speed SuperChairs, seven high-speed quad lifts, a triple lift, six double lifts, and others, giving it the ability to move nearly 38,000 people per hour. (Carl Scofieldd courtesy of Breckenridge) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Bring the family

    Smuggler's Notch in Vermont bills itself as "America's Family Resort," and offers services, activities and education aimed at making sure everyone in your clan has fun. (Smuggler's Notch Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 63 years and going strong

    Colorado's Arapahoe Basin has been operating since 1946. "The inaugural season opened with a single rope tow and $1.25 daily lift tickets," its Web site reads. Prices and equipment surely have changed, but "A-Basin" offers the skiers and snowboarders 900 acres of terrain -- more than half above the timberline. (Arapahoe Basin) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Long way down

    Utah's Alta Ski Area is scheduled to remain open through April 18, 2010. It features 2,200 acres of terrain, more than 100 runs and an average snowfall of 500 inches per season. It does not, however, allow snowboards. (Alta Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Not for the faint of heart

    Of the 116 runs at Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming, 50 percent are "expert" and 40 percent are "intermediate." That's great news if you pass up the bunny slopes for some challenging skiing and snowboarding. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. On -- or off -- the beaten path

    Jackson Hole Ski Resort offers 2,500 acres of terrain, plus an open backcountry gate system that offers access to an additional 3,000 acres. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sun Valley -- how original

    Seriously. Idaho's Sun Valley, started in 1936, claims it is the original ski resort. "Born out of a desire to bring the magic of the European ski resorts to America, Sun Valley quickly became a phenomenon without peer on this continent or any other," its Web site boasts. (Sun Valley Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Do you believe in miracles?

    American Shaun White is pictured competing during the Nokia Halfpipe Snowboard FIS World Cup on March 4, 2005 at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y. Lake Placid has hosted the Winter Olympics twice -- in 1932 and 1980 -- and offers a variety of activities, including downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, ice skating and more. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Old West reminder

    Seven thousand feet up in the Colorado Rockies, nestled quietly below one of the largest ski mountains in North America, sits a small ranching community that serves as a constant reminder that the Old West is alive and well. Never far from its ranching roots, Steamboat remains firmly linked to a Western tradition that sets it apart from every other ski resort in the world. (Larry Pierce courtesy of Steamboat) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Big skiing in Big Sky Country

    Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., collects 300 inches of snow each year and features 3,000 acres of terrain, 94 marked trails and a 3.3-mile run called Hellfire. (Donnie Clapp courtesy of Whitefish Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Sweet on Sugarloaf

    Sugarloaf Ski Resort features 1,400 acres of skiable terrain, including Tote Road, a 3.5-mile-long stretch running from summit to base. Sugarloaf's redesigned terrain park features the 400 foot long Superpipe, a magnet for snowboarders throughtout the region. Portland and Bangor offer airport service to Sugarloaf, and Boston and Montreal are four short hours away. (Grant Klene courtesy of Sugarloaf Ski Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Crossing borders

    With more than 400 inches of snow per year, nearly 8,200 acres of skiable terrain and 200 trails, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. (Randy Lincks courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Carrying the torch

    Some athletes will become world champions of their sport on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb when the Winter Olympics roll into British Columbia early next year. (Paul Morrison courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort
    Above: Slideshow (27) Hit the lifts
  2. Image: Participants wearing helmets with horns
    Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (42) Winter wonderland

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