Mention you're going skiing in Switzerland, and people are bound to place you in mega mountain resorts like Davos and St. Moritz.
Say you're headed to France to snowboard, and package tourist destinations such as Chamonix and Val d'Isere come to mind. Europe's big ski resorts certainly have their appeal in the way of tons of terrain and uber-modern mountain technology. But you're not crossing the Atlantic to land in mega lift lines and a concrete jungle of a homogenized ski resort, now are you? We've sussed out some lesser-known spots in the French and Swiss Alps where charm rules. And rest assured - that doesn't make the mountain any more merciful.
The name alone intimidates at this Haute-Savoie hideaway in the French Alps, located roughly two hours by car from Lyon's Saint-Exupery Airport. At La Grave, a glaciated peek looms over a 12th-century village of rambling stone cottages. The mountain has long lured adventure addicts for no-limits skiing in spectacular surrounds (on a clear day, you can see Mont Blanc from the top). There is no ski patrol here, not a single groomed run, not even a trail map -- it's all off-piste (read: utter backcountry), and adrenaline fiends wouldn't have it any other way. Avalanche transponders and ice picks are standard accessories. In addition, hiring a mountain guide is highly recommended; most of the terrain is accessed by a single telepherique (cable car) line, but if you take the pull lift to the very top of the mountain, you'll find yourself in a sweeping bowl blitzed with crevasses. If the terrain intimidates you, take the 40-minute ride to the top sans skis. The ascent of 10,500 feet affords a view that looks like the roof of the Alps, and there is a great restaurant with oven-fired pizzas and simmering homemade pasta sauces to reward your courage.
Hotel-Restaurant L'Edelweiss, perched above La Grave's main drag, offers sweeping views of the glacier. The clientele -- mostly European daredevil types -- tends to go au naturel in the sauna.
Au Vieux Guide, a classic alpine eatery on a small ruelle below La Grave's main street, serves 3-cheese fondue and French standards such as foie gras and duck breast.
Think Norman Rockwell meets the Swiss Alps. In a country known for postcard-perfect scenery down every strasse, Berguen, 2 hours by car from Zurich, still manages to steal the show when it comes to alpine perfection. Those heading to posh St. Moritz by train from Zurich chug right past this sled-happy hamlet, whose cheerfully stenciled houses are home to some 550 people. The village is sidled up to the Albula Pass, a mountain road closed to vehicle traffic during the winter but open to sleds. Downhill racing on wooden toboggans under historic stone viaducts is the pastime of choice, and the sled runs are open at night, too, for romantic moonlit runs fueled by mulled wine. Here you'll find a small, steep ski mountain called Darlux, and a 45-minute train ride will take you to the world-class resorts of Davos or St. Moritz if you're looking for more challenging downhill terrain.
Hotel Garni Bellaval, a short walk from the Darlux lift, offers spotless rooms with plush down duvets and a breakfast buffet with homemade muesli and cured local meats.
The 230-year-old restored parlor at Hotel Weisses Kreuz is an elegant space for tucking into hearty local specialties such as pizokel (dumplings filled with spinach or meat) and fondue.
With hundreds of miles of skiable terrain and more than a dozen resorts stretching from Switzerland's Lake Geneva region to France's Mont Blanc, Les Portes du Soleil is Europe's biggest ski resort. And Les Gets is 1 of more than a dozen fabulous villages lost in a valley here. For family appeal, few spots can compete with Les Gets. The former farming village has morphed into an all-out ski town, but building regulations have kept development tasteful, and you'll still sense the area's rural roots. For something novel, do a border crossing on skis - spend a day skiing from Les Gets to the tiny hamlet of Champiry in Switzerland (don't forget to bring your passport). When you're not skiing, you can tour a local chevre (goat cheese) farm or go snowshoeing through the pines.
The Labrador Hotel has plush rooms with painted cabinetry and private terraces. Common areas with open fireplaces are great for reading, and there's a pool, too.
Settle in for a tres French 4-course feast at the Ferme de Montagne, a beautiful old farmhouse turned chalet. Menu ingredients, sourced from the region, might include goat cheese tart and cassoulet of local sausage.
The sprawling resort of Val d'Isere is just down the valley. But you'll want for nothing in terms of powder and hospitality if you make the tiny village of Sainte-Foy Tarentaise your base in the French Alps. The reward in skiing at Sainte-Foy Station comes in the form of shorter lift lines and longer-lasting powder -- not to mention the small-town vibe and Mont Blanc views. A newcomer to the Alps, the resort opened in 1990 and there is no poured concrete here; the mountainside chalets are built from local timber, stone and slate. On powder days, valley locals (including ski instructors and lifties from the big resorts) pass up first tracks at nearby Tignes and Val d'Isere for a shot at Sainte-Foy, where you rarely have to wait more than a few minutes in the lift lines. The powder gets its staying power from the mountain's northwest-facing slopes and sheltered location, which shield it from direct sunlight most of the day.
Splurge on a catered chalet or apartment with Premiere Neige.
Hotel Le Monal hosts a lively après ski scene around an open hearth and serves regional Savoyard specialties.
Situated between Lake Geneva and Gstaad in Switzerland's French-speaking Alps, Les Diablerets is a typically tidy Swiss village of wooden chalets and waving red-and-white flags. There are more than 77 miles of groomed runs, and you'll still find fresh powder on the pistes during the late spring months (skiing through May is typical) and even into summer at Glacier 3000. The latter is a wild area of yawning bowls and downhill screamers, including 1 run that's nearly 9 miles long. Even during a bad snow season in Europe, you're guaranteed to find pockets of powder on high at Glacier 3000. Popular with families, a long toboggan run descends from the main mountain to the village of Les Diablerets. Families also like that kids ages 9 and under ride the Glacier 3000 gondola for free.
Hotel des Diablerets has basic rooms with kitchenettes and balconies. The location - smack dab town center and near the bus stop for the free Glacier 3000 shuttle - is prime.
Locals like Auberge de la Poste -- a restaurant inside an authentic chalet that dates to 1789. If you've overdosed on fondue, opt for raclette, another cheesy Swiss specialty.