Thanks to some epic partnerships, international skiing/riding isn’t out of reach | SummitDaily.com

Thanks to some epic partnerships, international skiing/riding isn’t out of reach

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com

If you're going to cheat on Colorado, then you better make it good.

While we'll always be rooting for the home team — after all, we'll never pass up the chance to brag on our pristine, fluffy, Colorado powder — you might be surprised to learn that an international skiing vacation is more within reach than you think.

A relatively recent perk to the Epic Pass allows pass holders to take their adventures abroad at a number of partner resorts in the European Alps, as well as Niseko, Japan.

The pass includes five consecutive days at the partner resorts, but the catch is that at the European locations, you must book in-resort lodging. If you don't want to splurge for resort-owned lodging, then it's worth it to pay for the lift ticket yourself (many of these resorts offer very reasonable rates compared to their American counterparts), and find more affordable accommodations outside of the main ski villages.

Epic Pass or not, it doesn't change the fact that these mountains offer some of the best samples of powder in the world. So pack your suitcase, stoke your wanderlust and get skiing.

Niseko United, Japan

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(www.niseko.ne.jp/en/)

The mountain: Niseko United is a collection of four independently owned ski resorts with their respective villages gathered around the base on the northern-most Japanese island of Hokkaido. Thanks to coastal weather patterns and an advantageous geographical location, Niseko has the reputation for being Japan's powder capital. It's been named as one of the "best powder resorts in the world" by sites like LonelyPlanet.com and numerous outdoor and snowsport magazines. Thanks to the spotlight, Niseko has been featured in a number of Western ski and snowboard films.

Don't expect any bluebird days, because between January and March, it pretty much snows every day, all day. The backcountry skiing there is pristine, and a common itinerary involves skiing out to a natural hot springs (or "onsen") and back.

"Niseko arguably has the best and most consistent lift-accessed powder in the world," said Brent Potter, a senior guide with Fuji Mountain Guides. "If you come between January and March, you'll have a very good chance of excellent powder there."

The vibe: Skiing in Japan is an experience completely unique for North American skiers, insiders say. You'll mostly find a mix of older, onesie-clad Japanese skiers with straight skis and the ubiquitous Australians. Many local skiers stick to the groomed runs (at most Japanese resorts, it is frowned upon to ski in the trees), so you'll find amazing snow in tree islands or right off the main track.

Niseko's popularity with Australians means that there's foreign infrastructure, like Western nightlife and bars, and you'll be able to get around speaking English. Do expect a more relaxed approach to skiing, said Potter, who grew up in Japan.

"One thing that struck me the most is that when there's a big powder day (in the U.S.), people go crazy," he laughed. "In Japan, people take their time and have breakfast and coffee because they know the snow will still be there later."

How to go: Fly into Hokkaido's airport or fly into Tokyo and make the three-hour trip to Niseko by bus and train.

Costs: At $55 for a day pass, the prices are hard to beat. There is also no in-resort lodging requirement at Niseko to redeem your five days of skiing.

If you want to see some of the rest of the country or ski other Japanese resorts, then sign up for a seven- or 13-day trip with Fuji Mountain Guides. For the 13-day option, $2,500 includes transportation, breakfast, five days of lift passes, lodging and a multi-city cultural tour. The seven-day option focuses on the skiing for $1,500. It includes four lift passes, transportation, lodging and breakfast. See http://www.FujiMountainGuides.com for more information.

Les 3 Vallees, France

(www.les3vallees.com)

The mountain: The "Three Valleys" includes eight resorts (Courchevel, La Tania, Meribel, Brides-les-Bains, Les Menuires, Saint Martin de Belleville, Val Thorens and Orelle) and boasts some of the most famed skiing in Europe.

Denver resident Adam Warot had never skied in Europe before competing in Vail Resorts' Epic Race last year, a challenge for Epic Pass holders to ski all 26 resorts on the pass. He said he was blown away by the sheer size and interconnectedness of Les 3 Vallees.

"It's like taking Keystone, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Vail and pushing them all together, and all the towns are also all pushed to the bases," he said.

Expect seemingly endless runs, above-tree-line skiing and breathtaking views of surrounding peaks, said Sarah Plaskitt, of Scoutski.com, a site that reviews hotels and ski resorts.

"There are 600 kilometers of runs. It's just endless," she said. "You start in one valley and you end up in another in the afternoon and you haven't even gotten to the third."

Typical of European skiing, a limited number of routes are groomed (on-piste), and otherwise, runs are off-piste.

"In the U.S., you'll have designated runs in trees, and it's indicated on a map," Plaskitt said. "In Europe, off-piste means the runs are through the trees and ungroomed areas. You stand at the top, and you have no idea where it goes and how difficult it is. You really have to be aware of your abilities."

The vibe: Each of the resort villages have a distinct character, from the glamorous Courchevel to quaint Maribel with its wooden chalets. Be prepared for the European skiing mentality — that is, a few runs, a multi-course lunch with a few glasses of wine, followed by a couple more runs, then on to apres. From there, if you want, you could party late into the night at a slick nightclub.

How to go: Fly into Geneva, Switzerland, or Lyon, France, both about three hours away by car or bus. Combine the trip with a few days in a city by taking a train from London or Paris. Once there, you could ski to a different village and stay each night.

"That's something that's unique about skiing in Europe," Warot said. "Just pack a change of clothes, and if you planned it out properly, you could ski in and out of these different towns."

Costs: A day pass to Les 3 Vallees costs about $67.50. Expect high costs for food and lodging at most of these resorts. However, if you aren't using your Epic Pass, then you can find more affordable hotel and guesthouse options on the outskirts of Maribel.

Verbier, Switzerland

(www.verbinet.com)

The mountain: Of the resorts listed here, Verbier is perhaps the most steep, extreme and dramatic. The mountain is part of the Four Valleys ski area and towers over the village of Verbier. Skiing the glacier-terrain affords you panoramic views of stunning mountaintops.

"You can see what feels like a hundred miles of alpine peak mountain tops," Warot said. "I'd recommend you be an intermediate or advanced skier here to enjoy what it has to offer. It's for those who really want to push their limits."

While that may be true, there's plenty for less extreme skiers and riders, too, including beginner terrain, Nordic skiing, toboggan hills and ski touring.

The vibe: The vacation spot for Europe's royals, movie stars and other celebrities, Verbier is known as one of the ritziest resorts. The village is quaint and picturesque, yet sophisticated.

"It's a classic Swiss ski village, but then there's these uber lounges and restaurants. House music emanates everywhere. You can go to the very top of the mountain in the middle of nowhere and you'll step off the lift and see this James Bond-style club up there," Warot said.

In contrast to its upscale atmosphere, Verbier also draws the extreme-sports crowd. It's home to the Paragliding World Championships and the Swatch Xtreme Verbier, where you can watch the world's top freeriders compete. Warot recalls watching skiers parachuting off cliffs at the end of the day.

How to go: Fly into Geneva International Airport or into the smaller Chambery Airport and take a train or rent a car. Many shuttles also leave from the airports to the ski areas on a regular basis.

Costs: Verbier is the priciest of the bunch, with a day lift ticket coming in at $90.

Skiing abroad may sound like a big endeavor when you could load up your car and drive to Vail, but Plaskitt encourages snow enthusiasts to broaden their horizons.

"I say people should go for it," she said. "It's not going to be like anything you're used to apart from putting on your skis. Combine a trip with a major city like Geneva or Paris. You can do it in a week."

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

Using your Epic Pass abroad

Terms and instructions for redeeming your Epic Pass days at its international partner resorts are different at each location. See http://www.snow.com/epic-pass/passes/epic-pass.aspx and click on each individual resort for specific instructions on how to redeem your lift tickets and what qualifies as resort lodging at each location.