Travel: It’s great to be back in Sestriere!

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Travel writer Jan Henderson appreciates a welcome return to the popular Italian ski resort.

NEVER go back, they say – but whoever “they” are, I suspect they have never been skiing in Sestriere. I’ve been back to the Italian resort three times now – it’s been great each time, and I’ll go back again if I get the chance.

My most recent visit was in early February this year, courtesy of Crystal Ski Holidays and the Vialattea tourist office – and in a season blighted by a lack of good early snow, our visit was blessed with an abundance of the white stuff, with a big dump of snow just before we arrived. Fresh snow and clear blue skies will obviously make any ski resort look its best, but I have skied Sestriere and the Vialattea (Milky Way) when snow conditions have been less than great, and the resort’s north-west facing runs and high position (2040 metres, with the highest lift at 2840 metres) usually mean that there’s still plenty of good skiing to be enjoyed.

The recent snowfall meant that our coach struggled to reach the resort, as the driver was reluctant to put on the snow chains after the two-hour or so transfer from Turin airport – but we eventually slithered through to arrive at the welcoming Hotel du Col. The low-rise hotel must be the best placed in the resort for skiers as it is literally at the foot of the slopes, with a selection of chairlifts just a short walk from the boot room.

The recently-refurbished hotel has stylish, modern and comfortable twin, triple, quad and single en-suite rooms to suit a variety of group needs, while the large self-service restaurant offers regional and Italian specialities to suit every taste. The bar downstairs is a congenial place to while away an hour or two and swap ski stories with your friends and other guests.

If you are looking for serious nightlife, Sestriere is probably not the place to be – Souze d’Oulx, pretty much next-door in the Vialattea ski area, is famous/notorious for that – but that’s not to say Sestriere has no après ski or places to go when the lifts shut for the day. Liveliest is GFC (Gargote Fashion Café), accessible by ski or a short walk up the slope from the resort, which aims to be an Italian-style Folie Douce après ski party/music venue, and gets very busy indeed as the day’s skiing draws to a close, but also has themed events in the evenings.

However, if you prefer your après ski a little more restrained, a stroll around town will show plenty of bars and restaurants. The Italians love their food, and the restaurants reflect this, with destinations to reflect most tastes and budget. Our group was fortunate to eat out one evening at the splendid Principe di Piemonte hotel on the edge of town – also available on Crystal’s hotel roster – where the food for guests is a cut above, and that’s without venturing into their gourmet Belle Epoque restaurant.

The passion for good food extends to the slopes themselves, where there are plenty of places to stop off for anything from a hot chocolate or a beer to a full lunch. The Refugio Aquila Nera, easily accessed in the centre of the Bancetta Bowl above Sestriere, and the Ristorante Monte Triplex in Sportina both did our little group proud with extensive arrays of local and traditional delicacies – fuelling us up for a few more hours of afternoon skiing.

Which leads me neatly to the skiing itself – after all, that’s the main reason you’ll be spending your hard-earned cash to visit the resort. The majority of British skiers heading to the slopes each winter fall into the intermediate category – and Sestriere, and indeed the whole Vialattea area, is intermediate heaven. The area lift pass covers the massive 400 kilometre Milky Way area, with 109 of the 200-plus runs designated intermediate, and these range from the high, open Olympic runs well above the tree line at the top of Sestriere to long wooded pistes down towards the Borgata area. There’s a similar mix of terrains across the whole area, and an average intermediate will have no trouble skiing across to the other main resorts of Pragelato, Sansicario, Cesan, Claviere and the aforementioned Souze d’Oulx.

The far reaches of the Vialattea even stretch across the border to the French resort of Montgenevre – well worth a visit, but includes a number of long, often chilly chairlifts. A better option is to take advantage of the away-day Crystal excursion – a 45 minute coach ride that gets you to Montgenevre as the lifts open and gives you a full day on their pistes, rather than spending a good part of the day trekking there and back.

For more advanced skiers the huge Amfiteatro bowl offers excellent skiing, and the black runs at the top of Motta and Sises provide a challenge for experts. The famous Kandahar Slalom and Kandahar Banchetta runs are used in World Championship races. I’m no off-piste skier myself, but am reliably informed that Sestriere has plenty of off-piste opportunities. The Monginevro Pass has a lot of easily accessible bowls from the lifts or with a short hike on skins, while the route down to Pragelato involves a lovely open bowl at the beginning followed by some exciting lines through a larch forest.

For beginners, slopes fan out in an arc from the ski school meeting place in the centre of Sestriere – right next to the Hotel du Col - with easy runs from the two baby lifts and the Jolly, while to the right of the area are two drag lifts, ideal for first timers.

A six day high season area pass, which covers all lifts on the Italian side of the Milky Way area plus one day skiing in Montgenèvre, is £166 for adults and £31 for a child under seven – actually pretty reasonable for 400-odd kilometres of piste when you compare it with about £250 for a six day Tignes/Val d’Isere pass or £265 for the Trois Vallees in France.

Add the relaxed, genuinely welcoming Italian atmosphere to the fantastic skiing, comfortable hotels coupled with great food and drink and you’ll quickly see why so many Brits – myself included – are happy to keep going back to Sestriere.

Jan Henderson travelled to Sestriere with Crystal Ski Holidays (www.crystalski.co.uk; 020 8610 3123), who offer a week’s half board at the four-star Hotel du Col in Sestriere, Italy, from £689 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Gatwick to Turin and transfers (price given is for departure on 8 April 2018). Direct flights available from all major UK airports.