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SKI THE SITES; Guide to the best breaks at low prices.

Byline: EDITED BY IAIN MAYHEW

MORE than 1.2million of us will throw ourselves down a hill this winter... Proof, if it were needed, that we are all a salopette short of a ski suit.

Now's the time to book your skiing holiday (which, incidentally, could well pay for itself if you buy a few shares in splints and neck braces beforehand) and, thanks to more low-cost flights to more destinations, there's a bigger choice than ever this year.

Thomsonfly, Easyjet, Ryanair, BA and FlyBmi are among those airlines to increase their European routes, while Eurostar will be operating trains down to the French Alps. Here's a guide to the new season. Don't forget to make a will and pack the linament...

WHEN TO GO

CHRISTMAS and New Year plus the February half-term are the busiest - and priciest - times on the slopes, some of which can become dangerously overcrowded.

Mid December, January and March can be good for package-holiday bargains. Of course, if you're going skiing you'll need some snow.

Norway and Finland have the longest season so you can hit the slopes both early and late. The same applies to many North American resorts. Remember that daylight hours are shorter the further north you go - however, many Scandinavian resorts have now installed floodlights to keep you on the piste for longer.

If snow quality is important to you, it might be best to wait until the last minute before booking. You can check out latest snow reports through www.skiclub.co.uk

WHERE TO GO

IT all depends on your budget and what you want to get out of a ski holiday. Austria is a good bet for beginners while the linked resorts of the French Alps provide more choice with good nursery slopes as well as frightening black runs.

Switzerland is pricey but Andorra, Bulgaria, Italy and the Spanish resorts are cheap and cheerful while the US and Canada are becoming more affordable.

WHERE CAN I BOOK?

THERE are scores of skiing specialists from high-street tour operators to small independent companies who concentrate on specific areas.

These are some of the mainstream companies. They all have the advantage of departures from regional airports so you don't have to lug your ski gear halfway across the UK.

Thomson (0044 870 606 1470/www.thomson-ski.co.uk) features around 100 resorts, including several in North America. There are creches and children's clubs for families.

Airtours (0044 870 241 8964/www.airtours.co.uk) has some bargains in more than 30 European resorts.

First Choice (0044 870 754 3477/www.firstchoice.co.uk/ ski) has a similar but slightly larger programme to Airtours and also features self-catering chalets.

Crystal (0044 870 160 6040/www.crystalski.co.uk) has a huge selection of resorts (it's even started taking skiers to Japan) and a luxury chalet programme.

Neilson (0044 870 909 9099/www.neilson.co.uk) is a well-established company with expert staff. Many of its 68 resorts have special facilities for kids.

Inghams (0044 208 780 4400/ www.inghams.co.uk) has been up and running - or should that be down and whooshing - for more than 70 years. Apart from a huge list of hotels and chalets, it also features weekend and short breaks. Japan is new for this season with prices from under pounds 1,500.

Virgin Snow (0044 870 990 4210/ www.virgin.com/holidays) operates in the US and Canada with some affordable deals.

If you would rather book your own holiday and take your own car or a low-cost flight, a number of companies can arrange this.

Directski.com (0044 800 587 0945/ www.directski.com) is the biggest online operator with a wide range of chalets, hotels and apartments in 55 resorts.

Erna Low (0044 870 750 6820/www.ernalow.co.uk) is another well-established company specialising in selfdrive holidays.

CHALETS: These are a great alternative for large families or groups of friends who can all muck in and share the cost.

For example, catered chalet specialist Ski-Val (0044 870 746 3030/www.skival.co.uk) is offering child reductions of 50 per cent at the Chalet Hotel Chamois d'Or in Val d'Isere - excluding December 30, February 10 and March 31 - providing youngsters are under 12 and sharing a room with two fullfare-paying adults.

A seven-night peak season holiday, departing on January 7, costs pounds 519 per adult (twin share), with children now paying pounds 260 each. Price includes return flights from Gatwick, transfers and half-board in an ensuite family room.

Another good operator is Mountain Rooms and Chalets (0044 700 200 0456/www.mountain rooms.com), which has chalets and apartments in Val d'Isere.

BEST FOR SINGLES: Specialist operator Friendship Travel (0044 289 446 2211/www.friendshiptravel.com) features five resorts this winter - Les Deux Alpes, Alpe d'Huez and Tignes in France, St Anton in Austria and Courmayeur in Italy.

Prices start at pounds 499pp for a seven night holiday starting December 10 at the "small and friendly" Chalethotel Rosanna located centrally in St Anton close to the ski schools and main lifts.

This includes return flights from Gatwick, transfers and half-board accommodation (plus tea and wine with dinner) in a single room.

Flights are also available from Manchester, Birmingham or Edinburgh for a supplement. Holidays are open to over-25s - single, widowed, divorced or those with partners who cannot travel.

GOOD FOR BEGINNERS: Soldeu (www.soldeu.ad) in Andorra has one of the best ski schools in Europe with more than 150 instructors.

If you end up breaking something, you can always hobble off and shop.

Soldeu has some of the snazziest stores outside Paris - and they are all duty-free.

An excellent place to bring the family.

GOOD FOR PARTYING: Kitzbuhel (www.kitzbuehel.com - note the extra "e"), a medieval town in Austria, is a favourite with the Irish, Dutch and Germans.

The apres-ski goes on all night so it's lucky the slopes aren't too high - although that means snow cover is unreliable. Just one more reason to party, of course.

GOOD FOR EXTREME SKIERS: When it comes to doing insane things on hills, Verbier in Switzerland (www.verbier.ch) is "one flew over the cuckoo clock" territory.

There are massive glaciers, powder bowls and couloirs - great fun if you know what you're doing.

Near-vertical Mont Gele has a fearsome reputation, even among experienced piste artistes. Parts of Verbier are OK for intermediates if you don't mind looking a wimp.

GOOD FOR VIP-WATCHING: Klosters (www.klosters.ch) is an attractive Swiss village which plays host to European Royals and film stars.

The larger town of Davos next door is just as posh but has a wider range of accommodation. A holiday here won't break the bank - but it might break a few hearts if Wills comes back here for his annual whiz down the hill.

GOOD FOR KIDS: Pick a resort where the instructors are fun, friendly and know their job or the little darlings will never want to strap on a ski boot ever again.

However, there is no point in choosing a spot where mum and dad have to settle for boring flat runs. Here are some lesser-known resorts with the facilities to keep everyone happy.

Les Gets, France Just over an hour's drive from Geneva Airport (UK flights with Flybe, BMIbaby, BA and easyjet), this is a little farming village on the edge of the famous Portes du Soleil ski area which has more than 250 lifts.

It's small enough for kids to wander around safely and they can get top-class tuition at Ecole du Ski Francais (www.esflesgets.com) which charges around pounds 150 for six days for three-year-olds and up.

For parents, skiing ranges from blue and red runs to the Bouquetin black monster.

There are good family-run hotels and apartments. Try the Labrador (www.labradorhotel.com) on the village outskirts.

Cervinia, Italy The poor neighbour of Zermatt - both lie in the shadow of the Matterhorn - Cervinia is not the prettiest resort but what it lacks in architectural charm it makes up for in fun for the kids.

Cervino Ski School (www.scuolacervino.com) will take care of them from the age of five for around pounds 30 a day. Club Med has a resort here which caters for little ones from as young as four months ( 0044 8453 676767/www.clubmed.co.uk).

Alpach, Austria Here's a place that has won awards for its picture postcard setting, with its onion-domed church and classic chalets. At only about 2,000m, the snow can be unpredictable but it's an excellent spot for kids to learn to ski at the Alpach Aktiv school (www.alpachaktiv.com) for pounds 45 a day including lunch.

The village also has its own mini-indoor water park and some great snowy hiking trails.

ACROSS THE POND

Canada: Banff/Lake Louise has some of the best skiing in Canada, rivalled only by neighbouring Whistler. It's good value, friendly and ideal for groups or couples. Nearby is the Panorama Mountain Village resort (www.skipanorama.com) which has some good off-piste activities, such as heli-skiing and dog-sledding. In Whistler, a week at the luxury Fairmont Chateau at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain costs from pounds 935pp (Ski Safari 0044 1273 223680/www.skisafari.com)

USA: Aspen (www.visitaspen.com) is a restored silver-mining town and, because the dollar is currently weak, surprisingly good value. There's good skiing on four mountains and the accommodation is excellent.

A two-bedroom apartment in The Gant, a swish new complex near the centre, costs from pounds 638pp including flights and transfers. Contact Ski Independence on 0044 870 555 0555/www.ski-i.com

Virgin Snow has great-value holidays in the US and Canada. Seven nights at the Merrill Farm Resort in New Hampshire start from pounds 536pp, including Virgin Atlantic flights with car hire and B&B, departing December 1-15.

In Canada, seven nights at the Holiday Inn Sunspree, Whistler, start from pounds 771pp, including flights to Vancouver, transfers and room-only accommodation.

IAIN MAYHEW

CAPTION(S):

GET YOUR SKATES ON: Time to book' DRINK IT IN: A break on the mountain' DO A BUNK: Chalets are good for groups' PISTE ARTIST: Verbier is a rush' STOKED: Gluhwein
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 28, 2006
Words:1700
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