It’s a question I get asked often, and one that draws more discussion with readers and editors alike than questions of snow quality and slope inclination. (Not that I am an authority.)
Despite my limitations in the downhill department, most of my friends would readily agree that I am a considerably more expert and experienced skier than I am a party animal. But I have done the research. On hundreds of dog and pony shows hosted by fetching blondes from the PR departments of ski resorts, I’ve been to pretty much every drinking and dancing dive in the Alps.
Ironically, my home resort of Verbier in Switzerland routinely wins ‘best nightlife’ kudos from highly respected travel writers and bon vivants. Personally, I don’t see it and figure they don’t get out much. Yet Juergen Taudien of Switzerland’s ruling corporate events agency M&S Event Services tells me that eight out of 10 bankers and money-is-no-object businessmen booking ski holidays insist on Verbier over Gstaad, St. Moritz or Courchevel precisely because of its partying attributes.
I’ve witnessed far wilder scenes in Austria, and had more luck on the dance floor in Val d’Isère in France. And the only time anywhere that I stayed out all night in clubs until six in the morning, and still made the first lift, was in sleepy Saas-Fee. So, go figure.
The most excruciatingly boring experience I ever had was sitting with a group of journalists at one in the morning drinking bourbon and watching chalet girls and 30-something threepiece- suit London business boys strip down to the buff while drunkenly gyrating in Verbier’s Farm Club, a venue widely described as the hottest nightclub in the Alps. On another evening in the same place, with a Danish girl and fireworks being set off at tables, I seem to remember having the time of my life.
I’d like to recount more riveting anecdotes, but most of my nights out are unmemorable (or unremembered), and those that are not are embarrassing, illegal or unprintable. Anyway, it’s a mistake to assume that après ski and evenings out in the Alps must involve copious consumption and consummation to be enjoyable.
In sober reflection, I think evaluations of what a good time a resort puts out depend entirely upon what one expects— something which varies wildly depending upon age, inclination and nationality—as well as the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time.
The ski bum’s point of view is aptly summed up by a buddy of mine: ‘When I go skiing, I look for the steep and deep. At night I’m looking for flat surfaces and shallow minds.’ Another friend, Marina, takes a somewhat more profound approach: ‘The best ski resort in the world is the one where 10 inches of powder just fell. The resort with the best nightlife is one where it’s snowing men.’
Well, girls just wanna have fun. But if they want it quick, Austria is the place to go. Nowhere else does the partying begin so precipitously—and nowhere else are you so likely to end up doing it in your ski boots. Yes, they literally dance on the tables in ski boots, something I have never seen anywhere else in Europe.
The instant the lifts close, beer drinking begins. In St. Anton, skiers don’t even wait until they get off the mountain. The Krazy Kanguruh, the Moosewirt and the Griabli are all throbbing up on the pistes from 4:00 p.m. until darkness descends, and skiers slide home lubricated for the evening ahead.
You may never have heard of Ischgl, a tiny Tirolean village with 200 km of pistes and more high-speed lifts than anywhere in Europe. But this resort has, in my opinion, the most energy, with the youngest and rowdiest clientele in the Alps. It’s the only ski resort I’ve been to with lap dancing, and is an outpost of the Pacha club chain famous in Ibiza and London.
Après ski is considerably more civilized and dolce vita in Italy, notably in Cortina d’Ampezzo where one showers and sheds the ski boots before parading down the Corso in the ritual passeggiata—eyeing up the furs and inviting a casual acquaintance into one of the superbly stocked wine bars.
Courmayeur, on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, has the most congenial après ski imaginable: bars like the American or the Roma with huge comfy sofas, cocktails instead of pitchers of beer, and both the space and the silence for real conversation.
Après ski in France is, by comparison, lacking in any defining national ethos. There are bars but the animal enthusiasm and raw energy of Austrian après ski is missing, to the relief of many I should add.
In Chamonix, skiers who have made serious descents gather at dusk with their guide for quiet beers, pacing themselves for a good meal and wilder revels later at the renowned Choucas Bar or the Office, as depraved a venue as any hardcore partier could wish for.
Courchevel, with its endless miles of motorway skiing, offers cabaret acts from Paris at Les Caves and chateau-themed salon and library bars at Piggy’s. But I get the feeling most people are there to be seen rather than to have a good time. And the prices are astronomical.
Switzerland mixes the Germanic beer-blast culture with more languid Gallic wine sipping, according to whether resorts are in German- or French-speaking cantons. Nowhere in the world can come close to St. Moritz for true sophistication and range of things to do: from cocktails at the Cresta Club sled run to après-ski pastries at Hanselmann’s to swigging champagne while watching polo on ice.
My favourite bar in all the Alps is Popcorn in Saas-Fee, a snowboard centre with a welcoming crowd and no pretense or glitz. Of course you can have a good night out anywhere, even in Canada. But in Europe you’ll certainly find more variety, weird new drinks and dances, and the pleasure of conversing with policemen in a foreign language.