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Ski Europe This Winter

From the Swiss resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz to the French towns of Meribel and Val D'Isere, Europe is a skiers and snowboarders dream. Between them, Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland are host to dozens of resorts for skiers of all abilities and economic means.

Why go to Europe? For the sheer beauty of the Alps, the chic resorts and the chance to ski in the mountains where the sport of skiing was born. Better yet, skiing in Europe has never been more affordable.

"The dollar is strong," affirms Chips Lindenmeyr, president of Lindenmeyr Travel. "It's up 20 percent from last year, so it's even more of a bargain than it normally is."

Lindenmeyr should know. She has spent 13 years sending discriminating American skiers to such resorts as St. Anton, St. Moritz and Courchevel. It's a business with a high repeat factor. Americans who taste the European ski life often find it absolutely intoxicating, a mix of staggering alpine scenery, endless off-piste possibilities, charming villages and seriously good food and drink. That, and the fact that a day trip to Venice, Paris or Geneva is easily done, can turn it an exotic vacation indeed.

Lindenmeyr urges first timers to Europe to "get in condition. The ski areas are so much more vast. You'll need more endurance and stamina than you would out West."

She's not just talking about the skiing, which can be challenging, with trails that are a quarter mile wide. She's referring to the sheer logistics of getting to the slopes.

"Take Zermatt, where you have three different ski areas," she points out. "You can't stay in one hotel and be ideally located. You either walk a lot or take an electro taxi or take the bus, which means you have to carry your skis a lot."

She urges first timers as well as returning skiers to "get a guide or do ski school at least for the first few days. A guide in Zermatt will run about $200 a day and take up to five people along, which is a steal. Since most of the skiing is above treeline, it's easier, and safer, to have a guide show you around."

The fact that most European ski hotels have a fixed meal plan, usually a modified American (breakfast and dinner) included in their rates, is a source of concern for some skiers.

"People say to me, 'But I don't want to have dinner in the same place every night,'" Lindenmeyr reports. "So I explain to them that in Europe, hotel dining rooms generally have the best food in town. What's more, you're usually getting a six-course dinner of gourmet quality, typically for the equivalent of about $15. You'll also find the quality of food on the mountains very high. Fast food is a foreign concept here. People take time for a leisurely lunch. There are 38 mountain restaurants in Zermatt alone, for example."

While you can book airfare and hotels yourself, it makes financial sense to go with a ski package, especially for the first time. It's not difficult to find a deal for less than $1,500 per person that includes airfare, seven-nights hotel accommodation, most meals and transfers, a price that rivals similar deals in the American West.

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