Skiing in Italy has much to recommend it including magnificent mountain scenery, well- groomed and un-crowded ski areas, superb skiing on- and off-piste, good food, excellent mountain restaurants and reasonable prices.
Italy is an ideal skiing choice for a family skiing holiday, with excellent ski schools and a genuine delight in the welcome of small children. The atmosphere in Italian ski resorts is cosmopolitan but the overall influence is definitely Italian; fun and relaxed with more traditional mountain villages than purpose built resorts. Italy's picturesque Alpine villages offer some of the world's best mountain cuisine and, though nightlife may be limited in some resorts, the old cobbled streets come alive in the evenings with buzzing bars, excellent restaurants and good value pizzerias.
If there's a unifying theme, it's the laid back flavour of skiing in Italy. Not just the Italian skiers themselves, but visitors from abroad tend to be relaxed - if not at the start, then certainly by the end of their holiday. But despite the vibe, and the quality of the coffee, pasta and pizza, many of the resorts are closer - physically, historically and in the makeup of the local population - to their bordering alpine countries than they are to Rome or Naples. The architecture, the language and some items on the menu frequently make you think you're well north of the border, though it's always overlaid with that unique sense of Italy, and frequently bathed in sunshine.
That last factor, sunshine, can be an issue: the Italian Alps depend on southerly weather systems to bring them snow, and it doesn't always fall. But thin seasons usually coincide with low temperatures, allowing resorts to provide great skiing on man-made snow of impressive quality; the Italians are right up there with the Austrians for the amount of artifical snow coverage they have. Almost regardless of the weather, Italy is very good news for keen skiers: you'll be up and skiing empty slopes while the Italians are enjoying a long breakfast, a longer lunch and possibly concentrating more on up-coming nightlife than the afternoon's skiing.
As for off-slope diversions, Italy's evening passegiatta in the ritzy resorts will certainly make you consider updating your wardrobe; anyone dancing on tables in ski boots might be politely directed to Austria, though you're in the right place to enjoy classic wine-bars and sumptuous food. Above all, as with the skiing, you can make of it what you will.
Several big Italian ski areas are accessed from the Aosta Valley in the west, beneath Mont Blanc and the Monte Rosa, with a mix of ultra-chic Courmayeur at one end, off-piste mecca Alagna and the Monterosa at the other, and a bit of everything in between, most of it with striking scenery and minimal crowds. In the east are the Dolomites, some of the world's most picturesque mountains, littered with dozens of small but well developed resorts, all under the umbrella of the "world's biggest ski domain" and covered by a single lift pass
Short breaks for skiing and boarding are ever more popular and resorts such as Courmayeur, Champoluc and Sestriere are ideal for weekend skiing with short airport transfers and conveniently located hotels meaning that no time is lost getting on to the slopes. And there's also plenty of good skiing off-piste and heliskiing.
Italy's most stylish winter-sports resort, Cortina d'Ampezzo certainly enjoys more non-skiing winter visitors than it does skiers, yet its slopes are well worth the journey, even before you start admiring the craggy mountain views and the mountain restaurants which are as important as the skiing. The majority of guests are Italian who come to Cortina to socialise, sunbathe and to be seen, and hence the ski slopes are uncrowded for most of the season which is good news for ski-obsessed North Europeans. The pedestrian town is home to Italy's most expensive street - the perfect place for retail therapy for those that can afford it - and quality restaurants and wine bars. Venice is just two hours away by car if you fancy the ultimate ski and city break.
Courmayeur is well known for its excellent restaurants both on and off the piste and good food can be found everywhere. It has more mountain restaurants than ski lifts and lunch time favourites such as Maison Vieille and Chiecco should be booked in advance to avoid disappointment! 100km of well maintained pisted runs are complemented by some excellent off piste runs - which include the Toula Glacier (1,311m of vertical drop), and the world famous 24km Vallee Blanche from Punta Helbronner (3, 462m) to Chamonix. Come nightfall, enjoy a passeggiata along Courmayeur's charming main street where you will find a selection of stylish bars and elegant boutiques.
The charming ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio has 120km of groomed skiing either side of a deep valley and surrounded by spectacular Dolomite scenery. The ski area includes nearby Folgarida and Marilleva, and there are plans to connect to Pinzolo in the south. There's plenty of good intermediate skiing and boarding, and with nine ski schools Madonna is a good destination for beginners and novices. There's also good off-piste from the top of Passo Groste. Madonna's stylish pedestrianized village delivers a quality mountain experience with plenty of 3-star and 4-star hotels and apartment accommodation to choose from and over 20 restaurants serving local mountain specialities and a wide range of good Italian cooking.
Monterosa's three valleys are comparable to the Trois Vallees in France in terms of the physical relationship of the main resorts but they could hardly offer a more different ski experience. There are around 180kms of long, pisted runs in an unspoiled natural environment and minimal resort development. Skiing is for the most part on amazingly quiet pistes and much of the terrain remains undeveloped and is perfect for off- piste skiing. In addition to reasonably priced heli ski trips, Alagna is legendary for its advanced off piste itineraries. At the other end of the spectrum, for families and intermediates, Champoluc offers an un-crowded and relaxed area of friendly ski terrain and magnificent alpine scenery.
Val di Fassa in the Italian region of Trentino is close to the border with Austria and offers a wide choice of accommodation in as many as seven villages, of which the most visited are Canazei, Campitello and Pozza di Fassa. The Fassa valley alone has 122km of well-groomed piste skiing with a further 100km nearby in Tre Valli and access to Dolomiti Superski - the world's largest ski circuit with over 1,200km of pistes, of which 800km are connected. Besides skiing there's a wide range of other activities including cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, winter walks, excellent shopping and plenty of homely restaurants both on and off the mountain. The views of the Dolomites are quite spectacular and as good as you'll find anywhere.
Val Gardena in Sud Tirol offers extensive skiing between three charming villages within an 8km stretch. The biggest village and most convenient base is Selva Gardena (Wolkenstein) with access to skiing in all directions. Santa Cristina (St. Christina) and Ortisei (St. Ulrich) Val Gardena has good skiing for all abilities and easy access to the Sella Ronda, a 26km circuit surrounds Gruppo Sella which can be skied clockwise or anti-clockwise and links another series of villages including Colfosco and Corvara in the Alta Badia valley; Arabba in the Livinallongo valley and Canazei in the Val di Fassa valley just off the circuit. Enjoy spectacular mountain scenery, good eating on and off the mountain and plenty of quality hotels to choose from.
Via Lattea ski area, which was much improved for the 2006 winter Olympics, offers 400km of well-groomed pistes, a modern ski lift system and many ski resort villages including Sestriere, Sauze d'Oulx, Jouvenceaux, Claviere, Cesana and Pragelato and ranging from historic to purpose built. The focus is on skiing, there being limited facilities in Vialattea for non-skiers. Sestriere at an altitude of just over 2,000m is an excellent snow sure base from which to explore Vialattea's open sunny pistes. Although not the most picturesque of Italy's ski resorts it has a cosmopolitan charm and a superb ski area, particularly suited to beginners, intermediates and those who like to cover a lot of mileage and to ski different resorts in one day.