Where in the Alps are the best prices to be found? The Where to Ski and Snowboard guide’s answer is unequivocal: Passo Tonale in Italy. The guide calculates a “resort price index” comparing the cost of food and drink, lift passes, equipment hire and tuition. And although there are locations – Bulgaria and Romania, for example – where costs are lower, nowhere in the Alps gets close to Passo Tonale.
The index does not tell the whole story because it ignores the big-ticket items in ski holidays such as accommodation and transport. But in an hour studying the brochure of the UK’s biggest ski tour operator, Crystal, the cheapest proper Alpine package I found (in a hotel, with half-board) was the Hotel Cielo Blu, in Passo Tonale, where a week started at £475.
Everybody loves a bargain; but nobody wants to go to a resort that’s cheap. But, in terms of its facilities, Passo Tonale doesn’t seem to be skimping: for this season it has two new lifts, one of them giving direct access to the top of the ski area where a glacier guarantees early-season snow. That, plus 100km of slopes, seemed too good to miss. Which is why I found myself there in mid-December.
If you follow conditions in the Alps you will know about the good early-season snow. The French resort of Val Thorens delayed opening because of concern about its ability to cope with the predicted snowfall. Passo Tonale had no such problem. Since an autumn accumulation on the glacier, no snow had fallen. When I arrived I was told that snowfall was forecast, but not until January.
This may have contributed to my feeling that Passo Tonale lacks charm. The road up from Trento may be typically narrow and convoluted, but at the pass (passo) the landscape suddenly changes, broadening into a wide plateau, with the 3,069m Presena peak to the south and the 2,600m Cadì to the north. With all that space, the resort – if one can call it that – seems to have had an attack of agoraphobia. The generic ski hotels simply line the road, as in a suburban ribbon development. Where is the village centre? There isn’t one.
The skiing – at first sight, just some strips of white stair carpet – was hardly more attractive. But since the late 1970s, Tonale’s terrain has formed part of a linked ski area named Adamello (after a nearby mountain). Ten minutes down the road is the town of Pontedilegno, whose slopes constitute the other part of the area. In good conditions, the two lift-linked resorts combine to offer a range of terrain. Tonale has the tough stuff on the glacier plus substantial beginner and intermediate slopes above the tree-line; Pontedilegno offers more than a dozen runs on wooded slopes, some intermediate, others more challenging.
Adamello has longitude as well as latitude. The highest point, at the top of the glacier, is at 3,016m. From there it is possible (given snow) to ski down to Tonale’s resort level then follow the long, steady transition to Pontedilegno’s terrain, and traverse it to the far side– a total vertical descent of almost 2,000m. My options, though, were limited. At Tonale, I skied the glacier: a short traverse, followed by a straight dash to the mid-station of the gondola. Riding down towards the plateau, I could see where the long, highly rated intermediate runs should be, including the distant Contrabbandieri route and the 4.5km loop of the Alpino. But it was all just brown grass. So, I gave the skis a break, and focused on military history.
Historically Tonale was on the border between Italy and Austria until the First World War when these mountains were a battleground. At the bottom of the glacier there is a touching monument created by an Italian soldier from rock and the detritus of war (barbed wire, shell cases, a rifle) in honour of the servicemen killed there on 9 June 1916. The official, civic war memorial is the dominant feature of Tonale’s main drag. The structure has the bones of 858 Italian soldiers inside.
There are still servicemen in Tonale, not because no one has told them the war is over but because there is a large barracks in the resort. They had to follow orders, but I could escape to Pontedilegno, which was delightful. The tree-lined slopes were as good as artificial snow permitted.
Back in Tonale, I reflected on three-star travel. Obviously you must accept certain privations such as a sketchy breakfast and w-fi and no power in the shower. But the lowly Hotel Cielo Blu proved to be a friendly place and it served a good, imaginative evening meal. Even the manager’s dark countenance proved misleading.
Of course the virtue of being a cheapskate is that you don’t have much to lose. Blowing the bonus on a trip to a Californian resort with no snow? That’s a disaster. But if the snow doesn’t show on a low-cost trip to the Alps, that’s no more than disappointing, even if the season’s first flakes fall as you depart.
Sure enough, the snow did come as predicted; those brown slopes are now white.
The closest airport is Verona, served by easyJet (0843 104 5000;easyJet.com) and BA (0344 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted, Monarch (0333 003 0700; monarch.co.uk) from Manchester and Jet2 (0800 408 1350; jet2.com) from Edinburgh. Crystal (020 8939 0726;crystalski.co.uk) offers a week’s half board at the Hotel Cielo Blu, with flights from Gatwick and transfers with some departure dates from £459pp.