The Aosta Valley is rich in history, heritage and gastronomy, and fortunately it’s also rich in snow. In this northwestern corner of Italy, close to the French and Swiss borders, the Aosta Valley has more than 20 ski resorts among its peaks and pastures, ranging from the big hitters Courmayeur, Breuil Cervinia and La Thuile, to smaller gems such as St Oyen, Valsavarenche and Gressoney. Covering an altitude of approximately 800m to 3,500m, the terrain caters for everyone from beginners to experts, piste bashers to more leisurely cruisers.
Off the slopes, the diversions are equally diverse, with castles, wine-tasting and hot-air balloon rides. To give you some ideas, here are 20 of the best activities the valley has to offer this winter
1. Take a helicopter ride over the Aosta Valley
For anyone who’s more at home on the blue and red runs than any off-piste terrain, but still wants to experience the thrill of seeing the valley from a great height, helicopter sightseeing tours are available from Saint Christophe. Choose to either fl y back in time over the ancient Roman forts of Aosta, or opt for the dramatic and get a bird’s eye view of Mont Blanc or Monte Rosa.
2. Strap on and go ski touring
If you prefer to keep things natural and unmechanical in the Alps, then ski touring is the activity for you, and the Aosta Valley is the perfect environment in which to try this rewarding pastime. Numerous mountain refuges litter the valley, and there are routes to suit everyone from novices to experienced mountain goats. So hire a guide, stick a pair of skins on the base of your skis and get walking up that hill and away from the crowds. The virgin terrain you’ll no doubt uncover is worth every step.
3. Experience the rush of heliskiing for the first time
As if the thrill of riding in a helicopter over snowy peaks wasn’t enough, combine it with skiing through untracked snow on a remote backcountry descent and you’re in for one incredible rush. Thanks to a special law in this region of Italy, the Aosta Valley is one of the few places in Europe where you can heliski – and at a far more reasonable cost than, say, travelling to North America. Head to one of the helibases in Valgrisenche, Courmayeur, Gressoney-La-Trinité, La Thuile or Breuil-Cervinia, and prepare to spoil ‘normal’ skiing for ever.
4. Watch the end-of-year torchlight descent and fireworks at Cervinia
Nothing says it’s New Year’s Eve in the mountains like a torchlight descent and fireworks display, and the show that Cervinia puts on is particularly impressive. The long procession of ski instructors winding down the slopes into town, with torches ablaze, is mesmerising, and the following fireworks that light up the surrounding snow-capped peaks of the Matterhorn, the Cime Bianche and the Roisetta are breathtaking.
5. Hit the heights on a hot-air balloon ride
As luck would have it, winter provides the most stable air conditions for a hot-air balloon ride in the Aosta Valley, so climb into the basket and set off for great heights. As you rise slowly above Aosta, look for the Roman walls that still surround the town and the warren of narrow streets before reaching a cruising height of about 3,000m – ideal for surveying the expanse of snow-covered peaks stretching into France and Switzerland.
6. Go paragliding around Chamois – the highest town in the Aosta Valley
Take a big bold leap into thin air for one of the most dramatic and unforgettable experiences of your life – flying like a bird through the fresh air above the Aosta Valley and its highest town, Chamois. Secured into a tandem harness with an instructor, the paraglide lifts you off the mountain and into the realms of the gods, or at least large birds. Sweep and soar in the thermals, and soak up every second of the majestic view.
7. Take the children sledging in Saint Oyen
Enjoy the thrill of a bobsleigh run in a safe environment created specially for children in Saint Oyen. Let them ride a sledge through dips and turns and experience one of the most basic but exhilarating forms of transport.
8. Catch the wind kiteskiing in Cervinia
Looking for your next challenge on the slopes? Strap on your skis or board, grab hold of a kite and see where the wind takes you (with the help of an instructor, of course). With the kite strapped to your shoulders, play around on the pistes and catch the thermals to get some daringly large air – venture further afi eld and you’ll be ducking and diving all over the mountain.
9. Go ice skating in the open in Gressoney
Glide back to nature on the natural outdoor ice tracks in Gressoney and feel the fresh air fl ow through your hair and the glow in your cheeks. Whether you’re practicing your pirouettes, skating elegantly backwards, or just tentatively clutching a loved one’s hand, skating outside on a natural rink is a magical experience and one that deserves to be rounded off with a vin brulé.
10. Bathe in Pré Saint Didier thermal spa at the foot of Mont Blanc
For the most relaxing of ways to wind down after an invigorating day on the slopes, immerse yourself in the natural thermal waters at the Pré Saint Didier spa. A home to therapeutic waters since Roman times, and used systematically since the 1600s, the spa is a profusion of well-being and rejuvenation. While the highlight is relaxing in the outdoor hot-water pools surrounded by snow with a view of the Mont Blanc Massif, take time to soak in the whirlpool baths, themed saunas, aromatic steam rooms and mud treatment area too.
11. Welcome Christmas with mass in La Thuile
Celebrate Christmas on 24 December with a traditional service of mass in picturesque La Thuile, which includes a nativity scene like you’ve never seen before, lots and lots of candles, and a typically stylish Italian toast of vin brulé and panettone at the end of the ser vice.
12. Swing out at the Adventure Park, Champoluc
Spend your next après ski session in the Aosta Valley doing something a little different – swinging through the trees, hanging off ropes and crossing high ropeway routes, safe in the knowledge you’re always secured to the safety wire in a harness. Return to fi rm ground by zip wire – guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
13. Rise up for the Gran Forno Festival, Saint Denis
If you appreciate the simple things in life done well, you’ll like the Gran Forno Festival in Saint Denis. Translated as the Large Oven Festival and held towards the end of December or beginning of January every year, the villagers gather round their old village oven and cook more than 250 varieties of bread – and at the unveiling of each one there’s a celebration. Life doesn’t get any simpler.
14. Stroll around Aosta
Engage in one of the most traditional Italian pastimes – the early evening promenade. And there’s nowhere better to see and be seen than on the main old streets of Aosta town centre – pop into a shop to pick up some local specialities, or take a seat in a bar and watch the world go by. But don’t get so distracted by the passers-by that you miss the Roman remains. There are more here than in any other town outside Rome.
15. Ski the alternative Vallee Blanche from Courmayeur
While the tourists may be heading up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to access the world-renowned Vallée Blanche off-piste route, those in the know access the beautiful 20km run from Courmayeur and the Helbronner lift. You not only get to miss the stomach-clenching precipice walk from the top of the Aiguille du Midi station, there’ll be less people around and you can start with an exhilarating couloir before joining the main route around the Géant icefall.
16. Celebrate St Valentine’s Day in Courmayeur
Overindulge with your loved one in Courmayeur this St Valentine’s Day – the cupid idol is the town’s patron saint, so love is well and truly in the air here. After a love-ski together on the slopes, settle down in one of the resort’s many gourmet restaurants and tuck into a delicious meal of local hams, cheese and wine. Watched over by the romantic eye of St Valentine, you’re destined for a night of love.
17. Experience epic freeride terrain off the beaten track in Gressoney
Gressoney? Monterosa Ski? Perhaps not the first names that come to mind when thinking of epic off piste, but they should be. This corner of the Aosta Valley is packed with impressive routes, many of them lift-accessed, and few crowds, particularly during the week. And thanks to its altitude, it has a good snow record too. What more do you want?
18. Visit the medieval castle of Fénis
Fire up your imagination and explore one of the Aosta Valley’s finest exhibits (after the skiing, of course) – the medieval castle of Fénis, an imposing medley of towers and turreted walls. As the valley has long been an important route between France and Italy, many other fine examples are scattered about as well. It makes for fascinating exploring for historians and kids alike.
19. Follow the Aosta Valley Wine Route
One for towards the end of the winter season, the Aosta Valley produces 25 wines across 12 wineries and a tour around several of them is a perfectly idyllic way to pass the afternoon. Sample local Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and Petit Rouge, given unique flavours thanks to the area’s rocky soil and high altitude.
20. Step out in snowshoes in Gran Paradiso National Park
Explore Italy’s first national park – and see nature at its finest. Snowshoes routes cross pastures and ascend to viewpoints, and there are plenty of refuges to stop at. Reaching from the valley floor at 800m to the highest peak, the Gran Paradiso, at 4,061m, there is enough terrain to keep you busy for weeks.