Skiing Italian Style At Sestriere - My Family Travels

For an ultimate family ski trip with some dolce vita, lots of pasta and fun lessons, this family chose an all-inclusive resort in Sestriere, Italy. Here's their review of the mountain that starred in the Torino Olympics.

With over 400 kms (240 miles) of groomed trails linking five ski resorts, the Alta Val di Susa region’s Via Lattea (39/0122 799411), also known as the Milky Way, is a vibrant galaxy for snownauts to explore. At the center is Sestriere, selected by the wealthy Agnelli family (of Fiat and Maserati fame) in the 1930s to be their family’s winter playground. Like young stars caught in Sestriere’s gravitational pull, four other small resorts are linked by lifts to provide a uniquely European adventure for the intermediate and advanced skier or rider. It’s a perfect destination for active families with independent children.

Sestriere, Home of Torino Olympics

With its peak at 2823 meters (9,200 feet), Sestriere’s sheer, steep runs appeal most to expert skiers. There’s the Downhill medal course selected for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics (the major city of Torino or Turin has an international airport less than one hour away) and the sheer drop made famous by Alberto Tomba when he snatched the World Alpine Ski Championship for Italy in 1997.

Of course, there are dozens of broad, scenic red (intermediate) runs and even blue bunny slopes for beginners, but it is Sestriere’s championship caliber runs that draw the crowds and give it such cache.

A few years ago, we visited with some beginner skiers and found Sestriere, with its largely unmarked trails, tough to manage. But our December 2002 holiday week was different. An 11-year-old confident in snowboarding and his two out-of-shape, but intermediate level parents found Sestriere a delightful challenge. At first, we moved across the mountain cautiously, but after classes with the excellent ski and ride instructors from the Sestriere National Ski School, we felt right at home.

The huge mountain’s off-piste skiing is fresh, snowfall is usually bountiful — and if not, the Via Lattea has some of the most comprehensive snow-making coverage in the world. We did not try, but heard wonderful things about the heliskiing for expert skiers, an extreme sport outlawed in much of the Alps.

In addition, Sestriere’s grooming is frequent and efficient, keeping all runs in top shape. Our snowboarder found huge freestyle runs but only a small “snowpark” with few rails and no half-pipes; he adored the freshly powdered off-piste slopes. With so much terrain, the area began to feel crowded only on weekends, when the din of kids’ racing teams and parents’ cellphones broke the otherworldy quiet.

Sestriere’s Club Valtur

Sestriere’s vast, blinding white landscape makes a warm, cozy hotel especially important. We found the self-contained, all-inclusive Villaggio Club Valtur very appealing to families like ours, with children ages 5 and older. The hotel has an attractive, International style lobby sporting contemporary Italian paintings, Calders and Miros.

Within Valtur’s cylindrical 10-storey hotel towers are 195 extremely well-designed two and three-bedded rooms. They are spacious for three compared to most European hotels, and there are no adjoining family rooms. However, each has picture windows with spectacular mountain panoramas. Just below the lobby are the popular bar, equipment rental shop, small boutique and ground-level lockers. The energetic and charming equipe (staff) organize day-into-night activities and meals for the Miniclub kids (ages 5-11) and the more independent Juniorclub (12-17 years). The former tend to hang around the slope-view kids club room (with its pingpong table and other games); both groups enjoy the carpetted amphitheatre, where exercise classes and rehearsals for the lively evening cabaret shows are always underway.

Making Friends Abroad

At our brief winter 2000 stay, Valtur had several American, British and Israeli families in the house, and thus a more multi-lingual mix in the children’s program. During our December 2002 visit (with the world economy in shambles and a looming threat of war), there were very few non-Italian families. However, after a consultation with us, the caring children’s counselors approached all the Italian children to introduce our 11-year-old son to those who spoke English. After one self-conscious day, he had a wonderful time, appeared in the Christmas show, and made many friends.

Your family will enjoy three bounteous buffets of excellent Italian and continental fare daily, but after breakfast most kids take off and dine with their new-found buddies in the kids clubs. My husband and I really had fun with the Italilan couples we dined with “family style” — mutual groaning about IM’ing, too much computer use, and Playstation 2 games made it seem a very small world indeed.

Super Family Value

We found our week in ValturWorld, as the dozens of repeat visitors we met like to call it, a wondeful value, both financially and spiritually. It was a pleasure to be able to enhance our individual snowsports skills during the day and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow classmates, both on the slopes and back at Valtur. Evenings were for dressing for dinner, sharing a wine, conversing… then welcoming our kids if they left the supervised children’s clubs to come visit. Financially, it’s a bargain compared to top-notch US resorts, with rates including wine with meals, the committed and gregarious Valtur Club equipe, a six-day lift ticket, two two-hour ski or snowboard lessons daily, a staff ski guide to introduce new terrain, fun nightly entertainment, and for party-goers, the smoky, deep blue Nauticus Disco for after hours.

Many guests lined up to pay extra for the sleek Jean Klebert Bio Beauty Center, and undergo ‘exfoliator’ body treatments, ‘anti-age’ treatments, ‘aesthetic pedicures’, ‘stiffen treatment for breasts’ and other French delicacies. Club Valtur also offered free exercise classes, hikes and daytrips in the area for non-skiers, a big plus for the many grandparents who were there with large family groups.

Getting to Know the Piemonte Region

When Sestriere was built in the 1930’s, its streamlined, Moderne-style cylindrical towers were an instant hit. Royalty, wealthy, even Hollywood stars came to ski. Today, Sestriere’s village is a low-rise, style-free international hodgepodge of ski condos and second homes for Milanese, distinguished by the original Deco Agnelli towers (now part of Club Med).

As newcomers to the region, our family spent the hours between skiing and dinner (when others were napping) strolling the village’s busy streets. We dropped in at the chic wine bars (Santa Cruz, near the main ski ticket office is very cool, with a wonderful selection of Italian, French and California wines), window-shopped for high-style, expensive ski and snowboard outerwear and admired the very chic Italians in their haute couture outfits. One evening we went out to La Gargote (0122 76.888) at the mountain’s base (we heard it was the golf course lodge in summer) for a wonderful meal of venison alpine-style, grilled vegetables and special local cheeses. There was also the opportunity to ski on one lit slope (open two evenings a week), go the local cinema for a movie, or hit Tabata — the most popular of the discos.

Shopping was good and varied. The Ottoz Shop next the Agip petrol station has a great collection of alpine specialties, berry liqueurs such as Geneppe and Grappa, and sweets that made perfect take-home gifts.

Valtur’s concierge staff was also very helpful, arranging to pick us up at a Milan hotel where we spent a day recuperating from jet lag on the way in, and taking us to Torino for sightseeing before our departure. Of the daytrips, we particularly enjoyed the 15-minute helicopter flightseeing tour of the region, and a half day trip to Briancon, a picture-perfect medieval walled city in France, about an hour’s drive away.

Other Family Accommodations

Those used to ski in/ski out accommodations should note that all the condos and hotels, including Club Med Sestriere‘s two all-inclusive towers, are located across a small roadway from the slopes, necessitating a five-minute schlepp with gear. After some groaning we got used to it, helped by Valtur’s noon-time al fresco service of fresh polenta, pizza, foccaccio, soup or hot wine along this route. But this pampering is one of the delights of an all-inclusive resort.

Within the village are many comfortable three-star lodges and some furnished condos which participate in top-value winter promotions, offering rooms with breakfast or half-board, plus ski pass from about US$50 p.p. per day, plus children’s discounts. We thought the Miramonti and Savoy Edelweiss were well located; the local Tourist Information office (0122/75.54.44) will provide more information.

If running out of the lobby with skis on is your fondest desire, consider the classic, 61-room Tyrolean-style Principi di Piemonte Grand Hotel (39/0122.7941; suites from US$425 plus. US$50/N per child 3-12 years). From its east side, expert skiers can go off-piste to the pretty hilltown of Grangesises.
With super hiking and mountain biking, Europe’s highest altitude golf course along its base, an indoor gym with pool, and kayaking and riverrafting along its rivers, Sestriere is becoming a popular summer destination. Although many hotels close, the local Tourist Information office (0122/75.54.44; can recommend local condos for rent.

“Heidi” lovers will respond to its lanes full of the stone, copper and slate-roof mountain chalets of alpine fame. Later in the season, when natural snow is deeper, a small rope tow operates; otherwise it’s a bus or taxi back up the hill.The Principi is very elegant in an old-fashioned European style, with deep plush armchairs in the bar and fussy linens in the dining room. We saw (did not hear!) a few children at our visit, yet the gorgeous swimming pool, sauna and steam room make it the only super-deluxe place for families to consider on the slopes.

Same and Different

Most Americans will need a few days to get used to the casual punctuality of activities and the Italian sense of dolce vita — fun prevails. For us, that meant relaxing over wine at lunch, crowding ahead on the lift lines, leaving trails unmarked, joking and falling off the many Poma rope tows/drag lifts, stopping class to assist a fallen skier, dogs awaiting their master at the base area, skiing in a torchlight parade after dark — even accepting a shot of grappa from the Valtur staffer who wore angel wings over his parka and poured drinks on the slopes.

Soon enough, we are reminded by the construction underway above the present village, funds from the European Union and rules from the International Olympic Committee may forever change the face of Sestriere. The addition of high speed, state-of-the-art chairlifts, a telecabina to the slopes at Pragelato and international signage could diminish some of its disorganized Italian charm.

Yet international intervention may be able to heal the groves of shriveled larch trees damaged by acid rain, and that would be a welcome change. Either way, our family will never forget the stark lunar landscape that we learned to love in fog, snow and brilliant alpine sunshine.

Details, Details

Exploring the Via Lattea is one of the greatest perks of skiing at Sestriere. Her partner resorts offer an even wider range of ski terrain, accessed free by children 8 and under who ski or snowboard with a paying adult. Visiting families will want to plan time together to explore this new terrain and the more than 30 Italian baita (chalet cafes) which are accessible by the network of 92 ski lifts in the surrounding Via Lattea.

For information on packages at Club Valtur, contact your travel agent or Conventions Incentives Group North America (formerly Valtur North America) at 201/228-5235 . Rental equipment is easy to get, cheap and excellent quality. Our family rented high performance ‘carving’ skis (one pair Rossignol, one Fisher), two pairs boots and poles, plus a Burton snowboard, boots and child’s helmet for a total of about US$250 for seven days, including insurance and private lockers from Club Valtur.

For snowbunnies, here’s Sestriere by the numbers:
Mountain Statistics:
Vertical Drop: 5,084 feet
Ski Lifts: 92 across via Lattea; 66 in Sestriere.
Ski Runs: 140 connecting runs; 75

For general Sestriere Information, contact Sestrieres S.p.A. at 39/0122/79 94 11; fax 39/0122/799 460. The resorts on the mountain are typically open mid-December to April. For general information on skiing in Italy, both and are terrific websites with very active user boards.

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