When you exit the 12km-long Mont Blanc tunnel on the Italian side of the Alps, you arrive in what can only be described as a winter wonderland.
Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and pine trees, we climb deeper into the mountains before descending into the ski resort of Courmayeur in the picture-postcard Aosta Valley.
It’s fast-becoming the preferred place in Europe to enjoy the pistes, that’s because it is smaller and less busy, but perhaps more importantly, “it’s a small resort with a big heart”, a proud local tells me.
Whether you are a keen skier or snowboarder or prefer to explore the mountains on foot, Courmayeur is the ideal destination. By the time I arrive at the luxurious five-star Le Massif Hotel, I feel like I have been transported to a far-flung world – well, I am in my fifth country today – Scotland, England, Switzerland, France and now Italy.
Before I begin to sample all that Courmayeur has to offer skiers and non-skiers, I dine at the family-run Gran Baita, a traditional four-star hotel with a spa, so it would have been rude not to have a relaxing back massage after lunch.
For most people who visit the Aosta Valley, the big draw is the big mountain, Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak which stands at 4,810 metres.
Now, the best way to view this majestic mountain is by the Skyway Monte Bianco. The Skyway was opened in 2015 and now its huge cable car transports tourists to a viewing platform and the glass-floored Sky Vertigo at 3,466m.
As we zoom upwards, I begin to feel the effects of the altitude, experiencing a little nausea as I exit at the Skyway’s first station. However, it’s all part of the experience.
A blizzard blows in, obliterating the magnificent sight from the floor-to-ceiling windows, but it doesn’t stop us enjoying the al fresco experience, so we head outside into the howling wind and –26 degree air. Exhilarating!
After that, there is only one thing on my mind – food. Fortunately, the Skyway has an Alpine buffet restaurant with Italian tapas-style plates.
Of course, Italy is also a world-famous wine region, but I was surprised to discover that a local wine is made right here on the mountain, by the so-called “sky winemakers” at Cave Mont Blanc, using grapes grown in one of the highest vineyards in Europe, just a few kilometres away.
That evening and the following day, two more gastronomic experiences follow. First, dinner at Brasserie La Chaumiere – located on the slopes, this traditional Alpine restaurant cannot be accessed by road, so we travel by skidoo and it is here I discover my love of Fontina DOP cheese – and a delicious five-course tasting menu at Le Chetif.
Appetite satisfied, the next morning I am on one of Courmayeur’s 47km of ski slopes.
As a novice skier, it was important to experience this popular snowsport, so where better to be taught than at Scuola di sci Monte Bianco ski school.
Instructed by Luca, I learn to “plough” and do “ladders” before eventually making a successful solo descent at the end of a three-hour lesson.
For those who don’t ski or board, you can still partake in mountain life, either on a guided walk or snow-shoeing experience.
Then, once the ski boots are off, the DJ is on, and I find myself on the dance floor at Super G, one of the best apres-ski venues in the Italian Alps.
Around me, mountain-lovers of all ages dance in salopettes, sunglasses and bobble hats.
Down in Aosta Valley meanwhile, lies a shopper’s and photographer’s paradise where alpine buildings, plush hotels, beautiful churches and designer stores sit at the foot of the surrounding mountain range.
Courmayeur Mont Blanc won a Best In The Alps award in November in the International Mountain Resort Circuit. It received the recognition because of “its authenticity, respect of the environment, devoted attention to sustainability and nature, as well as for its pioneering climbing and skiing activities”.
Contact Courmayeur Tourist Board by email firstname.lastname@example.org Nightly rates at Le Massif start from €350 per room, per night, for a superior room on a bed and breakfast basis. For information: lemassifcourmayeur.com Book lessons at the ski school: scuolascimontebianco.com