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Top 10 Winter Olympic Cities

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Swiss Tourism: Christian PerretBobsledding in St. Moritz, Switzerland – one of our 10 best former Winter Olympic host cities

With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games shifting the world’s attention toward Vancouver, Whistler, and surrounding British Columbia, we thought it apropos to broaden the spotlight to include 10 former Winter Olympic cities that managed to harness the immediate benefits of hosting the Games – international fervor, media publicity, and infrastructure improvements – into enduring tourism appeal. We chose these classic Winter Olympic wonderlands – which unfolded across Europe, North America, and even Japan after the 1924 debut of the Winter Games in Chamonix, France – not only for their dedication to Olympic-legacy attractions and activities (from Alpine skiing to figure skating to bobsledding), but for their ongoing commitment to cutting-edge tourism developments. It all adds up to 10 winning winter getaways that promise “perfect 10” experiences every time. Be sure to see our Winter Olympic Cities Slideshow, too, for gold-medal-worthy glimpses of these Winter Olympic gems.


Calgary, Canada

Year hosted: 1988

With the five world-class venues built for its Winter Olympic Games still in use over two decades later (like the Olympic Oval, which lays claim to “the world’s fastest ice” for both professional speed skaters-in-training and the ice-skating public), Calgary is determined to ensure that its Olympic legacy isn’t trumped by 2010 in Vancouver. Cashing in on its neighbor’s current Olympic spotlight, the city has been hosting déjà vu-worthy World Cup events in the months leading up to the big event, with the world’s best warming up in speed skating, freestyle skiing, alpine racing, and snowboarding before February’s big showdown. Recently, Calgary’s Olympic Development Association (recently rebranded as WinSport Canada), started seriously upgrading its venues, sprucing up its superb Nordic tracks in 2005 for the Cross-Country World Cup, and constructing a 22-foot-high half-pipe, which became the model for the one being used at this year’s Vancouver Games. Canada Olympic Park, 1988’s main arena (also home to the Olympic Hall of Fame Museum), is the best place for bobsledding, downhill skiing, and snowboarding within the city limits, while WinSport Canada is currently pouring $260 million into a huge new sports center which will include a 500,000-square-foot Athletic and Ice Complex featuring four hockey rinks, a public fitness center, and a training facility for high-performance athletes (the project is slated to debut in part in late 2010). While in town, shed your skis and relax at one of the city’s two newest hotels: laid-back boutique Hotel Alma, which opened in September 2009 on the University of Calgary’s campus (www.hotelalma.ca) or the posh Le Germain (www.germaincalgary.com), set smack dab in the center of downtown. Taking reservations for stays starting February 12, Le Germain is offering special intro rates from under $200/night. www.tourismcalgary.com

                                                                             — Suzanne Steinert

Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France

Year hosted: 1924

Tucked away in a majestic pocket of the French Alps range, Chamonix-Mont Blanc stands out in a crowd of neighboring resort towns thanks to its picture-perfect pistes, animated après-ski scene, romantic chalets, swanky shops, and legendary status as the historic capital of Alpine skiing – not to mention its stint as the site of the the original Winter Olympics, back in 1924. Set about 135 miles east of Lyon, this charming mountain town’s placement at the crossroads of French, Italian, and Swiss borders – and at the foot of Western Europe’s loftiest peak, 15,781-foot-high Mont Blanc – has ensured its status as a mythical multicultural ski mecca. Adrenaline junkies swarm the mountainsides for Olympic-quality runs, while journeying between them is half the fun with a sophisticated network of ski lifts offering access to belvederes overlooking the surrounding peaks and glaciers, and even on into the Italian Alps. Winter visitors are likely to catch one of the numerous international winter sports competitions still held here each year, while families can take advantage of an increasing number of family-friendly offerings, including recent additions like a beginner’s ski area (at the summit of the Prarion lift), outdoor ice-skating rink, tree-top canopy adventure park, and even an animal reserve (open on Thursdays in winter). Tourists in 2010 may opt to bed down at budget-friendly, buzzworthy properties like the Hotel du Buet (www.hotelbuet.com), which is celebrating is 120th anniversary this year and is a don’t-miss for its authentic Alpine eatery, or the recently renovated Hotel les Aiglons (www.aiglons.com), with its modern, eco-friendly design and superlative spa. www.chamonix.com

                                                                             — Elissa Richard

Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy

Year hosted: 1956

Snuggled deep within the Southern Alps, the "Queen of the Dolomites" had been attracting notable sportsmen for nearly a century before its hosting of the 1956 Games. But the Olympic spotlight put the resort town on the world map as a glamorous glitterati gathering spot for winter sports (Brigitte Bardot liked to practice curling on the Hotel Miramonti’s icy tracks) – and après-ski (Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren were frequent visitors during the famous Dolce Vita era). Over half a century later, Cortina still retains its posh appeal and competitive spirit, hosting several major sporting events each year, of both the traditional (like the Women’s World Ski Cup) and modern (such as the European Snowboardcross Cup – an approved Olympic sport since 2006) variety. Ski-mountaineering (a mix between hiking and skiing), winter polo, and snow-kite contests are popular activities, but the main draws are the 70 first-rate pistes, with well-groomed cross-country tracks and famous downhill routes (like the Olympic slalom run) through spectacular alpine forests. 2008 debuted a new lift facility connecting most of the valley’s slopes, and in April, Cortina will host the Men’s Curling World Championships, organized in Italy for the very first time, at the recently restored Olympic Ice Stadium. For overnighting, Cortina’s unique rifugi (traditional mountain huts) offer some of the best dining in the Dolomites and reasonable room rates, while the historic Grand Hotel Savoia (www.grandhotelsavoiacortina.it) unveiled a 5-year overhaul this past December. www.cortina.dolomiti.com

                                                                             — Suzanne Steinert

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Year hosted: 1936

Nestled at the base of the Alps’ Mount Zugspitze (Germany’s highest mountain at 9,718 feet), the twin towns of Garmisch and Partenkirchen continue to welcome the world’s top winter athletes at events like the annual New Year’s Ski Jump (held on New Year’s Day). In 2011, Garmisch-Partenkirchen will set the stage for the Alpine World Ski Championships, and the region (along with Munich and the town of Schönau) hopes to relive its Olympic glory as it bids to host the 2018 Winter Games. Visitors looking to catch a glimpse of the 1936 Games can check out guided tours of the Olympic ski jump at Mount Gudiberg – originally built in 1923, the jump was replaced with a modernized structure in 2007. More Olympics memories are on hand at the historic bobsled run at Lake Riessersee; though bobsledders no longer descend the dangerous route, it’s possible to hike up the run and tour a mini-museum of bobsled paraphernalia. Be on the lookout for the new AlpspiX viewing platform come June – these two curved ramps, suspended 3,300 feet above the Höllental gorge (atop nearby Mount Osterfelderkopf), will offer stunning views of Mount Zugspitze and the chasm below. www.gapa.de

                                                                             — Liz Webber  

Innsbruck, Austria

Years hosted: 1964 and 1976

Picturesque Innsbruck, a surprisingly large and diversion-rich town tucked amid Austria’s Tyrolean Alps, is one of only three cities to have hosted the Winter Olympic Games twice (along with Lake Placid, NY and St. Moritz, Switzerland). This winter wonderland receives an average of 321 inches of snow per year – even more than Aspen (imagine the shock when the first Games it hosted were threatened by a lack of snow – hardly a usual occurence). Beyond the 310 miles of powdery pistes in the surrounding mountains, Innsbruck is packed with an impressive wealth of architectural gems, from Baroque to Bauhaus to Zaha Hadid. In addition to designing Innsbruck’s Bergisel Ski Jump, which replaced a run-down Olympics-era jump, Pritzker Prize-winning Hadid has imprinted her fluidly futuristic style onto four stations of a modern funicular railway (opened in 2007) that connects the city’s historic center with the villa-strewn Hungerburg area. So, what of its former Olympic glory? It certainly won’t fade anytime soon. While the official Games aren’t due back for a third run in the near future, Innsbruck is hosting the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2012. Go now before the teenagers take it over! www.innsbruck-tourism.at

                                                                             — Darren Frei

Lake Placid, NY

Years hosted: 1932 and 1980

North America’s first Winter Olympic host city, the pretty Adirondacks town of Lake Placid, in northern New York State, provides plenty of winter fun, particularly for active types who can choose between ice fishing, tobogganing, snowshoeing, sledding, ice climbing, snowmobiling, and above all, hitting the slopes. The Olympic-site Whiteface Mountain, situated approximately 8 miles east of town, boasts the highest vertical drop east of the Rockies (at 3,430 feet) and runs as long as 3.5 miles – the unpretentious ski resort debuted its third peak on Lookout Mountain in January 2009. Off the slopes, Lake Placid visitors can tour Olympic Sports Complex facilities, ride an elevator to the platform of the mind-boggling ski jump, tour the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum, or set out for their own Olympic-worthy experiences like ice-skating on the outdoor speed-skating oval, or even zooming down a real-deal bobsled chute. To cap it off, the town’s shopping, dining, and brewery scenes are also first-rate, while hotel newcomers like the High Peaks Resort (www.highpeaksresort.com) and the rebuilt Lake Placid Lodge (www.lakeplacidlodge.com) (both opened in 2008) have layered on the luxury for Lake Placid lodging options. www.lakeplacid.com

                                                                             — Elissa Richard

Lillehammer, Norway

Year hosted: 1994

Though 16 years have passed since Lillehammer played host to the Games, the town still holds fast to the Olympic spirit. Trace the history of the competition from Ancient Greece to the present day at the Norwegian Olympic Museum, with special exhibits chronicling the 1994 Games and a collective of Norwegian medal-winners. Or, head to Lillehammer Olympic Park, encompassing five of the venues used for the event, which today are open to visitors for activities like cross-country skiing and tobogganing. Don’t miss the Olympic Bobsleigh and Luge Track, where up to three thrill-seekers (plus an authorized pilot) can zoom down the original run on a four-man bobsled at speeds of up to 75 mph. For a taste of downhill glory, the nearby ski resort at Kvitfjell was built specifically for the Lillehammer Olympics’ downhill ski competitions and remains open to the public for runs. There’s more to Lillehammer than just sports though – the Galleri Zink (opened in 2008) showcases modern art by Norwegian talent, while Aulestad – once the home of Nobel-winning poet, novelist, and playright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson – reopens its historic home, gardens, and special exhibitions in May 2010 after a lengthy restoration. For lodging, check out the StudioH hotel (www.studioh.no): Opened last year by Norway’s 1998 Olympic slalom silver medallist, Ole Kristian Furuseth, it features 48 two-bedroom apartments with ski-in/ski-out access, ski school and rentals, and a bar/café. www.lillehammer.com

                                                                              — Liz Webber   

St. Moritz, Switzerland

Years hosted: 1928 and 1948

As one of 13 resort towns in the Engadin St. Moritz region of the Swiss Alps, tiny St. Moritz (population 5,100) was a tourist destination long before the Winter Olympics came to town. Travelers sought out the healing powers of Switzerland’s highest mountain springs and Alpine-moor mud as far back as the Bronze Age, a tradition which continues today at spas like the MTZ Medical Therapy Center (opened in 2002 on the original spa source). However, 1948 was a turning point for tourism, with much of the town’s infrastructure built in the decade following the hosting of its second round of Games. Today, Olympics enthusiasts can watch athletes train and compete at the Winter Olympic ski jump or on the St. Moritz-Celerina Olympic bobsled run, or stop by for a peek of the old Olympic Stadium (since converted into the private residence of furniture designer Rolf Sachs). Skiers and snowboarders might also channel their inner Olympian at the Corviglia ski area; run number 12 was used for the Games. For luxury lodging, St. Moritz boasts five historic five-star hotels – including the Kulm Hotel (www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch), which completed a 10-year, $74 million renovation in December 2008. For a more budget-friendly option, the 21-room Piz (www.piz-stmoritz.ch) hotel opened this winter with high-season rates from under $100/night. www.stmoritz.ch

                                                                             — Liz Webber    

Sapporo, Japan

Year hosted: 1972

Japan’s fifth-largest city made history in 1972 when it hosted the country’s first Winter Olympics – and the first ever to be held outside of Europe or North America. Today, nearly 40 years later, Sapporo sill draws on that Olympic legacy. Japan’s big moment during the Sapporo Games was its ski jump sweep, when the Japanese team took home all three medals for the sport. The magic happened at the Mount Okura Ski Jump Stadium and the venue still hosts international ski jumping competitions today. To see jumpers in action year-round, visitors can ride a chairlift up to the Observation Platform, set over 900-feet high, for views of the remarkable drop, the city, and the Ishikari Plain. Adjacent to the stadium is the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum, where visitors can experience all the highlights of the 1972 event and get a (close to) real-life sense of what it feels like to fly through the air and fire a rifle in the museum’s ski-jumping and biathlon simulators. Plus, with ski slopes only 20 minutes from downtown Sapporo, it’s a cinch to go from city exploring to schussing down powdery chutes. There are also more than a dozen ski resorts in the surrounding Hokkaido region, nicknamed "Japan’s Last Frontier" for its prevalent farmlands, lakes, and forested wilderness; the Sapporo-Teine Highland and Olympic Zone ski areas to the west of the city are where the alpine, bobsled, and luge events were held (they’re open for public skiing these days). One not-to-miss winter event in Sapporo: the annual Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival). Sculptors from all over the world come to carve creations from ice and snow, which are illuminated at night; over 2 million visitors come to see their masterpieces (February 5–11, 2010). www.japantravelinfo.com

                                                                      — Stephanie Johnnidis

Squaw Valley, CA

Year hosted: 1960

Consisting of little more than a self-named ski resort with a single chairlift before getting its Winter Olympic bid (there are now 33 of them), Squaw Valley (also known as Olympic Valley or, more fondly, “Squallywood”) is the smallest place to host the Games – and showed the world that sunny California is a ski destination in its own right. Situated near the North Shore of Lake Tahoe (an hour’s drive from Reno, Nevada), Squaw Valley spreads across six peaks and sees 40-plus feet of snowfall each season (plus 300 or so days of sunshine). The Olympic cauldron ignited during the 1960 opening ceremony and the 80-foot-tall, Walt Disney-designed “Tower of Nations,” capped with the iconic 8-foot rings, still flank the entrance to the main resort, Squaw Valley USA, which now welcomes upwards of a million visitors each season and is home to the nation’s only funitel (an advanced aerial ski lift consisting of cable cars that whisks visitors up the steep mountainside at 1,000 feet a minute). The Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary since hosting the Winter Olympics this ski season, offering visitors a chance to bump skis with actual Olympians outside of Vancouver. The festivities were held in January with an event-packed Olympic Heritage Celebration (complete with torch relay and competition reenactments); throughout the season guests can hit the slopes with Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley on “Ski with Jonny” days, or hobnob with the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding teams during the Olympic Homecoming Celebration and U.S. Freestyle Nationals (March 26–29, 2010). Stop for a bite at Squaw Valley USA’s new mid-mountain eateries, the ARC at Gold Coast and 39˚ North. Debuted in January 2009 and perched at the topmost funitel terminal, the restaurants are constructed from 100-percent sustainable materials (like bamboo and granite dug out from the surrounding mountains) and serve up fresh fare with a California twist (think pheasant soup). www.squaw.com

                                                                             — Suzanne Steinert

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