Champion skier Claudia Riegler enthuses about the shops, cafes and clubs that make the European ski experience so special.

Imagine yourself skiing the famous Grand Massif, the great ski area in the European Alps, perhaps doing the thigh-burning 14km run down to Sixt, then swinging into the restaurant at Lac du Gers for a recovery lunch.

It's a demanding route so it's no disgrace if you're a bit tired by the end but, no matter, when you arrive at the bottom of the run you only have to ring a bell and a snowmobile will be sent to collect you.

The restaurant sits beside the lake and alongside a reserve so you can watch the antics of the mountain goats and deer, savour the mountain and forest scenery and work on your tan.

When you're ready to eat you can enjoy local specialities like the assiettes savoyards - smoked ham, a plate of delicious cheeses made by the restaurant itself, perhaps some beignet which is similar to a potato rosti dish. And, to finish, the divine tarte aux myrtilles or blueberry cake.

And afterwards, well, France, Italy and Switzerland are all just a snowball's throw away, and Austria is nearly as close, so you can choose from a smorgasbord of skifields and cultures - from pain au chocolats and french chalets to apres ski schnapps with lederhosen clad waiters - to suit your taste. That's what makes skiing in Europe so special.

But the range of choices can also be a bit daunting. So here are a few suggestions to help newcomers to the wonderful world of European skiing make the most of what's on offer.

For a start, don't be afraid of the language barrier. Due to the influence of English and recent Eastern European tourists even the French are now speaking English. Austria is dependent on its tourism which means it's difficult to find someone who doesn't speak English. It's the same in Italy's South Tyrol and, anyway, the Italians are great at talking with their hands and feet if necessary.

If you can, avoid the Christmas holidays, as this is the busiest time with high season pricing. My pick would be mid-January or early March, just before or after the school holidays in Europe. Keep in mind that January is usually the coldest month in Europe but also virtually guarantees fresh light powder. To me, March is the perfect month with plenty of snow, more inviting temperatures and fewer people.

As for where to choose, Europe has an endless array of superb skifields, but here are a few of my favourites:

Les Grand Massif, France

Only an hour's drive from Geneva airport, the Grand Massif area offers 255km of slopes and five resort villages, each with its own charm, architectural character and catering for different types of skier.

Flaine is the highest village in the Grand Massif, at 1577m, offering a real ski-in, ski-out scenario, plus wide open spaces. Make your way up to the summit of the Grandes Platieres, at 2500m, where Mont Blanc seems to be just a couple of steps away and its presence is awe-inspiring. Or, if you are the adventure-seeking kind of skier, you can explore the vast off-piste terrain. Flaine hosted a Freeride World Tour Qualifier event recently, which tells you that there is world class terrain for advanced skiers.

Morillon, my husband's home town, is the perfect place to enjoy skiing with the family. There are plenty of chalets and apartments to rent but, because it is a very small town there is only one hotel, situated at the heart of the village and just 100m from the gondola.

Samoens, only 5km up the road from Morillon, is a unique village known for its authentic stone houses. Most hotels are within walking distance of the cable car, the Grand Massif Express, which takes you up to the centre of the ski resort. For a tete-a-tete dinner, La table a Fifine is fantastic, and was where we had lunch after our civil wedding ceremony.

If you like French decor, I suggest you stay in Les Carroz at Hotel les Servages d'Armelle, an old farm which has been converted into a cosy hideaway hotel at the foot of the ski slopes.

If you have a rental car you can go exploring from Les Carroz, with Chamonix or Geneva only 55km away and 74km to Annecy.

In Annecy you will find all you want in terms of French shopping, especially if you just cannot have enough pairs of shoes. Known as the Venice of the Alps for its canals and old colourful buildings, it's a brilliant small city with a great variety of shops, restaurants and creperies all within a small area. A favourite restaurant is Appart17 in the old town, with great decor, exquisite cuisine and a tarte fine aux pommes to die for.

Geneva is the best place for luxury shopping in the area ... trust me, you will find everything a woman wants and it's also the best place to find a groovy watch for monsieur.

Les Portes Du Soleil, France and Switzerland

This is one of the biggest areas I have ever skied at - one enormous connected ski area - embracing two countries, 12 resorts, one skipass and 600km-plus of slopes.

I cannot write about all the villages in the area, because we would still be here tomorrow, so I have selected my two favourites: Les Gets in France and Champery on the Swiss side.

Les Gets is a very cute, charming, chocolate box style ski resort. Its roots date back to the 11th century and it is full of lovely chalets and old farmhouses - but no huge hotels to spoil its quaintness.

It is suitable for all levels and offers wide motorway style pistes. There are also some steeper more challenging runs and mogul fields up at Pointe de Nyon which happens to be one of the best descents in the whole Portes Du Soleil area.

Not only can you explore hundreds of kilometres of green, blue and black runs, but you can also discover another country and a different culture at the same time. Just remember to take your watch and a map of the Porte du Soleil Ski so you get back in time to catch the last lift home.

The apres-ski is lively with about 16 good bars and a nightclub, where you can dance your socks off into the early hours, plus great cafes and restaurants offering typical Savoyard dishes.

If you are keen to experience the Swiss way of life, go to Champery, one of my favourite resort towns in Switzerland. It has postcard Swiss village charm, with heritage architecture, a flourishing restaurant scene and direct access to Les Portes du Soleil with its massive 125-person cable car.

Everything in the village is within walking distance, the main street features beautifully kept wood chalets with tantalising storefronts and eating establishments, and overlooking Champery are the seven spectacular peaks of Les Dents du Midi which rival the Matterhorn and Eiger in beauty.

Apart from incredible skiing there are plenty of activities to choose from during the winter, including guided snowshoe hikes and ice climbing. If you just want to chill out, you can breakfast on a Swiss alpine farm and learn the secrets of traditional cheese-making.

Dolomiti Superski, Italy

This is a Unesco World Natural Heritage Site and also enjoys wonderful weather - 80 per cent of the days are sunny - plus good snow conditions on perfectly prepared slopes and astonishing mountain scenery.

You won't get bored here as the Dolomiti superskipass gives you access to 12 different resorts, 1200km of slopes, 450 lift facilities and 90 per cent of all slopes are covered by snow-making facilities, guaranteeing ideal conditions.

The hotels in the Superski area are some of the best in the Alps, many with specialised spas. When the sun goes down behind the peaks you can sit in the sauna, relax in the spa or chill out with a massage.

One of my favourites among the many beautiful resorts is Cortina d'Ampezzo, host of the 1956 Winter Olympic Games and known as the Queen of the Dolomites, surrounded by the imposing peaks of the Tofana, Monte Cristallo and Sorapis Dolomites.

Cortina is the most prestigious downhill venue on the Women's Alpine World Cup circuit with athletes reaching up to 130km/h within a few seconds down the Tofana Schuss. Adrenaline junkies can also try a run in the "taxi bob" in the Olympic ice canal. This is an unforgettable experience, but you will be happy to get out of the bob at the bottom.

Brunico is a good base if you like the idea of a resort safari with places like Plan de Corones, Alta Badia and Corvarra all close to each other and easy to reach by car, shuttle bus or lift.

It has a wonderful historic centre with great shops and cafes. You will find everything from Italian designer labels and ultra-modern sports gear to local arts and crafts or schnapps made in small, family-run distilleries according to traditional recipes. Enjoy a cappuccino, latte macchiato or a home-made Italian ice cream in one of the cosy cafes.

Or you could head for Arabba, the perfect starting point for the famous Sella Ronda, an awe-inspiring circular ski tour that takes you over four famous mountain passes: Campolongo, Sella, Gardena and Pordoi. This takes all day to ski. Make sure you pick a good weather day and take your camera, as you will need it.

Flachau, Austria

If you are looking for hospitality, value for money, a great choice of top class hotels, lively apres ski, modern high speed lifts and amazing skiing on lovely groomed slopes, Austria should definitely be on top of your list. Remember, skiing is a religion in Austria.

Flachau is part of the Ski Amade area which boasts 860km of pistes, 270 lifts and 25 resorts in five regions, all available on one lift pass, and only a 45km drive from Salzburg, home of Mozart and still overflowing with classical music.

One place you shouldn't miss is the Kuhstall in Wagrain. You can access access Wagrain from the top of Flachau's 8-seater Jet Gondola and ski down the other side.

It's a run I love with its great downhill slope for ski races and wide open terrain for nice carved GS turns. You will have a blast. Then stop in at the Kuhstall for a hot chocolate or a Williams Birne-Schnapps. This is a legendary apres ski haunt known for its amazing atmosphere, lederhosen waiters - something you'll only see in Austria - plus a state of the art bathroom complete with cowhide covered doors.

I also suggest a 10-minute drive down the road to Flachauwinkl-Kleinarl. From the top of the lift you can ski all the way to Zauchensee, a little village up the mountain, a great place for powder skiing between trees.

The thing to remember about skiing in Europe is that it's an overall experience including not just the magnificent slopes but also food, history, hotels, scenery, shopping and apres-ski activities.

Personally, I love coming back to cake and coffee at the end of a ski day, jumping in the sauna or spa bath before dinner, or having a massage then relaxing at the hotel bar with a local wine, followed by a superb meal cooked by some of the best chefs in Europe ... and you can still go out for drinks and dancing after dinner if you have the energy.

Further information: Ski Traveller is a specialist ski travel agency located at 333 Remuera Rd in Auckland. It is staffed by skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts and uses Claudia Riegler as a global snow adviser. Call 0800 11 22 99.

Claudia Riegler spent 10 years on the international World Cup circuit skiing slalom. In that time she represented New Zealand at three Olympic Winter Games, five World Championships, and was ranked second overall in the 1996-97 World Cup Slalom Standings, the highest ranking ever for a Kiwi.