SNOW fell on the Austrian ski resort of St Anton last week, but while in other Decembers its arrival might have prompted a jig of relief, this year it was just the icing on the cake, writes Roger Bray.

The mountains of western Austria have had enough snow to ensure the whitest of white Christmases. Around 27 resorts in Austria are already open According to Richard Downes, chief executive of online ski operator Igluski: "Higher resorts, particularly those with glaciers, already have enough snow to see them through to Easter, so could be a great season."

St Anton's deputy director of tourism Wilma Himmelfreudpointer says: This is our best start to the season for at least five years.'' Skiers with long memories can't recall better December conditions in three decades.

A year ago, St Anton postponed its opening for a week amid fears of threats to skiing posed by global warming. By late last week, St Anton, some 1,304 metres high in Arlberg region, had over 275cms of snow on its upper slopes and around 80cms at the bottom. Neighbours Lech (1,450 metres) and Zurs (1,760 metres) had up to 230cms at the top, 160cms further down and 140cms in the village.

SKIING and snowboarding in the three resorts, all covered by one lift pass, was magnificent. Even before the latest snowfalls, perfect light powder down to about 1,800 metres offered good conditions even on the very lowest, most heavily used pistes and hardly an exposed stone or bare patch in sight.

St Anton is not alone in enjoying a healthy start to the ski season. Though cover remains a little thin on the lowest runs in a few areas of Austria, most major resorts have a metre or more on their higher runs.

The same goes for France and Switzerland.

Already the French resort of Val d'Isere, for example, has over one metre on the lower runs and around 150cms higher up, and snow depths in Switzerland's Klosters were around 70cms and just over 150cms respectively.

In Italy, there are 60cms-80cms depths of snow in the Milky Way resorts of Sestriere and Saulx d'Oulx.

There's a little less snow in Andorra but conditions are hugely improved over this time last season, when web cameras showed green slopes. The Soldeu- Granvalira ski area, for example, has been reporting 40cms-50cms.

Despite the heavy falls, however, skiers have been reluctant to book early and that's leaving lots of packages in Austria and Italy unsold, say tour operators Thomson and Crystal.

First Choice ski deals in January, with prices typically down by 25 per cent, include seven nights' half-board in Berwang, Austria, ex-Edinburgh on January 5 from £549, saving £130.

Self-catering specialists Interhome has attractive deals in Italy directly after Christmas: an apartment sleeping four in Bardonecchia from December 29 costs £1,127, rental only.

■ Roger Bray was a guest of Crystal Finest Ski (0870-060-1370 or which currently offers seven nights' luxury catered chalet in St Anton from £480, incl flights, transfers.

Interhome (0208-891-1294); Igluski (0208-254-3034); First Choice (0871- 664-9017); Scott Dunn (0208-682-5050).

Rail Europe Snow Train, operating from January 18 to April 4, offers returns from £219 from new Eurostar terminals at St Pancras and Ebbsfleet to six stations in the French Alps, giving easy access to 25 resorts.

Reservations: 0870-830-4864 and