For the high rollers, casinos are the ultimate in apres-ski entertainment. And for the rest of us, casinos provide a fun way of using up euros on the last night in resort.
Often housed in big, plush hotels, you can combine a flutter at the tables with a meal, evening show or spa treatment. In fact all casinos in France are legally obliged to provide entertainment and restaurant facilities.
Casinos of the Alps are few and not necessarily where you would expect to find them, but OnTheSnow has scoured the peaks to bring you the best ski resorts to combine skiing and gambling.
France boasts plenty of casinos but geographically they are frozen in time to suit tourism in the early 1900s. If you like fading 19th-century thermal spas you will always find somewhere to blow away the family fortune. In the Alps however, the two main casinos are located in Chamonix and Megève.
Gambling has been a feature in the mountaineers’ paradise of Chamonix since British aristocrats ‘discovered’ the glacier in the 1740s whilst doing the grand tour. It really took off when Savoy became part of France in 1860 and the railway from Paris arrived.
The Casino is housed in a splendid building dating back to the 1900s in the pedestrian area in front of the famous statue of Saussure and Balmat gazing at Mont Blanc. Slot machines accept 1 or 5 centime pieces for the cautious or impecunious as well as the usual gaming tables for the more serious punters. The casino management urges visitors ‘after winning large amounts of money’ to take advantage of all the facilities including the elegant Cafe Royal, located inside the casino. There are plenty of concerts and other entertainments.
The 18th-century Casino Chamonix
Copyright: Office de toursime Chamonix
The liveliest French alpine casino is in the centre of Megeve – a ski resort with old style architecture and great rolling mountains ideal for intermediate skiers. Quite unlike its sister in Chamonix, it is in traditional wooden chalet style with an attractive wood lined salle de jeux.
The establishment reflects the wealthy clientele of the resort – with a high ratio of eight tables for roulette and blackjack to the sixty slot machines. Bruno Morvant, the director of Casino Megeve, said, “We are central to the Megève scene; we are always busy in the holiday periods. It’s a fun place for those in the party who do not wish to ski but also through slot machines an affordable intro to the world of gambling for the young and not so affluent. Around 20 percent of clients are non-French from all over the world including Brits and Americans, even some Greeks, despite everything, and increasing numbers of Russians.” OnTheSnow can confirm that weekends and holidays the joint is definitely jumping.
Casino Megève in central Megeve
Copyright: Casino de Megève
Russian billionaires from France's most exclusive resort, Courchevel, and city traders from neighbouring Méribel desperate to play the tables have to summon the chauffeur and motor down to the less-than-famous Brides-les-Bains at an altitude of 600m with its very unCourchevel-like winter sports slogan ‘Pay less ski more’. Failed gamblers should note that accommodation there is 30- to 50-percent cheaper there than higher up the mountain.
Casino Brides has all the gear a serious gambler could want. The little town has been lucky in that it was chosen for the Olympic village for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics so a cable was built linking it to the better known and higher resorts. Since 2003 it has formally joined the world famous Trois Vallées complex via Méribel. Snow permitting, more energetic gamblers can ski down from Méribel.
There is one casino in Courchevel, but for private use only. It was recently discovered that the new luxury Chalet Art with a rental of €100,000 per week, contained not only an indoor swimming pool with waterfall and a personal nightclub but a personal casino as well. After much huffing and puffing from the authorities, they finally conceded that private individuals are entitled to have roulette wheels in their houses.
There is also a small casino in the 19th-century spa town of St. Gervais-les-bains; Casino de Saint-Gervais, which is set between two alpine spas.
Since 2000 the Confederation has licensed 19 casinos with another two on the way, which is a lot for such a small country. The question of addiction is taken very seriously however and some 34,000 Swiss are barred from entry to casinos. Only three establishments are in the mountains: Davos, Crans Montana and St. Moritz.
Davos is famous for international conferences and great skiing. The casino has just been completely refurbished internally to the tune of 600,000 Swiss Francs and the gambling facilities improved. The casino is in the Hotel Europe with a super modern glass exterior. The number of tables has been increased and Texas hold’em poker has been introduced for the first time. There is a special area where smoking is allowed.
Glass exterior of Casino Davos
Copyright: Casino Davos
Crans Montana is another modern casino but the architecture is a bit more traditional. It is actually the most profitable in Switzerland despite some fierce recent disputes with staff. It has the relatively high number of 120 slot machines plus six tables.
Casino Crans Montana at night
Copyright: Casino Crans Montana
Casino St. Moritz
The ultimate in luxury and prestige, as one would expect, is found St Moritz. Comfortably located in the western wing of the Kempinski Grand Hôtel des Bains, Casino St. Moritz provides high-quality entertainment in a dignified atmosphere. For once the word ‘Grand’ in the title of a hotel is no exaggeration. The restaurant has a Michelin star and the public rooms are magnificent. The service is second to none. At 1,860m it is the highest casino inEurope. The dress code at the Kempinski is more formal whereas Davos and Crans are pretty relaxed.
At 700 m², the casino itself is not huge, but has seven gambling tables: four American roulette, two blackjack, one 3 card poker and a total of 79 slot machines. The gambling rooms are in Italian style with warm colours and exclusive materials that make a visit quite a visual experience.
Casinos in Austria are licensed in 12 different centres and only three of them are in the high Alps. They are privately owned but the licenses are all granted to the same company, Casinos Austria, in which the state has a 40-percent share. There are no plans to expand the industry at the moment and certainly not in the mountains.
The most elegant Austrian casino is in fashionable top skiing resort of Kitzbühel – home of the World Cup run on the Hannenkamm, the Streif. The casino is installed in beautiful Hotel Goldener Greif, built in 1274 in the centre of this old world resort. Marketing manager Nadja Schramm says, “The historic and attractive interior gives the casino a really intimate feeling, not intimidating to skiers looking for fun, unlike some casinos.” 50 percent of clients are Austrian followed by Germans, Dutch, Swiss and Brits.
Casino Kitzbuehel in the traditional 13th-century Goldener Greif Hotel
Copyright: Casinos Austria
The other high-mountain casino is in the excellent family winter resort of Seefeld with its super modern ski lift system. Seefeld specialises in casino-ski packages. For example, a daily ski pass to the Rosshütte mountain railways or Gschwandtkopf lifts, a visit at the casino, a glass of sparkling wine and welcome chips for €46. Other packages include spa facilities and there are regular ladies-only days combining a visit to the casino and sauna.
The Casino is on one floor, split into several very large areas. The main gaming hall, with a large stylish bar, is where the live table games are played. Glass walls separate the main hall from the poker area on the one side, and the slots area on the other side. The tall ceilings with wood panels, elegant chandeliers and the beautiful bar with lots of glass and wood and the tasteful red-carpet, together create an especially elegant look. It is altogether an impressive establishment.
Austrians tend to say that Innsbruck is not a ski resort despite the fact that it has hosted the Winter Olympics and the first Youth Winter Olympics. 500 kilometers (310 miles) of trails link 25 surrounding ski resorts, all connected by a free ski bus. It has the advantage for gamblers that it has a bigger casino than the high mountain resorts. It is divided into Classic and Jackpot Casinos with over 200 slot machines.
Casino Bad Gastein
The other skier’s casino is in the faded splendour of Bad Gastein – yet another gambling-spa resort – with its first class, but rather sprawling ski areas. It is lodged in the massive 19th-century Grand Hôtel de l’Europe. Each winter it opens Dec. 25 to April 1.
Casino Bad Gastein in the Grand Hotel de l'Europe
Germany has some 76 casinos but as in France they tend to favour spa resorts as well as big towns. Bear in mind that the entry age for casinos in Germany is 21 not 18 as elsewhere in the mountains
Garmisch-Partenkirchen is home to Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitzeat at 2962m. Garmisch is a famous skiing area even if the lift systems are a little dated in parts and there is plenty of off-piste skiing. Weekends can be very busy with visitors from nearby Munich. It hosts the only high-altitude German casino.
The Spielbank casino has an entrance fee of €2.50 and the dress code here is quite formal although the décor is not extraordinary. The casino is bigger than most of its mountain rivals with 170 slot machines. As well as the usual table games of blackjack and roulette there are poker tables including Texas hold’em poker. Visitors can play the slot machines from 12pm to 2am and the live table games from 3pm to 2am. You can raise your bets on the poker cash game tables as early as 8pm.
The best online casino guide worldwide is WorldCasinoDirectory.
There are only five casinos in Italy, two are in Venice and none are permitted in any Italian ski resort.