SKI ISSUE 2006

La Grave, France

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The name alone intimidates at this Haute-Savoie hideaway, about two hours by car from Lyon's Saint Exupery airport. La Grave is one of the most legendary destinations for extreme, no-limits skiing. And the glaciated peak here, La Meije, looms like the grim reaper all done up in white above a 12th-century village of rambling stone cottages.

The rainbow-hued telepheriques -- trams that lift you from the village to nearly 10,500 feet in 40 minutes -- contrast with the hard-core adrenaline rush this place promises.

BEST FOR . . . adventure addicts looking to push their limits in one of the most challenging and beautiful off-piste ski areas on the planet.

THE SKIING: There are no trail maps, groomed runs or avalanche patrols at La Grave -- it's all off-piste, and that's exactly what keeps mountain guides like Joe Vallone from Summit County, Colo., coming back. "In America, the ski patrol makes the decisions for you in the sense of what's dangerous and where not to go," Vallone said. "At La Grave, you're literally free to make your own decisions and live with them."

That said, roughly 85 percent of skiers and snowboarders here opt to attack the mountain with a guide like Vallone. Spontaneity is guaranteed.

With more than 7,000 vertical feet of backcountry terrain, a typical run at La Grave might include traversing crevasses or rappelling into rocky couloirs piled with fresh powder.

PRICES: Lift tickets are about $43 to $50 per day. Equipment rentals (everything from skis and poles to helmets and avalanche beacons) are available at several shops in town. Guides are about $98 per person per day, based on a six-person group, equipment included.

THE SCENE: There's just one main road through town, and nearly everyone walking on it has skis or a snowboard in tow. Following a fresh snowfall, adventure junkies from around the world -- predominantly male and dashing -- dominate the crowds awaiting the first ride up on the tram.

Forget Aspen-style fashion attitude here. Ski gear in La Grave is far from froufrou -- nearly everyone sports ropes, harnesses, shovels, avalanche transponders and helmets. There are only a few pubs in town, and things rarely get rowdy as most people are intent on turning in early to tackle the mountain the next day.

A good spot to debrief local guides and regulars is the cozy bar at Hotel-Restaurant L'Edelweiss, where you can sample genepi, a stiff cordial made from Alpine herbs. The Pub Le Bois Des Fees, on the main drag, is decorated with twinkling lights and faux trees, and hosts the occasional band. If you're looking for a big night out, make the half-hour drive to mega-resort Les Deux Alpes.

WHERE TO STAY: Most hotels in La Grave offer per-person rates that include breakfast or demi-pension (breakfast and dinner). Street addresses aren't common in this tiny town, but all the hotels listed below are clearly signposted.

Hotel-Restaurant L'Edelweiss (011-33-476-79-90-93, http://www.hotel-edelweiss.com/), perched above La Grave's main drag, offers sweeping views of the glacier and is run by a Dutch/Scottish couple. Double rooms with private bath, wireless Internet access, TVs and duvets start at about $52 a night, including breakfast. Half-board (breakfast and a four-course dinner) is about $74 double. European guests tend to go au naturel at the communal sauna and hot tub in the basement.

Hotel-Restaurant Castillan (011-33-476-79-90-04, http://perso.orange.fr/castillan), directly across from the tram, has private parking and spacious rooms with private baths and TV for about $95 double, including breakfast. Demi-pension is about $137 for two people.

Hotel-Restaurant Le Sérac (011-33-476-79-91-53, http://www.hotel-le-serac.com/) is a standby on the main road. The decor is outdated, but the rooms are spacious and comfortable, and most have TVs, private bath and balconies. Rates start at about $74 per person double, including breakfast, and $92 per person for demi-pension.

WHERE TO EAT: Most visitors opt for the demi-pension option at hotels, but you can always check out another hotel's offerings or one of the town's few restaurants.

Climb the steep steps from the main street for mountain specialties at the Hotel-Restaurant L'Edelweiss. A four-course spread that might include the Savoyard specialty tartiflette (potato gratin with Reblochon cheese, onion and bacon) or fondue is about $33.

Wood and stone dominates Au Vieux Guide, a classic Alpine eatery on a small ruelle below La Grave's main street. Choose from three-cheese fondue and dessert for about $21 or splash out on the prix-fixe gourmet menu (perhaps with fois gras as a starter and magret de canard to follow) for $37 or so.

It's worth taking the telepherique round trip to lunch on homemade pizzas (from about $12) at Restaurant Le Haut-Dessus, a mountaintop eatery with stunning views. Cozy up inside at communal tables or dine on the terrace while watching skiers pick their routes across the glacier's crevasses.

INFO: For general information on the area, contact the La Grave tourist office (011-33-476-79-90-05, http://www.lagrave-lameije.com)/ or visit http://www.la-grave.com./ Information on guide services and lodging packages can be found at http://www.snowlegend.com/, a private outfit that runs a respected free-ride camp.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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