There is no skiing experience to compare with the European Alps. As one who learned to ski on the bitter cold and icy slopes of the northeastern United States, I have been forever spoiled by the power and majesty of the European mountains. And now, with the exchange rate at more than nine French francs to the dollar, skiing the French Alps is temptingly affordable.
My first trip to the Alps took me to Switzerland two years ago. At the end of my first day's skiing at Zermatt, standing in the shadow of the Matterhorn, I vowed I would ski only in Europe from that point on.
So last February I left a rainy Washington for the powdery softness of Val Thorens, resort and summit of an area known as Les Trois Vallees, where 175 lifts open 280 miles of trails. Set in the Savoy region of eastern France, at more than 7,000 feet, Val Thorens is one of the highest elevations in the Alps, which means an abundance of snow and lots of glacier skiing. The surrounding valleys of Belleville, les Allues and St. Bon are dotted with lovely villages, all reachable through this extraordinarily interconnected system of lifts and trails.
A little more than 10 years old, Val Thorens -- still relatively little known in this country -- is quite different from what many Americans expect from European skiing. It does not have the quaint village charm of Zermatt, or Cortina d'Ampezzo, or Innsbruck. Rather, it is a collection of modern, austere buildings designed to house serious skiers. Mostly condominium-type arrangements, the apartments in these simple structures were built to accommodate four or more people.
But while they are basically high-rises, the buildings also incorporate elaborate underground "galleries" that house restaurants, sports centers, shops, gyms and even an indoor tennis club.
Our village hotel, the Temple du Soleil, was a resort community in itself. With its own supermarket, ski shop, whirlpool baths, bar and restaurants, there was little need to go wandering.
You might miss the fairy-tale village atmosphere of other European resorts. But you won't miss all the walking from hotels to lifts. Unlike most ski areas in Europe, Val Thorens has its own lift system at the doors of the hotels and condos. You simply ski out your hotel door onto a lift to begin the day's adventures.
And ah, the skiing. Val Thorens has enough variety to please all levels of skiers. I met Britons who chose Val Thorens for their first ski vacation ever, and two Austrian brothers who said they came to the resort to sample some of the infamous "off-piste" skiing. (Off-piste essentially means off the main run or trail, and it is extremely popular in Europe. The advantage is clean, virgin snow on generally wide vistas, where the feeling of freedom is severely intoxicating.)
It is important that newcomers hire a guide for any serious off-piste exploration. One day our guide, Pierre, showed us one of the horrors that await inexperienced off-piste skiers: We were gliding down the Chaviere Glacier, taking in spectacular views of the Italian Alps and Mount Blanc, when Pierre pointed out the treacherous blue-ice ravines that were only four yards away.
Because Val Thorens is far above the tree line, the light can play tricks and there are not many shadows to help illuminate all the details of the terrain. So any skier who strays off the main track must beware.
But the rewards of this spectacular area are worth the risk: The snow is not usually as deep or as light as Rocky Mountain snow, but it has a splendid texture; and ski runs in Europe are much longer than big-mountain runs in America. (With a little preparation, a skier can ski for almost an hour without getting on a lift.) There are practically no lift lines, and lift tickets cost less than half of those at American resorts. And the combination of low humidity and temperatures in the comfortable 20s meant my bones never numbed; and the hearty fare of the Savoy region was continually delightful.
While the jagged snowy peaks surrounding Val Thorens continued to astonish and fascinate long into the day, perhaps the best room with a view is the Caron Cable Car, which climbs to the Caron Peak, at 10,483 feet. Carrying 150 passengers, the cable car takes just three minutes or so to go up 2,900 vertical feet (covering a distance of 6,726 feet), for a capacity of 1,750 skiers an hour. The panorama in this space-age vehicle is so breathtaking and awesome one feels as though one has been transported to another world, a world of space and light, rock and ice.