Ever since my mother first tied my 3-year-old feet onto a pair of wooden slats and sent me tumbling down a small hill in our back yard, skiing had been an exclusively American adventure and one I'd grown to love.
Like all addictions, the habit intensified with age, and each year it seemed I needed a bigger and more expensive fix. But all the while there was something nagging at me. You really haven't skied until you've experienced Europe, friends would say; that's where it all began.
Last spring I took the plunge and sampled Grenoble, in the Dauphine' region of the French Alps, where Jean-Claude Killy walked away with the triple crown of skiing -- the downhill, slalom and giant slalom -- in the 1968 Winter Olympics.
I discovered that skiing in Europe is one of the few delights that's even better than it's built up to be. Yes, there are language barriers and some of the people seem rude -- many Europeans have an infuriating tendency to cut in, push and step on your skis in lift lines, on the rare occasion you stand in one.
But the few annoyances are more than offset by the thrill of bounding down slopes and fields in the heart of one of the world's ski capitals, surrounded by majestic peaks and unspoiled, panoramic vistas. Serious skiers can find some of the most challenging and wide-open runs in the world, while the less athletically inclined can feast on fine French cuisine, stroll through shops with goods from all over Europe or find happiness in a bottle of premier champagne -- at about a third of what it would cost in the States.
The city of Grenoble (population about 156,000) is the largest in the French Alps, nestled in a small valley and built on the banks of two rivers.
At first glance it is not what you expect. It is not a resort town, like Aspen in Colorado. The closest ski slope is about a 45-minute drive -- up a road that seems almost vertical. But within 50 miles are more than 30 downhill ski areas -- 10 major by American standards -- served by 360 lifts, including four cable cars.
When the skiing lamp is lit in Grenoble, the worst place to be is on the road. Skiing is more than a hobby, it is a way of life, and people are in a hurry to get about living. Cars piled high with skis zip impatiently through traffic and up narrow mountain roads as if they're on a major highway. For the American motorist unschooled in French driving etiquette, it is an unnerving experience to plod up an ice-slicked road with a 1,000-foot drop to one side and 10 sports cars backed up behind, all flashing their lights and passing around blind corners.
Grenoble is essentially an industrial and college city, and if it weren't for the variety and challenge of the 9,000-foot mountains that surround it, you'd be hard-pressed for a reason to go there.
On my trip, two mountains that received the most consistently favorable ski reports also happened to be among the most challenging in the region, though both offer a wide variety of trails from expert to beginner: Chamrousse, site of the '68 Olympic Alpine skiing events, 20 miles east of Grenoble; and Alpe d'Huez, home of the Olympic bobsled run, 40 miles southeast.
My first day out, the base of Chamrousse was shrouded in a thick, damp fog, which is, sad to say, one of the region's trademarks. It was a gloomy welcome.
The fog is legendary, having played a controversial role in Killy's gold medal slalom run in 1968. Austrian Karl Schranz was first declared the winner of the race, but the victory was taken away two hours later when it was reported that he'd missed two gates. Schranz said the fog was so thick he hadn't seen them.
Perhaps it was extravagant, but I'd traveled more that 5,000 miles to carve some turns in Europe, and the prospects of skiing over a cliff or crashing into a tree that I couldn't see didn't faze me. I grabbed my skis and hopped the tramway to the 7,300-foot summit.
About a quarter of the way up, the car punched through the fog and was bathed in brilliant light. The world looked as if some huge hand had spread a layer of frosting over it. As we climbed higher, the sky became a rich deep blue, and with each foot we rose, another mountain popped into view, jutting through the white blanket of clouds.
Below, Chamrousse was covered with about three feet of fresh powder from the night before. Though it was early March, the snow was light, dry and -- except for a few groomed trails -- uncut.
I had found nirvana.
I spent most of the day on the upper three-quarters of the mountain, relishing a 200-yard-wide snowfield at the top that fell off over a steep cliff that just barely held the snow from the night before.
When I didn't hit a rock and end up buried in powder at the bottom of the cliff, it was a smooth ride down to the top of the men's and women's Olympic downhill runs, parts of which had been groomed.
More often than not, I'd cut across the mountain and zigzag down through forests where thigh-deep powder was untouched. I also searched out trails that had been little skied, such as des Vallons or Stade Simond, two expert slopes that were packed down after about eight runs -- around the time my body was telling me it was time for lunch and intermediate slopes.
I took a leisurely, 30-minute run down des Gaboureaux, a long, windy trail that offered a variety of places to stop and marvel at the scenery.
At the bottom, Chamrousse has a small village with numerous cafe's, and at lunch time you can shop around and take advantage of home-cooked meals. One restaurant in particular stood out -- Le Myrtilles -- which has tables outside and a cramped but cozy dining area surrounding a wooden bar and fireplace inside. Hanging on the walls are old wooden skis that it's hard to believe people actually used.
The service was prompt and friendly, the sort of place where, when you told them to keep the beer coming, you didn't have to ask again. The food was simple but delicious and reasonably priced. I had half a chicken with a generous helping of French fries, a couple of beers, a blueberry tart and coffee for 55 francs -- less than $6 at the time.
Perhaps the most refreshing difference between skiing in America and skiing around Grenoble is the absence of lift lines. At Chamrousse, 23 lifts, including the tramway and numerous double and triple chairs, serve 35 trails, about a third of which are for more advanced skiers. Many of the lifts run side by side, which ensures a steady flow of skiers out of the bottlenecked base.
Though the skiing is good, Chamrousse is one of the smaller resorts with a vertical drop of 1,887 feet. Alpe d'Huez, on the other hand, offers a striking contrast. With a breathtaking view of the Alps' highest peak, Mont Blanc (15,771 feet), about 60 miles to the north, Alpe d'Huez has a 4,888-foot vertical drop, almost all of it above the tree line. It is about an hour's drive southeast of Chamrousse, but the skiing is worth the trip.
Here, 53 lifts, including a tramway and four gondolas, can ferry 44,000 skiers each hour over a wide expanse of snowfields and challenging chutes. There are 68 runs over 110 miles of "trails," which is sort of a misnomer, since there are no real boundaries. The most exciting skiing is found off-piste, or off the main paths, where the only limits are your ability and imagination.
I tend to be a fairly conservative skier, and exercising too much imagination worries me. On one run, I was standing below an eight-foot cliff guiding a friend around a partially hidden rock at the top. I thought I had done a good job, and when he joined me I pointed to his tracks and mentioned how close he'd come to disaster. I got a severe tongue-lashing. The whole run had been wasted, he said. He'd spotted the rock from the tramway and wanted to "catch air" by going over it. There's no accounting for taste.
For the less daring, the paths are well marked and offer some of the finest mogul skiing I've ever done. The narrow trails at the top have huge, almost vicious-looking moguls (or bumps) that are razor sharp and tightly packed together. Looking down one of these steep chutes lined with cliffs on either side is more intimidating than standing at the top of Squaw Valley's infamous KT-22 in California.
I saw very few people make it down without either falling or having to stop. At the bottom, skiers are awarded with easier terrain -- long, gradual slopes packed with bumps that couldn't be more rythmic if they'd been placed there by design.
Alpe d'Huez is really a collection of five smaller ski areas with interconnected trails and lifts, and one lift ticket is good for all the runs. The effect is that of a gigantic ski bowl, where different parts of the mountain are exposed to the sun at different parts of the day.
Double- and triple-layered chairlifts and T-bars that serve the same slopes are concentrated at the base, where most of the easier runs are located. At the 10,990-foot summit, expert skiers can find glacier skiing and off-piste fields that, on a good day, are untouched.
The base of Alpe d'Huez is more like a small town than a village, with one four-star hotel and eight three-star hotels, some with swimming pools and tennis courts. Prices range from about $40 to $80 a night, though spots in no-frill dormitory-style rooms can be had for as little as $10.
When your knees turn to rubber and your shoulders start to ache at the end of the day, there's a huge sundeck at the bottom of the hill. Grab a chaise and some wine, strike up a conversation and envy the toddlers zooming down on their last runs.
It's not a bad idea to pack some wine, cheese and bread for the ride back to Grenoble.
The city itself is relatively small, and most of the main sights can be visited in a day off from the slopes.
The University of Grenoble, founded in 1339, has science schools that have attracted both a cosmopolitan student body and high-tech businesses. The city, which has a long history as a hotbed of liberalism, boasts a number of fine museums and lures internationally known performing artists year-round.
But from La Bastille, an ancient fortress that hovers over the city from high atop the north bank of the Ise re River, the view south encompasses all that is both good and bad about metropolitan Grenoble. Directly below lie old stone edifices adorned with red slate roofs: the heart of the old city, with narrow, curving streets dotted with cafe's and restaurants. Beyond, wide boulevards lined with drab modern buildings lead to Olympic Village, which now looks like exactly what it is: an old housing project.
The major ski resorts in the area all have small villages with hotels at their bases, but if you plan to stay at one of these, bring your own entertainment. It is convenient, though not a necessity, to have a rental car. But all of the mountains are accessible by bus.
A better bet is to stay in the city, and at night visit the bar or restaurant in your hotel, or wander to some of the lively discothe ques or jazz bars to find out where the good skiing was that day. Unlike the United States, where skiers gather in the lodge at day's end to talk about which trails were best, in Grenoble they talk about whole mountains.
Before dinner, try the area around the Palais de Justice, considered the most beautiful building in Grenoble, where there are a number of cafe's. Then cross the riverfront (les quais) to the north bank of the Ise re, where you can find a variety of small restaurants. This is probably the best area in town to eat.
If you're looking for a safe standby, La Creperie at 3 Rue Millet will run about $15 per person and the desserts are heavenly. Or Rustique Auberge, 134 Cours Jean Jaures, offers excellent French cuisine at reasonable prices, about $18 per person for a full meal with wine. Afterward, visit La Soupe Aux Choux, 7 Route de Lyon, for after-dinner drinks and jazz, or King Chally Pub, 12 Rue de Sault and 8 Rue Guetal, which offers 46 different kinds of beer to the accompaniment of rock music.
When you visit Grenoble, you have at your fingertips all the luxuries of a modern city that caters to thousands of international visitors each year. But the real draw is the skiing. There is a certain romanticism about Grenoble that's gripping. From the top of one of the nearby peaks, gazing out at the snow-capped mountains the fill the horizon while you adjust your goggles, it's hard not to imagine yourself as the legendary Killy, gathering in a tight tuck for another record-breaking run.