Some people spend their lives in search of the perfect martini. As a foreign correspondent who once did time as an Aspen ski instructor, I have devoted myself over the years to a search for the perfect ski resort.
Perfection, of course, can be a relative concept: One skier's preference may be boogeying in deep, precipitous moguls, while another's is coasting on gentle, open glens. Some prefer waist-deep powder, while others demand groomed hard-pack.
There is, too, the quality of the resort itself to be considered. Is perfection the rarefied social life of a Gstaad, the tawdry bar and disco scene of a Vail or the bare-bones austerity of a Portillo?
Be that as it may, I think I have found my ideal. After testing slopes from the Andes to the Laurentians, from thefj cm,12p Rockies to the Zagros Mountains of Iran, I have concluded that the best place to ski in the world is Val-d'Ise`re, in the Alps of southeastern France.
This isn't a sudden, rash judgment, mind you. I have been testing it for decades.
I first came to Val-d'Ise`re -- which, because of its exceptional slopes, has been awarded the glamor Alpine skiing events of the 1992 Winter Olympics -- in 1961, on my way to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer. It seemed fitting, since I was facing two years in the sweltering tropics, where snow would be only a dream.
I have returned regularly over the years: alone, with my children -- both as toddlers and teen-agers -- and with some heavy-duty skiing cronies from Aspen, who know how to put a slope to the ultimate test. I have skied there in December, January, February, March and even April, and once, on the high glaciers, in July. I have skied in driving blizzards and shirt-sleeve sunshine.
And each and every time, in just about every different condition and situation, I have had nothing but awe for the range and variety of skiing in Val, and for the simple pleasantness of this Alpine town whose location in a narrow, high valley has prevented it from being overdeveloped with the sort of ugly condos and high-rises that have increasingly become the fashion of the skiing landscape around the world.
To this day, I remember my first vision of the town and the surrounding mountains -- probably because the scene has changed so little over the years. I had taken the night train from Paris' Gare de Lyon to Bourg-St.-Maurice, then caught the dawn bus up the narrow, twisting, icy road that climbs through icicled gorges and pine forests and suddenly bursts through a rock tunnel into the lap of Val-d'Ise`re.
Val, in those years, was still relatively unknown -- except to the real ski fanatics, who knew it as the home of postwar Olympian Henri Oreiller. Val's more famous native sons, triple gold medal winner Jean-Claude Killy and the incomparable Goitschel sisters, had yet to burst on the ski circuit they were to dominate throughout the later '60s.
Two decades ago, there were only a couple of big old hotels, with heavy, overhanging savoyard roofs, the usual cluster of chalets, a main street with a few modern ski shops, delicatessens and bars, the first skiing Club Mediterrane'e in a massively rustic four-story chalet. The ancient town of granite houses and slate roofs clustered around a gray stone church with a needle-sharp steeple that to this day accents the village character of the resort.
On either side of the town rose two steep mountains, Belvarde and Solaise, serviced by cable cars. And beyond, in the undulating, treeless Alps that scratch at a deep, blue sky, was a web of interconnecting poma lifts from one ridge to the next, allowing skiers to travel through six different valleys.
The mountains above Val-d'Ise`re are mostly above the tree line -- white, massive, beautiful for open slope skiing. Only on their lower flanks, up to about 500 feet above the town, are there pine trees and cut trails that funnel into the village.
It took only one trip on the soaring cable car, or te'le'phe'rique, to the craggy tip of Belvarde to make me realize that this was a skier's heaven. Never before -- nor since -- had I laid eyes on so much skiable mountain. The slopes stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see -- and high above Val, that's a long, long way.
I sampled runs of every grade of difficulty. Steep mogul runs down the face of the mountain led to the tiny village, nestled like a model railroad town at our feet. Or you could glide down the back La Daille, on smooth, groomed, rolling terrain, ideal for anyone who had mastered the snowplow. In between there was a gamut of intermediate runs.
Later, when I visited with my infant children, I discovered that Val-d'Ise`re was also great for kids. It had nurseries for the children who weren't old enough to try skiing yet -- and one of the best, and largest, ski schools in the world to teach them, when they were.
I also discovered Val's absolutely amazing powder skiing -- untracked snows that would last for days and days after a new snowfall. There was just too much mountain around to be quickly skied out, as powder is back in Aspen, or even at that powder skiers' paradise of Alta.
Val offers impressive off-piste skiing, as well -- from avalanche chutes down rocky gullies to less daunting, but equally wild, runs off the back of peaks into isolated, rarely visited valleys.
So wild can skiing be that once, while taking a back-country run in powder off the Col Pers, we swooped down into a narrow, rocky gorge and snaked along the frozen path of a mountain stream. Suddenly we were face to face with a rare Alpine chamois, who looked on us with utter disdain as if demanding to know who had given us permission to violate his solitude.
But the beauty of Val-d'Ise`re is that it doesn't have to be like that, if you don't want it. There is not just something for everyone, there is a lot for everyone.
There are marvelous, gentle, high Alpine runs in the bowls behind Solaise or along the back of Belvarde. For the intermediate skier in search of breathless beauty, there is the Grande Motte, a towering, 11,000-foot peak with a modern te'le'phe'rique. It takes the skier to the top of a curving, wide glacier so smooth that anyone past the beginner stage can master it and feel he has skied on the top of the world.
Val-d'Ise`re now has 110 different lifts, ranging from speedy te'le'phe'riques to a variety of more traditional gondolas and chairs that have gradually replaced most of the pomas and T-bars of old. In all, they serve about 200 miles of patrolled ski trails, some dropping more than 5,000 feet. For adventurous skiers, there are hundreds of miles more of unpatrolled back trails. A network of free buses connects the central lifts with the runouts of various trails.
For this season, the resort hopes to have completed a new high-tech cable car to the top of Belvarde. It will take 272 skiers at a time to the top of Maaneak, where the 1992 Winter Olympics downhill race will begin.
Only in high season -- Christmas week, the French midterm school holiday at the beginning of February and Easter week -- are crowds a problem, although there can be some bunching up at the main te'le'phe'rique stations for Solaise and Belvarde around 10 a.m. when the school classes converge on the lifts. But once up into the mountains, skiers will find so many lift combinations that no one, if he plans his skiing carefully, need stand in line longer than five minutes.
Skiing at Val may sound exhausting, and indeed it can be. But there are plenty of places for relaxation -- and even good eating -- at the dozens of small and not-so-small mountain restaurants and cafeterias at the top of the major lifts, or nestled in the hollows of spectacular sun-bathed bowls.
Val is in the French region of Savoie, famous for its fine fondues and raclette, that Alpine specialty of boiled potatoes, pickles and melted Swiss cheese that washes down well with regional wines. There are plenty of small, quaint restaurants, such as Les Boulons at Le Joseray, where one can have good meals and good times. My favorite is La Datcha, behind Solaise, where on a fine, sunny day skiers can sit outside at tables placed in the snow and lunch on a great escalope dijonnaise. For those coming off the Grande Motte, there is a host of small outdoor cafe's where you can jump out of your skis and park yourself at a table, sip a chilled wine kir in the sun and contemplate the splendor of the Alps.
Nightlife is limited to half a dozen discos, an ice rink where once a week the Savoie hockey league plays, two movie theaters, the usual plethora of small bars, and street-side cre~pe parlors and pa~tisseries. For those looking for a real old-time bar complete with televised sports (European, alas) and pool table, there is the Bar des Sports, where the locals congregate amid old photos of the area's past ski stars and mountain guides.
Obviously, Val-d'Ise`re isn't Gstaad or St. Moritz. But that is why I go there.
It is a serious skier's resort. There is no great social scene. Val is simply a place where people come to ski and have fun. All else is secondary.
For more information about Val-d'Ise`re, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 628 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, 1-212-757-1125.