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For This French Ski Vacation, Try Slowing Down

At Courchevel in southeastern France, skiers have room to roam and plenty of options for a leisurely lunch.
At Courchevel in southeastern France, skiers have room to roam and plenty of options for a leisurely lunch.


Published: February 24, 2005

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COURCHEVEL, France - Breakfast came with the hotel room, but we had no time for pastries, crepes and good coffee. We are American skiers, and we were late.

In the hotel lobby, people were perusing the morning paper, sitting in comfy chairs before a glowing hearth fire. Some wore slippers.

Slackers! Did they not know it had snowed eight inches in the French Alps the night before?

Rushing out the door and into the cold, we stuffed energy bars into our mouths. It was 8:30 in the morning, and the lifts of Courchevel had just opened.

There was not a minute to lose.

Dashing to the Ariondaz gondola, one of nearly 200 lifts accessible from the Courchevel resort, we were surprised there was no line to clamor inside one of the cars.

"Sneaky local trick," I said to my daughters, who are 13 and 11. "They must open the lifts 15 minutes earlier than announced. All the locals are already up there on the mountain stealing our first tracks."

We rose up the hill 500 meters, but it was not the spectacular vista that had us in awe. During the entire gondola ride, we did not see a single skier or snowboarder below us.

"They must all be at the top," I said.

So up another lift we went, then another and another. In all that time, we saw at most 15 people on the snow.

What is paradise?

Being amid one of the largest trail networks in the world - 28,000 skiable acres - and knowing that everyone else is still eating breakfast.

A cold, hard energy bar never tasted so good.

There are many reasons to come to Courchevel and the surrounding Three Valleys, but the best reason for someone with North American skiing sensibilities may be that they are not as crazy as we are. Well, not about getting out there early.

Driving? Now that's another story.

For Europeans, skiing is just a part of the motivation for traveling to these mountains in southeastern France, resorts that are frequently ignored by American tourists. If Americans are scarce, it might have something to do with a depressed dollar's performance against the euro or the few extra hours it takes to make the trip. But there are things working to Americans' advantage on arrival.

It begins with knowing you can have the mountains to yourself for the first 90 minutes after the lifts open.

Another benefit is the effort made to spread people out on the mountains. For example, there are no central mid-mountain cafeterias, no one or two lifts essential to finding the best terrain, and hence, few lift lines. There are no base lodges, so the trail network tends not to funnel everyone to a meeting spot, which diminishes those harrowing merges.

The idea is to capitalize on the vastness of terrain, and with good reason. Together, the interconnected areas of the resort - Courchevel, Meribel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens - are three times bigger than any resort in North America.

One day in January, we skied for six hours without going within a mile of the gondola where we started. Modern lifts took us to the top of craggy Alpine peaks, where we spent five minutes looking over to Italy and five minutes deciding where to begin our descent. There were choices in 360 degrees, every path open to the public and no hurried mass to beat down the slope.

Backcountry choices also abound, although it helps to have a guide. They speak English, and sometimes Russian and Italian, and most pride themselves on knowing the ins and outs of this immense place, from parking to off-piste.

Our guide, Philippe Mugnier, was also a member of the town council, a handy reference at your side.

Mugnier also helped us choose a lunchtime respite. You probably would not get much of an argument if you accused the French of learning to ski just so they could get to the unmatched bevy of fine restaurants sprinkled throughout the mountain peaks and valleys.

That is because the skiing experience, in their eyes, is about the entire package. It is about the leisurely breakfast, some skiing and then a late lunch.

After lunch, about two-thirds of those on the mountain sun themselves on the many wooden decks built alongside the chalet-style restaurants.

Our first day in the Three Valleys, we could not fathom such indolence. We charged out for the afternoon skiing just as we had in the morning.

On Day 2, we sauntered out.

By the third day, after a sumptuous four-course lunch at Le Cap Horn restaurant, where helicopters and paparazzi wait outside for celebrities, we could not resist the deck on a glorious sunny day.

So maybe these people have a point about how to enjoy a ski vacation. After all, there was still time for a few runs down the mountain. First, pass the sunscreen.

We even set our alarm clock late the next day.

We did not dash out to the Ariondaz gondola until 8:45.

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