Chamonix, France — The night flight to Paris. The first time I heard that phrase, it struck me as sweetly evocative. The very thought of waking up in Paris, albeit a bit wrinkled and somewhat removed from the sights of the city, seemed redolent with promise. On a recent trip, the quiet thrill of arrival was heightened by expectations of my first taste of French alpine skiing.
After continuing to Geneva, where I bounced back and forth between several languages and the Swiss and French borders, I was on to Chamonix. In roughly an hour by taxi (bus service is also available, as are trains from Paris), I had time to struggle with irregular French verbs and resurrect a few motley phrases of high school French, while the landscape rolled by to the tunes of Charles Aznavour.
One of Europe's oldest summer resorts, Chamonix became popular toward the end of the 18th century, when it achieved an international reputation among climbers , hikers, and enthusiasts of alpine settings. Its prominence as a winter resort began over a hundred years later, at the start of this century. The village of Chamonix includes a number of nearby smaller villages and several ski areas, including Le Tour, Argentine, and Les Houches, with its traditional chalets and farmhouses at the foot of Mt. Blanc.
While Chamonix has its casino and its share of night life, its reputation is more of a sporting resort. And for the serious skier, the number of different valleys (connected by shuttle buses) can usually ensure at least one area with good snow and sunny skies.
The scale in Chamonix struck me as rather homey and low-key, and the Hotel Mont Blanc, where I met the other members of my party, was right in keeping. My room was a rather sedate affair, with a decor reminiscent of my great-grandfather's bedroom, but this was fortunately offset by a marvelous pair of French windows that I immediately threw open to the cold, dry air. Dusk and a light sprinkling of snow settled on the rooftops, and fir trees glistened in the soft light of the street lamps.
Breakfast at the hotel was a pleasant meal, with tables along a bank of windows overlooking the village streets, rooftops, and a marvelous view up into the surrounding mountains. Here I successfully negotiated for a more substantial complement to the continental repast (a fortification I considered necessary for a full morning of skiing).
After a few phone calls, we were assured that Le Tour had excellent snow and that the sun was shining. Two members of our small circle had been up since the wee hours in the hope of skiing the glacier runs of the world-famed Vallee Blanche. We left them waiting in the lobby with the hopes that the weather would break, while we clumped off for the 20-minute bus ride in a jumble of skis, poles, assorted paraphernalia, and laughter.
Though I'd skied extensively throughout the United States, this was my first taste of alpine skiing. I was certainly ready for some pretty heady scenery, but was quite unprepared for the captivating vista from the top of the lift at Le Tour. Like a vast and brilliant moonscape, rocky pinnacles of snow and vast, rolling meadows of untracked powder shimmered against a cobalt sky. Sweeping off into this landscape, there seemed no guarantee I'd remain earthbound, as the sun and wind whipped the snow into glittering, spiraling eddies.
After a morning's skiing, we rendezvoused at the base restaurant. But while we ate, clouds rolled in. Not wanting to tackle that vast expanse of open meadow in flat light, we opted instead to sightsee back in Chamonix and try for a glimpse of Mt. Blanc from the cable car station of the Aiguille du Midi.
Again, we waited expectantly by the phone for word on weather conditions at the top of the lift. Affirmative - at the last minute it had cleared - and we were off, careening through the town. Screeching into a parking space at the base, we arrived breathless at the gate.
A few minutes later, we were catapulted into space, suspended in an amorphous , seething mass of clouds by what appeared to be the thinnest and most unlikely strands of wire. It was an eerie experience, passing through various stages of enveloping whiteness until finally popping into the sunlight.
On the top, at 11,526 feet (the highest cable car in the world and the departure point for the Vallee Blanche), we were assailed by a view of Swiss, French, and German Alps - great massive pillars, towers, and outcroppings of stone, gleaming white against that same cobalt sky. Far below, Chamonix coalesced and disappeared through the shifting layers of clouds.
The next stop on our busy itinerary was Megeve, where, like Chamonix, the charm quotient is high. Here again, our small hotel, the Coin du Feu, was a quick walk to the center of town. It had an intimate atmosphere, and while the rooms were small, they were cheerful and a pleasant place for a private breakfast.
In the older and central areas of Megeve, the shops and restaurants are clustered together on narrow, often-winding streets that cross streams on picturesque bridges. Throughout this warren of streets and alleys, sleigh bells and the whoosh of sleigh runners are a recurrent theme as brightly painted sleighs whip round corners. Pulled by the most intrepid little ponies, these charming conveyances provided even the most blase tourist with a few thrills on the steeper hills.
Our skiing in Megeve alternated between the trails of Le Jaillet and what were, for the most part, easy rolling hills of Mt. d'Arbois. Although the village is nicknamed ''sunny Megeve,'' we were'only fortunate enough to hit a few spots of this rarefied substance. At Mont d'Arbois, we lunched in the mountain restaurant Les Mandarines, lingered over the buffet, and watched the sun finally break through the clouds, throwing into high relief the lines of evergreens and undulating slopes. But just as we were about to head off to savor the joys of all that new snow, we groaned in unison as the clouds rolled in, transforming the slopes once again into an amorphous white expanse.
I took advantage of this turn in the weather to take a break from the skis and spend the afternoon touring the town. Endowed with a number of excellent pastry and small gourmet groceries and a variety of shops catering to the international clientele that frequents Megeve, the town makes for interesting window shopping, if not downright extravagant purchases.
I paused at the Hotel Mont Blanc, one of the main attractions of Megeve and a bit of Paris in the hinterlands, strolled past Cartier, a branch of that Paris store called the ''jeweler of kings'' by Edward VII, and continued on to the pharmacy, where I stocked up on Roger & Gallet hand soaps in violet and sandalwood, then across the street to the perfumer for some splurging on French and European cosmetics and perfumes - real bargains compared to stateside prices.
Our last evening in Megeve, we bundled into a pair of rubber-tired sleighs and had a gleeful tour of the town. Wrapped in robes and blankets, we bobbed, bounced, laughed, and lurched around corners, up and down the narrow streets, till we arrived at Le Chalet, a restaurant resembling more a marvelously exotic cave perched on a hillside. Here we dined and talked in the candlelight till it was time for a quiet walk back through the winding streets to savor the quiet of the evening and a sprinkling of snow on my face.
First impressions of Courcheval are hardly charming. The whole business struck me as very akin to a complex of roadside motels - a raw moderness that stood in direct juxtaposition to the intimate charm of Chamonix and Megeve. But first impressions aside, here at last we found the sun that had so persistently aluded us and the best skiing of our entire trip.
Part of ''The Three Valleys,'' advertised as the largest ski complex in the world, Couchevel is 90 miles southeast of Geneva and composed of a series of villages at four altitudes, has roughly 300 miles of groomed trails and boasts the world's longest single trail - 12 miles. Unlike many ski areas, where skiing and lifts grew up around an existing village, here the site was selected for skiing. The original village, Saint Bon, further down the mountain, is still a bit removed from the main arena of activities. Courchevel 1850 (altitude 1850 meters) opened in 1947 with 2 instructors, by 1972, its ski school boasted 200 and today is one, if not the largest in the world.
Once I got used to the brashness of this nouveau resort, with its flashy international reputation for apres, as well as ski, I realized it had its own kind of intimacy. This bit of comfort is mostly achieved in the restaurants and hotels, most of which are small, containing 50 rooms or less. And despite the glamour of Courchevel's reputation, many of the hotels are modest and unpretentious, offering pleasant accommodations for families.
With a lengthy season that begins in December and continues until the end of April, Courchevel also caters to what is generally regarded as a highly sophisticated clientele used to the out of the ordinary, if not downright exceptional. As a result of this demand, there are excellent luxury hotels, including seven rated 4-star by Michelin. Of the 40-odd restaurants, at last count three had gleaned Michelin ratings. Our hotel, the Albaron, proved an unpretentious yet pleasant affair.
Skiing in Courchevel, to quote an American I met, ''is not to be believed.'' From Courchevel 1850, within walking distance of the Albaron, we entered the lift and soared over the last remaining trees and reassuring, rolling glades. By mid-way the vistas were opening up with grand outcroppings of sheer rock and glimpses of peaks rising and stretching far against the horizons.
At La Saulire, the Alps lay spread before, below, and around us like some monumental crown - ragged pinnacles so white and dazzling they seared the sky. Amidst all this natural splendor, I was in utter awe that such a spectacle of mountain and sky could exist - let alone that somehow I was going to ski it.
As for the downhill part, it was nothing short of flying, racing down ridges on trails bounded not by trees but massive upheavals of rock and sheer cliffs. Stopping only long enough to catch our breath, we quickly lost it again as we gazed around us. Except for a short break for lunch, we swept through open meadows, danced along the edges of dazzling cliffs, and threw ourselves headlong over what seemed sheer faces of moguls.
It would be too exhaustive to detail and read the trails and ground we covered - suffice it to say, on the first day alone, we skied enough (roughly 50 to 60 miles) to get a pretty good idea of how diverse the terrain and how excellent the snow conditions were. That same American who first extolled the wonders of Courchevel had extended his vacation to two months - and even then, he explained, there were so many runs it was unlikely he would ski the same combination twice. But, lest the whole complex sound too big a challenge for the beginner or intermediate skier, there is ample gentle terrain on which to begin to perfect one's skills and stretch one's wings.
Our last day, taking a break from the rigors of our all-out assault on the mountains, we opted for a lengthy lunch at Le Bel Air, one of the many terraced restaurants perched upon the slopes. Perhaps this scene more than any other epitomized the myth and reality of alpine skiing. The sun brilliant, the surrounding peaks crowding the sky in a tableau of blue and white brilliance, provided a brilliant background for a carnival of colors - shocking pinks, lavender, emerald greens, fuschia, and turquoise mixed, mingled, and flew like confetti to rest alongside our fellow sun worshipers, their tanned and sunburned faces raised to the sky.
Amidst a surrounding babble of German, Italian, French, and English from places as diverse as New Zealand, Vancouver, and the west coast of Scotland, we sipped mineral water and savored salads garnished with fresh herbs. Later in the afternoon, I joined this glittering flock as it flashed down the slopes and poured onto the terraces at the various villages of Courchevel. Laughing, still squinting into the sun, conversations continued while the slopes emptied.
Eventually, the bubbling laughter and conversations drifted down the streets into the hotels and the town grew quiet before the onslaught of the evening's activities - for some, a romp through discos; for others, evenings of simple or quiet and elegant dining before another day of superb skiing.