A first-class ski resort few Americans have found

ON the European ski-resort scene, new stars rise from time to time. One of the newest among first-ranked Swiss resorts is Crans-Montana, located on a vast, sunny ledge above the Rhone Valley in the southwestern corner of Switzerland, in the French-speaking Canton du Valais. This fashionable resort will be the setting for the Alpine Ski World Championship Jan. 25-Feb. 8th.

Famous features of the Valais include the Matterhorn; the hospice on the St. Bernard Pass where the St. Bernard rescue dogs are bred; and the Simplon Pass and tunnel into Italy.

Back in the 1890s, when the British were launching winter sports in Switzerland, several resort hotels were built on the Crans-Montana-Vermala plateau. It was on Montana's Plaine Morte (9,840 ft.) that Sir Arnold Lunn (who devised the slalom) organized the Roberts of Kandahar downhill race in 1911, which later became famous as the Arlberg Kandahar.

In recent years several international races and World Cup events have been held at Crans-Montana. Stein Erikson, Guy Perillat, and Frantz Klammer are among the skiers who have raced here.

The tourist offices in the adjacent towns of Crans and Montana are hoping that next month's Alpine Ski World Championships will extend the fame of their resort beyond Europe. While Crans-Montana has been very successful in filling 30,000 tourist beds with European guests -- and in selling hundreds of chalets and condominiums - few Americans and Canadians have heard of it. The only American I met here was a young ski instructor who had come because his father had been born in the Valais.

Crans-Montana is actually a combination ski resort, summer resort, and convention site. The mountains and up-hill facilities are impressive: five vast ski areas (highest skiable terrain at 9,800 ft., total vertical drop 4,265 ft.), served by two cable cars, six gondolas, seven chair lifts, and 22 other lifts.

There are slopes suitable for beginners and slow intermediates (a class of which I am, alas, a lifetime member) at glorious high altitudes that novice skiers normally don't see; runs for good intermediates and advanced skiers; plus challenging runs for experts. There are two ski schools, teaching both downhill and cross-country skiing, one in Crans, the other in Montana.

Some of the skiers here sport high-fashion clothes and use helicopters to reach their favorite slopes away from the crowds.

Then there are daring ones who put on their skis and slip into the slings of a hang-glider. The Delta-glider, a tandem vehicle adapted and steered by Marcel Lachat, a former architect, takes off from the top station of the Cry d'Err gondola or from the higher Bella-Lui cable car stop (8,340 ft.). The passengers glide for about 20 minutes and land on frozen Lake Grenon, between Crans and Montana. Actually the boundary between two towns is invisible, but the towns boast two of everything: tourist offices, post offices, ski schools, development offices, etc.

Visitors can enjoy the great skiing here at reasonable rates, if they avoid the Christmas/New Years, February, and Easter ``high season.'' Off season, they get the advantage of packages that include seven nights' lodging, breakfast and dinner, lift tickets, ski bus service, and seven half-days at ski school.

I recommend that anyone - even experts - consider ski school here. There's a class that even top skiers will find challenging. And the school also helps newcomers get their bearings in the network of slopes, something that would take considerable time with just maps and explanations.

Summer visitors here enjoy 9-hole and 18-hole golf courses, golf tournaments, tennis and tennis tournaments, horseback riding, walks in the countryside, summer skiing on the Plaine Morte Glacier, and skating and ice hockey on the indoor rink.

What has made Crans-Montana successful in the fierce competition between resorts?

For one thing, its relatively mild climate. Situated on a high plateau facing south, protected from storms by the Bernese Alps, and having relatively little precipitation, it claims 250 days of sunshine a year. The weather was certainly beautiful when I skied on an off-season March visit.

Crans-Montana also provides an array of facilities, events, and entertainment to attract vacationers who don't want to spend all their time on the slopes. One morning, for instance, I sat on the terrace of the Cry d'Err restaurant, facing a panorama of mountains and watching a hang-gliding contest with more than 100 competitors. In the afternoon I enjoyed ice cream on a caf'e terrace by Lake Grenon and watched a hot-air ballooning meet. And then I saw an air show presented by helicopter stunt fliers, with choreographed parachute jumps.

My week's stay was too short to see the outdoor horse show or visit the indoor riding ring; or to watch a skiers' torch-light descent from the highest mountain, a free-style (ballet) skiing performance, the international sled-dog race, or the triathlon competition; or to take in concerts of church music and chamber music, or recitals by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jos'e Carreras, or any of the numerous art exhibitions here. Practical information

For more information on Crans-Montana, call the Swiss National Tourist Offices in New York City at (212) 757-5944, Toronto at (416) 868-0584, or San Francisco at (415) 362-2260. For snow reports, call (212) 757-6336.

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