TRAVEL / Spring Skiing: Where to go for the bargains

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The Independent Culture
THE EASTER PARADE

EVERY RESORT in the Alps makes every possible effort to stay open at least until Easter. For generations the Easter parade was the traditional finale of the ski season. The first-ever winter tourists in the Alps, four British families, dutifully stayed out in St Moritz from Christmas to the Easter of 1865.

Yet, although snow now falls later than ever, assisted by 5,000 snow cannons, special care must be taken in selecting an Easter resort. Skiing below 2,500m is never guaranteed, though often excellent after an April shower of snow. The choice is between booking accommodation high up, or sleeping down in a valley town and commuting to the skiing.

In practice, this usually means Austria-v- France - with the Swiss where they like to be, in the middle. Ugly, purpose-built French resorts such as Les Arcs and Tignes are superbly practical in spring. Skiing right out of the lift of a concrete tower block on to the pistes is ideal.

But Easter has its own appeal down in the valleys, too. More than 1,000m below the purpose-built complexes, the achingly green slopes are covered in spring flowers. In Le Chable, linked by telecabine to the ski-fields of Verbier, black Herens cows just emerging from winter barns stage head-thumping battles to determine 'queen' of the herd - a ritual to which skiers queuing in Verbier are oblivious.

For the best selection of last-minute skiing holidays, as well as an objective assessment of skiing conditions and suitability, Britain's independent skier advisory agencies are well worth a call. Made to Measure (0243 533333) is honest about why you should not go to certain French resorts, for example, in its brochure.

Easter weeks in the United States, compiled by Made to Measure, include the Colorado resorts of Breckenridge and Keystone, on a room and flight basis, for pounds 675 and pounds 679 respectively. Utah powder at Snowbird costs pounds 649 and the Nevada / California border resorts around Lake Tahoe just under pounds 600.

The Skiers Travel Bureau (0532 666876) is a clearing-house for late offers. For the week after Easter, the bureau recommends La Plagne with Skiworld for pounds 239 or Val d'Isere with Ski Olympic for pounds 284. The best offers are made and sold by phone the same day.

Easter with le tout Paris in Courchevel is still available from Le Ski (0484 548996), with longtime residents Nick or Liz Morgan as ski guides, a reasonable pounds 379, dropping to pounds 299 the next week for the same snow and services.

THE LATE LATE SHOW

'APRIL IS the coolest month,' says Nina, a chalet girl who has been to college. For chalet girls and ski bums, who have slaved all winter, spring is the season to come out and play.

There are also phenomenal bargains for the punter, though one must often be persistent. According to Nina, many chalet firms don't like to advertise their super deals too openly or too early. Customers might get out of the habit of booking months ahead and paying full price.

France is the winner in the late, late stakes, with more of the latest skiing. Austria, despite its eight year-round glaciers, is only now entering into the race, with an impressive commitment by 24 resorts, including St Anton and Lech, to keep as many slopes open as possible at least until 24 April. Obergurgl and St Christoph won't close until 2 May.

In Switzerland, Verbier, which has traditionally stayed open into May, but closed the most interesting pistes at Tortin and Mont Fort earlier, will now keep the best skiing open until 2 May, with 30 per cent reductions on the lift pass. Saas Fee and Zermatt advertise year- round skiing on upper glaciers, but 'winter skiing' ends early in May. Davos, Arosa and Crans Montana will all end skiing on 25 April.

May days in France run as late as the 9th at Val d'Isere, Tignes and Chamonix, which all have glacier skiing that is open in summer. La Plagne, with a lift network covering 10 villages, will stay open until 2 May, as will Alpe d'Huez, where 325 snow cannons guarantee skiing into town on the last day. Courchevel, at the heart of Europe's most extensive ski circus, also plans to continue Three Valleys skiing until 2 May. And the Les Arcs ski network, home of speed skiing, will also remain open until then.

In Italy, spring sunshine is the signal to abandon the pistes and head for the seaside. Easter is, however, an exceptional circus of passeggiata and paparazzi in Cortina d'Ampezzo. And Cervinia, on the snowier side of the Matterhorn, has the longest winter season in the Alps, closing only on 16 May.

Constrained by lease agreements with the forest service, most American resorts, especially in Colorado, close at Easter, despite the metres of snow still on the trails. California and Utah had record snowfalls this winter. Squaw Valley, Park City and Sun Valley will all stay open into May. Mammoth in California and Killington in Vermont won't close until June.

In Europe, Crystal (081-399 5144) is offering a choice of Kaprun, Austria (glacier skiing); Verbier, Saas Fee or Wengen in Switzerland; La Plagne, Val d'Isere, Tignes or Les Deux Alpes in France: either of the last two weeks of April, bed and breakfast plus flights, at a seriously reduced pounds 199.

At the other end of the scale, upmarket specialists Ski Scott Dunn (081-767 0202) offers fashionable Zermatt or Courchevel in the last two weeks of April at half high-season prices. Full service, including flights, free ski guiding and truly sumptuous meals, for pounds 299. Even the most unashamedly luxurious chalet operator in the Alps, The Ski Company (081-305 2299), offers tempting reductions. The Ski Company is unique in owning all its carefully restored properties in France. En suite bathrooms, free van and mountain guide and apres-ski champagne are all included in the regular package. But during the last two weeks of April and the first week of May in Chamonix, prices drop from pounds 550 to pounds 395.

Associated with the world's oldest mountain guiding company, the Chamonix specialist Collineige (0276 24262) has a charming range of farmhouses and villas around Mont Blanc. Late-season perks include a free guide for a day down the Vallee Blanche, and long weekends, with half-board and Swissair flights, for pounds 289. Throughout the year, bed and breakfast in Collineige chalets costs from pounds 20 per night.

One of the best-kept late-season secrets is Europe's most southerly ski resort, the Sierra Nevada (010 34 5824 9100) in Spain, where there are heavy snowfalls right through April. When the resort closes on 2 May, there is far more snow than at the start of the season. The proximity of beaches makes a swimming and skiing holiday feasible.

Skiers who just can't get enough should try Scandinavia. With the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer next year, Norway's ski resorts of Geilo, Hemsedal and Gausdal are all staying open until May for preview visits.

Skiing above the Arctic Circle under the midnight sun goes on into the summer. Helicopter skiing in Lapland, at Riksgransen, on the border between Norway and Sweden, can be combined with taxi, train and even boat transport in an itinerary lasting well past midnight. Details are available from the Swedish Tourist Office (0891 200280).

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