Skiing: Ski heaven for beginners

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The Independent Online
It's safe, secluded and a great place to take children. Jane Slade goes skiing in the Vosges.

It seems extraordinary that there is a ski area in France just six hours' drive from Calais that hardly any Britons have heard of. The Ballons des Vosges look like the tree-lined contours of the Rocky Mountains in America rather than the jagged spires of the French Alps, which is probably why they attract so many Continental families and beginners.

The atmosphere here is intimate rather than hip. You are more likely to see babes on planks than grunge kids on snowboards, and you'll hear the sound of a woodcutter rather than a chainsaw. You also need never fear the sound of exploding dynamite. This avalanche-free ski zone is a secluded place to begin testing yourself or your child on skis.

There are other benefits, too: this is a beautiful area of frozen lakes and lush green forests, where cosy mountain restaurants serve piping hot quiche lorraine to wash down with a glass of good wine.

If you take the road to Reims and drop south between Nancy and Strasbourg, little signs to ski resorts pop up at the most unlikely moments. The biggest ski area is La Bresse, which by Alpine standards is small - 36 pistes, covering 220 hectares. It is also comparatively low, rising to just 1,350 metres. But the owner of the lift company there, Jean-Marie Remy, has invested heavily, and 70 per cent of the runs are covered by snow-making machines.

Jean-Marie opened the first ski lift at La Bresse 30 years ago, when the word "ecology" was barely understood by the skiing world. Now he is in constant struggle with conservationists as he tries to extend the area.

Fortunately, there are masses of badly needed snow-cannons, fed by a conveniently located lake, and a ski school geared up to the needs of children and adult ski and snowboard debutantes.

Remy learned the art of survival when he was abandoned in the Vosges forest after the Germans took his father and older brothers off to labour camps. He now gives local children free lift passes, and provides ski fanatics with floodlit skiing until 10.30pm during high season.

For more experienced skiers, the Vosges makes an ideal break on the way to the Alps. It may also remind you of the early days of unsophisticated skiing, a few runs where you can't get lost, and a skyline free of pylons. Above all, it is a beginner's paradise.

The region's second largest resort of Gerardmer rises above a glorious lake, which during winter is an ice rink and skate-surfing playground. Rather smaller (20 pistes, covering 40 kilometres of trails) and with fewer snow-cannons, Gerardmer is also good for families. It has a kindergarten, a children's ski school and a snowboarders' half-pipe. The village atmosphere is friendly and the non-English-speaking instructors have turned word- free communication into an art form.

The even tinier resort of Lispach has just six runs (two green, two blue, one red and one black) but lies in the heart of northern France's largest cross-country skiing domain, giving access to the trails of its larger neighbours Gerardmer, Xonrupt-Longemer and La Bresse. More than 100 kilometres of cross-country trails meander through forests, round lakes, and over hills from 800 metres to 1,200 metres high.

But for the ultimate in safe, secluded skiing, you cannot beat the Ermitage Frere Joseph at Ventron, which offers guests their own private ski area. Thibault Leduc's grandfather built the first ski lift here in the Sixties, but left it to Thibault to develop the accommodation. Two medium-priced hotels, offering some of the best food in the region, stand at the foot of the lift.

Mountain facilities are limited but popular touches include places for picnic lunches in the woods, and tree houses for the children. Snowboarders are banned in high season. The only downside to this idyllic spot is that it is very low (barely 1,000 metres) and there are no snow-cannons. So call for a snow report before you drop in.

Jane Slade paid pounds 140 to travel by Stena Line from Dover to Calais, and pounds 40 return in tolls on the French autoroute. She paid pounds 40 a night (excluding breakfast) at the two-star Ermitage Frere Joseph hotel in Ventron. For hotel booking and snow reports contact Gerardmer Tourist Office 00 33 329 272727. La Bresse Tourist Office 00 33 329 254129.

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