Skiing: The one-horse town tackles tourism

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The Independent Online
Quirky, down-to-earth yet spectacularly thrilling, Chamonix is for serious skiers, writes Jane Slade.

The sudden rush of adrenaline begins long before arriving at the top of the cablecar. For me it starts just past the exit to Sallanches, off the Autoroute Blanche. That's when the glorious moonscape of lofty, barren peaks comes into view. My pulse continues racing up the tree- and river- lined mountain road towards the village of Argentiere - the nirvana for snowboarding Kurt Cobain lookalikes and home to Les Grands Montets, one of the best ski areas in the world.

The magnetism of the Chamonix Valley, whose ski areas are strung out over a fragmented 20km, stems not just from its infinite variety of breathtaking scenery, or even its reputation as the climbing and skiing capital of the world. Here, there's an intoxicating sense of freedom.

Just an hour's drive from Geneva airport, Chamonix sprawls, large and lovely, at the foot of Mont Blanc. True to its quirkiness the town itself radiates from a central square and has just one set of traffic lights. It is worth taking time to stop and stare here, especially at dusk when the glorious string of mountains turns lustrous pink.

In contrast to the neighbouring Italian ski resort of Courmayeur, where Vivaldi and Versace set the tone and style, the streets of Chamonix ring more of heavy metal: clanking ice axes and ski boots. Fashion gurus and foodies will be better catered for 20 minutes over the border, except for the Auberge du Bois Prin restaurant near the town centre, which offers fine food, a fabulous wine list and home-made beetroot crisps.

Chamonix is for those who live to ski, which is why it attracts so many ski bums. They come from all over the world, living in rabbit warren-sized apartments or camper vans. For years the valley has drawn eccentrics, rebels and misfits, many of whom came for a holiday and never went home. Yet the line is clearly drawn between natives and immigrants. For example, membership to the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix is via a local birth certificate, which shuts out all foreign high-mountain guides, and many French ones, too. Rivalry is also intense between the official French ESF ski school, and private ones. Even the individually run ski areas have their squabbles; for the second year running, one of the big five is boycotting the valley lift pass system.

Not that the visitor would be aware of any of this unless he or she wants to hire a British high-mountain guide or ski in Les Houches, which has the best artificial snow cover in the area. But the legs of the first- timer will experience a culture shock, especially if they have been nursed on the beginner slopes of Meribel, enjoyed screaming along the empty motorways of Val d'Isere, and rested in the cosy hostelries of Zermatt.

Chamonix is not renowned for its nursery slopes, giant motorways and guest-pampering qualities. Of course, it has all these things, including a ski club for tiny tots and a night-skiing slope at Les Bossons, but as Iain Cleaver, marketing director of the lift company Satal, admits: "We know this is not a family mountain." Those who can't cut the mean terrain find solace on the kinder slopes of Courmayeur, a popular one- day excursion for Chamonix refugees.

And no wonder. Where else in the world can you find yourself staring death in the face within 10 minutes of setting down a glass of vin chaud - as you may if you take the high traverse at the top of the Bochard gondola or the Poubelle chute to the left.

But Chamonix is not all serious steeps. It offers many less terrifying yet thrilling experiences, not least the longest run in the world. The 22km Vallee Blanche is reached via the spectacular Aiguille du Midi cablecar in the centre of town. This off-piste run is more of a visual sensation than a physical one, although your pulse may race as you walk over the narrow ridge at the beginning.

The skiing is easily managed by intermediates, who can enjoy a scenic cruise through a wide-open glaciated lake overshadowed by wicked white spires. The only trouble is that the terrain is punctuated with crevasses. A favourite story told here is about a chap who fell down a crevasse, but when his friends lowered a rope to get him out someone else came up instead.

The smaller, linked ski areas of Le Brevent and La Flegere are more suited to intermediates, as are the lovely, long, tree-lined runs of Les Houches further down the valley. Here you will find Chamonix's best motorways, which are only spoiled by the long drag lifts to get you back up again.

Less confident skiers should head for Le Tour, a bus ride up the valley beyond Argentiere, which, although it can be a bit blustery, has gentle, wide-open pistes ending up at a smart restaurant cabin by the cablecar station.

Most good skiers never venture off the Grands Montets, where couloirs drop right down to the village of Argentiere and where, from the top of the mountain, a cascading off-piste theme park beckons. With the promise of snow-making cover being extended over the next two years, even more of this giant will be skiable for longer.

Millions of francs are being spent on a five-year plan to improve facilities. Already a new wind-resistant gondola has replaced the slow, three-man chair. New this year is a 20m-long, 8m-high tunnel to allow skiers to return to the Lognan bowl from Pendant without having to scramble up the hillside. Also the stylish chalet-refuge which occupies a remote spot overlooking the Argentiere glacier on the Variante Hotel trail is being revitalised, and will open this winter as a restaurant, later offering accommodation.

Chamonix may have been slow to react to market forces, but finally it seems to be getting its act together, having discovered the concept of customer service. A little more friendliness would be welcome, but devoted pilgrims love its old-fashioned, pioneering quality, and the fact that it hasn't sold its soul to tourism.

Jane Slade paid pounds 99 to fly Swissair from Heathrow to Geneva, and stayed at the four-star Auberge du Bois Prin (00 33 450 53 33 51) in Les Moussoux, Chamonix, for pounds 80 per night (two people, including breakfast).

Many tour operators offer skiing holidays in Chamonix. If you wish to organise your own trip, the closest airport is Geneva. EasyJet (0990 292929) has just begun flying from Luton to Geneva for fares starting at pounds 115 return, including taxes. British Airways (0345 222111) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow, and Swissair (0171-434 7300) from Heathrow.

More information: French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123).

HIGH ROAD

This month, Qantas celebrates the half-century of its "Kangaroo Route" between London and Sydney. When it was inaugurated in 1947, the world's longest scheduled air route took three-and-a-half days and cost the contemporary equivalent of pounds 37,000 in first class. Today both time and price are mere fractions of the original: 22 hours, and pounds 5,765.40 (including a range of taxes which did not exist 50 years ago). The flight time is set to be cut still further, with a new track over the Himalayas and western China, which should give you about 50 minutes less time to enjoy the service.

LOW ROAD

If you want to take a really long flight these days, you could take the Philippines Airlines 723 from Heathrow to Manila - about 14 hours in the air. But, for Australia-bound travellers, the advantage of changing planes in the Filipino capital could be considerable. The airline has just introduced entertainingly low fares for the April-June low season. From 16 April, a return to Sydney (or Melbourne, or Brisbane) through Austravel (0171- 734 7755) costs pounds 535, with an optional stopover in Manila. Two conditions: the fare applies only if two of you are travelling together; and Sydney- bound travellers must pay pounds 2 environmental tax.

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