Portes du Soleil has it all

Snow's up by Chris Gill
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The Independent Travel
Of all the great interlinked Alpine ski areas - magnets for British skiers keen to pack in the miles during brief skiing opportunities - perhaps the most distinctive is the Franco-Swiss Portes du Soleil. Whereas other areas offer mountainsides densely laced with lifts, the PdS has a more widely spread network. Rather than purpose-built resorts, it consists mainly of old valley villages, with one sizeable modern ski station on the French side of the border - Avoriaz - and a couple of tiny ones on the Swiss side.

In the PdS the main circuit of lifts and runs straddling the border rarely goes above 2200m and often dips towards 1200m, or even 1000m. These are dangerously low altitudes by the standards of the French Alps, where as a rule it's best to plan on spending most of your time between 2000m and 3000m if you want good snow. Low altitude may carry with it the threat of dodgy snow, but all in all conditions were good enough for the area's positive features to shine through.

Trees give definition to the runs and softness to the landscape, providing shelter and orientation in bad weather. Pasture-land will often have old farming huts that make fine mountain restaurants and lunchtime targets for skiers based over the border in Swiss Champery - my favourite base in the area. Two or three lifts are enough if you embark on a clockwise circuit; but lunch enthusiasts are better off going the long way round, via Les Crosets, Champoussin, Morgins and Chatel, and collapsing into Le Vieux Chalet in Plaine Dranse safe in the knowledge that three lift rides will get them back into Switzerland, and one more will get them to the top of the cable-car and back down to Champery.

For many visitors, the essence of PdS is that you ski amid splendid scenery. But there is plenty of intrinsically rewarding skiing to do as well. Testing black runs include the infamous Swiss Wall between Avoriaz and Champery - a mogul slope to be feared more for its awkward start, length and unpredictable snow than for excessive steepness. There is a lot of off-piste that goes largely unsung, and small-scale adventures to be undertaken with a guide - notably the run down the deserted Val de Morgins from the Pointe de Mossette.

Mossette is now accessible from the French side as well, which in principle takes some of the pressure off the queue-prone main lifts from Avoriaz towards the Swiss border at Chavanette. In practice, queues persist, especially on a fine weekend. Residents of Geneva can be on their skis here in just a couple of hours; not surprisingly, it's a magnet for them, too.

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