'Provence with snow'

Roger Thomas avoids the crowded northern pistes in favour of the sunny southern Alps
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The Independent Travel

There's a line in the snow at Les Deux-Alpes beyond which we just don't go. Not that there isn't plenty of snow and great skiing further south. But most of us are confirmed northerners when it comes to winter sports in the French Alps. We slope off to the doorstep resorts near Geneva, or head for the mega-skiing in the Three Valleys or the Tarentaise. Which just goes to show that following the crowd isn't always the best bet.

I've been a fan of southern skiing for a long time. I'm not a southern softie, but I do like the fact that Briançon, just over the Col de Lauteret from Les Deux-Alpes, has 300 days of sunshine a year... and that you can ski down from the top of the mountain into the heart of this sturdy old fortified town on one of the longest, swoopiest, prettiest red runs in Europe.

Briançon is part of the skiing area known collectively as Serre-Chevalier. Before local hero and hotelier Luc Alphand became the downhill world champion, Serre-Chevalier was relatively unknown and wholly underrated by the British. I discovered it ages ago, when it was full of French skiers and had cranky lifts. But I loved the skiing.

It's spread out along the flank of a mountain, with a skirt of forest leading to high open bowls and steep ridges. There's nothing repetitive about the skiing here, and with a very respectable 250km of piste, enough for all abilities. But it's the nature of the skiing that really sets Serre-Chevalier apart. Traversing the lift system as it zigzags along the valley, you get the impression that you are really going places, using skis as they were originally intended in the traditional Alpine way as opposed to the thrill-a-second adrenalin blast down a one-off piste.

Some of the cranky lifts are still there, now supplemented by new, fast six-seaters. And the French, I'm glad to report, still dominate. The satellite villages dotted along the valley from Briançon - Chantmerle, Villeneuve and (prettiest of the lot) Monêtier - are French through and through, with none of the demographic imbalance that has turned places like Chamonix, Méribel and Val d'Isère into unreal, and sometimes unpleasant, Little Englands.

It's Provence with snow. And the snow is usually fine, with skiing up to 2,735m. OK, you're not going to get the better prospects that come with the 3,000m-plus skiing in places like Tignes and Val-Thorens, but in these globally warmed times even Nostradamus would have difficulty in predicting when and where the white stuff might fall. So keep your eyes on the snow reports and book a flight to Turin, the nearest airport to Serre-Chevalier (about two hours away).

You might also want to take a look over the mountain at Puy-St-Vincent. Don't be put off by its mere 60km of piste. It's one of those places where the sum is much greater than the parts. This small resort isn't the best or worst of the purpose-built breed. But whatever it lacks in architectural aesthetics it makes up in location, for its Sixties apartment blocks stand on a beautiful balcony overlooking the Parc National des Ecrins.

Locals claim that Puy-St-Vincent's micro-climate consistently produces great snow (its north-east facing slopes, like those of Serre-Chevalier, help), and there's an astonishing variety of pistes. It also scores highly in another crucial area: vertical drop. As every true enthusiast knows, this all-important top-to-bottom statistic determines the character of the terrain better than any other. In little Puy-St-Vincent's case, it's an impressive 1,300m from the bottom station (at 1,400m) to the La Pendine summit at 2,700m.

Buy the six-day Grand Serre Che lift pass and you're entitled to a day's skiing at Puy-St-Vincent together with a trip to Italy. The Italian border is only a few miles up the road from Briançon. It's just beyond Montgenèvre, a ski resort that straddles the head of the pass at 1,850m, so the snow's usually good. And if you make an early start and are good at reading piste maps you can link into the 400km network known as the Milky Way, which connects Montgenèvre with Claviere in Italy and then onward all the way to Sauze d'Oulx and Sestriere, home of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

You can enjoy patisserie for breakfast and panini for lunch, but make sure you give yourself plenty of time for the return leg. And when you get back you'll appreciate the fact that Montgenèvre, although no great beauty, is now free of heavy traffic thanks to a new road tunnel on this busy cross-border route. It's good value too.

I first skied the Southern Alps one Easter. I was staying near Avignon in sunny Provence when the late-season call of the snow proved too much to resist. So I jumped in the car, headed into the mountains, and by lunchtime was skiing in Les Orres.

Take the road through Gap and on the way to Briançon you drive alongside the unnaturally blue waters of Lac de Serre-Ponáon. It was balmy beside the lake that day, but I needn't have worried. I headed into the mountains at Embrun and was soon skiing right to the slush-free base of Les Orres, an unpretentious station with runs from 1,500m to 2,770m. It's north-facing (good), has over 80km of piste (not bad) and stack 'em high apartment blocks (ugly). The skiing through the trees is highly scenic, the pistes peaceful and for a day or two it's an engaging alternative to the big-name resorts.

There are resorts like these dotted across the Southern Alps. I've also skied Pra-Loup, Risoul, Le Sauze and - one for the trainspotters amongst you - Ceillac, a Heidi-like rustic hideaway on a dead-end road above Guillestre. Unlike ritzy Zermatt, the barns here contain cows not cafés and nightclubs.

It's all very different from the motorway skiing you get in the mega-resorts further north. And speaking of the M25, here's another thing. Don't get too hung up about the desirability of all those ultra-modern high-speed lifts that whisk you to the top of the mountain in no time at all. They also take a few thousand more along for the ride. And what goes up must come down, which means crazy, crowded pistes and accidents waiting to happen. I ski in Val d'Isère regularly, where there's a huge and continuing investment in new lifts. You mightn't have to queue much at the bottom, but am I the only one concerned by the sheer numbers that duck and dive down the popular runs?

What's more, there's no such thing as guaranteed snow any more. As I write this just after Christmas, Isola 2000, the southernmost biggish ski resort in the French Alps, just an hour's drive from Nice and the Côte d'Azur, has 80cm of snow on its upper slopes. High and mighty Val d'Isère? A gritty 40cm.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Serre-Chevalier and other ski resorts in the Southern Alps feature in the programmes of many tour operators. But it's easy - and better - to do it yourself. Fly to Turin with easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyJet.com) or Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Holiday Autos (0870 400 4461; www.holidayautos.co.uk) and Auto Europe (0800 358 1229; www.auto-europe.co.uk) are good for car hire.

Where to Ski and Snowboard 2007 (£16.99; www.wtss.co.uk) has an unrivalled depth of coverage, describing resorts both large and small, in an honest, no-nonsense way.

Online information: Serre-Chevalier ( www.serre-chevalier.com), Puy-St-Vincent ( www.paysdesecrins.com), Les Orres ( www.lesorres.com), Montgenèvre ( www.montgenevre.com).

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