Sleeping at the top: If you want to avoid the lifts and queues, simply stay higher up, says Chris Gill

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The Independent Travel
THE trouble with ski resorts, even high ones surrounded by snow, is that they are usually at the bottom of their ski areas. The skiing day starts with the tedious business of riding a lift and, if you're unlucky, queuing for that privilege with hundreds of others. But there are alternatives.

In lots of Alpine resorts, accommodation is to be found up the mountain. It may be an isolated chalet or hotel (often somewhere most people use as a mountain restaurant at lunchtime) or it may be a satellite village.

Austria specialises in satellite villages at altitude, with names as a rule starting with Ober or Hoch. There is usually a road up from the mother resort so that the large hotels there can easily be filled with guests and stocked with provisions. And the night life often matches that of lower villages. Oberlech, above the smart resort of Lech, is a favourite of mine, and with its easy surrounding slopes is a great place for beginners and families. Hochsolden also has clear attractions, compared with brash Solden down in the valley.

One Austrian resort with more isolated places to stay is Zell am See, in Salzburg province. As well as a big and rather anonymous hotel at the top of the main Schmittenhohe cable-car, there are a couple of smaller places - mountain restaurants with a dozen rooms. One is Breiteckalm, high up on the southern arm of the ski area; the other, Sonnalm, at the mid-station of the lifts up to the northern arm.

Some purpose-built French resorts have component parts that offer attractions similar to those of the Austrian satellite villages. At Aime la Plagne, for example, you can get in a 700m vertical run before the lifts open. But there are more appealing possibilities above old traditional villages.

La Clusaz is an example; the Vieux Chalet, in a splendid piste- side setting overlooking the village, is a favourite spot for lunch and dinner and has a handful of pleasant rooms. The food is probably the best in the resort; but you are only a couple of hundred metres above the village here, on the road up to Croix-Fry.

Much higher (and reached by chairlift) is the Relais de l'Aiguille at Cret du Loup, which has five adequate bedrooms, about the cheapest in the resort. Meribel has an unusual possibility: a British- catered chalet, the Refuge Corbey, reached only by ski lift.

There are lots of choices in Italy. At Bormio, the modern hotel Girasole, up at Bormio 2000, is simple but well run, with a warm welcome and many organised events to counter the isolation (though there's a road up from the town). At Plan Maison, the major lift junction 500m vertically above the resort of Cervinia, Lo Stambecco is a 50-room three-star hotel.

One of the most attractive ski hotels I know is above Sauze d'Oulx. The four-star Capricorno, up at Clotes, is by far the most expensive hotel in the resort. It's a charming little chalet beside the piste with a smart restaurant and terrace (a very popular spot for a good lunch on the mountain) and only eight bedrooms.

Not quite in the same league are the places up at Sauze's main nursery area, Sportinia, of which the best is the three-star Monte Triplex. Crystal offers packages to the hotel's annexe, the Turistico. There is also a chalet here, with access to the facilities of the Monte Triplex.

The idea of visiting Courmayeur and not making the most of the charming village seems perverse. But there are simple, cheap rooms to be had at the Christiania at Plan Checrouit. You're still at the foot of the ski lifts here, but at least you've cut out the cable-car ride up from the village.

The real home of high-altitude lodgings is Switzerland, where the possibilities are endless - partly thanks to the number of mountain railways. One option with a special appeal for families is the Berghotel Schatzalp, on the tree- line about 300m above Davos Platz and reached by funicular (free to guests). This is a four-star hotel to rival any in the resort, complete with pool and sauna. What makes the Berghotel especially interesting is that there is a nursery slope right next to it - and the hotel runs its own creche with ski tuition available.

The little-known (but not little) resort of Flims has an impressive hotel more than 1,000m above village level: the ultra-modern three- star Crap Sogn Gion which has all mod cons, including a pool. You can also stay above Flims in the more traditional Berghaus Nagens - it has dormitories as well as comfortable double rooms.

The mountain railway linking Wengen and Grindelwald gives access to two posssibilities up the mountain: the pricey Hotel Jungfrau at Wengernalp (a favourite lunch spot with great views) and a more modest hotel at Kleine Scheidegg (where there is also dormitory space at the station).

Zermatt has a fair claim to be considered the capital of high- level living, with several hotels at altitude. The pick is probably the Riffelalp, rebuilt in 1988 and recommended for good food and a quiet time. At Gornergrat, the two- star Kulmhotel has 40 beds - at 3,100m, the highest in Europe and North America. Step out of the door, and you can ski a vertical 1,400m before catching a lift.

(Photograph omitted)

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