SKI-ING
It may have been raining in Britain, but it's been snowing in the high Alps - and it's time to resume the Independent's skiing coverage. This year I'll be writing a weekly column, ranging widely over skiing and everything connected with it, and every three or four weeks during the autumn and winter we'll bring you major skiing features as well. Over the page, we kick off with reviews of a dozen resorts you might want to consider this season and a checklist of chalet operators you might want to find out more about.

If the painful process of choosing a resort so early in the season fills you with gloom, you have my sympathy: personally, I'm a congenital late booker. But I'm in the minority. By this time of year some operators have already sold a quarter of their places, and they'll be aiming to sell the second quarter in the next month or two. Even those only now mailing their brochures will have pulled in quite a bit of repeat business - so don't be surprised if that desirable chalet is not available in the week you want.

Mind you, there is no shortage of desirable chalets, including some new ones where repeat bookers should not be an obstacle. The catered chalet was once a rather primitive affair, but its upward evolution, already in progress for a decade or more, seems more vigorous than ever.

My chalet-going in the past few years has been heavily biased towards properties with nurseries and modest prices, regardless of other qualities. Even so, my family and I have become accustomed to en suite bathrooms, complete with more-or-less continuously available hot water - not the norm in the early days of the chalet business. Private bathrooms are, of course, among the key advantages offered by many of the chalet-hotels available this year - places originally built as hotels, with the facilities that hotel guests expect but chalet goers traditionally do without.

What is striking this year is not only that more chalets with private bathrooms are being offered, but that more and more chalets are appearing that genuinely seem to match the style and comfort of good hotels. Much the greatest concentration of these "luxury" chalets is to be found in the neighbouring Trois Vallees resorts of Meribel and Courchevel, with a fair few in Val d'Isere.

Holidays in these super-chalets cost around pounds 750 to pounds 1,000 a person for a high-season week - in the same order as a package to a four-star hotel in a similarly smart French or Swiss resort. It seems a lot of money, but there are some pretty ordinary chalets on the market in the pounds 550 to pounds 650 band, and paying a premium of 30 or 50 per cent for something really special doesn't seem excessive. Are these places really special? Well, some of them certainly are. I have to confess that my experience is at present limited - but I'm working on it. Watch this space.

Chris Gill is one of the editors of Where to Ski (Boxtree, pounds 14.99). Independent readers can buy the latest edition by mail order, with free post and packing. Send your name and address and a cheque made out to Where to Ski to NortonWood Publishing, The Old Forge, Norton St Philip, Bath BA3 6LW.

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