The specialist ski travel agencies I telephoned were bemused by my next plan. They had never organised a one-day ski package to the Alps. And, politely enough, they made it clear that they were not going to start now.
A little detective work solved the problem. I knew the cold weather was coming from the east - but by which route? Ignoring Michael Fish and studying the bottom right-hand corner of the television screen, I discovered that it was travelling via the Low Countries. One phone call to Belgium, and I had the good news: the snow was excellent and the forecast poor.
My new plan formed. The dirt-cheap (pounds 49) overnight London-Brussels route by train, ferry and train would get me into a hire-car (not so cheap, at pounds 69 for the day) soon after 8am, and I'd be in the Ardennes for a late breakfast; coming back I would have time for dinner in Brussels before catching the 11pm to London. The day-trip Eurostar offer to Brussels (pounds 49 return, and bookable only until Monday) was no good to me because the earliest train gets in only at 11.26am. But the overnight schedule was perfect: leaving London at l0pm I could spend the whole next day skiing and be back home at 7.15am the morning after.
Ski in the Low Countries? The majority of you (I stand almost alone in my affection for Belgium) will have spotted an obvious error here. As you know it, Belgium is heavily into chips, light on famous people, and as flat as a bored Briton driving through it to get somewhere more interesting. But the Ardennes forest, in the south-eastern, French-speaking corner of the country between Liege and the German border, is a vast, rolling ocean of pine trees; and though they hardly exceed 700m in altitude, the hills have nine "alpine" ski areas, and a further 49 offering other winter sports, mainly cross-country skiing.
I headed first to Thier des Rexhons, just outside the town of Spa - where the water comes from. At 540m, it offers little more than one long nursery slope, plus one of everything else: lift, restaurant, ski-hire shop. The coincidence of snowfalls within the New Year's holiday had left the piste in poor shape, with a fair amount of vegetable and mineral matter poking through; but the ambience on the slope was terrific. There were lots of children and beginners, no flash skiers or snowboarders.
You pay by the ride on the lift, which runs along its own charming forest track lined with saplings. It costs just under pounds 4 for 10 rides - as many as you would want for a slope which is plain and simple, and takes just over a minute for a direct descent. Only one lift means, of course, that the fun stops if it stops; unfortunately it broke down in the afternoon as I was returning my hired skis (cost: pounds 8 per day).
Thier des Rexhons is a really good place for nervous beginners. But the lack of hazards - even gradient - would soon become tiresome for intermediates; and the same is also true of the slightly more challenging Mont des Brumes nearby. Here the 1,000m run, in a big bite taken out of the forest, steepens sharply in the middle before flattening out on to a nursery slope. The middle section was quite fun, icy on one side and turning vegetable on the other; but the most difficult patch was the wicked moguls underneath the main drag lift. Mont des Brumes is so popular that it can charge pounds 1.15 merely for access to the ski area, and the surface had suffered from the crowds.
In an ideal world, I'd tell you about more of the Ardennes ski areas. Unfortunately, the tourist office's resort map may be the most worthless document produced since Neville Chamberlain arrived home from Munich. It is easy to read and with helpful symbols - but doesn't show where the ski areas actually are. I spent a precious hour driving around Malmedy hunting one which had seemingly changed both its location and its name. When you are half-a-night short of sleep, such frustrations hurt.
In that state, all emotions become more intense. The forest of the Ardennes is always beautiful; but with snow-covered trees beneath a huge, pink sunset it seemed miraculous. The inner glow began to fade only in Brussels, as the 11pm train fell behind schedule and the temperature fell towards minus 10; it disappeared completely on the ferry, under the onslaught of a herd of French school kids determined to enjoy being up so late. I got home very short of sleep, and feeling a bit stupid. One day's skiing? I must have been mad.
For snow conditions at Thier des Rexhons, call 00 32 87 77 30 28; allow for a little exaggeration. Next Wednesday's travel section of The Tabloid is devoted to skating in Belgium.Reuse content