Travel: Don't scorn the small and low: Les Deux-Alpes or Serre Chevalier? Chris Gill knows which French ski resort he prefers

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The Independent Travel
One day last winter I was zooming along on top of the world at 3,400m, having been whisked up by a combination of huge gondolas and the latest fashion accessory for Alpine resorts - an underground funicular. Next day I was pottering about on wooded pistes at 1,500m, regaining altitude when necessary on old-fashioned low-speed dual (as opposed to high-speed quad) chairlifts.

In Resort A, I had at my disposal a vertical drop of more than 2,200m: the greatest in the Alps. In Resort B, only 1,400m. Both claim a lot of piste: 200-250km. Resort A, you might think, had the edge. You would be wrong. The resorts are an hour's drive apart in the southern French Alps. The impressive statistics belong to Les Deux-Alpes, which suddenly gained a prominent position in the British holiday market in the Eighties. The resort that appears weedy by comparison is Serre-Chevalier.

Les Deux-Alpes has been developed as a leading ski resort despite fundamental problems with the lie of the land. The village, on a col which used to provide summer pastures for the valley communities either side (hence the two alps of the name), is at the west end of a range of skiable mountains. Beyond the admirable nursery slopes, the mountainside rises steeply to a ridge at around 2,300m, then gradually via various ups and downs to the foot of a glacier at 3,200m.

There is good, north-facing skiing at several places in the area, notably in the deep Combe de Thuit and on the fringes of the glacier. This winter, a favourite off-piste run (Les Gours) is being brought into the piste network by the installation of a new chairlift. But these areas do not add up to much, especially for piste skiers. What is more, the west-facing slopes that connect the north-facing bits are narrow and get unbelievably crowded in the afternoon. The slopes immediately above the resort pose another problem. They offer real challenges to good skiers, but being west-facing get far too much sun and are often beyond the ability of even a sound intermediate skier.

Serre-Chevalier's skiing, in contrast, is predominantly on slopes leading down towards the countless valley villages that comprise the resort. There are three main areas above the villages of Monetier, Villeneuve and Chantemerle - also known as Serre- Chevalier 1,500, 1,400 and 1,350. You will infer from these alternative names that 'Serre-Che' is not high. Its top heights, too, are only around the 2,600m mark. But there is plenty of skiing above the lift mid-stations at around 2,000m, and there is snowmaking on the main valley runs. Each of the three main ski areas seems to me to have as much to offer the typical intermediate skier as the whole of Les Deux-Alpes.

The links between the Chantemerle and Villeneuve sectors are straightforward, and those between Villeneuve and Monetier much more exposed to the weather. This argues against Monetier as a base, but I would not dismiss it altogether. The feature that sets Serre-Che apart from all other leading French ski areas is the amount of woodland terrain where excellent skiing can be had, even (as I found) in a blizzard - and Monetier has its share. Also, for good skiers, there is the beautiful Tabuc black run.

Clearly there will be days when the extreme altitude of Les Deux-Alpes' skiing will make it the more desirable resort. But even the glacier is a bit of a let-down. Its main long runs are almost flat - a not unfamiliar characteristic of skiable glaciers. There is a more interesting section off to the north (expert skiers have the exciting option of skiing off eastwards to get to the off-piste ski area of La Grave) but the lifts serving the better glacier skiing are prone to overcrowding when snow lower down is not so good.

Les Deux-Alpes, although big, busy and undistinguished to look at, is a more appealing place to spend the evening than many other French mega-resorts. It has lively bars, lots of shops, a good range of restaurants and early-evening animation in the streets. But none of this makes it a more agreeable place than Serre-Che.

In Les Deux-Alpes, we were billeted in a functional hotel the name of which was not worth remembering. In a highly recommended pizzeria we had what was probably the most tasteless assembly of dough and accessories I have encountered. In Serre-Che, we stayed in the cheapest hotel I have ever used in a French ski resort: the Chatelas, a jolly little chalet on the quaint main street of La Salle, across the river from the lifts of Villeneuve. We were engaged in cheerful Franglais banter by Madame, and strolled down the street to find a table in a cosy little restaurant where our simple but satisfying dinner was grilled before us on an open fire. Bliss.

At lunchtime in Serre-Che, to reinforce the point, we had a choice of pleasant chalets to choose from above all three villages. Les Deux Alpes is desperately short of mountain restaurants worth spending time in. The Pastorale, at the top of the Diable gondola just above the village, is a chalet with tremendous views of dramatic peaks, but the alternatives are mainly dire. Ski to the village instead? Check the direction of the sun before you even think about it: if those steep, west-facing slopes started the morning icy, they will need an hour or two of sunshine to be pleasantly skiable.

Chris Gill is the editor of 'Where to Ski' (Boxtree, pounds 14.99) published this month.

(Photograph omitted)