Travel: High and drei in Austria - France is not alone in offering three-valley skiing. Chris Gill slopes off to a quieter place

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The Independent Travel
To British skiers, 'the three valleys' means the Trois Vallees area of France, with Meribel at its centre - the most extensive lift and piste network in the world.

But there are other three- valley ski areas in other countries, and while they may not rival the French for sheer extent of skiing and capacity of uplift, they do offer the same satisfying sensation of getting about the mountains on skis.

Later in the season, I plan to report on the Italian version: the Monte Rosa area to the east of Cervinia and south of Zermatt, perhaps the least familiar to British skiers.

In Switzerland, in contrast, the nearest thing to a three-valley system is very well known: the shared skiing of Verbier, Nendaz and Thyon. It attempts to go one better than the French by calling itself the Quatre Vallees but, for the intermediate piste skier, it offers more limited possibilities.

The Austrian version tackles the French head-on, calling itself the Drei Taler. About 50 miles south-east of Salzburg, between Saalbach and Schladming, it is easily accessible by car or air.

Until recently, only one of its three main resort villages - St Johann im Pongau, at the west of the system - has been much in evidence in British package brochures. But this year, Wagrain, the Meribel of the central valley, has cropped up in a couple of brochures, and at long last Flachau at the eastern end has appeared, too.

The lift network offers nothing like the extent and variety of the Trois Vallees, and little to challenge a good skier. But the pistes are long and pleasant, mainly cut through the woods but with some open skiing near the heights.

It is virtually a linear system, with lifts up to the 1,970m Griessenkareck, from Flachau (930m) and Wagrain (900m), and up to the 1,850m Sonntagskogel from Wagrain and Alpendorf (800m), a satellite of St Johann. There are drag lifts to play on at altitude, including some serving the two or three token black runs. The main departure from the east-west layout is a north-facing run from Griessenkareck down to Mayrdorfl, with chair-lifts back up.

In terms of numbers, at least, the area is very well served by mountain restaurants - the runs above Flachau, in particular, are peppered with huts, some of them attractively rustic. This is one of the reasons I favour Flachau over the other villages. More important, it is a sunny, spacious holiday village with its slopes facing north-east - the next best thing to north.

Wagrain, of course, has the advantage of a central location, and some will prefer its tight, busy little centre. Both Flachau and Wagrain have excellent nursery slopes, those in Wagrain being on the west-facing side of the town at the foot of the lifts towards Griessenkareck and Flachau.

Towny St Johann comes a poor third except for complete beginners, who will find excellent nursery slopes right next to the town. This area is separate from the three-valley system, so non-beginners must take a bus out to Alpendorf. Or stay there - there are several quiet hotels at the foot of the lifts.

For skiers with a car, or a mind to venture out by bus and taxi, there is lots more skiing to be explored in this region. The ski pass covers another three-valley system to the south, linking Kleinarl (up the Wagrain valley) to Flachauwinkl (up the Flachau valley) and Zauchensee (in the next valley along to the east). Zauchensee has the attraction of lifts heading off southwards to about 2,200m - high by local standards.

Further afield, there are even more interesting possibilities: with the regional Top Tauern ski pass, you can ski at Schladming, high and snow- sure Obertauern, and Dachstein, as well as the local resorts covered by the Sportwelt Amade pass.

If you got around all of these areas in a week, you might find the Drei Taler a match for the Trois Vallees after all.

Flachau: Austrian Holidays (071-439 7108). St Johann/Alpendorf: Enterprise (0293 588680), Kings Ski Club (081-342 0303), Ski Europe (081-891 4400), Ski Partners (0272 253545), STS School Travel Service (081- 367 9090). Wagrain: Club Europe (081-699 7788), Inghams (081-785 7777), Mogul (0423 569512), Thomson (081-200 8733), Ski Europe (as above).