Travel (Skiing): Good runs for your money: With Italy a bargain at the moment, Chris Gill compares the scenic slopes at a new package resort, and finds that it's a close run thing

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The Independent Travel
Point your skis due south from the top of Zermatt's Klein Matterhorn lift system, and where would you end up? Not Cervinia - you'd need to head west to finish there. The answer, assuming you were able to negotiate the rather tricky intervening terrain, would be Champoluc. Like Cervinia, this is an Italian resort popular with weekenders. Otherwise, the two places are as different as prosciutto and PVC.

Champoluc (1,560m) is new this year to the UK package market, thanks to Crystal, which has hotels and apartments there. It sits in the next valley along from Cervinia, the Valle d'Ayas, at the western extremity of a three-valley, linked lift system operating under the name 'Monterosa Ski', and going on via Gressoney-la-Trinite (1,640m, also in the Crystal programme) to Alagna (1,200m).

With Italy a bargain thanks to the weak lira, Monterosa Ski seemed worth investigating.

My first discovery was that most skiers should view Monterosa Ski as a two- valley, not a three-valley system. The link with Alagna is tenuous: the efficient, stand-up gondola on the upper slopes of Gressoney and inefficient chain of cable cars out of Alagna miss one another by about a mile; to go from one to the other entails an off-piste run in each direction. When I was there, the link was out of action: excessive snow had closed the cable car up to Alagna, and the run down.

Crystal was sensible to leave Alagna out of its programme. It is awkward to reach, being approached from the east (the other resorts have easy access to the Val d'Aosta motorway to the south); and its local skiing is limited to the runs down the cable-car - black at the top, red at the bottom. But I don't doubt that in the right conditions it makes a splendid expedition for good skiers based in the other resorts.

I am intrigued to note that the piste map suggests the possibility of an on- piste descent all the way from Forcella Bors (3,550m) to the resort; the 2,350m drop is the greatest in the Alps.

Piste skiing in the rest of the area is extensive, extremely scenic (thanks to the Monte Rosa and its neighbours, including the Matterhorn), and almost all easy. At first, my companions and I were bewildered by the grading: we could not detect any difference between the reds and the blacks. It turned out that most runs shown in black on the badly printed piste map are blues. We concluded that we couldn't detect any difference between the reds and blues.

The runs are pleasantly long. Several individual chair-lifts in the area exceed a mile, and the upper gondola above Gressoney is almost twice that. The terrain is undulating and fragmented, making for varied runs, but limiting the options: many lifts serve a single, defined piste, and few serve more than two. (The two-mile gondola had only one piste down when I was there, although two other variants are marked on the map.)

Two weeks ago, after heavy snow falls, the pistes would have done credit to a Colorado resort, so beautifully were they prepared. Whether moguls are allowed to form I cannot say, but there are few pitches steep enough to encourage them. The lower part of the run to Gressoney from Champoluc is one of those few. There are large artificial snow installations on the west-facing slopes above Champoluc and Gressoney.

The lift system is impressively modern and efficient, with more detachable high-speed chair-lifts than I can recall seeing in a single European ski area, as well as gondolas out of both the Gressoney and Champoluc valleys. During the first week of February, both lifts and pistes were greatly underused, but early on the Saturday morning, as we were leaving, cars with Milanese number plates were pouring up the road from the Aosta valley.

For keen skiers who don't mind isolation, the obvious place to stay is Stafal, at the head of the central Gressoney valley, from where lifts go up in both directions. It consists of a clutch of hotel and apartment buildings, including the four-star Monboso offered by Crystal. This season, unfortunately, the piste down from the west- facing slopes has been closed by a landslide, forcing skiers based there (or returning to Champoluc) to descend to Gressoney-la-Trinite, and catch the free ski bus up to Stafal.

Gressoney-la-Trinite is a quiet, neat little village with a couple of small hotels; but most of the accommodation for skiers is half a mile away. Gressoney St Jean, a more appealing village three miles south, has its own ski area, not connected to the main system.

Staying in Champoluc has the drawback that access to the Gressoney valley involves taking lifts and runs to work your way northwards to the Colle Bettaforca, where the systems meet. But it is all enjoyable skiing, and doesn't take so long as to inhibit exploration of Gressoney. Outings to Alagna would have to be timed carefully.

Champoluc is another attractive, quiet chalet-style village. The gondola and return run are on the edge of the village, where Crystal has the pleasant three-star Champoluc hotel. In such a quiet village I don't see much point in preferring a more central location, but the traditional-style Hotel Castors meets that need. For non-package travellers who put character before the last word in comfort, the best choice is the captivatingly creaky Villa Anna Maria, tucked away amid the trees a short walk from the lifts; half-board costs L75,000 to L100,000 ( pounds 30- pounds 40) a night.

Those who insist on being close to the nursery slopes, can stay at Crest at the top of the gondola, where there is the simple Hotel Edelweiss and even simpler Refuge Vieux Crest.

(Photograph omitted)

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