IT IS not fashionable to display affection for Meribel. Other French mega-resorts - including Courchevel, over the hill - have more challenging skiing, better snow and more night-time animation. Even its location, at the centre of the Trois Vallees, is not the advantage that it might seem, since you can get up to the wonderful snow of the super-high Val Thorens (valley three) as quickly from Courchevel (valley one) as you can from Meribel village proper. (The perfect launching point is the higher satellite 'village' of Meribel-Mottaret.)

But a lot of demolition will have to be done in Courchevel before it is anything like as easy on the eye as Meribel, which has been able to develop in recent years on the firm foundation of its original chalet style of building and its original layout - snaking up a steep hillside, with lifts and pistes beside it. The centre is traffic- snarled on Saturdays, but the upmarket suburbs are calm and comfortable.

If the Trois Vallees were not linked to form the world's premier (if not the biggest) ski area, the Meribel valley would certainly suffer more than the other two. But even on its own Meribel qualifies as a major resort, with plenty of varied skiing for every grade except the black mogul specialist. For the rest of us, one of its attractions is excellent piste grooming, almost approaching American standards.

CHRIS GILL'S VERDICT: Meribel isn't the biggest, liveliest, most convenient, prettiest or toughest. It doesn't excel in any one respect except perhaps green runs, that at Altiport being one of the world's best. Its secret is that it scores highly in all respects except nightlife, for which it is easily forgiven, by me at least.

(Photograph omitted)

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