One of the drawbacks of skiing in the classic French resorts, purpose- built, high above the valley and largely above the tree-line, is that bad weather can ruin your week. Falling snow, fog or wind, or all three, can close the high lifts; and even if these remain open, you have the dubious pleasure of skiing in bleak, exposed surroundings.

I do not mind skiing in falling snow - in fact, I enjoy it. You get the best possible skiing surface. Most people in the resort stay in bed, leaving the lifts and runs empty. And relying on your feet to determine the lie of the land develops skiing skills that I ought to use even when the bumps are visible.

But there are limits. In a real white- out, when there is a complete lack of evidence about which way is up and which down, I start to suffer something like seasickness. To avoid this I have to head for the trees. Visibility always seems better among trees, and there is more to see, so more chance of maintaining an accurate sense of the vertical. The light is more directional, too, throwing the bumps into relief.

In most major French resorts, heading for the trees is difficult, if not impossible. Some resorts simply do not have any worthwhile woodland runs. In others there is a good forest sector, but it may be inaccessible in bad weather (Flaine and La Plagne, for example). In many resorts, the lower runs with woody surroundings are uncomfortably steep for most skiers, a problem exacerbated by bad weather. This is true even of Courchevel, widely regarded as one of the best French resorts on a bad day.

I had plenty of time to reflect on these matters 10 days ago while swaying from side to side on an otherwise motionless chairlift in the southern French Alps, as the lift operator waited for a northerly gale to abate. A cloudless morning had rapidly degenerated into a biting blizzard, making me feel smug about my rule never to ski without goggles about my person.

Happily, the chairlift in question was above Monetier, one of the resort villages that make up the ski area known (after one of its component peaks) as Serre-Chevalier. Alone among major French ski areas, Serre-Chevalier has more skiing in the trees (about 750m vertical) than above them (450m vertical). Heavy snow in Les Deux Alpes the day before would have been miserable; here it presented no problem.

Well, almost no problem. A certain amount of skating in a racing tuck position was necessary to maintain momentum on a high, gentle piste; but soon we were out of the wind and into the woods. An excellent half-day's skiing on steadily improving pistes followed.

Serre-Chevalier can no longer count as 'undiscovered' by British skiers, since more than 15 tour operators go there. But it is still underrated. It may not suit the skier who puts convenient lift arrangements first, but it has a lot to offer all grades, plus the bonus of places to stay in or near a real French village - or town, since Briancon forms one extremity of the lift system.

The main resort villages are strung out to the west of Briancon, along the road leading to the Col de Lauteret and Grenoble. There are countless villages and hamlets, but three main communities with corresponding sectors of the ski area - Chantemerle (Serre-Chevalier 1350), Villeneuve (Serre-Chevalier 1400), and Monetier (Serre-Chevalier 1500). Each has an old village core and a lot of new, mostly garish, development.

The heart of the skiing is above Chantemerle and Villeneuve, in a pair of gently undulating open bowls and in steeper woods. A cable-car and gondola are the main lifts out of Chantemerle. Villeneuve, amazingly, has three gondolas. There are major lift junctions at about the tree-line and at points halfway through the woods, so you can stay in the upper woods when the snow lower down is poor. These two sectors are linked by piste at forest level, making the two central villages more attractive bases than the two extremities (which are linked by high, exposed lifts and valley buses).

The piste skiing is perfect for intermediates, whether timid or mileage- hungry. There is a great deal of it - not as much as in the Trois Vallees or La Plagne, but probably more than in Les Arcs, for example. Better skiers can venture off-piste on nearby open slopes or among the trees. But there are a couple of long fall-line blacks that deserve their grading. The Monetier sector is smaller but similar in character, with the distinction of the high point at Pic de l'Yret (2,830m) and the attractive Tabuc run at the west end of the mountain, heading down to the valley well away from the lifts.

Monetier has the best nursery slopes, but Villeneuve is probably a better base for beginners, because of the splendid green runs it offers above the trees. They are ideal for moving on to and from the nursery slope - assuming, of course, that it is not snowing.

The prize in next Monday's Independent/ AITO Travel Offer is a family skiing holiday in France. Today's offer: see page 31.

(Photograph omitted)

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