A LONG-STANDING fantasy of mine is a backpacking tour of the mountains where Italy, France and Switzerland meet. Not a mountaineering haute-route-type tour, but resort- based, using lifts for uphill travel, pistes and established off-piste routes for descent, and buses and trains for valley connections.

I first formulated the notion while looking across Bourg-St- Maurice from Les Arcs towards La Rosiere, the odd man out among the resorts of the Tarentaise region. It is south-facing, while the other resorts of the area have been carefully aligned away from the sun, and shares its skiing with an Italian resort, French-sounding La Thuile. It dawned on me that in the same region over the border (the Val d'Aosta) were two other resorts with international skiing links, and the three could be made part of a circuit.

There would be no particular point to my scheme except to take to extremes the enjoyable sensation of travel on skis. (For me, at least, this is a central part of the appeal of downhill skiing, although it was far from the thoughts of those who invented the sport.) But such a tour would certainly highlight some of the characteristics of Italian, French and Swiss skiing, as I discovered last winter when on successive days I skied two of the international links: Cervinia/Zermatt and La Thuile/La Rosiiere.

Probably my strongest impression - reinforced by a day in another Val d'Aosta area, Champoluc/Gressoney - was of how flattering Italian skiing seemed, particularly in contrast to French La Rosiere. Cervinia is renowned as the motorway skiing capital of the Alps, and deservedly so. But the other resorts also offered mile after mile of perfectly smooth, easy piste, with red runs indistinguishable from blues. Skiing to La Rosiere was genuinely surprising - moguls everywhere, liberally dotted with Italian skiers head-down in the snow.

Look around a mountain restaurant in these Italian ski areas and you quickly see why the resorts offer such creamy-smooth skiing. These places cater to a fashionable clientele, up for a short break from Turin and Milan, and it seem their priority is to look cool. (There should be warning signs at the French border to let them know what lies ahead.)

While you're in those mountain restaurants, you cannot help noticing another result of the same thing: in Cervinia, in particular, things can be surprisingly pricey. Italy is supposed to be cheap at present, and generally is, but the most appealing mountain restaurants are able to charge what they like. Ski over to Zermatt, and the mild dismay you might expect to feel at high Swiss prices does not materialise. In some respects, what you get in Switzerland is better value.

Many British skiers have the idea that Italy is lagging behind the rest of the Alps - or at least France - when it comes to investment in lifts. Cervinia's system, although much improved, is certainly still far from perfect. In La Thuile, on the other hand (and in Champoluc/Gressoney), efficient modern lifts are in place to deal with weekend crowds, and weekday skiing can, on occasion, be queue-free. On my visit, the only serious queue we encountered was in La Rosiere. (For reasons I cannot guess at, this queue had adopted the uniquely orderly Scottish model: a long single file of skiers, sideslipping down the slope to the lift station. I haven't seen this elsewhere in the Alps, before or since.)

But there is still something essentially unpredictable and casual about the operation of Italian resorts. In Cervinia, the Furggen cable-car (leading to the steepest skiing in the resort) is still in place and shown on the piste map, but is no longer operating. When I get around to realising my fantasy tour, one of the most interesting sectors is likely to be disrupted by the Cresta d'Arp cable-car, which also serves several other good off- piste routes, but which I have never seen running.

The climb to Cresta d'Arp from the lower cable-car at Cresta Youla is only 130m but is precipitous, and the natural thing to do in this image-conscious skiing region would be to hire a helicopter. Hmm . . . I wonder how much influence the heli-operators have over the running of the cable-car. This is Italy, after all . . .

Chris Gill and Dave Watts have edited a new guide to ski resorts in Europe and North America, 'Where to Ski', to be published later this month by Boxtree, pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)