Timeless Turns: Les Deux Alpes

Sure, the skiing is limited in the French Alps in the summer, but just down the road is all that white sand

Published: Summer 2001

Problem: You and a buddy agreed on a trip to Europe this summer, and the two of you have the Alps in mind. But your much-deserving wives prefer sun-soaked Mediterranean beaches - and won't be budged.Solution: Les Deux Alpes, one of the sunniest and southernmost resorts of the French Alps. It's just 120 miles north of the Cote-d'Azur, so while your ladies enjoy white sand and all the Euro glam of Monaco, the boys can rent a car and slip away for a quick fix of glacier skiing and high-alpine adventure. (Or the other way around, for that matter.)

Still overlooked by most Americans (though certainly not by the Brits), Deux Alpes is among Europe's largest and busiest ski stations, in winter and summer. But don't expect a quaint medieval village. Though it's one of Europe's oldest lift-served ski destinations (second only to Chamonix, France), it's a modern, auto-friendly resort, with some 35,000 beds and innumerable shops and restaurants. In other words, it's more akin to Vail than, say, Stowe or Crested Butte.

Lifts rise from the village on either side, but the bulk of the terrain sprawls eastward on successive peaks that ultimately lead to the glaciers, which top out on the Dome de la Girose at close to 12,000 feet. From there, the famed peak of La Meije and sinister slopes of La Grave are within hailing distance.

The summer terrain spreads out on two glaciers - the Mont de Lans and the Girose - and is reputed to be the largest in Europe. There are 17 lifts operating on busy days, including a speedy underground funicular. The vertical drop, a staggering 6,000 feet in winter, shrinks to a still-respectable 2,400 feet in summer. With 500 acres to roam, summer skiers find Deux Alpes far roomier than most glacial slopes, even after greedy racers have roped off their gate-training territory.

As with most glacier skiing, it's fairly tame terrain, and the snow typically starts out as rock-hard corduroy when the lifts open around 7 a.m., ending up as mush when they close at 3 p.m. Mind the angle of the sun and the exposure of the slopes, though, and you can chase freshly ripening corn snow for a couple of magical hours on most days, all the while soaking in views of the monstrous peaks of Parc National des Ecrins, named for the 13,458-foot Barres des Ecrins.

In the afternoon, the village offers every imaginable activity, and its clubs are famous throughout Europe for pulsing through the night. (So maybe you do bring the wives.) But if you had something quainter and quieter in mind, there's a solution to that, too: At the south end of the resort village, a cable car descends 2,100 feet to the tiny village of Venosc, where narrow cobbled streets, stone houses and a clock tower dating to the 15th century evoke more traditional French mountain culture.

The wild card is the weather, which has been altogether too sunny in recent years. Blaming global warming, the World Glacier Monitoring Service estimates that European glaciers have shrunk by 30 percent since 1850 and says the rate of loss is increasing at an alarming rate. Last summer's deadly heat wave was a disaster for summer slopes, many of which closed early. So you might want to take the high-speed TGV train instead of an SUV to the slopes. And if the conditions are poor, well, it's not a total loss. Hop back on the train, and in a matter of hours, you'll be back with the girls on a beach at Cannes. Information: les2alpes.com



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