France for Adventurers

Go Euro-France J

So much has been said and written in recent years about La Grave, that eventually every wistful thrill-seeker looks for it on the map of the southern French Alps. Finding it takes some doing: La Grave earns the cartographer's tiniest dot. And you can't help first noticing three other ski-resort symbols strung along the same crooked mountain road between Grenoble, France, and Turin, Italy.

Unlike most North Americans, you've just stumbled upon the four resorts of the Grands Oisans Alpe d'Huez, Les Deux Alpes, La Grave and Serre Chevalier. They're not as internationally famous as their Haute Savoie neighbors to the north, but they're popular with Europeans. Aside from being sunnier than most Alps resorts (Provence is just 100 miles south), they offer a variety of differing experiences within 65 miles: Alpe d'Huez and Les Deux Alpes are strictly post-war creations; Serre Chevalier and La Grave serve up cobblestone charm and even a dash of history.

Working eastward from Grenoble, the two modern resorts come first. It's a short drive to Alpe d'Huez, through the heart of the Oisans (a collision of six yawning valleys spilling onto the fertile basin around ancient Bourg d'Oisans) then up the same switchbacks Lance Armstrong mastered in the Tour de France. They say if the sun isn't shining at Alpe d'Huez, it's night. And though a sea of fog lingers till midday in the valley below, cragged peaks jut into brilliant sunlight above. Such extraordinary natural beauty is fortunate, for the village itself is more about modern convenience than aesthetic harmony. But everything is slopeside and pedestrian-friendly, and the skiing is fabulous. Lifts connect a series of tiny hamlets awaiting exploration; novices ply the gentle lower slopes near the village; experts head to the top of Pic Blanc (10,925 feet). There's even the Sarenne Glacier, Alpe d'Huez's answer to Chamonix's Valleé Blanche. It's a long, lovely backside meander, all the way down to lunch in tiny Clavans; if you wish, a cab will bring you back.

An hour away, Les Deux Alpes is similar but slightly larger, with the bustle and feel of a Vail. The terrain rises steeply on either side of town. High on the east side, it moderates and stretches back for miles, all the way up the Mont de Lans glacier (site of summer skiing), which connects to La Grave. Working the off-piste terrain of the west side, you notice a suspiciously regular series of 6-foot drop-offs. They are the only memento of the past in this thoroughly modern resort¿the ancient agricultural terraces that stair-step so many of these Grands Oisans mountainsides.

Les Deux Alpes likes to party, and after a couple of evenings of trying to keep up with the locals at Les Bluets, it's not uncommon to be mal aux cheveux upon arrival in the time-capsule village of La Grave (population 512), with its narrow streets and stone houses. Standing in the morning gloom (it will be hours before the sunlight reaches the valley floor), you get your first look at La Meije (13,065 feet), and it does little to quell the queasiness. There's nothing to see but trees and cliffbands. Where, one wonders, does one ski?

Grand Pic La Meije resisted all would-be summiteers until a goat farmer named Gaspard, climbing solo, discovered the route to its needle-sharp summit in 1877. In 1976, environmentalists lost a bitter fight when the telespherique was installed, yet won concessions that have preserved La Grave as an authentic French village and La Meije as an untamed mountain. Skiing it¿some 6,000 vertical feet of glaciers, cliffs and couloirs with no trails¿is pure adventure, and not to be undertaken by intermediates or unguided newcomers, though you'll see both.

Another hour's drive east, Serre Chevalier offers stark contrast. Its expansive network of lifts and trails welcomes tourists, as does the small, quiet city of Briançon, site of a Napoleanic training garrison whose high stucco walls line the main street. IIf you seek adventure, there's plenty on the backcountry steeps of La Cucumelle and Pic de L'Yret, but "Serre Che" is better known for miles of mellow trails stretching along a series of forested slopes above Briançon. There are plenty of slopeside accommodations and amenities, for those who prefer them, but the city itself is pleasant to inhabit and explore.

With an early start, ample snow and a passport, it's even possible to turn your visit to Serre Chevalier and the Grands Oisans into an international affair. Sestriere and the resorts of Italy await just over the border. But that, perhaps, is another trip for another time.