Going Euro: Les Trois Valleés
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Six-day ski pass:
+33-4 79-08-00-29; les3vallees.com
“Purpose-built.” This is the charge leveled at the legendary Trois Vallées-the world’s largest ski area-and it’s absolutely true. Over the course of 65 years, this behemoth has risen up from nothing. First came the British-dominated ski town of Méribel, in the middle of the central valley. Then snobbish Courchevel, one valley to the east. Then ugly Les Ménuires (“Manures,” say the Brits), to the west. In 1972 came Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe at 7,546 feet. In 1990, the lifts of La Tania sprung up on an intervalley hillside. Above it all, a dizzying web of 200 gondolas and lifts continues to grow. It may not be soul skiing, but it’s unequivocally good skiing. When you get above the generic mega-resort, the mountains here-all couloirs, spruce trees and 2,000-foot bowls-are 100 percent natural.
The obvious challenge is to ski all three valleys in a single day. Starting in Courchevel, ride up to Saulire at 8,983 feet. Cruise 4,200 vertical feet down the rolling Mauduit piste to Méribel, then hop three lifts to reach 8,442-foot Mont de la Challe, where gentle slopes lead to Les Ménuires. Head eastward by 3:00 p.m. or you’ll be stranded.
One of the valley’s classics is the Col du Fruit, a 2,500-foot drop down a 30-degree couloir and easy bowl that starts east of Courchevel’s Creux Noirs chair. For other off-piste routes, you’ll need a guide (Ski Sensations; ski-sensations.com).
Aprés: Have a draft of Guinness with the Brits in Méribel’s La Taverne. In Courchevel, try the local, 8.4 percent beer, Mutzig, at Le Jump or Gringo’s.
Shelter: Courchevel 1850-the highest of the four Courchevel villages-is the swankiest place to stay. Le Saint-Joseph hotel’s doubles start at $334 (lesaintjoseph.com). Dorm beds in La Tania’s British-run Mountain Centre ($28; themountaincentre.com) would be the cheapest in the Trois Vallées if it weren’t for Le Refuge de la Traye ($11), a mountain hut reached by skiing off-piste above Méribel.
The Tip: Starting near 10,000 feet, Val Thorens has one of Europe’s highest toboggan runs, a 2,300- vertical, 3.5-mile-long course. With your red plastic sled comes a ridiculous metallic silver plastic helmet that makes it all seem trés extrême.